Josh Kilmer-Purcell . . . Unleashed

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An interview with the art director, author and former goldfish-swimming-in-transparent-bubbles-breasted tranvestite.

Like many creatives, Josh Kilmer-Purcell, a senior art director at New York agency SS+K, who'd earlier worked at Merkley & Partners and Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, had a sideline. Unlike many creatives, his sideline was being a drag queen; he led a double life as an over 7-foot-tall character called Aquadisiac, or Aqua to her friends, starting in his days at ad school in Atlanta. His new memoir, I Am Not Myself These Days (Harper Collins), details his life balancing his career and his outlandish persona, which features a genuine romance with a male escort and crack addict as well as Aqua's remarkable experience of New York night life in the '90s. As he finishes a first draft of the screenplay adaptation of the book, Kilmer-Purcell talks about how his career in advertising-an ostensibly liberal field-allowed him get this far.

Creativity: When did you realize that you wanted to write a memoir?

Josh Kilmer-Purcell: Now it's been almost three years. I've been writing stories about Aqua all long, but I couldn't think of a way that people would relate to them. They were just funny stories about a drag queen. Then I stumbled on the construct of my relationship with Jack, and it's an experience that everyone has in their youth, where they say, "I'm going to go out with the bad guy." They're not going to relate to the drinking or the S&M or the drugs, but that to me is just decoration on the love story part of it.

C But a lot of people might not be exposed to the drag scene, and that's a draw as well.

JKP What I wanted to get across was a universal truth that even when you go to the freak show, when those people leave they're picking their nose and fighting with their wife. Just because someone's got one leg or lizard skin doesn't mean they're not just like you on the inside.

C So you got started in advertising and drag performance in Atlanta?

JKP I went to Portfolio Center and I was going out a lot of the time. I saw the drag queens and thought, They look like they're having a good time. Being an art director, I thought that I could do it better than they can, with costumes and things, and that's how I got started. For a lot of people it's the singing and performing, but I just wanted to get dressed up and go out.

C You talk in the book about being open with your co-workers at the agency about Aqua. Why did you tell them?

JKP It's probably the only business where you can get away with it. What agency doesn't want a mascot? In trying to impress clients about how progressive and open you are to new ideas, you can say that you have a drag queen on staff. Mascot might have been a bad choice of words, but I felt that what would have been a liability at a law firm was a badge at an agency. Plus, I didn't fuck up at work. I was fucking up in a lot of ways, but I knew enough not to get fired. Part of the reason why I love Marty [Cooke, his boss at Merkley then and SS+K now] is that after I was beat up [a scene detailed in the book] I had a meeting the next day, and I showed up all bruised and cut. There was a big meeting, I presented, and I told everyone that I fell down rollerblading. Afterward, Marty asked me what really happened and I told him I got mugged. He asked me what they took, and I said they took my bag with all my makeup in it. He told me to go to Mac and replace it all and expense it. And I thought, This guy's my friend. They were really cool about it, even when they didn't have to be.

C Does Aqua still go out?

JKP Oh, no. She's dead, dead, dead. I did have to dress up again this summer to take some Aqua shots for the book, and it was kind of strange. I kept everything in storage, so pulling out this character felt familiar, and it was nice to have her back, but it also felt out of place because I don't do it any more.

C You talked about her in the book as a way to open up another part of your personality.

JKP Oh, it's all about alter egos. The older I've gotten, the more I've been able to take the better parts of Aqua and use them day to day. I'm not so schizophrenic anymore. I totally talk about her in the third person. In my mind, she's another being, like an old friend. It was fun while writing the book to have her around and play with her. But I wasn't getting drunk and getting beat up and putting myself in a lot of danger.

C Did you take a leave of absence from the agency to work on the book?

JKP No, but I will to promote it. SS+K is full of refugees from other fields. When anyone has a project in another place, they let you take a leave and work on it. Ultimately it makes you a more creative person.

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