Thursday, November 23, 2017
News Roundup

Brenda Ricottilli quit heroin 35 years ago, helped others recover

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Her oncologist delivered the news three months ago: There would be no new liver. Cancer had obviated a hoped-for transplant, originally made necessary by cirrhosis.

Brenda Ricottilli cried when she learned she had six months to live. That same day in April, she planned a trip out west — against doctor's advice. If you knew Ms. Ricottilli, that kind of decision comes as no surprise, to meet a setback with an even bigger counterattack. It was the same constitution that led her to stop shooting heroin 35 years ago, quit her job at a strip club and put herself through cosmetology school.

In St. Petersburg and Tampa, she was a force in expanding the number of Narcotics Anonymous meetings, in which she befriended other recovering addicts with corny humor and a relentless honesty that occasionally verged on abrasiveness.

She opened a hair salon and later launched a side business doing hair and makeup for actors, dancers and drag queens.

Ms. Ricottilli died July 24. She was 62.

"She saved my life," said Tina Kelley-Carter, who credits Ms. Ricottilli with helping her stay sober since 1993. "She helped countless people in Pinellas and Hillsborough."

Brenda Joyce Calaway was born in Indianapolis in 1951 to teenage parents. At 13, she moved to Safety Harbor with her mother, then to Titusville.

A stepfather molested her. At 17, she checked herself into a mental hospital to get away from him, her family said.

"This woman was not given the basic skills that kids get," said Desiree Ricottilli, her daughter.

Ms. Ricottilli moved to the Los Angeles area, where she paid for a drug habit by dancing for men. In 1978 she woke up to find that the boyfriend beside her, another heroin addict, had died.

Her combined life experience to that point brought with it a kind of gift — a sense of hopelessness recovering addicts often describe as an asset, a necessary start to a life of abstinence.

She moved to St. Petersburg and married Francis Ricottilli. The marriage did not last long, but her hair and nails salon did. She called it the Phoenix, for rebirth.

Kelley-Carter, 52, met Ms. Ricottilli when Kelley-Carter was on the verge of losing her job after a DUI. "If I hadn't run into her, I would have died because I just didn't care anymore," she said.

As the women bonded, she said, "it was a laugh fest."

Ms. Ricottilli even laughed about her childhood. "She wanted to write a book and call it Cinder-Really?" said Desiree Ricottilli, 30. "Like what really happens. Just break it down."

Ms. Ricottilli moved her shop, then closed it in the late 1990s after she was diagnosed with hepatitis C. She earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Tampa in psychology. She met theater people who valued her skills with hair. She also began reaching out to "drag queen guys, macho men, guys who like to dress in women's clothes," her daughter said.

She loved this work and would have done it for free. In some ways it mirrored the counseling Ms. Ricottilli gave newly recovering addicts and alcoholics, normalizing feelings of awkwardness with an overpowering mix of compassion and bossiness.

She also did hair for performers at the Mahaffey and Straz theaters and sometimes beyond, including Elton John in Orlando.

She got on a liver transplant list, then learned she had cancer. That's when Ms. Ricottilli decided to spend some quality time with her family.

She flew to Los Angeles and met daughters Desiree and Madison and a family friend. For the next three weeks, the women drove through California, Colorado and Arizona in a weatherbeaten Dodge van. They talked over past conflicts, rapped along with Jay-Z, laughed and cried. Though doctors had urged her not to take the trip, it was where Ms. Ricottilli wanted to be.

"She said your perspective changes when you find out you don't have much time left," her daughter said.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.

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