Wearing a top hat and sitting at my cartoonishly long dinner table, my wildly eccentric friend of twenty-plus years, known to friends as Auntie M, revisits the last time I tried to interview him. That was two years ago, and part of the conversation took place over text. At one point, he'd replied to my inquiry, "I'm tired of texting and I'm bored."
"Wanna know why I said I was bored and ended it?" he asks playfully. "Because you asked about the famous people who owned my beads, and that question makes their value contingent on that, like that's what's important, when the beads are what's important!"
The beads are piled high on the table in front of him — some with black and white babies, some with big floppy sea creatures, some with skulls adorned with Swarovski crystal eyes, and some with stout erect golden penises. Auntie M grandly fans his open hands over the sparkling endowment, each strand of which will be bestowed upon a reveler in St. Louis, or New Orleans, or at New York's Mermaid Parade on Coney Island, or maybe even on his favorite cashier at Whole Foods.
Respecting the Alice in Wonderland quality of his storytelling, and not wanting to risk derailing this interview, I simply allow Auntie M to begin talking, and only gently steer (or attempt to steer) the conversation now and then. Each strand has a story, including the first beads he presents, which are adorned with golden babies.
"I was in New Orleans in my French aristocrat attire — you know, with the towering pink wig — and I see the hottest entertainer," he says. "He was Mediterranean and dressed in a sailor's outfit with really tight pants, and I was in love. We talked and he was the sweetest guy, and I gave him a strand of my golden king-cake baby beads.
"The next morning I'm on the balcony and there he is oiled up and dancing on stage in nothing but a g-string and one strand of beads. My beads!" Auntie M proudly recalls. "I hadn't brought any other costumes; I'd just put on the same thing, and on day three I walked past these queens who had been partying hard, probably doing all sorts of drugs, and one noticed I was still wearing the same outfit and turned to his friend and admiringly said, 'She's been up for days!'"
Nothing pleases Auntie M more than seeing others wearing his beads like heirloom pieces, especially if it happens long after he first bestowed them. In the late '90s Auntie M set his sights on the most coveted spot in all of Soulard Mardi Gras: the balcony at Menard and Allen above Clementine's, which was the oldest gay bar in St. Louis when it closed in 2014. Only a handful of people were permitted up there, so without any connections Auntie M showed up a few days before Mardi Gras wearing one of his outrageous costumes and carrying a bucket of his first-generation beads, which he'd made from braided garland and pearls. The beads were impressive enough that owner Gary Reed agreed to allow him to grace the balcony during the festivities, where he delighted the crowd below and whipped them into a frenzy of bead lust. The next year he returned to the perch and noticed people in the crowd wearing his beads. He was deeply honored, but also slightly embarrassed because his artistry had improved so much over that year, as he'd moved beyond repurposing Christmas decorations and begun incorporating rosary beads and better wire.
In the two decades since then, Auntie M has become one of the city's most recognizable Mardi Gras personalities. He graced the 2000 Soulard Mardi Gras poster, has been featured in countless Mardi Gras photo montages and, more recently, hosted the High Heel Drag Race. But for him, it's still all about the beads.
And Auntie M's creations have become the ultimate Mardi Gras status symbol in St. Louis. They're simultaneously exclusive and populist. They represent authenticity, street cred and Mardi Gras glamour, perhaps because they cannot be bought. These are beads you have to earn.