One of Dayton's most popular drag queens opens up about overcoming addiction

The story of Tina Hightower, one of Dayton’s best-known drag queens, began in 1995 in Louisville, Kentucky. 

In her world of performance, sequins, lashes and lipstick masked a difficult struggle with addiction. Battling with alcoholism and drug abuse took its toll on the performer, eventually forcing her to stop performing all together. The winding road to recovery finally began 10 years later. 

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In 2012, with seven years of sobriety beneath his belt, Jason Wright – the person beneath Tina Hightower’s drag disguise – finally found love and stability. 

“I had accomplished most of the things I had waited a lifetime for,” Wright told us. “I had a good job and long-term relationship with my now husband, Bobby.”

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But there was something missing. There was a void in his life that owning a home, settling down and staying on a clean path couldn’t fill. That void was performing. 

Slowly but surely, Tina Hightower began to reemerge – and this time, her big personality was matched with a commitment to sobriety. 

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“Slowly I started checking out the local scene here in Dayton, and finally, I decided to give it a try,” he said. The transition wasn’t easy, though. 

“I was 47 years old standing outside with 20-somethings in line for a club for an hour to get on list for open stage.” Eventually Hightower found friends to connect with, and rediscovered the stage – this time, without the presence of drugs or alcohol.  

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Wright celebrates six years as a performer in Dayton this year. In light of all the achievements, including winning Dayton.com’s Best of 2017 Drag Queen, here’s an in-depth look at his life both on and off the stage.

(Wild Horses Photography)

How does Dayton inspire you and your work?

Dayton inspires me because it's my home...we have a small but great gay community and plenty of 12 step meetings. Also, I find I encounter way more open-minded folks here in Dayton doing drag than I ever thought I would. I lived in other cities and I find being happy with myself will always be the key to appreciating where I live.... because wherever I go, there I am.

Are there any particular clubs where you regularly perform?

In the beginning, I did open stages at Masque and eventually started accepting paid bookings. Two years ago I moved on to MJ's on Jefferson, where I am now a featured hostess and a regular performer. I host weekend shows once a month and Drag Bingo the second Wednesday of every month. I’ve also been employed full-time with Kroger for the last 16 years, working in customer service at the store level.

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With your Best of Dayton win noted, what honors or awards have you received? 

I do drag pageantry. It works like regular beauty pageants with judges, talent, evening gown, on-stage question and interview categories. I am a former Miss Miami Valley USofA placing in the top six at Miss Ohio USofA. Recently I stepped down from Miss Gay Miami Valley, after placing 2nd alternate last year at Miss Gay Ohio. I will be competing for Miss Gay Ohio again this year.

Who inspires you to create something new to wow your audiences?

My mom inspires a lot of what I do. She 94 years old and filled with unconditional love. She occasionally comes to shows and really appreciates the jewelry and fashion side of it all! She likes to steal my purses! Also seeing the people smile keeps everything going for me.... if one random stranger says "you are beautiful” to me at a show my job is done for the night! I can go home knowing I made someone happy. But don't get me wrong -- I like getting paid too.

What is your favorite “look” to create/channel (i.e., old Hollywood, a particular person, etc.)?

I love glamour. Big hair, lots of jewelry, gowns, red lips! I'm a 53-year-old dude in a dress -- I need to be over-the-top beautiful! I also do a crazy bingo lady and a nun. 

(Wild Horses Photography)

When you’re not dolled up as Tina Hightower, what do you do for fun?

For fun, I do a lot of behind the scenes prep... sewing, creating props, styling hair and of course, shopping! I still attend weekly 12 step meetings and hang with my sponsor. Other than that, it's nice to stay home where it's quiet.

If there were one thing you would change/improve about Dayton, what would it be?

I lived in the Oregon District for 6 years and loved the downtown area.... but there is no shopping. I think it would be great to have a downtown that offers restaurants, businesses and groceries like we have in the suburbs. 

Dayton has been moving forward for the last 15 years in some areas...park system is good and baseball came to town, the Schuster Center, The Kroc Center were built, major improvements were made to Miami Valley Hospital and there has been a housing boom for a few years now downtown. I hope to see these things continue over the next 15 years. I fear for the public-school system in the future. Also, the crime and drug issues will continue. If not heroin, something new will replace it. 

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What’s one word you think people would use to describe you?

Animated! 

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?

The best piece of advice I received and use is take care of your skin. I have been washing and moisturizing my face since I was 19. The best piece of advice I received and do not use was from my grandma. She always said save your pennies; I love to spend the money! 

Share a memory with us about Dayton that resonates with you (I’m sure you have tons!).

My best memory is meeting a fantastic counselor named Carla McConnell at Greene Hall outpatient when I started there in the beginning of my sobriety. She helped me change my life and I will be grateful for her forever. 

Recently, through Miss Gay Ohio Pageantry I've started raising money (in drag) for Ronald McDonald House Charities. Last year was my first year, and (it) will always be one of the best times I've had doing drag. I held a huge fundraiser at MJ's On Jefferson in the summer with help from the ladies of Femme Fatale Fitness and some close friends, held a private drag bingo fundraiser here at my home. In total, we raised $2240.00 for RMHC of Dayton! Also, I did an interview on the RMHC radiothon. It was a great year!

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Do you have any upcoming shows or events?

I will be hosting bingo at MJ’s on Jefferson February 14...Also I will be starting pageant season by competing for Miss Gay Capital City (Miss Gay Ohio prelim) in Columbus Ohio on February 10.

(Wild Horses Photography)

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