Thursday, January 14, 2010

Searching for Tenika Watson

Sad news about Teddy Pendergrass, yet interesting to see which mainstream media outlets tell the full story of the Rolls Royce crash that caused his paralysis. The initial Associated Press report did not mention that his passenger was Tenika Watson, a transsexual drag performer born John Watson.

The Los Angeles Times is giving itself a day to debate the issue as politcally-correct newsrooms are wont to do, by running a brief obit which does not mention the specifics of the crash that ended Pendergrass' career as sex symbol and turned him into a figure of pity. The New York Times, for now, is relying on that AP report.

The circumstances of the accident, however, are unavoidably part of Pendergrass' legacy, especially in portions of the African American community, where any hint of homosexuality is found to be unacceptable, and many "straight" men and celebrities are forced to lead secret lives "on the down low."

Entertainment Weekly ran article on the 12th anniversary of the accident in 1994:

"...in the early hours of March 18, 1982, in Philadelphia... his Silver Spirit Rolls- Royce hit a guardrail and crossed over into the opposite lane before hitting two trees. The impact jammed the doors, trapping the singer and a passenger, Tenika Watson, for almost an hour until both were freed. While Watson was relatively unhurt, Pendergrass, 31, was left partially paralyzed. At the time, the singer's license had been suspended for unpaid parking tickets (he had also wrecked a Maserati the previous week). Rumors that alcohol was a factor were later discounted by the police. However, the passenger turned out to be a transsexual nightclub performer whose original name was John Watson. Pendergrass would only say that Watson was a casual acquaintance whom he was giving a ride home. Remarkably, the incident did little damage to the singer's reputation. The story faded quickly in those pre-Hard Copy days..."

Intriguing also that there's been media interest in Tenika Watson in recent months.

The TransGriot blogsite posted Tanika Watson's story in August:

"Then 31 year old Tenika Watson's injuries were more emotional than physical. Her life after the accident suffered as a result of the publicity surrounding the crash and after she was outed as a transwoman.

"She said about Pendergrass at the time. 'I was concerned about him. I was concerned if he was really hurt. I feel about him as I do about any other human being. I thought we were both going to die.'

"The 5'10" beauty was on her way to becoming a model when the fateful traffic accident occurred. It took according to her an hour and 45 minutes to free her and Pendergrass from the wrecked car before she was taken to the hospital.

"She told Philadelphia Tribune writer Barbara Faggins in an interview published in the May 31, 1982 issue of JET that the medical people on duty were more concerned with getting a urinalysis test done than finding out about the extent of her injuries.

"'They were interested in finding out what I had in my system. The wanted to find out what was in my urine." I was very upset with them. I must have gotten to the hospital around 1 AM and didn't leave until 6 AM.'

"I remember at the time there was much Hateraid directed at her...Some even ignorantly blamed her for the accident as if she was driving the car.

"'My family and friends are angry because of what they've read in the papers about me.' she said. 'What really upset me was the fact that the papers made me out to be some animal or demon and that I was not a God fearing person.'

"...She was asked by Faggins if there was any part of her life that she would like to change, Watson stated, 'I wish I had been born genetically a woman instead of having to get surgery. Society won't accept me as a woman.'

"...Dionne Stallworth, and she tells me that Tenika is still in the Philly area.."

Pendergrass himself denied any hanky-panky with Tenika. According to the Jet archives, he wrote in his autobiography:

"Only eight days before his 32nd birthday, Pendergrass was home in Gladwyne, an affluent suburb of Philadelphia, for a little rest and relaxation before preparing for a photo shoot, commercial, and HBO special. He had decided to hang out with his friend, Yvette, at the Elan, a popular club in Philadelphia. "He relates in the book that after socializing for a while, a woman approached Pendergrass and reminded him that they had met before at his 30th birthday party. She joined them. As the evening progressed, Yvette reminded Pendergrass she had to be home early. Not wanting to be rude, he asked the woman to ride with him to take Yvette home. The fatal accident occurred after leaving Yvette's home."

And more recently, Pendergrass became upset when a gay journalist tiptoed around the subject:

Q: Throughout your career, you have had songs that were associated with the disco scene, such as the solo track 'If You Know Like I Know,' and 'Bad Luck,' 'The Love I Lost' and 'Don’t Leave Me This Way' with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Because of having success in the realm, I wondered if you were aware of a following in the gay community throughout your career.

TP: No. My music appeals to everybody. No, I don’t keep a running list of who listens and who doesn’t. That’s not my job.

Perhaps it was skepticism of the Pendergrass' story combined with his refusal to speak of it that led to Tenika Watson to be regarded as a sympathetic martyr-- and something of a legend. After all, her career was destroyed, her life was endangered and she hasnt been heard from in years. If reports are accurate, Tenika Watson would be 59 years old and living somewhere in or around Philadelphia. We suspect that she will soon be coming forward to claim her second fifteen minutes.