J. Harrison Ghee is the epitome of fully living in your authenticity. From playing in their mom’s closet as a kid to originating a non-binary role in Some Like It Hot on Broadway, Ghee isn’t wasting any opportunity to express exactly who they are. The key to their confidence? A mantra that’s followed them their whole lives: “You have to free yourself to see yourself.”
It was a gray and brooding Thursday afternoon on the day of the interview when Ghee strutted in, adorned with a plumage of pearls, a camouflage capelet, a tulle dress, stilettos, and a smile—a vision of androgyny. They immediately lit up the room. While everyone stood in awe of their statuesque presence, Ghee playfully remarked, “You knew who you were working with!”
Ghee is radiating that same joy and positivity as the fleet-footed, upright bassist, Jerry/Daphne in Some Like It Hot, now on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre. Set in Chicago, during the Prohibition Era, a pair of musicians, Joe (played by Christian Borle) and Jerry (Ghee), are on the run after witnessing a mob murder. The two join an all-girl’s jazz band disguised as Josephine and Daphne and escape to California. For Joe, dressing up as Josephine is more flight than fight, while Jerry discovers who they truly are when they become Daphne.
The magic continues to manifest this year as Ghee becomes one of the first non-binary artists (alongside Alex Newell) to ever be nominated for a Tony award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role. To sweeten the history making, they’re receiving their debut nomination for a role that shows the complexity and humanity of the non-binary experience. For Ghee, this is an opportunity to be a mirror for others to help them free themselves from rigid expectations and see that “there's a little Daphne in everybody.”
Ghee’s story begins in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Growing up as a pastor’s child in a southern military town didn’t make for the most supportive environment—especially for a queer kid. “I learned early on how people responded to who I am and all that I was created to be. And for a long time, [I] really quieted my own voice, to go along to get along,” Ghee recollects with a hue of blue. “It took a while to unpack and unlearn and release parts of other people's narratives that I took on as my own.”
Despite their rigid upbringing, Ghee’s spirit never played by the rules. “I remember very vividly walking through a department store with my mom and looking at the boys’ section on the right, the girls’ section on the left and being like, ‘Why do girls get the fun options?’” Ever since then, Ghee has given themselves the permission to play and began embarking their gender journey.
With a dedicated practice in meditation, Ghee has garnered a library of self-affirmations and rituals to keep themselves grounded. As long as they are in tune with themselves, the perceptions of others don't seem to affect them. For instance, when asked what pronouns Ghee uses, they respond with: “All things with respect… I walk in the power of the fullness of who I am. And I know that we are conditioned to respond to what we see. And so people oftentimes will automatically [use] ‘he’ and whatever. And I'm like, I can be all things. And how you compartmentalize me doesn't limit me to being any less than who I am.”
Ghee’s moment of liberation truly happened when they found the art of drag. They first publicly performed in drag unexpectedly during their final semester at The American Musical and Dramatic Academy when their director, Chuck Gale, came to them with an idea. Recalls Ghee, “Our director had me audition a scene where I thought I was playing a guy and he was like, ‘No, I want you to play this female wrestler.’” Challenged with harnessing both their masculinity and femininity, they ended up playing that role in their senior showcase. Struck with revelation, Ghee experienced euphoria beyond description. They describe it as a “spark”—a realization that their artistry was boundless. Then, almost like a prophecy, came their Broadway debut in 2017, as Billy Porter’s replacement for the drag queen Lola in Kinky Boots.
Kinky Boots was the beginning of a long string of success for Ghee. They notably went on to originate Andre Mayem in Mrs. Doubtfire on Broadway and played Velma Kelly at The Muny’s production of Chicago. But the woman infused in each of these roles goes by the name of Crystal Demure—Ghee’s drag persona.
Born on the night of their 21st birthday and heavily inspired by their mother and other divas, such as Patti LaBelle (who’s self-dubbed "the original drag queen"), Ghee explains the origins of their alter ego: “I never imagined myself being a drag queen. But I was young Lola playing in my mom’s clothes as a kid when nobody was around. And the women in my life have always been such inspiration and supporters and people who have made me feel safe and seen. And so it’s really my honoring of feminine energy with Crystal Demure.”
However, Ghee doesn’t reserve the glitz and glamor just for Crystal. Another part of releasing themselves from the labels and limits placed on them by society is expressing themselves however they felt in the moment, especially through an exquisite sense of style (as seen at this year’s Met Gala). “I used to keep everything so separate. Even this dress,” they gesture to the tulle dress they are wearing, “I used to wear in drag all the time. And I'm like, ‘Why do I have to keep it over there?’ If I feel like wearing it today, and it makes me happy, it brings me joy—I'm doing it. I love it. And it doesn't have to make sense to anybody.”
Ghee’s transcendent performance in Some Like It Hot is not only inspiring to other gender non-conforming people (with many expressing finally feeling seen through Ghee’s performance at the stage door, such as the writer of this article). It’s also been illuminating for cisgender people.
Ghee recalls a special moment that affirmed their purpose, which was shared to them by a stage door security person, Leon. Opening night of Some Like It Hot, after Ghee finished their show-stopping 11 o’clock number, “You Coulda Knocked Me Over With A Feather,'' a cisgender white man turned to the woman next to him and whispered, “I need to treat my son better.” Overcome with great purpose, Ghee says, “And that is why I do what I do. If one person is affected in that way, that just thinks a little differently, that just moves the needle enough for them to see a greater world than they even imagine for themselves. My job is done.”
Lawmakers across the nation have been placing bans on drag performance, stripping the LGBTIA+ community of their rights, and passing laws endangering queer youth. Drag, an inherently political artform, has been a major controversy and scapegoat for legislators. On the opposite side of the matter, during its workshop stage, Some Like It Hot had mixed reviews, with some worried about the show perpetuating the “man in a dress” stereotype and how it would harm the trans and non-binary community. With the pressure and responsibility that comes with such a platform, Ghee doesn’t take it lightly, and shares how they stay grounded with a four-fold way of living: “Show up, be present, tell the truth, and don't be attached to the outcome,” They explain. “As long as we are truthful, and we are connected, and we are in this together—I'm not concerned [about] how people will receive it. That's what effective art should do: Cause conversation, one way or another, and we can't control that in its entirety.”
However, one review did mean a great deal to them.
They recently made an appearance on an episode of Accused on Fox, as a drag queen who falls in love with a cisgender man. The episode ended up being seen by their father, who was in the hospital at the time. They then received an unexpected phone call from Reverend Ghee with nothing but high praises. Glowing with validation, Ghee remembers, “He was so congratulatory, and so complimentary—talking about my costumes in the TV show, and he was like, ‘Your life has purpose, your life has meaning, and keep doing what you're doing.’”
With all the accolades, success, and barriers Ghee has broken through, they are living out the wild imaginations they had as a kid. When asked about what advice they would give to “Little J.” (their child self), they get emotional. Fighting back tears, they impart the following words: “To little J., I have to tell them to trust themselves, and stay true to who they are and stay grounded in faith and in love. And keep playing.”
And for those still on the journey of self-love and self-acceptance, Ghee has a message for you, “You have to free yourself to see yourself, you have to give yourself the permission you seek and hope for from others. Because you're not always going to get it from other people, you have to be happy with you at the end of the day. And it doesn't have to make sense to anybody else. You have to do what aligns, what resonates, what settles what feels grounded, and truthful to you. And that's when your truth can't be denied. It can't be erased, it can't be forgotten. It will shine brighter, and people will be drawn to you in such a beautiful and unexplainable way.”