Orlando victim KJ Morris remembered as great friend and drag king idol

Morris was a Valley drag performer who had just taken a job at nightclub

  • Kimberly “KJ” Morris

  • Kimberly "KJ" Morris, left, with friend Aimee Fyfe. —Photo courtesy Erica Hatoum

  • Kimberly "KJ" Morris, right, with Erica Hatoum and son, Madden. —Photo courtesy Erica Hatoum

  • —Photo courtesy Erica Hatoum —Photo courtesy Erica Hatoum

  • Kimberly “KJ” Morris, performing in drag as “Daddy K” in 2009. Morris was one of 49 Orlando victims. Photo courtesy Ken Rooney

Published: 6/13/2016 5:21:54 PM

By DAVE EISENSTADTER

@DaveEisen

EASTHAMPTON — The last time Erica Hatoum saw her best friend, Kimberly “KJ” Morris, who was killed in the Orlando shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse, she was seeing her off the morning before Morris left the area for Hawaii.

Hatoum, 37 — the same age as Morris — was sad to be saying goodbye, but proud of her friend for taking advantage of a business opportunity and facing her fears of others condemning her for being queer outside the relative safety of the Valley.

“Because of the way she looked, she was always afraid to travel,” Hatoum said Monday. “She would hold her bladder so she wouldn’t have to use the bathroom in some other town, or get yelled at or called something in another place.”

Hatoum said it was a sad irony that Morris, a caring friend who blossomed into a confident drag performer over the 15 years they knew one another, was killed in the attack on the gay nightclub.

“It was a fear she always had of something like this,” she said.

The mass shooting took the lives of 49 people, including 23-year-old Stanley Almodovar III, a Springfield native.

Massachusetts Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg condemned the shooting Monday.

“Once again we are confronted by an unspeakable, preventable tragedy,” he said in a statement. “This time one of the victims was a beloved former local resident, KJ Morris.

“She was only one of 49 irreplaceable people we lost. Our hearts go out to their loved ones, and to the people of the City of Orlando. This is a terrible loss for the LGBTQ community, and for all of us. I will continue to press our leadership in Congress to work to pass sensible gun laws to protect each and every one of us from another mass shooting. Other countries have gun laws that work to protect them, but the United States does not. It is unforgivable.”

Morris was originally from Torrington, Connecticut, and moved to the Valley to take a job at Amherst College in the student activities office.

It was in 2001 that Hatoum — a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst at the time — first met her.

“I contacted her to meet up as a potential roommate and we clicked,” Hatoum said. “I was the first person she knew, pretty much, in the Valley. We shared an apartment in Florence and we lived together for some time through school for me.”

Hatoum showed her around Northampton and the two got to know each other. Morris loved to dance and always wanted to have fun. At the same time, she was a good friend Hatoum described as someone who was there for those she cared about.

“She genuinely cared about people,” she said. “She was invested.”

House parties and impromptu living room performances eventually led Morris to seek a more public stage. She noticed that during Northampton drag shows at nightclubs like Diva’s, there would always be drag queens but never a drag king.

Along with Hatoum’s former partner, Morris started the King Street Boiz, the first drag king troupe in the area, according to Hatoum.

Hatoum helped by coordinating auditions and establishing a partnership with the Diva’s nightclub, but Morris was one of the stars.

“It was a really big deal to her,” Hatoum said. “When she got up there, she was able to be whoever she wanted to be.”

Morris always attracted eyes when she danced because she was so talented. Hatoum compared her to greats like Michael Jackson and Justin Timerlake — her movements on stage seemed effortless.

In a 2007 video of Morris dancing to the song “Apologize” by One Republic, she swoops and grooves to the music, occasionally flashing her famous smile to the audience.

A big influence

To Liz Mazzei, 30, of Northampton, who began her own drag performances in 2010, Morris was an inspiration.

“I had idolized her in the drag community,” Mazzei said Monday. “I worked at Diva’s first and then she became a close friend of mine and a big brother in my drag career.”

After coming out as a lesbian, Mazzei looked online to find out what a drag king was. When she first saw Morris perform, she was impressed.

“Her drag name was ‘Daddy K’ and Daddy K was really suave, sexy and a little cocky with sweet dance moves,” Mazzei said.

As Mazzei began her own drag career, Morris was supportive and was the first to congratulate her on a good performance or a pageant win.

Mazzei and Morris performed side by side both at Diva’s and with NoHo Pride.

Krystle Melanson, another drag performer, said she witnessed Daddy K performing Apologize in 2007, and said she was in awe of that performance.

“The drag community is suffering a loss by losing KJ,” said Melanson, 29, of Northampton.

All local drag kings were likely inspired by KJ, Melanson said, adding that her own song choices and swagger come from KJ’s act.

Joamarie Evans, 35, of West Springfield, said she met Morris at Diva’s more than 10 years ago and instantly became friends with her.

“KJ was such a caring, loving, infectious person. Her smile and positivity was so contagious,” she said.

Describing her as stylish and the life of the party, Evans said that seeing Morris’s unique socks and bow ties as well as hearing her unique laugh were staples at Diva’s and throughout the Northampton social scene.

“I really can’t believe such a wonderful person is gone,” she said. “I miss her so much. I wish I got to tell her how much she meant to me.”

During her time in Northampton, Morris had a number of jobs. She was also a gifted painter, according to Hatoum. “It was just another talent of hers besides being a great person and a great performer,” she said.

After working for Amherst, she got a job at the Smith College Campus Center as an evening manager from 2004 to 2007.

Tamra Bates, director of the office of student engagement at Smith, issued a statement about Morris regarding her time at the college.

“KJ was an enthusiastic student affairs professional, a committed educator and cared deeply about the students here at Smith,” Bates wrote. “She was never without a smile and a kind word for others and incredibly patient with students interested in learning something new. She will be deeply missed by our Campus Center family.”

Morris also worked for Lia Honda in the sales department.

When she left for Hawaii last year, it was to have her own wireless store, Hatoum said. That lasted less than a year as Morris left in April to help her mother and grandmother, who live in Orlando.

Bouncer at Pulse

All the while, one of Morris’s dreams was to have a night club of her own. That was why Hatoum wasn’t surprised when she heard Morris had gotten a job as a bouncer at Pulse in Orlando.

It was there Morris became one of 49 fatalities in Sunday morning’s mass shooting in Orlando. She had only been working there for two weeks, Hatoum said.

For Mazzei, who has worked at Diva’s as a bouncer, what happened at Pulse was something she always feared.

“When I worked at Diva’s, I would often think about what would happen if someone came in and wanted to cause harm to the people there and what I would do,” she said. “To have KJ be working at that club and going through that, it is surreal to me that it happened to someone I know to go through that nightmare.”

When Hatoum heard about the shooting Sunday, she immediately went on Facebook and called Morris’s phone, leaving messages without hearing a response. As the day wore on, Hatoum knew the news would be bad.

“If she was OK, we would have heard from her,” Hatoum said.

Since the shooting, Hatoum said she has not been able to process that her friend is gone.

“I just can’t believe it happened; I can’t believe my best friend was murdered in this horrible, horrible event,” she said.

Hatoum and other close friends of Morris’s met Monday to plan gatherings to remember her. Part of that remembrance will be through Morris’s art.

When she left for Hawaii, she needed a place to store her art, and Hatoum volunteered her basement. Now she plans to give a piece of her art to each of her closest friends and family to remember her by.

As a birthday gift for Hatoum’s son, now 7-and-a-half, Morris made a combination of Micky Mouse and Spiderman, both loves of his.

“She was an aunt to my son, though everyone called her ‘Uncle KJ,’” Hatoum said. “She was there the day he was born.”

In a post from Diva’s, the night club announced there would be a benefit show on July 2 in her honor.

“Diva’s nightclub mourns the loss of a past performer and family member in KJ Morris aka Daddy K,” read the statement. “We remember her smile, her dancing on stage and her amazing Drag King performances. She will always be remembered as one of our first Drag Kings to ever be involved with our club. She had a talent and a gift to make people enjoy her shows.”

At the July 2 event, a majority of the proceeds will go to Morris’s family, according to the Ken Rooney, a DJ and one of the organizers.

Rooney said he met Morris when he was standing by himself inside a bar. Morris came over and told him he should be out dancing.

That was 15 years ago.

“She was so empathetic, she saw when people were in need,” he said. “If someone needed a hug or a joke or a kind word, she was always someone who was there and very intuitive to other people.”

The performance will begin at 9 p.m. More details are available online at www.facebook.com/events/249566602076848/.

Many of her fellow performers will be in attendance, including Mazzei, who said she will be on stage in drag.

“To be honest, I’m not really sure what I’m going to do; I’m too emotional to think and plan,” she said. “Whatever we do will celebrate her to the fullest.”

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@gazettenet.com.




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