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2013 NZ Queen of Queens: Chrissy Witoko

Mon 3 Jun 2013 In: People View at Wayback View at NDHA

The late Chrissy Witoko Each Queen's Birthday celebrates the life of one of our communities' own majestic Queens, no matter what their sex, sexuality or demeanour is, or was. The criteria may evolve from time to time but we hope they will always be based on the positive attributes of our first-honoured New Zealand Queen of Queens, the late Carmen Rupe. Chrissy Witoko is honoured this year because all her life, with an unflinching generosity of spirit, she looked after people. In her early days she was a flashy in your face gay boy on the Wellington waterfront. She became a small-businesswoman and eventually a regal presence amongst the glbti communities in the capital. And all through that time she looked out for people. Chris Witoko first hit the Wellington gay scene as a no-holds-barred homo boy with heaps of swish. From his shapely legs clad in skin-tight leotards to a shock of bleach-blonde hair (not a common sight on a Hastings-born Maori boy in the 1960s) and obvious makeup, Chris was an in-your-face queen It wasn't drag. Chris was just naturally outrageous and camp as a jamboree. And out and proud while most glbti people were closeted or disguised. There was no pretense about Chris Witoko and even the rough, tough watersiders, for whom he dished up meals in the waterfront workers' canteen, respected that. He was tough, good looking, didn't suffer fools gladly and had a heart of gold. Gradually over the years Chris gravitated to living as a woman. He became Chrissy. She worked in nightclubs where her personality sparkled. She looked out for people, the underdogs, the drunk, the vulnerable. When her good friend Carmen Rupe ran into financial trouble with her coffee bars it was Chrissy who pulled together a huge fundraiser at the Majestic cabaret to help pay some of the bills and buy the airfare which took Carmen to Sydney and a fresh start. Part of the arrangement was that she took what became the iconic Evergreen cafe off Carmen's hands. A late-night bolt hole, it was a place for tired, cold or wasted streetgirls, drunk or still horny gay boys and all manner of night-people, to relax and get their shit together before heading home. Everyone knew that if you were having a hard time keeping your life together you could find company, warmth and a sense of family after-hours at Chrissy's Evergreen. And, if the cops weren't snooping around there'd be a shot of something special to liven up your coffee. The toasted sandwiches were pretty basic but the 'special coffees' were a treat. Chrissy was anti-drugs and kept her eye on the working 'girls' who plied their trade in the Vivian Street/Marion Street area. Never a working girl herself she did what she could to look after the welfare those who were. She kept them in line, becoming a kind of surrogate mother. She didn't take any crap from them and they, in return, respected Chrissy. In a way they had to... the Evergreen was about the only place in town where they were always welcome and safe. And when the end came for people with little means and sometimes few friends it was Chrissy Witoko who, time and time again, gathered up enough koha and food and called in enough favours to ensure a dignified final farewell. Chrissy found love when she met Andrew and there was never another man in her life. Occasionally he would disappear, on one occasion for long enough to father a son. When Andrew returned the boy, Nikora, came too and Chrissy was his mum from then on. They all lived above the Evergreen, and even Chrissy's mother, Millie, was resident there for years No significant glbti community event in the Capital was considered complete without being graced by Chrissy Witoko's presence. She always made the effort to add her own brand of star quality to the proceedings. In acknowledgment of this she was crowned Queen Christine I, complete with carved throne, by the communities she embraced. Increasingly regal as she aged, always immaculately dressed with just a hint of the over-the-top glamour, increasing ill-health, caused by diabetes and kidney failure, eventually overtook her. She spent the last six years of her life increasingly frail and hooked up to a dialysis machine, with Andrew there to care for her right to the end. In 2003 Chrissy, weak and nearly blind, but with her finger still on the pulse of the Evergreen, died. Her tangi was something to behold. Thousands of people thronged the marae in Newtown, busloads from out of town, politicians, queens, the high and the low. From all walks of life they came to pay their respects to a woman who all her life showed unflinching respect for everyone she came into contact with. Following Chrissy Witoko's death a group of her friends, including Mal Vaughan, Jacquie Grant and the late Daniel Fielding, formed a trust to fundraise and help pay for dignified funerals for those in the Wellington region's glbti communities who die with little means available to cover those expenses. That trust, which still operates today, is called the Chrissy Witoko Trust. It provides practical assistance and is a continuing memorial to Chrissy's enduring mana. - Jay Bennie, with grateful acknowledgement of the assistance of Jacqui Grant in compiling this brief appreciation of Chrissy Witoko's life and spirit.     Jay Bennie - 3rd June 2013

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Monday, 3rd June 2013 - 12:01am

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