Playing 20 Questions with Tony Dyson
Even a chat online with Anthony Dyson – whom his friends call Tony – is an enjoyable experience. Through our first conversations via Facebook messenger, I could sense that this is a young man with ambitions to take on the world. I immediately harkened back to that iconic moment on American Bandstand when Dick Clark turned to Madonna and said “what do you want for the future?” and the Material Girl boldly answered “To rule the world.” I get the impression Mr. Dyson has the same goal.
I first talked with Tony nearly a year ago when we were putting together the tentative list for Allegany Magazine’s annual 35 Under 35 edition. He told me a little bit about his “alter ego,” plans for a podcast, his experiences growing up in a small town as an open and proud gay black man and my journalist antennae sent my brain a single that said “there’s a bigger and deeper story here.”
Because of the pandemic over the spring and summer months, I was not able to interview Tony Dyson the way I wanted to.
And then came news that Cumberland Pride was moved from July to October to address health and safety issues. This smart choice by the Pride committee had a secondary impact on the magazine schedule – it gave me time for a proper discussion.
And when I finally was able to get some of Tony Dyson’s time, I decided the best way to interview this man – to capture his energy and his essence was with a simple but complex game of 20 questions.
Allegany Magazine: How would we “know” you?
Tony Dyson: A lot of people know me as Tony. I’ve sang in a lot of churches. I’ve made so many connections just based off of my personality. People also know me as ViiVian, my drag name. I think that’s what caught a lot of people’s attention, I’m very confident in my body and I promote positive body images.
AM: Tell me about ViiVian.
TD: ViiVian was born in a dark period of my life. I had just gone through some pretty rough situations back to back, like deciding not to finish school, my grandmother passing, getting evicted and then some. So I really just wanted something to make me feel good about myself and life, I had stopped singing for a while so I didn’t have that outlet anymore. Then one day after I was stable enough I started investing time and money into makeup. And along came ViiVian Spice. The name comes from the Spice Girls and any woman you can think of named Vivian on TV. I just love the name.
AM: Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
TD: I was born and raised in St.Marys County , Maryland. Honestly, I had a really good upbringing, my dad worked full time and Sundays are his day off. I had a stay at home step mom until I went to college then she started to work again. She’s also like my best friend. I was raised with two of my siblings but I have six and I am the oldest. My biological mother came back into my life at the start of middle school and she’s been there ever since. I’ve always had lots of friends and family. I played sports in high school - football, tennis and track- and I was in the choir and plays. You could say I was pretty active.
AM: Did you have a “coming out” experience?
TD: I technically had two. So, I came out in sixth grade because it’s middle school and people were already trying to pick on me for being “gay” before I even fully felt like I was. But I don’t take anyone’s B.S. so they quickly stopped trying to pick on me. Then one day I finally just said it in class , “so people would stop asking”. I was fine with it because I didn’t feel straight but I knew I wasn’t completely gay, I just wanted the curiosity to be dead. But when word got back to my dad because he’s a barber and cuts all my peers’ hair, and I completely denied it. He didn’t make me feel the most comfortable at the time.
Fast forward to senior year of high school, I had an argument with a boyfriend at the time and came home fuming. My step mom asked me what was wrong and without thinking I just blurted out “my boyfriend is p***ing me off!” And she just kept listening. I tried to back pedal but she was like “Tony I know you’re gay or whatever and I really don’t care, just make sure you tell your dad so he can stop wondering if I’m right .” And I was speechless , I just hugged her and kept telling her about the day. She told my dad to set him up so that when I told him he was already okay with it. My real mom told me I was gay. One day, she looked at me and said “so you’re gay right, because I can tell and it’s fine.” Honestly, if you didn’t think I was gay, you were truly fooling yourself because I was flamboyant and unapologetically myself from the start.
AM: Have you ever experienced being treated differently just because of who you are?
TD: One time that I really know of. I just got asked to leave a party by a group of guys. I personally wasn’t angry because I didn’t want to be there in the first place. I just spoke up for the people who couldn’t. I didn’t care that they put me out. I cared that it was because of my sexuality. Besides that, someone sent a racist message on Grindr way back when that I just ignored because it really wasn’t worth the time or energy.
AM: What do you think is the greatest challenge for young LGBTQ people today?
TD: Honestly, our greatest challenge today is ourselves. We as a community alone discriminate against each other and tear each other down for any and every reason, but will cry and what not if anyone on the outside says anything offensive. Before we can truly be accepted by the world as a community we have to accept and love and build each other up first, otherwise what was the point in Stonewall? What is the point in fighting for marriage rights, military rights and equality if we’re just going to destroy our own community?
AM: What does “Pride” mean to you?
TD: To me Pride is each and every queer person on the planet from past to present, pride is the history of our culture, because it is a culture as well as a sexuality. Pride is the HIV/AIDS survivors and non survivors. Pride is a celebration every day that I am me. Unapologetically.
AM: Who do you admire?
TD: I admire the singing divas. Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight, Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, Anita Baker, Patti Labelle, Diana Ross... and Erykah Badu. She’s an icon.
AM: What is something about you people would be surprised to learn?
TD: For a while I suffered an eating disorder. Sometimes it’s still hard but I’ve come a long way from where I was in high school and even the beginning of college.
AM: What do you do for fun?
TD: I run for fun, I run for therapy, I love to run. I also have finally gotten back into music , I’ve been writing and making music. I just love to create.
AM: Can you tell me a little about your podcast?
TD: Of course, the name is ViiVians Vibe, and it’s a lifestyle podcast. It’s really just me talking about my outlook on life and everything happening in it. It’s meant to create that friend like feel between myself and people who want to get to know me.
AM: What inspired this podcast?
TD: I was really tired of people coming up to me in party or bar settings and telling me how much they loved me , but knew absolutely nothing about me, my beliefs or whatever. So I made the podcast in hope that people would listen and love me for me and not just the idea of me.
AM: What has been the public reaction to it?
TD: People actually enjoy it which has me in complete shock, I didn’t think that people were really going to listen but they do and I am living. This season will be 20 episodes long.
AM: How can we find it to follow it and listen to it?
TD: ViiVian’s Vibe is on Spotify , Apple Podcasts, Anchor and whatever listening base you would like. Except Pandora. Let’s not open that box. Yet.
AM: What advice would the you of today have for the 10-year old you?
TD: Be a kid while you can and while it matters because adulthood is a lot longer and more intense than childhood.
AM: What is the best thing about being you in 2020?
TD: My fiancé, he is my better half, he helps me create and stay headstrong. He’s always supportive and I can’t imagine spending so much time with another person. When he said yes to my proposal I was shocked because I didn’t think he was ready I didn’t think I was ready but he did. And we’ve been solid since. So yeah the best part about being me is having Michael.
AM: What is it that you would love to do next?
TD: Next, I want to get married, relocate, release some music and a second season of ViiVian’s Vibe.
AM: Why does Allegany County feel like home?
TD: When I didn’t have anywhere to go and multiple people opened their homes to me. That was when I really felt that family away from home feeling.
AM: What two words best describe you?
TD: Fierce and Ambitious. No matter what situation I’m in, no matter how low I may feel, I always carry myself as if “everything will be okay” because I know that if I’m the leader of my path and what I want, I’ll go out and get it myself.
AM: When they make a movie of your life, who will play you?
TD: I honestly don’t know. Some attractive black gay male actor!