Shortly after his mother and stepfather arrived in Orlando from New Mexico for a visit, John Silversmith told them he had to go to work. Someone would pick them up and bring them by, he promised.
When they walked into Parliament House, a nightclub with posters of glamorous women, Debbie Smallcanyon wondered if her son was a waiter. People smiled at them. She heard whispering.
Smallcanyon and her husband were escorted to a reserved table, where they took polite sips as it filled with free drinks. When the show started, the host announced that Nazhoni’s parents were in the audience.
Nazhoni is Navajo for beauty, Smallcanyon knew. She looked around for other Native American parents. Then, the spotlight showed on her table.
That night in the late ’90s, Mr. Silversmith prowled onto the stage as Nazhoni Taylor Foxx and came out to her mom as a gay man and a drag queen.
Her child was amazing, Smallcanyon said.
“I’ve always thought that.”
She was just meeting Ms. Taylor Foxx, but crowds of adoring fans knew the diva well. Mr. Silversmith died Jan. 15 after contracting the coronavirus. He was 46.
‘The audience literally beat the walls’
Dancing to the Pointer Sisters’ Fire won Mr. Silversmith an elementary school dance-off in the first grade. He beat out the fourth-graders, his mom said.
Her eldest was a natural.
At a performance in a theater in New Mexico, a local dance instructor saw Mr. Silversmith and asked him to come study at her studio. Smallcanyon said she couldn’t afford it, but the teacher said there’d be no charge.
Mr. Silversmith danced through high school, learning ballet, tap and modern dance. He attended the Institute of American Indian Arts and worked during the summers with a traveling dance company. In the spring of 1995, his former teacher called his mother frantically trying to find him.
MGM Studios was holding auditions for a live production of Pocahontas.
“I’m hoping this is my ticket out of small towns,” he told the Albuquerque Journal in early April of that year. “I’ve grown up in them, and I’ve always been different.”
A brief in the Santa Fe New Mexican later that month announced he’d gotten a part. Mr. Silversmith moved to Orlando. There, far from home, he reveled in his freedom. He became known as a club kid in Orlando, famous for swinging from the ceiling at Club Firestone while bedecked in spikes.
In the mid-90s, Bob Taylor first saw Mr. Silversmith’s drag persona, Nazhoni, in a talent show for Parliament House, an iconic gay resort. He offered her a booking.
“It was unanimous,” Taylor said. “The audience literally beat the walls.”
The rainbow bridge
Karl Winslow waited until midnight on his 18th birthday to get into Southern Nights, an Orlando gay bar. His friends told him he had to see Ms. Taylor Foxx. He stood right up front.
“This is amazing,” he thought as she performed.
He started performing a few months later as a background dancer with a friend. That first night, Ms. Taylor Foxx gave Winslow, who performed as Kaija Taylor Adonis, a wig. She made sure the young performer had everything she needed and was having fun.
Jordyn Victoria Laos also saw Ms. Taylor Foxx for the first time at Southern Nights.
“She actually frightened me with her performance,” said Laos. “It was the first time I had ever seen any form of drag queen in the flesh.”
But they formed a bond. Every Monday and Thursday, Laos went to see Ms. Taylor Foxx and drove her to gigs out of town for years. Laos, who hadn’t yet transitioned as a woman, became another one of Ms. Taylor Foxx’s drag daughters.
She brought life to the music, Laos said, and new music to the stage, from Nine Inch Nails to gospel artist Vernessa Mitchell.
She taught all those she adopted about her own heritage and the history of Orlando’s gay and drag cultures, introducing them to the generation that came before, Winslow said, like a rainbow bridge.
She also helped create Southern Nights’ College Night, offering new entertainers a place to perform and college kids a night to discover drag.
“If she was there,” Winslow said, “you were going to have one hell of a crazy time.”
It wasn’t all eyelashes, corsets and fun.
After struggling with drinking for years, Mr. Silversmith left Orlando in the mid-2000s to refocus his life.
“He knew that it was time to do other things,” Laos said.
Back in New Mexico, Mr. Silversmith did what he’d always intended and finished school, becoming a dialysis tech. He traveled around the country for three months at a time and came home to his family in between. Now and then, Ms. Taylor Foxx also came back to the stage in Orlando.
Mr. Silversmith got sick with the coronavirus in December while on a job in Vancouver, Wash.
“He was a good human being,” Bob Taylor said. “He was helping keep people alive.”
Throughout his life, he followed something that had always been in him. His mother’s clan, his first clan, is One Who Walks Around.
They’re the guardians of the tribe, Smallcanyon said, there to offer security and protection.
Mr. Silversmith did that. Ms. Taylor Foxx did, too.
Poynter Institute researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.