Better Together: How Alicia Markstone and Janessa Highland saved each other — and rose to the top

A triumphant House of Markstone at the Maximum Exposure Fashion Series. Alicia Markstone is top center. Clockwise from top left: Ryan Jones, Tassandra Crush, Vega Markstone-Hunter, Janessa Highland, Brooklyn Burroughs and Danielle Hunter. Photo by Chris Andoe.

When Janessa Highland became show director at Martha’s Vineyard in Springfield, Missouri, in 2011, she knew she was following in big footsteps. That included those of Alicia Markstone, the 2002 Miss Gay USofA at Large, who had gone from small-town Missouri to Florida to be the show director at the famed Suncoast Resort Hotel.

But when the two performers first met in person six years later, it was hardly a warm-and-fuzzy moment.

By then, Highland had moved to St. Louis, where she embraced a reputation as a villainess of sorts due to her outspoken ways. Dubbed “the Queen of Controversy,” she was blacklisted from nearly every stage in town and even felt her name was too much of a liability to pass down to her drag daughter Brooklyn Burroughs. 

Behind that intimidating mask, however, she was still the same starstruck kid, and when she learned that Markstone would be in town performing, she dragged Burroughs out so they could meet her. The two greeted Markstone in full drag and humbly asked for her opinion on what they were doing right and what needed improvement. 

“Can I be honest?” Markstone asked. “Your makeup is horrible.” 

Fall of a Diva 

In the year prior to meeting Highland, Markstone saw her world crumble. For decades, she’d earned her living as a full-time entertainer, but Suncoast, her employer of fifteen years and the place where her reign was unquestioned, had recently succumbed to the wrecking ball to make way for a Home Depot. Political controversies drove her from her next job at Hamburger Mary’s, and nearly all those she mentored along the way turned their backs on her, or quietly slinked away as life moved on. 

“When you get old, nobody wants you around,” Markstone says.

Markstone met with immediate success at this year’s Maximum Exposure Fashion Series, using dramatic color, texture and attitude to win over the crowd. Photo by Shawn Kenessey.

The life of an entertainer is often paycheck to paycheck, and when those paychecks stopped, Markstone was left in a desperate situation. She decided to retire and return to Rock Island, Illinois, but didn’t even have a way to get there until a friend set up a GoFundMe, which she found humiliating, even if she was grateful that the campaign raised the funds she needed.

Life in Rock Island was bleak. Markstone did little more than watch television and stare at the walls. “I’m fortunate that I was raised to believe suicide was the ultimate sin,” she recalls. “I know several entertainers who killed themselves when they got old, and I definitely would have.”

After a year of solitude, Markstone began making limited appearances. Weeks after giving Highland and Burroughs her brutally honest assessment of their makeup, she was performing in Cape Girardeau, where to her surprise, the two fans were back for more. 

“Is this better?” a revamped Highland asked. 

Sewing, but Skeptical 

“I’d always heard about Markstone and all the legendary stories of her costume designs, including how she won nationals with her acclaimed Mary Poppins performance,” Highland recalls. She asked Markstone if she could hire her to create a Mary Poppins costume for the Miss Gay St. Louis America Competition. Markstone quoted her $500. Highland agreed, and soon surprised her with payment in full. 

“I’ve probably donated $100,000 in clothes to queens over the years, and I did it because I wanted to be liked,” Markstone says. But at this point in her life, Markstone didn’t trust anyone and really didn’t want to like Highland. Markstone tried to be abrasive in an effort to push her away, but Highland kept her word and accepted her criticism. 

Impressed by the younger performer’s tenacity, Markstone began to let her guard down. Still, she expected that their business arrangement would be finite and that Highland would soon move on. 

Highland won Miss Gay St. Louis America, and then it was full speed ahead in pursuit of Miss Gay Missouri America. Markstone would spend weeks at a time at Highland’s St. Louis County home, helping her prepare. The preparation went way beyond designing and sewing, however. Markstone saw that what was in greatest need of alteration was Highland’s attitude and outlook on life. 

“She was bitter and mad and angry when she should be in her prime. She was angry too soon,” Markstone recalls. 

Maximum Exposure Fashion Series. Photo by Shawn Kenessey.

“How bad do you want this?” she asked Highland, who eventually conceded that she really wanted it. 

“I’m going to tell you what was told to me when I was going after Miss Gay USofA at Large: You’re going to have to learn how to eat a lot of shit,” she said. Highland needed to humble herself, Markstone told her, pick her battles, make amends and, most importantly, shed her “Queen of Controversy” moniker. 

“She taught me how to be a star without acting like a star,” Highland says.

Highland won Miss Gay Missouri America, but rather than saying their goodbyes as Markstone had anticipated, Highland invited her to move in with her and Burroughs. Since March 2018 the three have shared a home that’s a drag wonderland; they can count on one hand how many times they’ve so much as gotten testy with one another. 

Sitting together, Highland begins telling the story of going to Rock Island to get Markstone’s things. She pauses and looks at the older performer as if to make sure that it’s OK to continue. 

“Oh God, that,” Markstone says, tossing her head back. “Go ahead.”

“In the kitchen I saw…” Highland says, holding back tears, “A food pantry schedule. I stepped outside and cried. I was sad, and was angry that our community didn’t take care of someone who spent her life taking care of everyone else.” 

Building an Empire

On the heels of Highland’s successes, all eyes were on Markstone, and orders for custom gowns came rolling in. In 2018, the former performer launched Markstone Creations. She is currently booked out for months. A half-dozen of her gowns will be worn by various contenders in the 2019 Miss Gay Missouri America pageant, and notables including Alexis Mateo of RuPaul fame have given them exposure. She’s even expanding to the bridal market. 

In January, Markstone wowed the runway at the Maximum Exposure Fashion Series, where, channeling her inner Donatella Versace, the 53-year-old followed her models wearing a black-sequin pantsuit with slicked-back blond hair and dramatic eyeshadow. The mostly straight crowd roared in thunderous applause. 

“I’m used to being on stage so I wasn’t nervous,” Markstone recalls. Still, seeing the video afterwards made it real, and reminded her of how far she has come. Seeing her fashions come to life on the runway was also something new. “I thought, ‘Wow. I made that!’” 

Separately, Highland was a pariah and Markstone was out to pasture. But together, they are a powerhouse enjoying a meteoric rise. More importantly, they are family. 

Highland sums it up. “Family isn’t necessarily the people you share DNA with, it’s those you choose to share your
life with,” she says. “We are strong separately but together we rise.” 

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