History of Gay and Lesbian Life in Wisconsin - People - Bios

Michael Johnston
a.k.a. 'Karen Valentine'



June 12, 1961
Primary Involvements:

Drag Performer
Social columnist

Primary Location:

Milwaukee, WI

View the Images & Articles Gallery of Michael.



Michael Johnston is widely known to Wisconsinites as 'Karen Valentine', or simply 'KV, in his frequent drag persona. Customers of the M&M Club bar (1976-2006) know that bar was where KV felt most at home early on. There he met 'Rona' (Ron Thate) and other life-long friends, and opened himself up to doing performances in drag or at the piano. When that bar closed, he moved on to Boom/ The Room bar (2004-2014).

KV became more known state-wide when he began writing the social-events column 'Cordially Your' for 'In Step' magazine around 1999. That column has moved around as LGBTQ peridoicals in the state came and went, but he continues to write the column, which currently appears in the monthly online magazine 'Milwaukeee Pride Life'.

Michael has long been a lover of the arts and culture. He joined the local gay choral group Fest City Singers in 1985, and that's when he discovered his 'Karen Valentine' alter ego for performance in drag. (He had acquired the KV nickname a few years earlier, hanging out at the M&M Club- but then it was just a nickname.)

Over time, Michael embraced the broader need to endow meaningful causes with needed funding-- and used his KV persona and reknown to establish the 'Karen Valentine Fund for the Arts, Culture and the Humanities', a funding program within the Cream City Foundation, the area's LGBTQ charitable foundation. He prefers acting as MC at events more than singing performances, and gives generously of his time.

The following biography of 'KV' was created from an interview of Michael Johnston done by Diane Gregory of this History Project in November 2023:

    Michael grew up in West Allis and attended West Allis Central High School.

    "It was not an easy upbringing for me," said Michael. "My childhood was very lonely and friendless. I never felt I truly belonged. I grew up with four brothers: three older, one younger. They were all into sports, hunting, and fishing-- and very good at them-- but those things were foreign to me. I escaped into soap operas, old movies, the arts. I grew up across the street from the public library, where I read every Life and Look magazine from the 1930s to the 1970s. My mind became a sponge. The library provided an escape where I could explore my fantasies. I wanted to grow up and move to New York City. As Mother put it, you're not the best looking one, so be the most fascinating one."

    "I got along well with my teachers, but not my classmates," said Michael. "I was never invited to parties or social activities. I was too old of a soul. My grandmother always had time for me. That nourished my fascination with the past. Music was Rodgers & Hart, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins."

    Later, he attended MATC, UW-Milwaukee, and MIAD while pursuing studies in communications, marketing, and art.

    "The swan in me emerged at age 18," said Michael. "I have always craved security. The chorus became a community for me. And the M&M Club became a place where I felt like I truly belonged."

    Michael has worked for the Advocate Aurora Health Foundations since 2005.

    "Working as a fundraiser for a foundation is like a parallel world," said Michael. "But I try to keep everything in its proper place in my professional life. Throughout the years, the world has opened and become far more accepting. Colleagues have attended my shows to see what I do. While working at Hamburger Mary's and This Is It, I raised money for Aurora-affiliated charities and funds. My friends, co-workers, and leaders all cheered me on. It was marvelous taking away the fear of acceptance or being outed at work. Once you accept you, it's easier for others to do so."

    Michael came out on Sweetest Day in October 1979 thanks to his college friends Michael and Ryan.

    "While I was a freshman in college, I made friends with a guy who always talked about his weekend adventures," said Michael. "He invited me to join him, but I kept saying no. Finally, I accepted his invitation and went OUT."

    "It was 11:00 p.m.-- a time when I would normally be coming home-- when we left the house. At that time, bars were open until 3:30 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and that was before the after-bar parties, Ma Fischer's, George Webb's, bathhouses, and bookstores that never seemed to close!"

    "I walked into C'est La Vie and had the honor of being scoped out by John Clayton and his flashlight. I remember twenty-five cent cocktails until midnight-- no more than two per customer-- and Stephanie Mills wailing 'I Never Knew Love Like This Before.' C'est La Vie always had a colorful clientele and that night was no different. I loved their jukebox: 'Sky Pilot,' 'If I Could Read Your Mind,' 'House of the Rising Sun,' the list goes on. I saw men dancing together, chatting, kissing, hugging, it was amazing. I'm sure my eyes looked like saucers!"

    "From there, we visited the Phoenix, Trash, and Ball Game. It was all so much to take in-- and I was really overwhelmed. En route to M&M Club, Michael confessed that he was gay and had a lover. They thought I would be comfortable in these places. Of course, it was a baptism of fire, and my very strong curiosity led me down my own yellow brick road!"

    "The next stop was M&M Club, where I immediately felt at home," said Michael. "Rona was bartending, the room was dark, and there were still shutters on the windows. I felt so safe and secure there. For the next 27 years, M&M was my home bar. It reminded me of a true gentlemen's club. I liked the tie and jacket look, the live piano, the restaurant, and the shows. M&M Club was the county seat, the community center, the home base. So many memories. Friends, it was like a finishing school!"

    "We shared so many collective experiences back then," said Karen, "because people were not distracted by their phones. We were all living for the next big thing. Today's youth miss so many experiences simply because they're not living in the moment."

    When Michael joined the Fest City Singers in 1985, it opened a Pandora's Box. He discovered his alter ego Karen Valentine at that time. Since then, he has been a consummate performer and presence in our community.

    "I was named Karen Valentine at the M&M Club in the early 1980s," said Michael. "If you were in the inner circle, you got a nickname, usually of the female persuasion. It took a few go-rounds-- Mary Sunshine, Mary Tyler Moore, and finally Rona and Patsy conjured up Karen Valentine. Ruth Ann (aka Randy) nicknamed me K.V., and it stuck."

    "Every year, Rona had a birthday party in February," said Michael. "To celebrate Rona's 35th birthday in 1986, I took to the stage doing Vikki Carr's 'Please Let it Be Him.' I was the only one that received an encore that night. Holly Brown, my idol, personally invited me to the talent search at La Cage. I took first place -- $250-- and donated the winnings to the chorus. From there my star ascended."

    "BJ Daniels, the ultimate performer, asked me to do Club 219's talent search. I did Connie Francis 'Where the Boys Are,' which won! Doris DeLago took me under her mighty wing: making costumes, doing makeup, styling wigs, suggesting songs, casting me in shows, and there I was. I did every M&M show from then on. The only question: which was bigger, my wig or my head?"

    "I remember a snafu at an early show," said Michael, "and BooBoo handed me the microphone and said STRETCH. I got up on stage and recapped the previous week's soap operas in a wild white woman rap. The audience was in hysterics. I discovered I was very comfortable on the mic. I love the art of ad lib and extemporaneous humor. I love doing showtunes. I love words and the clever wordsmiths and lyricists of yesteryear-- especially Lorenzo Hart."

    "Karen Valentine's look is Country Club Set," said Michael. "And like the Grand Dames of soap operas (Phoebe, Katherine, Iris, Mona, Geraldine, Lisa, Lucinda) or the Grand Dames of the panel shows (Kitty Carlisle Hart, Arlene Francis)-- I found my own style of stage presence. When I first started doing Karen Valentine, all of my clothes, wigs, and makeup were done by Doris DeLago. Later, Bruce Paul Goodman, the fashionable Third Ward clothier, did some upscale wardrobe for me."

    "After all these years-- 38 years!-- I still don't know how to paint," confessed Michael. "Goldie Adams has been my main makeup person."

    Michail is proud to call himself a philanthropist. Based on recommendations from Joseph Pabst and Rona, Michael transformed his 50th birthday party into a successful fundraiser for the Cream City Foundation's New Art Fund. A few weeks later, Joseph Pabst contacted him about launching his own Valentine Fund. Since 2011, the Karen Valentine Fund for the Arts, Culture and the Humanities has been a sponsored non-profit of the Cream City Foundation.

    "The universe is never wrong, and if you follow its path, it will lead you where you belong," said Michael. "I was born during the Kennedy Administration, and his words about 'what can you do for your country' has always been a golden rule for me. I have always have a comfortable ride in life, and a lot has been bestowed upon me. So, I feel it's important to pay back! Noblesse obliges."

    "I started giving back through the chorus," said Michael. "We were always seeking ways to grow the musical group, and we were proud to perform for the community anywhere and everywhere. As a drag performer, I could give back even more. The HIV/AIDS battle was raging, and many fundraisers were held to raise critically needed dollars. Those dollars were an investment in human lives."

    Michael has penned Cordially Yours, a social column in the local gay press, since the 20th century. At Michael's June 1999 birthday party, artist Patrick Farrell introduced him to publishers Jorge Cabal and Bill Attewell. Bill had just taken over InStep Magazine from Ron Geiman and was seeking someone to write a "who's who" column like the RSVP column in the Milwaukee Journal. By the end of the party, Michael got the job. "Cordially Yours" debuted in the July 1999 issue of InStep. Later, the column moved to QVoice, an InStep supplement on pop culture, arts, and entertainment.

    "I was so proud to be there!" said Michael. "But after a few years, InStep ceased publication without notice. I was devastated. When OutBound launched, I joined ChiChi and Dear Ruthie to the magazine. For a few years, the three of us had monthly columns in OutBound. My column moved to Quest Magazine, and now it appears in the bimonthly online magazine Milwaukee Pride Life. I get such a kick out of highlighting what's going on out there in our society."

    Michael has been a popular local bartender for years, at venues including Switch, Boom and The Room, Red Star (upstairs at Trocadero,) and This Is it (2001-2017.)

    Michael also hosts a regular Sunday Funday event at Club Charlies in the Third Ward. "Dawn Bloomfield started the event as a lark," said Michael. "We've been doing this now for over a decade. Every other Sunday, for four hours, Brian Reinkober and I would play music, theme songs, commercials, and comedy clips-- and by some lucky star, we have won over an audience who keeps coming back for more. Although Brian relocated to Palm Springs, the flawless Bradley Fell has taken over as the wizard of the music board, and the show continues monthly."

    Bosom Buddies, his monthly La Cage cabaret show with Maple Veneer, recently celebrated a landmark anniversary. "It's an early bird, cocktail hour show that attracts its own unique crowd," said Michael. "We started this event at a wedding reception and seeing how much the wedding guests adored the show, the music, and the banter, we decided to create an ongoing show. We're thankful and flattered that people turn out and turn on. As long as they're sipping, we'll be there to entertain them."

    "During the COVID pandemic, I discovered how much I missed applause, laughter, and the limelight," said Michael. "I prefer MCing over doing numbers, as I have no sense of rhythm and could never really dance. I've had some marvelous breaks, gigs, and opportunities over the years. Some of my favorite memories include hostessing the Holiday Invitational Tournament every Thanksgiving weekend, hosting the Wisconsin Light's black-tie 10th Anniversary Party at the Hilton, running bingo games at Hamburger Mary's, and doing smaller but more outrageous shows at Switch and Boom."

    "I may be older, but I'm still in the game," said Michael. "Earlier this year, I received an out-of-nowhere invitation from Harry James Hanson to be a 'Legend of Drag.' I tried talking him out of it, saying I'm not that old, but he insisted. What a thrill, privilege, and sensation to be honored among the greats of Wisconsin drag: BJ Daniels, Dear Ruthie, Shannon Dupree, Christina Chase, the Sugarbakers…. I do wish Goldie Adams would have accepted the invitation, be she declined. I now wish Rona would have been included. Doing the Legends Show at the Saint Kate Hotel was such an honor. I received a standing ovation!"

    "Eventually, the stage, my column, bartending, and now the Valentine Fund. Like a Russian Doll, each one opened into the next one, throughout my life."

    What advice does Karen have for up-and-coming performers?

    "I applaud everyone bitten by the drag bug," said Michael. "But drag should be as diverse as the population. What I'm seeing lately is that people can be excellent make-up artists, beautiful models, and have a solid look. But everyone is becoming clones of each other."

    "As an entertainer, what is your hook? Can you sing live? Can you dance? Can you twirl a baton? Can you breathe fire? In these RuPaul days, everyone wants to be a star. And they try, try, try…. But if they don't have the hook, they're just like everyone else."

    "Honey, just because you put on a wig and eyelashes doesn't make you a drag icon," said Karen. "You need to earn it! Discover what you do better than anyone, chase it, own it, and live it."

Some of the photos below are of unknown dates and locations. We welcome input from anyone able to date or give us locations of them, as well as donations of additional photos.

KV in rainbow cape
(unknown date and location)
Karen posing with an admirer
(unknown date and location)
KV with dalmations
(unknown date and location)
KV in relaxed mode
(unknown date and location)
Karen in a toast
(unknown date and location)
Photo courtesy of 2022 book 'Legends of Drag')
(courtesy of LEGENDS OF DRAG by Antheus & Hanson)
KV toasts a display of photos taken for the 2022 book 'Legends of Drag'

Recent 'Cordially Yours' column
(this image and face picture at top of bio courtesy of online publication 'Milwaukee Pride Life Magazine')
(Milw Pride Life, Sept-Oct. 2023 issue)

KV in favored role as an MC
(unknown date and location)

KV arriving at an event
(unknown date and location)

KV arriving at an event
(unknown date and location)

KV (on right) with another columnist, 'Dear Ruthie'
(unknown date and location)

KV on left in 2016, with close friend
Ron Thate (aka Rona)

KV on left in 2023, with close friend
Ron Thate (aka Rona)

Credits: interview for biography by Diane Gregory;
Photos by Michail Takach and B.J. Daniels.
Website concept and creation by Don Schwamb;
Last updated: November-2023.

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