June is the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, often regarded as the tipping point in the modern gay rights movement and earning its recognition as Pride Month. Houston Press met with members of the LGBTQ+ community to learn more about their experiences as being part of this group. These are their stories.
It's not unusual to experience shame when you're a member of the LGBTQ community. For most, it has to do with a combination of deep struggles with sexuality, religion and/or fear of being "other" or ostracized. Christina Wells, who identifies as lesbian, knows that shame, but she said it wasn't something that resonated from her sexuality. It instead stemmed from the comments she received for her weight. But like the true fighter she is, she used it as fuel to rise above and prove that her voice is worth listening to. Her story is one of turning off the volume of her inner saboteur and following her dreams to realize what would eventually become her nationally televised glow-up.
During her teenage and early adult years, she started to pursue her passion of music. She played the French horn in the high school band and sang in variety and talent shows. As her age increased, so did her love of singing, enough to the point that she decided to audition for local shows.
"I auditioned for Astroworld for their Motown review. It was an amazing opportunity and a big deal. They were looking for singers and dancers. I was singing my little behind off. I made it from 500 people down to 20, and they were taking only 13 for the final cut. In the end, they didn’t pick me," she said.
She said the producers were originally looking for two Africa American female singers to fill the Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin archetypes. Yet, instead of casting two people, they combined the role into one person, and gave it to someone with lesser vocal ability than Wells but who fit the costumes and look.
"Instead of taking this with a grain of salt, I took it personally to mean I was too fat. I had gotten that message a couple of times, but I've always believed in myself. But we believe our insecurities too. I left that audition and said I’m not singing anymore, and they’s why I was fueled to do other things. Singing was a dream that wasn’t for me."
Wells grew up in the Pasadena area where she was a self-described math and science nerd. She finished in the Top 10 percentage in her high school, and went off to college at UT-Austin. But life, as often happens, took a detour.
"I was the first person in my immediate family to go to college, and I didn’t know how to handle it. I moved back to Houston, and I got pregnant with my first son at 22, and I was married to my husband for almost six years," she said.
But underneath that marriage, something else was brewing. There were feelings she couldn't deny despite her desire to maintain the status quo.
She said, "I’m very much a rule follower: you get married, you stay married, even if it’s not the relationship you should be in. That’s what you do. Then, when my boys were 5- and 2-years-old, I caught feelings for a woman, and I realized I had a few brushes with lesbianism. Everyone in college kisses a girl. People write songs about it, but this was different. I started to realize I was a little gay. I couldn’t live a lie, so I left my husband."
Recently single, newly out of the closet, and raising two children, Wells needed to find a way to support herself and her family. She moved to Boston and earned her nursing degree, before moving to Cleveland and eventually Las Vegas. Yet, in 2014, she received devastating news that brought her back home to Houston. Her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
She said, "It was one thing for me to take care of other people in hospitals and help people feel better, but it was another thing for my mother to be sick and not be by her side. My mom was very ill, and within two years, she was in remission. She’s still healthy and doing well to this day. I tease here about having temporary cancer to get her family back together."
With her mother's health stable, Wells stayed in her hometown and threw herself into her career, but her passion once again awoke when she heard about a singing competition called Pride Superstar — an American Idol-style event where singers compete and are narrowed down each week leading up to Houston's Pride Parade. She had participated similar competitions in other cities, but this one was different.
"Every city has a Pride Idol competition. It’s usually a juiced up karaoke competition. You have a drink, you sing a few of your favorite songs, the crowd is cheering, and you win. I won Boston and Las Vegas Idol before," she said. "But Houston's was 12 weeks. It was long, and it was both challenging and rewarding. I had to come up with song choices. I had dancers and costumers. I had choreography. I had tracks and made mixes. It pushed the boundaries on my creativity."
She recalls, "I thought I might make it a week or two, and it will be fun. But I ended up winning, and that was a pivotal point in my life."
The prize was $2,000 and studio time with West Side Recording Studio. She recorded the single “I Know Where I’ve Been” from Hairspray, and with the left over money, she recorded a music video for the single. It was posted to the Houston Chronicle's website, where it garnered more than 40,000 views.
It was this same video that received the attention of America’s Got Talent and Wells was invited to audition for the show. Upon her appearance, she received unanimous votes to proceed, and the rest is history.
"I ended up becoming a contestant on the show, and I made it to the semi-finals (top 15). I sang for 11 million people every time I was on the show," she said.
Even though Wells didn't win the show's big prize, there was no turning back. She was a bonafide star.
"I came back from the TV show with an email inbox with performance opportunities, so I quit my nursing job and became an entertainer. I’ve been entertaining and delivering motivational speeches full time ever since," she said.
In her motivational speeches, she often touches on her spiritual side as well as her experience being a person of size.
"This is what I learned on America's Got Talent. I’m standing here for the women who raised their kids and didn’t get to live their dreams...the obese person who thought they weren’t good enough. The 4X or 5X T-shirt size wearers. And what I found was I’ve been shamed into feeling I was too fat or told that my talent was great but my package was wrong...everyone has felt that way at some point," she said.
She's received thousands of letters and messages from people around the world — some in languages she had to have translated to understand. Each message shared a common thread.
"They all say the same thing. They say, 'I felt the same way.' From people with health issues or anorexia, or they’re struggling with something they’ve been shamed about, and it makes them want to dim their light and hide their abilities. That's why they relate to me and my journey," she said.
Through it all, she's always remained true to who she is. She mentioned, "I’ve had a few business opportunities turn me down once they found out I am gay. Because I have an inspirational message, and I am a person of positivity, a lot of the companies that want to hire me are Christian-based. I’m a Christian and spiritual woman. I feel God’s presence in my life. But by the time they get into a conference call [and sign contracts], I make sure it’s clear I’m a lesbian."
She's also managed to do the impossible for television sensations: find love in her life from someone who didn't have a clue about her national fame. She has been involved romantically with local chef and 210 Fusion Cuisine owner NaTosha "Chef Tae" Barber.
"When I first met NaTosha, I thought okay, nothing serious. I had been single for almost three years, and I had a mission to be single for five years because I wanted to be married to my career. My oldest was in college, my youngest was a junior in high school, and it was my chance to do something I love," she recalls. "Then, enter Tosha. We went on our first date, and have been dating since then…she’s such a wise, kind, thoughtful, warm, beautiful human being."
All the while, Wells still has her eyes on the prize for when the COVID-19 is a thing of the past.
She said, "I have a lot of chapters in the Christina Wells Empire-To-Be. I’m working on children’s books, sewing, motivational speaking and singing. I’m turning these 15 minutes of fame into a profitable career."
To learn more about Pride Houston, visit PrideHouston.org.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.