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What Would Shimi Do?

Last week an artist I knew and admired died suddenly. S.T. Shimi was just 49, and in this year of Covid dread, it was a car that struck her down. It’s like we were all looking the wrong way.

She had just stepped off the bus on her way to the pole-dancing and fitness studio where she had reinvented herself almost a decade earlier after a career in performance, arts education, and administration at Jump-Start Theater. Shimi’s work at Jump-Start explored racism, feminism, queer issues and more in complicated and inventive ways inspired by her multi-layered identity as a woman of color from Singapore, whose conventionally accomplished parents didn’t always get her.

We weren’t close friends but we were friendly, and as a journalist and editor I covered her work many times. A couple of years ago she co-founded a male drag troupe, Los MENtirosos (stage name: Butch), and I invited them to perform at an annual garden-party fundraiser for Fiesta Cornyation. Some of the troupe members were still working out their acts, and not all of the largely gay crowd was into it, but Shimi rocked it and sold it, like she always does.

We met for a coffee or a drink several years ago, shortly after Jump-Start had shut down and Shimi was job-hunting. At the time, she was already making a name for herself in burlesque and exploring pole-dancing as fitness and performance, but she was still toying with the idea of finding something more traditional – feeling the financial pressure, really, like all creatives do at some point. We talked about a well-known public relations and marketing firm and I remember getting a sinking feeling for her. If marketing isn’t your calling, doing it for long will curdle your soul*.

So it was thrilling and awe-inspiring when she created a new professional life as her alter ego, Black Orchid, who collected numerous titles while erasing the lines between fit, feminine, and feminist. She also found time to return to school for a masters degree, and posted about it with the joy of an 18-year-old at college for the first time. I’ve thought a lot this past week of her husband, the artist Oscar Alvarado, who championed and shared an extraordinary life with this supernova.

Thanks to social media, and Shimi’s talent for it, I could watch her accomplishments with wonder from afar: luscious-looking homemade dinners, elegant cocktails, screen-worthy makeup, sumptuous attire, and those late-night pole-dancing “noodles.” I would joke with my husband about getting smacked with Shimi’s glittery crotch on Instagram, but really it was so inspiring, the message spinning along with the fringe: There are no contradictions in your dreams. Pursue them all.

*Yes, the world needs marketing people (or they’re particularly good at thriving in our current niche, and even then you have to admire them) but as with MMA fighters, not everyone is suited to it.

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