The first time Niomi Necoll Onassis saw Misty Knight, the Dayton legend was in flame-shaped pasties and a matching skirt.
“I had never seen anything like her,” Onassis said. “The next thing I knew, she lit the stage on fire. She was dancing with fire. She put fire down her throat.”
Then out came Knight’s boa constrictor, one of her patent tricks.
“I had never seen anyone control every muscle in her body (like that),” Onassis, now an entertainer and hairstylist in Orlando, said of that night in 1992 at 1470 West Nightclub in Kettering. “It was like she was the snake.”
Onassis was 14 years old, fresh in Dayton from New York, and had snuck into the club. She was mesmerized.
Knight, whose actual name was Sheila Bailey, became a mentor and second mom to Onassis.
When Knight became ill with lung cancer in 2014, Onassis said that frequently she would mistakenly called her own mother’s phone number when her thoughts turned to Knight.
“My brain wasn’t processing the difference between the two,” Onassis said.
Knight, a transgender woman and drag performer for more than 53 years, died at Hospice of Dayton at 10:29 p.m. Thursday. She was 65.
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Knight was part of the 2017 Dayton Pride Court, but could not attend the parade due to her illness.
This year, the legendary Dayton drag queen with be the symbolic grand marshal of a parade set to paint downtown Dayton rainbow Saturday afternoon.
A car carrying a crown won by Knight will lead the Dayton Gay Pride Parade “in memory of her,” Randy Phillips, president of the Greater Dayton LGBT Center, said.
“She is obviously a legend in the community and the United States,” he said. “She is one that was always kind, and there to give a helping hand.”
Onassis said Knight won more than 105 pageant titles in her life, and collected friends and fans all around the country. She commanded the stage at most gay clubs in the state.
“She is the only (drag entertainer) that has literally broke the Internet,” Onassis said. “She is the only one who has people from all over the world grieving.”
Earlier in her career, Knight worked in mainstream strip clubs and opened for a range of musical acts.
Onassis doesn’t recall Knight ever complaining of problems due to being a trans woman working in the so-called “straight world.”
“When she performing in front of BB King, I don’t think they knew. She was unique,” Onassis said. “Unless she told you, you would never know. (In photos) she just looked like that ’70s or ’60s woman who liked to party.”
During one recent hospital visit, Knight told Onassis that she wasn’t afraid to die, and had done everything she wanted to do in life except win the prestigious Miss Continental Elite title.
The pageant named her honorary Miss Continental Elite Thursday.
“A few hours after they told her that, she passed away,” Onassis said. “She was complete.”
A Dayton resident, Knight was a mainstay at Leo's After Dark in Ft. Wayne, Axis Nightclub in Columbus’ Short North and in Dayton at Club Masque and MJ’s on Jefferson.
Charles “Tula” Miller, a drag performer 57 years and the show director at After Dark, first met Knight when they both worked as women at a strip club in the mid-1960s.
They rekindled their friendship when he opened his bar, Tulisa’s, Ft. Wayne’s first gay club.
Knight worked at After Dark for 34 years and knew how to woo even hecklers, Miller, 78, said.
“She had class and she had an act. She was very entertaining,” he said. “The thing we are always going to remember is her charisma... She was such a legend. She had a way of suckering you right in to her act.”
Knight helped After Dark raise more than $1 million for a Fort Wayne AIDS related charity and more than $13,000 to help those impacted by the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
After Dark is planning a fundraiser is being planned for her partner on April 14.
Dayton resident Darryl “Ms. Demure” Bohannon met Knight for the first time at Jessie’s on Ludlow shortly after he created “Ms. Demure,” his drag persona in 1998.
Knight transcended the Dayton drag scene’s then clique-ish nature, Bohannon said.
“She nurtured me. She was like a big sister,” Bohannon said. “There are no words that can explain how much I adore her. She truly is a legend.”
Knight was a fixture on “Harper’s Bazzaroworld,” the Dayton Access Television (DATV) show Ms. Demure started 18 years ago.
From 2002 on, Knight appeared so frequently that she was an honorary cast member.
“She was real. She kept it 100 percent all the time. There was no pretending about her,” Bohannon said. “When she did a charity show, everything went to charity,” Bohannon said. “She really is the queen of Dayton.”
Bohannon recounted the time Knight’s father saw her preform a burlesque style show at a Cincinnati club.
His only comment was that Knight had to measure her kicks out, Bohannon recalled.
“It was no drama at all,” Bohannon said. “Her mom would see her perform at Celebrity.”
He said Knight’s death will leave a vacant space in entertainment.
Comments from all around the country have been left on Knight’s Facebook page.
“It is amazing how well-known she was and how many lives she touched,” Bohannon said.
Dayton drag performer Alexis O’Hara, now the entertainment director at MJ’s on Jefferson, met Knight 22 years ago and found inspiration.
She said her friend and mentor taught her that “you don't go to a pageant to get experience, you go to a pageant to WIN."
“(My) Favorite Misty Line: ‘Anyone can be fabulous one night, but it takes many fabulous nights to become a Legend, and I AM the Legendary Misty Knight’," O’Hara said via email.
Jason “Tina Hightower” Wright said Knight kept the entertainment coming.
“Misty was a one-woman show. She possessed the talent to do anything she put her mind to. She earned the title ‘Legendary’ and and represented it proudly,” Wright wrote via Facebook. “One of the last great things I saw her do what's twerk while standing on her head on stage after the age of 60. Misty was always a positive influence for everyone.”