Trans and 'transcendent': Lisa Michaels, beloved Memphis comedian and musician, dead at 61
Usually, you could spot Lisa Michaels' hair before the rest of her tall figure came into focus.
One of her trademarks, it was often a bright blue-violet hue that sometimes edged closer to fuchsia in between dye-jobs. The whole purple spectrum was synonymous with Michaels. So much so that within hours of learning of her passing, many friends and fans alike in Memphis switched their Facebook profile pictures to solid purple.
Michaels, the singing, guitar-playing, joke-slinging performer and local trans icon who rarely missed a show and never missed a punchline, has died. She was 61.
A musician and comedian, Michaels is best known as emcee, a magnetic host of hundreds of performances, variety shows, and other events over the past seven years.
As the lead of her band Midtown Queer, an organizer for Memphis Comedy Fest, a non-skating official with Memphis Roller Derby, and host of the more recent Memphis: Queer AF, Michaels made her mark as a regular host at Midtown haunts like Dru’s Place, Black Lodge, P&H Cafe and the recently closed Midtown Crossing.
The cause of her death is unknown. Close friends of Michaels believe a long-standing medical condition likely played a part in her unexpected death.
After relocating to Memphis from Southern California in 2013, friends say Michaels immediately embedded herself within multiple communities. Her friend Octavia Young, former owner of Midtown Crossing, described Michaels' knack for stitching together different factions of Memphis.
"We talked a lot about how to bridge gaps and bring people together. The various cliques in Memphis... Lisa moved in all of them, and she brought people together who may not have otherwise ever talked to one another," Young said.
To this day, Young calls Michaels' variety show "among the best shows we ever did."
"For the longest time, her show was the best-produced show that we ran, and that was because she knew so many of the most talented people in Memphis" Young said. "She was so loved by so many."
On stage, Michaels was known for her prowess in drawing an audience close to her, while using her ability to harness her experiences as a trans person and make them accessible to anyone listening. She often took transphobic tropes and flipped them upside down, turning vitriolic aggression towards trans people into a punchline.
Her self-assigned moniker, "The purple-haired Tramazon", a reference to both her height and bigoted attitudes often hurled at trans people, became her calling card.
She refused to compromise any bit of who she was, Young said. And that meant bringing her authenticity to venues outside of Memphis, and by extension, outside of a community that had her back. Bravery, Young said, was a core tenant of her values.
"She would tell me about places she was going in Mississippi, and Kentucky. I would be shocked, and she would say, 'Someone has to do it.' She was a major ambassador about Memphis music, comedy, wherever she went, she was transcendent," Young said. "She made it so that people understood through comedy, what it meant to be trans."
Tami Montgomery, owner and operator of Midtown's Dru's Place where Michaels frequently performed, and a close friend of Michaels, said the impact of her loss was "beyond words."
"She brought people together from all walks of life. She could introduce two strangers, and within the hour..it was like they already knew each other. It was her gift. And she was a gift to us," Montgomery said.
Montgomery said the bar plans to host an outdoor "scream therapy" event in December, and offer Memphians a chance to grieve collectively for both Michaels and all losses faced by a community impacted heavily by the pandemic and the ripple effects of economic stress and isolation.
It's a fitting tribute, Montgomery said, because the aim will be to "let it all out."
"The same way Lisa went through her life, and used her voice to express everything she stood for, that's what we're going to do. Just scream until everything you’ve been through is just gone," Montgomery said.
The Memphis Comedy Festival, which Michaels sat on the board of, will also host a memorial on Sunday. Her role in Memphis comedy, said board president Nathan Hiller, extended past volunteer roles and performance.
"Lisa was always the first to volunteer, the first offer a hand, to be in your corner for support, and so much more than any of us can even start to fathom right now," Hiller said. "Lisa showed us all how to be the very best that we can be, without even trying, she was just being Lisa. We should all try to be like Lisa."