Even before becoming Big Freedia, Freddie Ross was known around New Orleans. Her "signature call"—an operatic bellow that she lets out when I ask to hear it—was legendary in the city. "They'd be like, 'Oh that's Freddie in the club'.... The signature call comes very loud. And proud."
Freedia came out to her mom as gay when she was 13, and soon came out to her classmates as well. She tells me she "had to do what every other gay kid had to do: fight for their life, and fight to be strong and stand up and let people know that you are not no joke in who you were." She eventually started performing as part of New Orleans' queer bounce music scene, and became a local celebrity.
Then, in 2005, Freedia got shot. "What the motive was, I don’t know to this day still," she says. After finally mustering the courage to start performing again, Freedia also moved into a new place, to get a fresh start. Hurricane Katrina hit about a week later. She and her family were together at her duplex during the storm, where the water rose to the second floor. They cut a hole in the roof to signal for help. Days after being evacuated, Freedia made her way to Houston, where she lived for two years.
In Houston, Freedia met her current boyfriend, Devon. After years of dating men who weren't openly gay, Freedia says Devon's openness about their relationship has made a difference. "When your love grows for somebody and y’all get closer you wanna...feel more appreciated, and you wanna feel loved," she says.
Freedia eventually returned to New Orleans, where her career continues to expand. “A lot was happening after Katrina. I mean money was slinging everywhere,” Freedia tells me. “You know everybody had FEMA checks, girl!” I talk with Freedia about what's happened in her life in the years since she returned to her hometown: publishing a memoir, starring in a reality TV series, and losing her beloved mother to cancer.
Big Freedia performs her song "Excuse" before she and over 300 dancers set the Guinness World Record for most people twerking simultaneously:
Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce Season 4 Trailer:
Big Freedia: Once, you know, it was approved by mom, there was no other worries. Brother, sister, uncles, aunties -- none of them didn't matter if they accepted me or not long as mom did.
This is Death, Sex & Money, in New Orleans.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot, and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale, and I'm standing on Painters Street in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans. It's windy and it's hot.
BF: Do what you do.
AS: How do you introduce yourself? Will you just introduce yourself into the microphone?
BF: Big Freedia, the Queen Diva, the Dick Eater, ya besta believe her.
Big Freedia is one of the biggest stars of New Orleans bounce music.
Bounce started in the late '80s and early '90s. It’s a New Orleans brand of thumping, bass-heavy, hip hop that you move your hips to.
BF: Oh yeah. Cuttin' up shakin'. Cuttin' it loose.
In the late '90s, Big Freedia was among a new crop of queer performers who started dominating the local bounce scene. And as she and other artists moved outside New Orleans in the years after Katrina, so did bounce.
BF: It just be like so surreal that I'm just like even a bounce artist. Like it never was in the plan. It just -- I guess it was destined to happen but it just was never in the plan.
Big Freedia was born Freddie Ross. When she started performing, she picked the name Big Freedia, in part because she liked the way it rhymed with "Queen Diva." Freedia doesn’t identify as trans. She says she's comfortable using either pronoun, but usually uses "she," because, she says, that seems to be what her fans seem to use the most. She tells me, as we stand on this quiet residential street, that she’s been working on her act for a long time.
BF: You know, I had a signature call that I would just be hollering around everywhere and everybody knew me by this signature call. They'd be like, "Oh that's Freddie in the club. He..."
AS: And tell me the signature call.
BF: You're trying to get these people to wake up.
AS: You did it.
BF: That's just always been my thing since small and before I even became Big Freedia, like I was known just for that all over New Orleans.
Freedia is in head-to-toe denim -- a sleeveless button down shirt and ripped jeans -- with black and white high-top sneakers. She has long multi-colored fingernails.
BF: They're bad right now. I gotta go today when I leave. They are horrible.
She’s wearing her long hair down, but she uses her whole arm to sweep it off her neck every few minutes. She also has a small towel in her pocket to wipe her brow every so often. I am not similarly prepared.
AS: You want to sit under the -- so we’re out of the sun?
BF: Sure. Why not?
A neighbor offers to let us sit on his front porch...
BF: Somebody live there?
...And we settle in on the porch swing. Freedia’s known for her hard-charging call-and-response lyrics, and for the dancers who surround her on stage, shaking it in hot pants. But Freedia got her start singing gospel music.
BF: Basically hanging with one of my friends in the neighborhood. She sung at the church choir. And she invited me to church and then it started from there.
AS: And you went by yourself, not with your family.
BF: Right. By myself. Well with my friend...
AS: How old were you?
BF: Um, maybe like 8 or 9?
AS: What'd you like about it?
BF: I mean just the fun we had. The spirit that would be in the church. To see like these Jesus drill teams, and you know, going to different churches to perform.
AS: What was your favorite hymn to sing?
BF: When I was really young my pastor used to just break out with this, you know, [sings] "Let Jesus fix it for you, for you. He knows just want to do, what to do." Like he used to just come out of nowhere with it, and the whole church used to just, like, start praying and getting on their knees. You would be feeling all of that. All of that would just be like -- you could feel it in your bones.
AS: Were you religious when you were a kid? Going to church?
BF: Yeah definitely. I was a baptist. You know, I'm baptist so, you know always going to Sunday school, reading the Bible, trying to live by the word that's what it was about.
AS: Was it hard for you to go to church and also be realizing you were gay?
BF: I mean not really because, I guess, because I started so young before I even realized that I was gay. And, um, I felt accepted. Whatever it was, I never felt like I couldn't like go and praise God. So there would be sometimes when the pastor would have a sermon that's particular talking about homosexuality and you know I would feel offended on those particular Sundays or whatever, but I still would stand up with pride and, you know, hold my head up and just keep it going. And people would always come talk to me, especially after that sermon. Like...
BF: Yeah they was...
AS: What would they say?
BF: I mean just like, you know, "Don't worry about pastor." Like not any particular say [laughs]...not in particular say, "Oh we know you're gay," but they would just be like, "Don't worry about pastor's sermon today. You know he gotta preach about everything." And I'm like, "I'm fine," you know. And it was not just me it was the organist who...you know. So when I got older, I would be able to like communicate with the organist and we would be able to talk about it. And we would just like -- you know it wouldn't even bother us after -- you know we had been there so long it was like, "Pastor's gotta hit on everything," you know?
AS: When did you come out?
BF: About 13.
AS: 13 years old?
AS: How'd you do that?
BF: I told my momma at my birthday party that I had all my friends at. And I pulled her over and I sit on her on my lap and I was like...
AS: You sat on her lap or she sat on yours?
BF: She sat on my lap. I was too big to sit on her lap. Shit I would have probably broke my mama.
BF: She was only like 120 lbs. And I was probably like 250. And so [something snaps]. Oh. See?
BF: [Laughs] Girl I'm 'bout to get up from here. Let's move. I don't want...You heard that thing! I don't want these people's bench to come down, girl!
AS: Yeah, the porch swing we just heard a little crack so why don't we sit on the steps here. [Laughs]
BF: Girl, I say 250 and baby the thing...like it was about to come off the hinges. That is too funny.
BF: Yeah, but she sat on my lap and um...I was just like, "Mom, I need to tell you something." And she's like, "What boy?" And you know I was like, "I'm gay." And she was like, "I already know." [Laughs] You know like...
AS: That's what she said?
BF: Yeah. That's exactly what she said. Like, moms know their kids more than anything. If you pay attention to your kids and if you're the right type of parent, you watch your kid from small. But like, once I got older, and I used to talk to like my cousins and my aunt, they was like, "Yeah we used to have family meetings about you. And, you know, we didn't know how to accept it. And we saw it." And it was like even when she knew, it was still something hard for any parent to accept. And it had to grow with her and in time it grew, and it grew really strong and the love that we had was just unconditional. Like she was my backbone and she protected me everywhere. She wouldn't let nobody mess with me.
AS: And when did you come out at school, like with your peers?
BF: Oh child, once I told my momma, I just started queening out like right then and there. Like, I just started turning into a little queen every step of the way...
AS: Like what did that look like?
BF: Just like, you know, I guess starting to flirt with boys, and you know twistin’, and snappin’, and arguing, and fighting. It was the whole nine yards of growing up, especially in New Orleans, in a black public school and just was like...had to do what every other gay kid had to do: fight for their life, and fight to be strong and stand up and, you know, let people know that you are not no joke in who you were.
AS: You had other friends who were gay...
BF: Oh yeah. Most definitely.
AS: ...who didn't feel as comfortable...
BF: Oh no. I mean, was scared to come out, used to be hidin', you know, not wanting people to know. Like if we went out, they would like bring a bag of changing clothes and like change in the car, like to get more, you know, gay or whatever. And it was just like, I was so able to be out and free.
AS: And were your boyfriends able to be that way?
BF: Oh no, they was always undercover. I mean all the boys was undercover. Like most of them still are now. You know. They just downlow boy, don't want nobody in their business but they like men. Simple.
AS: Was it hard to have to be secretive with your first boyfriends?
BF: No. Being that, you know, I realized that the way we grew up is that we were attracted to the boys that we grew up with. So you know everything had to be a secret. You know what I'm saying like…and it kind of makes it spontaneous, you know, when you're young, that you're kind of sneaking around. But you know, at a point you get tired of that. You definitely want to be known, you want to be on forefront. And it’s just like, okay, now we been messing around too long. I still gotta be a secret? You know, cause when you first start it's okay but when your love grows for somebody and y’all get closer you wanna be, you know, feel more appreciated, and you wanna feel loved. And you know I just tried to move on from those particular boys and tried to look in a different space that I never looked in before. And it just so happened a boy came along who, who swept me off my feet and wasn't afraid to be out and in the open, which is Devon, my current boyfriend. And so, I guess if Devon wouldn't have come along I'd still be sneaking around with some dude.
AS: And you met Devon when you were away from New Orleans after Katrina?
BF: Yes. Right after Katrina.
Right before Katrina, Freedia had just moved into a new apartment, and was hosting her family who decided to stay and ride out the storm.
BF: Just had set the house all up -- laid all the furniture out, decorated it and then, you know, we go to store, maybe like two week -- a week before Katrina hit. I'm like, "I gotta fill the house up, make groceries, all the cabinets," so we went did that. Next thing I know, Katrina hit a week later.
Coming up, how they escaped and why Freedia decided to come back to New Orleans.
Freedia was born in 1978 at Charity Hospital in New Orleans. It’s an enormous art deco-style building near the Superdome, that was known as a place where anyone, insured or not, could go to receive care.
Dr. Kiersta Kurtz-Burke: It's a pretty solid WPA-era building that has a lot of memories for a lot of people in New Orleans -- people that were born there, people that worked there.
Kiersta Kurtz-Burke was one of the people that worked at Charity, or “Big Charity,” as it was known to locals. And it was where she spent the days during and following Hurricane Katrina, as the hospital flooded and the power went out.
KKB: I have very clear memories of every single moment of every single day that we were in the hospital.
Kiersta is one of the five people who I spoke with about the 10 years since Hurricane Katrina. On the next episode in our series "In New Orleans," she talks about what happened after she and her patients were finally evacuated from Charity, and when months later, the surprise announcement came that Charity would not be reopening.
KKB: I really had no idea that we wouldn't all be in the same place or be able to say thank you to one another. That's still something I would love.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
Big Freedia is physically imposing, 6'3". Since she was a kid, she’s hasn’t been afraid of taking up space.
BF: I was big and proud...My mom made me always stand proud.
But the threat of violence was there. Just after Freedia came out to her mom, she learned that a gay man in the neighborhood, whom she knew as Sissy Shannon, was sodomized with a broomstick and beaten to death.
And in 2004, when Freedia was dropping a friend off in her car, a man approached the driver side, and fired his gun.
BF: What the motive was, I don’t know to this day still. Cause I just got the hell away from there.
Freedia was shot twice. One of the bullets is still in her forearm.
BF: Piece of metal. [Laughs] In my damn arm.
It shook Freedia. She stopped performing.
BF: Just that whole process of getting to be well known and working, and then feeling like you have having to look over your shoulder.
She felt panicked when she tried to leave the house. It lasted about six months.
BF: Until my mama pushed me back out. She was like, oh no, this is not going to work. How are you gonna survive? Then, of course I had to, in order to feel safe I had to go get a gun, and start carrying the gun to make myself feel more protected and, um, it's just been that way ever since.
AS: You still carry?
AS: Is it on you right now?
BF: Mmhmm. It's not on me physically, right, while we standing right here, cause I'm not worrying about it while I'm doing the interview, but it's definitely in my car.
AS: And so, will you just kind of describe where we're standing right here?
BF: Well, this is my old house that when Katrina hit this was the house that I was living in and, um, got totally under water. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was just so funny that day because, um, a lot of times we took the storm for granted and we just we're like, "Play outside," you know. "Oh the storm is gonna pass." And so forth and so forth. But this particular day the storm didn't pass, the storm actually hit. And once the storm hit everything still was fine but like hours later you saw the water started coming, and the water started rising, and it was just unbelievable just to see how fast the city had filled up with water. And just like to see all three of the cars get, you know, underwater. The tree on the side of the house, you know, hit the house and opened the ceiling, knocked off one of the columns, we had like...It was so scary.
AS: And who were you with?
BF: Me, my brother, my sister, my uncle, and my sister's newborn baby.
They were all on the second floor of the duplex. It's not here anymore. The rest of the block is tidy, rebuilt houses. But where Freedia lived is just an empty lot with overgrown grass.
BF: I don't know why they didn't build it back.
During Katrina, as the water rose, Freedia and her family punched a hole through the roof to try to signal for help.
BF: Some people in the neighborhood, just like random people, rescuing everybody out there houses. And they came on the boat. Like, we handed the baby out first. And then all three of us went one by one. They was trying to pry the door open to get us out but that wouldn't work so was had to climb out the window.
AS: And how long between when the boat picked you up...how many days was it until you got to somewhere dry with electricity?
BF: Oh. Maybe about six or seven?
BF: Yeah, because actually, we was going to the Superdome. When we got to the Superdome they was turning everybody around the Superdome saying, "Don't go in the Superdome. Go to the Convention Center." So then as we're walking to the Convention Center, me and my brother, we decided that we were gonna go loot. You know, to get us some drinks or whatever and, you know, make sure that we had some stuff.
AS: Was that the word that you used?
BF: Yeah. Everybody was like, "We gonna loot," you know? So he went one way, I went one way, and we said we was gonna meet back in like 20 minutes. That 20 minutes turned to not seeing my brother for months. And once we got to the Convention Center, it was like everybody had to move outside, it had done got super hot inside of there. Everybody using the bathroom had done ran everybody out the Convention Center anyway. It was just like feces everywhere, you know, urine smell. It was so strong. Soon as you opened the Convention Center door that's all you smelled. So it was just like sleeping on the ground in front of the Convention Center, waiting for the buses. And then when the buses finally arrived to come, everybody just like so anxious to leave they about to turn the buses over, like really like rocking the buses. It was just, you know, it was a survival time.
AS: And you were well known in New Orleans...
BF: I was.
AS: ...when Katrina hit.
BF: Very much.
AS: Did people recognize you?
BF: Not really. I mean I had done grew a full beard. Like full face...
AS: Because you couldn't shave or just that it wasn't a priority?
BF: I couldn't—I couldn’t shave!
AS: Are you comfortable when you have beard growing in?
BF: Oh no honey [laughs]. I've had baby smooth face since I was a baby. So I do not like...
BF: ...when I have hair in my face it irks me and it drives me, like no...I gotta feel smooth.
AS: So you said nobody could recognize you because you have this beard.
BF: Right. And you know a few people did and I stopped a few people and was like "It's me," or whatever. But it didn't matter who you was at the time. If you had money, if you had a nice house, nice car...it didn't matter who was. Everybody was in the same boat: Trying to survive and get away from New Orleans.
AS: You were away for two years. Why did you come back?
BF: [Sings] No place like home. There's no place like New Orleans. Just like, I missed all the food. I missed being able to go everywhere that I know. Houston was so big. Child, I was lost in Houston. It's just...I...Little ol’ New Orleans. That's what I need in my life.
AS: Was it hard to come back after going through that here?
BF: No. It was just like...You know, the money was plentiful, you know. A lot was happening after Katrina, I mean money slinging everywhere, you know everybody has FEMA checks, girl.
AS: You had FEMA Fridays at the club?
BF: Oh yes. FEMA Fridays at the club and FEMA checks. That was the most important. Baby, they were spending that money like crazy. Like water.
AS: How do you think about Big Freedia and what Big Freedia sort of represents in terms of sexuality and what it is to be a man in New Orleans?
BF: Well I just feel like, you know, I'm me. I'm so different than most people think that I am. They see one thing but they just really don't know the real me. Like when I'm at home, I'm just chilling and I'm relaxing. It's like I'm very laid back. I'm not as flamboyant as people think. You know like I like to be just low key. You know I've always been that way but always confident and when it's time for me to stand and step up and be out loud, I know how to do that.
AS: The signature call comes. [Laughs]
BF: Right. The signature call comes very loud. And proud.
Freedia’s also now the star of a reality show called Big Freedia Queen Diva. It’s broken ratings records for the cable network Fuse. Freedia’s mother Vera was a character on the show initially, and the show covered the aftermath of Vera's death from cancer in 2014.
BF: It's been difficult. It's the most difficult thing that I have to wake up with everyday of my life now. So I always keep my family around, always talking to my brother and sister to try to keep us all connected even more closer now that we've lost mom. And um...You know just to keep myself sane, I just like do therapeutic stuff: You know cook, and you know, which is a relaxation part for me, you know, making really good food. I just do what I can do. You know, I pray constantly. And that's what's been carrying me, my prayers, and all the people that's praying for me. And I'm just happy my mom is not suffering anymore. She was suffering so bad in these last days. And I had to release her to god.
After we talked, Freedia was heading over to her mother’s old house. She and her sister were working to make it more comfortable for their Uncle Percy, their mom’s brother who was with them during the storm.
BF: His leg was just recently amputated so I'm back into "taking care mode" just like I was with my mom. So I'm back into a space where, you know, it went from my mom to my uncle now. And it is what it is. But, God has the last and final say so.
AS: You take care of a lot of people in your life.
BF: I do. And that's why I'm blessed.
Big Freedia. She’s written a book called God Save the Queen Diva.
Death, Sex & Money is a production of WNYC. The team includes Katie Bishop, Emily Botein, James Ramsay, Rachel Aronoff, Benjamin Franklin.
Special thanks to Anna Hiatt, Zoe Azulay, Stephanie Billman, David Herman, Rick Kwan, Andrew Dunn and Joe Plourde for their work on our series "In New Orleans," and to Laine Kaplan-Levenson for reporting help in the city.
All the episodes in our series are at deathsexmoney.org/inneworleans along with beautiful pictures of everyone featured in the series by photographer Rush Jagoe.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music. This is the Outer Borough Brass Band performing it. Thanks to band members Jeff Pierce, Scott Bourgeois, Rick Faulkner, Joe Scatassa, and Jason Isaac.
I’m on Twitter @annasale, the show is @deathsexmoney. If you like the show, subscribe to us on iTunes...and leave us a review. It helps other people find the show on the iTunes charts.
Big Freedia is also a world record holder. She convened a gathering of the most simultaneous twerkers to set a Guinness World Record two years ago. But I asked her if sometimes when she’s looking out at the crowd…and seeing beginning twerk-ers...if it’s not a little embarrassing.
BF: Sometimes I see them and I mean I just fall out because it just be so funny that they just -- They don't have it and they just trying so hard, but just their enthusiasm of them trying so hard...
AS: You're laughing and saying, "Get it girl. You tried." [Laughs]
BF: Right. You tried but girl, it just not working for you. And I mean that's what it's about though, inspiring people to want to live out on the limb and do something different, and be, you know, go outside the box on what they normally do. You know what I'm saying like -- that's what it's about.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.