Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? … And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
My friend Nigel Gough died. He was 28 years old. As anyone who met him knows, saying he was effervescent and filled with life was no cliché.
I found out from his facebook page. When I read the first comments I thought it must be some kind of mistake, or a sick joke. I only started believing it when I read thirty or so of the heartfelt farewells and found a brief explanation that it was a cycling accident. I had been halfway through writing an email, but how could I finish it then? I couldn’t treat this revelation like a status update or a shared link. Facebook was a completely inappropriate medium for coping with how I was feeling. So I turned off the computer.
I spent the rest of the day wandering around my neighbourhood. I visited my Grandma, who let me cry for the first time, then went to a little cafe. Drinking a pot of tea and eating bright-pink French macaroons while reading Patrick Dennis’s camp classic ‘Little Me’ became a makeshift tribute to my friend. I was so glad when some of my Guelph friends gave me a call to talk about it. I needed to break it down with people who knew him.
Nigel was an actor. He had performed since he was a child, entertaining his family by dressing up and singing, accompanied by his grandfather on the piano and being involved in school plays. “I played David the little shepherd boy in the Christmas pageant when I was eight years old,” he told me. “And the sheepskin looked really hot!”
Etobicoke School of the Arts, solos at Roy Thompson Hall, bit parts in ‘Queer as Folk’ and his own queer-themed films at the Inside Out Festival followed. He met playwright Sky Gilbert while raising awareness of homophobia in schools, and did his first drag at the age of 18. “It was actually a horrible experience in some ways, because I was the youngest one. A lot of the older drag queens were like, ‘Take up smoking now, it’d be really good for your skin!’”
Despite having followed the traditional star path to Los Angeles, studying film at the University of Southern California, his friendship with Sky Gilbert led him back to Canada and the University of Guelph, where Gilbert taught. A brave, interesting life decision, as he was years older and much more experienced than most undergrads, but he wanted to continue to expand his mind.
Lucky for me, we already had a mutual acquaintance, so as soon as Nigel arrived we became friends. His reputation preceded him, but he was just as charming and inspiring as I expected. Although a hip, sexually-open gay man, there was an old-fashioned gee-golly Dorothy Gale quality to him, which I think he got from his mother and grandmother, who he adored. When we drove him down to Toronto one time, and I told him he’d have to squeeze into a car with my whole family, he exclaimed, “That’s okay. I love grandmas!”
When I went through my big break-up, he was around a lot, offering a sympathetic ear and the wise advice of someone who I knew had been through some tough times in life. He would quote his grandma’s little sayings which had always helped him get out of the “depths of despair”. His favourite was “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”
He often smelled like sweet maple syrup.
He was, in many ways, a throwback to the pre-Stonewall gay world of drag, musical theatre and camp wit, which he was why he was perfectly cast in Sky Gilbert’s play ‘Suzie Goo’ at Guelph in 2007. In a blond wig and a pillbox hat, he played the title role, an ambitious young woman in the early-1960’s who turns the table on her sexual-harassing boss by declaring that she’s actually a man. Nigel played her not as an over the top drag queen, but as a friendly and genuine young woman who wasn’t against promoting herself to move forward.
In many ways, that was what Nigel was like. He asked me to write something about the play in the student newspaper to get the word out, and my interview with him and Sky Gilbert ended up as the cover story. I know that he sometimes rankled the people he pushed, but I always excused him by thinking, “Sometimes that’s what the truly ambitious among us are like.”
I never doubted he was going to make it.
We stayed in touch over the years. I stalked him on facebook, getting jealous of the beautiful places he visited with beautiful people. He caught me up on his busy life in little emails, which always ended with “shine on”. He just performed in the Judy Monologues, based on the singer’s recorded reminiscences for the memoirs she never wrote. Despite the fact that it seems like something I’d totally be into, I didn’t go for whatever stupid flakey reason I had that week. I’m beating myself up about that now.
At the end of my interview with him, when he was stressed out from juggling rehearsals and studying, he said he was constantly thinking about the future: “I’m always thinking one step ahead. Even while I’m doing this show I’m thinking ‘what’s next’. Sleeping first, sleeping is the first thing in the future. Writing essays is the second thing. And then I’m looking forward to having the time to veg out, and to just develop my own ideas, and do something I’m going to be proud of. And travel and see the world, before it all melts away on us. I’ve been told that the Alps will only be around for three more years.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” I said.
“Well, I like to think so! I want to get out there, and do much more living. I’ve got so much more life in me.”
I want to say that he already was a star, but stars are distant balls of burning chemicals (“Fire and music,” as they say in ‘All About Eve’). He was a living and breathing person of flesh and blood, one who I wish I had gotten to know more. He was sensitive, highly aware of the people around him, but also hard-working and ambitious. A genius, really. We should all be so confident about ourselves, and know that we too are brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous. Nigel was all of these.
All I have left to say is live life completely, but be careful; please make time for the people you care about; and dream big.