A crowd gathers around a woman in Times Square with a high-volume blonde curly wig, a sequined red and blue mermaid dress and bold red lipstick as she leads a flash mob to Kool & The Gang’s Celebration. At first glance, it looks like Brita Filter, stage name of Jesse Havea, was born in the spotlight, but this Polynesian drag queen’s journey was not always the one of glitz and glam that over one hundred thousand fans can’t seem to get enough of today.
Born in Phoenix, AZ, Havea grew up in a Mormon family alongside his two younger sisters, Tokilupe and Pualani. Havea’s parents got divorced when he was ten years old, so for most of his childhood he was tasked with taking care of his siblings while their mother worked twelve hour night shifts as an emergency room respiratory therapist.
Havea also had struggles. At an early age, Havea developed severe asthma which had him in and out of the hospital for most of his childhood.
Prior to his frequent hospitalizations, Havea attended a private charter school where he wanted to be anything but the center of attention.
“I was really, really, really shy in the very beginning. I was always afraid to do things and go like the extra mile, because I was afraid someone would judge me.”
When Havea was younger, his closest experience to theater was seeing Disney on Ice an going to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Broadway never crossed his mind.
One day in his fifth grade music class his teacher read the book, The Phantom of the Opera.
“I remember just being so enamored by this book that she was reading us,” Havea said. “And I remember her playing the overture for us. I could literally see in my little child mind everything that was going on in this book that she just read to us, and I was like this is what I want to do.”
When he got home from school that day Havea recalls asking his mom if they could go see Phantom of the Opera for Christmas. He knew it was a long-shot because they didn’t have much money, but that was all he wanted.
On Christmas Day, Havea ran down the stairs to the tree where he prayed would be tickets to the show. After minutes of throwing wrapping paper everywhere, the tickets were nowhere to be found. The tears welled up in his eyes as all he really wanted was a ticket to see the show. Havea’s mom, Kim Golden, told him to look in the stocking to make sure he hadn’t missed anything, and to his surprise there was an envelope. He quickly opened it and there it was — four tickets to see Phantom of the Opera.
The day before the show Havea’s parents announced that they were getting a divorce.
“It was really awkward going to the theater with them the next day, but that day I remember we all went even though they told me they were getting a divorce. At the time my love for theater took over and kind of filled this void that I had with my family.”
Havea’s mother recalls the joy which theater brought to her son, and the special bond that developed as a result.
“I bought season tickets to the Arizona State University’s Gammage Auditorium musical theater Broadway touring company performances for us – it was our special day. We’d set off after dinner, sit in the nosebleed section, buy a $10 poster and wait outside by the stage door, sharpie in hand until each performer trickled out and signed that poster, arriving home at midnight talking the whole way home about our favorite part.”
After seeing the show, Havea’s dream of becoming a performer shifted into high gear, and that’s when he got his mother on board to take him to auditions and eventually started doing shows with Valley Youth Theatre so he could get the experience he craved.
Havea’s father was indifferent to his endeavors to be a performer. Not that he didn’t care, but he was raised living off the land in the Kingdom of Tonga. The theater didn’t interest him very much, but as long as his son was happy, he was happy.
To continue his passion for theater, Havea attended Scottsdale Community College in Arizona on a full ride Vocal Performance Jazz Scholarship. That quickly came to an end when he thought that performing in Equity Productions such as South Pacific was really all he needed to be a successful performer.
“I don’t need y’all to try to be stars. I’m already a star,” Havea recalls the mindset of his teenage self.
Havea quit school to continue his passion of performing. While he loved performing, Havea really didn’t know what he was doing. While obviously he knew he was doing something right, he realized that he could benefit from more formal training.
Havea attended The American Musical Dramatic Academy in New York City where he received more formal training and landed the role of Luis Celemente in 21: A New Musical. After his time in that show, Havea was cast to play Tom Collins in RENT, who is opposite Angel Schunard, the drag queen in the show.
“I remember our Angel was so bad. I was like, that’s not how you do it. You don’t know how to walk in heels,” Havea said. “It was so funny, watching him I was like, I could be a way better Angel.”
It was after he did RENT that Havea’s interest in drag began to develop and he was asked to be in a production of Cinderella as a step sister. The entire step family was going to be played by men in drag. This was Havea’s first real time experiencing the full drag queen fantasy.
“I was like, oh my god, this is great. They’re going to make costumes for me and padding and wigs, and like everything else and it’s going to be great. This is how I’m going to learn. I’m going to have to paint my face every single day. Eight shows a week. So this is how it’s going to happen.”
When he wasn’t doing Cinderella, Havea was mainly cast in productions to play Asian Pacific Islander guys with two or three words based on his appearance, but that is not why he dedicated his life’s work to being a performer.
“I wanted to tell stories about people of color, especially queer people, and I thought that the best way for me to do that was to become a drag queen, so that I could tell the stories that I wanted to tell.”
After his last performance of Cinderella at an after hours party, Havea met a girl named Brita and it clicked.
“I was like, oh my god, that should be my drag name. I should be Brita and I should be anything but pure.”
Havea decided on the plane ride back that he was going to tell stories and be a full-time drag queen in New York City. He wanted to show audience members the dark side of fairytales – the side that you don’t typically see by using pop culture references and music.
“Like I’m gonna I’m gonna lay it down and spill the tea about these little fairy tales because truly they’re a mess and you just don’t see that side.”
That is how Brita Filter came into existence. Filter’s persona was wrapped around showing the dirty version of fairy tales which went hand in hand with NYC nightlife since there was no need to be politically correct.
However, as Havea’s career as a full-time drag queen skyrocketed, he reached a point where his career took over his personal life.
“There were times where Brita started to take over my life to an unhealthy level. I’ve had to learn how to rein Brita in because she gets wild sometimes.”
Not only was his drag persona taking a toll on his mental state, but after appearing on RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 12, Havea received tons of hate from viewers of the show.
“It was a really, really, really, really dark time in my life. I would get hundreds and hundreds of messages a day of people telling me that they hated me from the show,” Havea said. “There’s always characters on a TV show and what was shown on that show are yes, things that I did and things that are a part of me under high pressure cooker circumstances, but I think what people forget is to look past the TV show and see that there’s so much more to a person than what’s being presented to them.”
While the hate has slowed down a little bit, Havea hasn’t had the easiest go this year. Usually after Drag Race, many queens have the opportunity to tour the world, but that was taken away from him due to COVID-19. To make matters even worse, Havea has had to worry about his respiratory health as someone with asthma during these past few months, grieve the loss of a friend who died COVID-19, cope with a breakup, a sexual assault experience and overall poor mental health.
In August, Havea’s mental health hit such a low point that he was tempted to hurt himself to ease the pain. As a result, he turned to drugs as a coping mechanism. When he wasn’t doing drugs, he was eating a lot which led him to gain sixty pounds over the past several months.
While it wasn’t easy, Havea turned to spiritual leaders, friends and family members for support during this rough patch. Alexandria Lightfoot, Havea’s RENT castmate and a spiritual healer, reached out to him right when he needed it most. Lightfoot served as a spiritual guide during the beginning of Havea’s journey and then his baby sister, also a spiritual healer, took over. It was with their support that he made the decision to move to Hawaii and take control of his life.
While spiritual healers were beneficial to his success, Havea also relied on friends for support. Havea’s friend David O’Brien has always been there for him and had no doubt he would rise above.
“I always tell him if he wants to be happy that he needs to wake up every morning and choose happiness and tell the rest to fuck off—say it out loud if needed. Life gets hard and people will try to tell us who we are or what we should do but ultimately we need to choose every day who we are and how we want to feel.”
Luckily, Havea is now in a better headspace due to the help of family and friends, and has directed a lot of his attention to “Drag Out The Vote.”
“I feel my best, and I do my best work when I’m concentrating on the bigger picture and doing good towards our community.”
Filter has a goal of bringing drag back to its roots as it has always been political from the very beginning. Since drag has become more mainstream, Filter feels like drag lost its original meaning and she is doing her part to bring it back.
“My activism didn’t start until Trump got elected four years ago when I was in full rage mode. Our rights as a community were directly being taken away, and it meant so much to me,” Filter said. “If I can use the platform that Drag Race gave me, then that’s truly what I want to do. I really want to just make the world a better place by the art and the activism of my drag.”
When people ask Filter if she wants to be on Drag Race again, her answer is no.
“I want to be RuPaul and truly be the best at what I do. I want to reach for the stars like I want to be the best of the best that there is but do it for good. I really want to tell queer stories, but as a drag queen.”
Casey Clark is a freelance writer from New York City who specializes in beauty, food, and lifestyle content. Casey’s work has been featured in Women’s Health, Allure, SELF, StyleCaster and Rachael Ray In Season. When she’s not writing, you can find her swatching the latest lipsticks or out to brunch with her girlfriends.