It's hard to imagine Josh Kilmer-Purcell, a soft-spoken, award-winning creative director and partner at Shepardson Stern + Kaminsky, wearing a leather bodice, "light-up fish tits" and vinyl boots instead of his cashmere sweater and comfy slip-ons—not to mention three pairs of false eyelashes instead of his designer frames. Then again, it's awfully hard not to try.
After all, he is the author of I Am Not Myself These Days, a chronicle of his double life as an ad executive by day, drag queen by vodka-and-cocaine-propelled night. And while his alter ego, the 7-foot-2-inch drag queen Aquadisiac, has been packed away since 2000, there is still something of the old girl in him.
"After I put her away, I found that I missed that part of my life," he says. "I missed that wild abandon." Wild is the right word. The book is at once a sensational memoir and, he hopes, a universal love story, starring a crack-addicted male escort as his romantic lead, or as his Web site bills it, "Your typical boy-meets-boy-dressed-as-girl-who-accessorizes-with-goldfish love story. Only with booze and crack."
Writing the memoir was a way to bring Aqua back, Kilmer-Purcell explains, without trading in the sensible lifestyle of a man in his mid-30s. "I was getting old," he says of his decision to retire six years ago, "and I wanted to focus on my career." His days at Merkley Newman + Harty were hazy and hungover, according to the book, and he relied heavily on the tough love of Laura Fegley and another copywriting partner, with whom he wrote such lines as, "Healthy granola. Sinfully delicious chocolate. Kudos—it's bi-snackular" (curiously, the shop opted not to present it).
"There's a badge value in having strange people at your agency," says Kilmer-Purcell of his survival at the shop. "I wasn't above that. I could be the mascot."
But Fegley says that's not all there was to it. Despite his early morning carousing, Josh was an exceptionally bright art director with a knack for "schticks and bits of old-timey comedy" that client Bell South demanded, Fegley says. It wasn't just the "badge value" that his coworkers at Merkley, which was run by a Mormon family man, embraced. "He's used to being the kind of straight-A student, the good boy who doesn't want to disappoint, and he was always like that at work," Fegley says.
Marty Cooke, who was Kilmer-Purcell's boss at Merkley and now leads the SS+K department as chief creative officer, says, "Josh had a very good sense for big ideas early on ... and an amazing, sophisticated visual sense."
It's easy to see how those talents came to bear in Aqua's conception. Every drag queen needs a gimmick, Kilmer-Purcell says in the book, and Aqua's was her fishbowl bazooms, fashioned from craft-store snowglobes and populated by live goldfish. He fitted them into elaborate outfits he designed and had tailored in Atlanta. Even the details of Aqua's personality—larger-than-life, catty and always entertaining—were part of a bigger idea: "being a celebrity trapped in a normal person's body."
Since then, however, Kilmer-Purcell has refocused his creative energies into his career. "This is definitely my last stop in my advertising career," said Kilmer-Purcell of his shop. "It's full of refugees from different places. We have nuclear physicists and ballerinas and drag queens. I think that's why we have such different ideas."
Kilmer-Purcell's subject matter does strike a similar chord as another adman turned author: Augusten Burroughs. His memoir, Dry, recounts that author's profound struggle with substance abuse and doomed relationship with his own crack-addicted boyfriend.
"He lived my life before I did," says Kilmer-Purcell. "I'd be very happy to be known as a C-list Augusten Burroughs."
A touchier subject is James Frey, fellow author and husband of former SS+K copywriter Maya Frey, with whom Kilmer-Purcell is dear friends. Last month, Frey and his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, came under fire for including fabrications. Frey provided a blurb for the I Am Not Myself These Days cover that calls it "a wonderful book, a ridiculous book, a sad and beautiful book ... I highly recommend." The publisher has pulled that endorsement from the second printing.
"I feel very defensive about it," says Kilmer-Purcell. "Suddenly, the stakes are huge."
Kilmer-Purcell admits that some of the mundane details in his book, "like what I ate for breakfast or what I was watching on TV," had to be recreated, but major events were drawn entirely from memory. "Those are the things I remember in painful detail," he says.
Kilmer-Purcell was so moved by the controversy that he spent hours sifting through his mementos for any and all documentation—photos, event fliers, letters—detailing that period of his life. Legal releases negotiated by his publicist, like Fegley's permission to use her first name in print, have taken on new meaning. "Now that the ground has shifted, it's an affidavit of truth," he says.
As are the wigs, bodices and makeup he still has stashed away. Last August, Kilmer-Purcell unpacked Aqua for a promotional photo shoot, only to find that squeezing into a corset is more pain, less gain than it was six years ago. He says, "There was a lot of retouching. I'm surprised there's any oxygen left in Manhattan with all the airbrushing that went on for that photo."