As the spotlight beams on her face, her eyes light up! The glistening of her sun-kissed brown skin glows, as delicate tropical flowers dangle from her hair. As Loyal Garner’s “E Ku’u Morning Dew” begins to play, she gently enters with a soothing hula; soon, a dramatic climax of swaying hips and beating island drums intensifies as she switches into a traditional head-dress complete with native Pasifika attire. That is the indelible image of Alana Kela burned into the memory of those who knew her. She was an island goddess who brought her Polynesian charms to the stage as a performer, a radiant enchantress who transcended time and again, even to those who were never blessed to even met her.
“Long before my career as an entertainer, she is someone I always admired because of her elegance, grace and stage presence. I could never picture her without a smile on her face. And there was just a little something special about her; different from many others to me. All throughout my career as an entertainer, I have always kept a little piece of her inside of me. It is my way of paying tribute to her”, recalls accomplished entertainer and pageant queen Fontasia L’Amour in a Facebook post. “She lives through all of us aspiring showgirls from the islands that perpetuate the artform of female illusion.” says former Miss UTOPIA International Kylee West Williams. Legendary transgender performer Paula Sinclair describes Alana as “One of the most beautiful girls I’ve known inside and out.” In the 1980’s and 90’s, transwomen were exploited in daytime talk shows and subjected to themes that were often degrading. Alana appeared on those shows and no matter the situation, she lit up the screen exuding class, kindness and sophistication. She exemplified that same demeanor off screen and stage, where many acquaintances and co-workers have described her as the “sweetest person [they] have ever met.” Over the years many knew Alana but very few knew “Kela”, a name known only to those close to her before leaving her home of Hawai’i for the US mainland.
Alana Kekela Contrades grew up in Anahola on Kaua’i island. Coming from a family of business owners who operated one of Kaua’i’s popular tourist destinations, the “Smith Fern Grotto Tour”, Alana used to captain the tour boat. Little information is known publicly about her family and upbringing. I reached out to two of her relatives to no avail at the writing of this blog. However, Alana has four siblings, including a sister who passed away last year in Minnesota of cancer. Her parents, two brothers and another sister are well and living in Kaua’i as of 2021. In the early 70’s, Alana performed as a fire knife dancer in a Polynesian Revue on the island of Guåhan (Guam). A Typhoon had devastated the islands in May of 1976 and most of the entertainers who were based out of Hawaii were forced to return home. Alana was forced to return with just a plane ticket, her backpack and a few dollars. Upon returning to Hawai’i, a chance encounter with Jovann Sarte would change her life. I contacted Jovann, who is in his 70’s now and living in Tacoma, Washington, via Facebook and he was delighted to share his memories of Alana.
“While the Tomato Nightclub was closing in Waikiki, I noticed a cute young boy sitting on the wall watching all the drunks. I started to cruise him and called him over to my car to ask if he wanted to keep me company and have something to eat at Wailana’s, a 24 hour restaurant, where most of the late night clubbers and drunks frequented. He was wearing blue bib overalls and his wavy brownish hair was in a ponytail, lightly braided halfway down his back, he sported a mustache and goatee. He told me his story of Guam and it touched my heart; I immediately took him under my wing and invited him to stay with me. He became my new son Franklin, ‘But you can call me Kela’, he says.” remembers Jovann.
Jovann worked as a hairstylist in Honolulu. He lived comfortably as a male who occasionally enjoyed dressing and entertaining in drag. He encouraged Alana to look for a job; the hotel Jovann was working at needed a swing shift bellman/driver for the airport shuttle van. After recommending Alana to his manager, he was approved for the position without even an interview. His mom Queenie would visit often from Kaua’i and Alana would spend time with her taking her out for dinner. “Now with money in his pocket he began to check out the nightlife in downtown Honolulu.” recalls Jovann. “One weekend I opened the other side of my closet deciding what to wear when I noticed my wigs, shoes and garments all shuffled around. Kela had no idea I did not go to work and I could hear him moving about in the apartment. I said, “So what did you decide to wear tonight?” Kela screamed and started to cry. He was afraid I would be angry if he was crossdressing. I told him I was more disappointed that you did not ask to use my things. I hugged him saying, “Aww, my macho son is now my drag daughter.”
It was the birth of Alana Kela.
She took her talents from the Polynesian Revue in Guam and competed in her first ever contest, “Miss Gay Polynesia” and captured the title in 1977. She became a showgirl at the iconic Glades Show Club and Lounge in Honolulu. According to Jovann, from then on, men were eyeing her. With her new identity and lifestyle far from living back in Kaua’i, Alana became obsessed with how sex was in demand on the streets in Honolulu. Not one or two, but three, sometimes four tricks! She’d turn them all over one night and it wasn’t for the money, but more for sex. It came to a point that she caught gonorrhea and had to be treated. She had men chasing after her, yet she avoided getting serious because she loved the freedom of being independent. One guy named Joe was so possessive that she had to move out. Within a year, Alana began to rise to stardom. Making performing her profession, she commanded the stage where she executed a magnetism that lit up an aura in her personality, that feeling of ‘I belong here’. You could see that sparkle of happiness in her face. When Jovann needed her to perform at parties or model at one of his hair shows, without hesitation Alana would be there. Throughout the years both were busy in their own destinies, but when they connected it always comes back to, ‘remember that night’ and the rest is history!
In the mid 1980’s, Alana moved to Chicago. It was here where she adopted the name Alana Kela after working in a show for Orlando Del Sol and Monica Mone’t. Jim Flint, the owner of the Baton Show Lounge in Chicago, invited Alana to become one of his baton showgirls. In the days before reality tv drag performers became mainstream, trans and gay show bars across the United States featured some of the most popular entertainers in the community. Many performers made this a career and once a name became known, they were given the full star treatment and traveled across the country to entertain. The Baton Show Lounge was renowned for the art of female impersonation, some of the very best in the business have been employed there. Alana’s prominence emerged during the glittering era of 1980’s glamour of sequined gowns and neon colors, endless blush and shoulder pads. One of her signature performances was of “Dreams” by Grace Slick. C-Constantine Gray recalled in a post “Alana epitomized the illusion known to us as pantomime as it relates to female impersonation. She took it to a level I have yet to see duplicated by anyone.”
Jim Flint also owned and produced the “Miss Continental” pageant competition, highly regarded in the industry as the creme de la creme of all pageants. To compete in the system meant you were now a “Continental girl”, your name and face was to be forever immortalized in pageant tapes and conversations for years to come. Alana blazed into an unstoppable pageant career and competed for the prestigious Miss Continental several times, was in the top 5 twice and won the Congeniality award three years in a row. She also competed for Miss Florida F.I. and Universal Show Queen, two other popular pageant titles in the drag pageant world. Some sources stated Alana also worked as a model for a transgender boutique shop. “When I was in a pageant some 30 years ago, she pulled me aside and said to me ‘Tina, you are a star and you need a gown befitting’ so she took me to her dressing room put me into her lavender Bob Mackie, the most beautiful overcoat, and a pair of gloves and I looked like a Continental Queen! I took first place that night. She gave me this beautiful gown as a gift.” Remembers performer Christopher Stefano (Tina Teck), “Alana was beyond a friend, she was a mentor and a spirit that to this day I have never found in a true woman or performer.”
Alana remained a performer at the Baton for eight years before moving to New York City. There, she focused and worked entirely as an escort, becoming a highly sought-after courtesan. In an interview on the Jenny Jones show, she mentioned that her clients included famous and high-profile people which prompted offers from tabloid magazines; but she refused to reveal any names. Untimely however, her move to the Big Apple ended tragically. In 1993, Alana was murdered in her apartment building in Manhattan. A friend and former co-worker, Sina Sison, remembers that tragic day, “I was awoken with a phone call from the police station on the west side of Manhattan. I had to face questioning and provide next of kin information to the police. I hope no one ever receives a phone call like that. Her murder affected me immensely, and it was the reason I moved to San Francisco and then back home to Hawaii.
According to True Crime blogger Cobalt Tungsten in a report posted on Reddit, Alana was shot twice, once in the torso before fleeing down the stairs where she was fatally shot in the chest. Her body was found on the second-floor landing. The report also indicated that she was found with car and storage unit keys that were not hers. She also had unpaid bills to a press company; possibly for a book in the works. Earlier statements said she was shot once in the head, but that was proven to be false. Even so, information regarding her death to this day remain a mystery. There are conflicting reports posted online, one stating she was murdered by a jilted lover, another mentioning a “man in a black coat” who was seen hanging near her apartment building before and shortly after her murder. And according to her Queen-mother Jovann, the story he was told was that Alana was murdered by a jealous raging wife. In the 2018 documentary “The Queens”, featuring interviews from several showgirls at the Baton Show Lounge, it was speculated that another possible suspect was an escort service house madam who was furious over Alana taking business away from her. However, none of that information was ever confirmed to be true.
There were no eyewitnesses and there have been no legal details made available to the public on her murder. Some acquaintances of Alana who were living in New York at the time said that when police found out she was transgender, they made no effort to pursue her case. In the years following, her case slipped through the cracks of time, seemingly repeating a pattern of many murders of transgender people before her. In light of the ever-advancing world of technology, Alana’s murder has taken renewed interest from online crime podcasts and famous faces, such as transgender actress Alexandra Billings, who knew and worked with Alana during her early years as a showgirl. She used her social media platform several times to speak about her murder hoping justice will prevail.
Following her death, Alana’s remains were cremated. Her ashes were taken back to her family in Hawaii where they were scattered at Wailua River in Kaua’i. Joavann Sarte spoke about his visit there in 2015, “I contacted her mom Queenie and we met down at the family-owned business, The Smith’s Fern Grotto Tour at Wailua River. There we embraced for over a minute, exchanging the energy of our love for Kela. We then walked down to the pier where Alana’s ashes were scattered, by the boat that was once steered by ‘Captain Franklin Kela Contrades’. A boat that made many trips up and down the Wailua River to the Fern Grotto, one of Kaua’i’s famous tourist attractions. It was there that I sat for over an hour next to Kela’s boat, sending my fondest aloha to her by scattering flowers into the water. Forever in my heart, my one and only first drag daughter.”
Piecing Alana’s story together has been a bit difficult, much time has passed, and some folks prefer their privacy, and memories fade. Stories like Alana’s are important! If we don’t tell our stories, who else will? It deserves all the respect it needs to be told. A simple search on YouTube will help you visualize Alana in all her glory. There, anyone with access to the internet can relive unforgettable memories of this beautiful human being, who wholeheartedly epitomized the true meaning of Aloha in her soul.
May we always speak the names of our sisters. May it be that someday soon, her killer will be brought to justice. That someday, peace will comfort the hearts of those she loved. That one day, that someday is promised.
Me ke aloha Alana, you will never be forgotten.