Whatever Lola Wants: J. Harrison Ghee on Playing "Kinky Boots" Star

 J. Harrison Ghee in "Kinky Boots" (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

J. Harrison Ghee in "Kinky Boots" (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Kerry Breen

  • OnStage Blog News

From the moment Lola steps on stage in Kinky Boots, she sparkles – and not just because of the rhinestone-studded wardrobe. While the sequins help, much of that glow comes from long-time performer J. Harrison Ghee, who has played Lola both on tour and on Broadway.

While Ghee has “never counted” how many times he’s gone on as Lola, he has been playing the role for three years after starting as a swing in the national tour. 

Ghee had originally been auditioning for Motown when he dropped off a headshot, resume, and cover letter for the Kinky Boots tour. 

“Anyone who knew me when the show came to Broadway always told me ‘You have to be a part of this show, at some point or another,” Ghee said. “I’ve been doing drag outside of the show for eight years now, and so I am a drag queen, and I understand that life. My father is also a pastor in North Carolina, so the father/son issues, on top of that - it was just very parallel to my own life. So I expressed [to the casting agent] how close the show was to my life, and how I would love to be considered for the tour and all that jazz, and one thing led to another and I booked the tour as a swing.” 

“Touring was a learning experience,” said Ghee. “Changing climates and environments and different theaters, and adjusting each time, was definitely something I had to get used to. I had never toured before, and then having such a demanding role on top of it - you have to do a lot of maintenance to make sure that you are always in good health and voice and energy.”

According to Ghee, his drag background also helped with his performance as Lola. He performs around New York City under the name Crystal Demure, and is the first established drag artist to play the role. 

“The role was so me, and it was so parallel that it was easy to relate to a lot of things that Lola expresses in the show,” he explained. “It’s actually kind of eerie how close it is. There are things that I remember saying as a kid, and throughout my life. It was like ‘Who’s been following me around to write these things down?’” 

One such instance takes place during the number “Not My Father’s Son,” where Lola sings the line “With the strength of Sparta / and the patience of Joab.” According to Ghee, both the historical and religious references hit home - his father, in addition to being a pastor, also holds a master’s degree in history and philosophy. 

“There are things that tie to me so closely, and they are just easy to express,” Ghee said. “It’s just so close to me. It’s like, how much more background or homework could you need?” 

Despite his connections to the role and the amount of time that he has been in the show, Ghee said that he has always been able to keep the role fresh for himself.

“Every night is a new opportunity to live the life of Lola, so I just approach it with however I feel that day in my spirit,” he said. “I bring the day in, whatever life has given to me that day, and allow that to be Lola’s life that night.” 

 Brendon Urie and J. Harrison Ghee (Matthew Murphy)

Brendon Urie and J. Harrison Ghee (Matthew Murphy)

Also helpful with keeping the role new is the constantly-changing cast of the show. On Broadway, Ghee has co-starred with Brendon Urie, Jake Shears, Tyler Glenn, and currently, David Cook, in addition to performing with understudies - on the day of this interview, understudy Corey Marsh was on as Charlie.

“I think it [was] our first time doing it together,” said Ghee. “It’s fun, because I get a new opportunity to explore the same moment I do eight times a week, with a new person and a new energy, and that’s exciting, and that also helps keep it fresh, because it’s a new playing partner. All of my Charlie's have been pretty spectacular.”   

“Having a swing or an understudy on [for another role] is equally as fun,” Ghee continued. “They’re in the building all the time, and they get to see how we play every night, but then they can bring themselves, and it’s so cliche, but it’s so true. We are just like one big family here. We just have a good time on stage together.” 

Ghee also said that, in the end, his favorite part of playing Lola is the opportunity to reach an audience with a new message. 

“In general, I am blessed to be able to change lives, eight times a week,” he said. “That’s what drives me to do it every night. I konw there is at least one person in the audience, that I have the opportunity to help change their mind, to help start a conversation that they might not be normally be comfortable having, or would have considered having. In everything I do in life, I try to do it with intention and purpose, and that is a part of my purpose in life - to entertain, and to change lives. And that’s what drives me to live the life of Lola. And it’s such an honor.” 

Sometimes, the beginning of that change has happened during the show, in Ghee’s experience. 

“There are opportunities, there’s a moment in the show, every night, where during “Land of Lola”, I say ‘No need to be embarrassed, I like to be looked at and you like to look…’ and during that line, I always try to find a man in the front row, to flirt with and point out, and lots of times, guys will flirt back and kind of give me a little energy, but I have definitely had moments where guys have shied away or been uncomfortable, and that drives me to really get the point across of, like, ‘We’re all humans. Why are you so taken aback with this being, this entity? Why are you so uncomfortable? What is it about my energy, or this thing, that you don’t understand, that throws you off? And it makes me want to reach that person even more.” 

“So, by the end of the show, when that person is up and dancing and clapping, and smiling, it makes me feel like, ‘Great, my job is done. Someone changed their mind today, or at least opened their eyes and opened their mind,” he continued. “People will yell out during teh show; people at the stage door will comment about the relationships that they have in their lives that are now changed, or are ready to confront, because of the show, because of their experience. People are like, during bows, just yelling and screaming or mouthing that they love me, and thanking me, and it’s so fulfilling, and it’s why I do what I do.”