Kinky Boots star Jos N. Banks on his brush with suicide and turning adversity into art.
By Don Maines
A semicolon tattooed on the wrist of Kinky Boots star Jos N. Banks reminds him that his suicide attempt while in high school was not the end of his story.
Surviving that “very dark moment,” he says, heralded the beginning of his new lease on life. Banks’ experiences, both good and bad, are often reflected in his art. “A lot of times, my art directly stems from something in my own life, and that allows me to see my purpose,” he says.
Banks plays Lola, the drag queen who helps revive a failing shoe factory in the touring production of Kinky Boots that comes to Jones Hall in Houston, January 19–21. He sings, dances, and even fights with boxing gloves—all without tucking. “I don’t have to,” Banks says. “I wear three different types of underwear, plus I have on dance tights, so there’s a lot going on down there. I’m good.”
If Banks didn’t like the fit, he could always change it, since costume design is among the many talents of this Chicago-based “professional visual/performing artist and model.” Banks ended his student days at Millikin University (in Decatur, Illinois) after two years rather than become pigeonholed into just one area of the fine arts. “They also told me I wasn’t marketable,” he says. “It was one of those ‘joke’s on them’ situations. I moved to Chicago and have worked ever since.”
In practically no time, while pounding the pavement to a casting call for a TV series, Banks got detoured right around the corner, to a tryout for a music video by the band Rise Against. “I was late to my audition, so I walked down to [the music video tryouts],” he explains. “A guy had me sit and just talk to him. ‘Was I gay or not?’ ‘What was it like coming out?’ Literally the next day they called me for a featured role.”
Coincidentally, says Banks, the video for the band’s “Make It Stop (September’s Children)” release called for Banks to perform a scene almost identical to his own suicide attempt several years prior. “I looked over the bridge, down into traffic, and I thought, ‘Wait a minute. I’ve been here before,’” he says. “It’s funny how life and God line up. [The producers] did not know that had happened to me.”
Rise Against partnered with the “It Gets Better” campaign to utilize the “Make It Stop” video to help prevent suicides among LGBTQ teenagers. “Make It Stop” was also nominated for Best Video with a Message at the 2011 Video Music Awards (losing to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”). It has been viewed more than 27 million times on YouTube.
In the video, after Banks’ character avoids killing himself, we see his bright future in the form of a billboard that says, “Joshua Banks for Congressman.”
“I love it when my mother calls me Joshua, but it seems very formal to me,” says the actor. “I wanted to have a cool stage name, so I chose Jos N. Banks. Jos is a big part of me now.” The pseudonym’s “downside,” he says, is that some people assume it refers to the JoS. A. Banks men’s clothing store.
As Lola, Banks wears costumes by Tony Award winner Gregg Barnes, but he does his own makeup before each performance. “It helps me, because I am putting Lola on,” he says.
In the 2005 British movie on which the 2013 musical is based, Lola arm-wrestles Don, the macho foreman of the factory that makes the drag queens’ boots in the title of the show. “Broadway is more glitz and glamour, so instead of arm-wrestling, Lola and Don duke it out onstage,” Banks says. “We even have an actual boxing ring.”
What Don doesn’t know is that Lola was trained to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee by her father, who was a professional boxer.
To prepare himself for the boxing scene, Banks says, “I watched a lot of YouTube videos of Muhammed Ali. I watched his stance.”
To perform the show’s eleventh-hour ballad, “Hold Me in Your Heart,” Banks studied Whitney Houston’s performance of “I Will Always Love You.”
“Ironically, I have never really done drag,” Banks says. “I love the craft and the talent. I’m a big fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race. But out of respect, I didn’t want to do it until I could do it in a big way. How much bigger can you get than a Broadway show?”
Kinky Boots was the biggest hit of the 2012–13 Broadway season, with a book by Harvey Fierstein and buoyant show tunes by Grammy Award-winning pop icon Cyndi Lauper, who won the Tony for Best Score. The show also won Best Musical and Best Choreography for its openly gay director Jerry Mitchell, Leading Actor in a Musical for Billy Porter as Lola, in addition to awards for Orchestrations and Sound Design. Among its other accolades is the 2014 Grammy for Best Musical Album.
Kinky Boots is the third national tour for Banks, following his performance as Harpo in The Color Purple and Hud in Hair, which played Austin in 2014. “I’m thrilled to get back to Texas,” he says. “I loved Austin. Everybody was so sweet, and the barbecue was the bomb.”
Information about Project Semicolon—written as Project ;—and how it fosters suicide prevention through greater access to mental-health services can be found at projectsemicolon.com.
What: Kinky Boots, presented by Society for the Performing Arts
Where: Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana Street
When: January 19–21
Tickets: SPAHouston.org or 713.227.4772
This article appears in the January 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.