Story and pictures by Kaitlin Newman, a Baltimore Sun photo intern.
The morning is chilly, but not too cold. Dale Crites, 42, opens the front gate to his house, an average-sized suburban home at an undisclosed location, and gives an animated wave, gesturing me to come in. Dale is no stranger to animated waves. His trademark gesture, as he struts up and down Ritchie Highway, has turned him into somewhat of a local celebrity.
“Oh my God! Thank you so much for coming!” he says, flipping his curly blonde wig over one shoulder. Dale prances over to the living room couch and sits down, crossing one leg over the other, toe pointed and smiling from ear to ear.
The living room consists of a medium-sized TV, a giant painting of a Rottweiler dog, a comfy chair and a coffee table filled with print outs of screen shots from Dale’s Twitter account.
“They all follow me, honey. They love BritneyGirl Dale,” he says, fanning out the various screenshots of Twitter followers such as the Human Rights Campaign, America’s Got Talent and NoH8.
Dale’s alter ego, BritneyGirl Dale, or most recently, Ke$haGirl Dale, is inspired by the likes of Britney Spears, Madonna and Ke$ha. Typically, he wears a lot of sequins, spandex and most notably, a stuffed bra turning himself into a collage of fabric and color.
“They loved me on ‘America’s Got Talent.’ I’m even going to New York. Oh my God, you’ll have to come see me,” he says, flashing the biggest smile I’ve seen on anyone in days. His blue eyes light up, not at the prospect of potential fame, but at the thought of being loved by others and being seen in a positive light. “Here, they hate on me but that just pushes me to keep doing what I do. Haters can’t keep you down,” he says, tossing his blonde curls to the opposite shoulder.
I ask him if he was always BritneyGirl Dale or if there was a time before that. His grin straightens out and his eyes lock with mine. “Can I tell you something? You have to promise not to start crying or anything because you might,” he asks. I promised I wouldn’t cry and told him to tell me whatever he felt comfortable telling me.
“I was molested when I was 7 by [a relative], and then again in my teenage years by [a different relative]. I hate them,” he says, curling one strand of hair from his wig around a finger. “I really hate them. But you know what, honey? Karma got them.”
He tells me one of those relatives met their match when they wronged someone else who was beaten to death with a 2×4. “Because of what happened to me, it really made me hate Dale. I hated being myself and I just didn’t want to be reminded of me,” he says, his face contorting into a sad grimace.
He said he told his mother of the abuse when he was a teenager, and she then contacted the police. But that didn’t erase years of emotional and physical torture. Dale used to walk up and down Eastern Avenue playing Madonna in his Walkman to escape his situation. Despite naming himself after Britney Spears and Ke$ha, it’s Madonna who is Dale’s highest inspiration. “Madonna was the thing when I was growing up” in the ‘80s, he says, the smile coming back.
Dale began his transformation into BritneyGirl Dale when Britney Spears’ clothing line, Candie’s, hit shelves. He loved Britney so he figured he would love her clothes, too, and he did, saying they made him feel amazing. He remembers trying on his first wig, one that was very similar to the one he dons now, and says it was life changing. “When I first put it on I felt like I didn’t have to, you know, hate myself anymore. It was like I was someone else and it felt good,” he says, twirling his hair in his fingers. “Sometimes I even sleep in the boobs, just because I hate waking up as Dale. I try to get dressed as fast as possible.” The first time Dale stepped out in full BritneyGirl attire was in 2009. He immediately loved the attention people gave him, honking and yelling. He felt accepted.
We took a walk up Ritchie Highway. Dale twirled and waved, posing for me, sometimes in mid-sentence, every time he noticed my camera against my face. Cars honked their horns, “Hey BritneyGirl, I love you!” someone screamed from the opposite lane. “Love you too, baby,” Dale yelled back, blowing a kiss. “They just love me out here.”
We pass a friend of Dale’s – a short woman who looks much older than she probably is. She tells Dale about how she has relapsed because of a man she was with and how she has now lost everything. “You got a dollar?” she asks. Dale says no and tells her she needs to get her life in order and that no man is worth it. After the lady passes us, Dale says to me, “God is my best friend. God gave us talent and life; we aren’t supposed to destroy it.”
A big truck pulled up and Dale ran over, smiling from ear to ear. Cars honked in annoyance at the stopped truck. In the car behind the truck, an old man gave him the middle finger, a disgusted look on his face. The man in the truck said he would just pull over, pulling into the parking lot of Value Village, right off 16th Street.
The man in the truck, Roy Johnson of Severn, smiles and waves Dale over. “They treatin’ you nice out here today?” he asks Dale. “Oh yes baby, it’s a good day. My friend is even here, she’s from The Sun! (I awkwardly wave). They’re writing a story on me, BritneyGirl,” Dale says, hanging onto the window of the truck. “I had to put my dog down today, he had Lyme’s Disease and was old. I was pretty choked up on the way down here, not gonna lie. But then I saw her over here on the highway and knew I had to stop and say hi for puttin’ a smile on my face,” Johnson said.
I ask Dale if he has ever had a boyfriend. He says yes and that his first love was a police officer. “I just love men in uniform!” he says with a smile. This statement holds true – Dale’s social media is full of photos of him posing with smiling police officers.
We turn around to walk back to the house and pass a small eatery. Dale says this particular establishment banned him – but not entirely. According to Dale, the manager had told him as long as he was dressed as a woman, he could purchase food, but he was not allowed to eat in the store. In response to the incident, Dale said he attempted to contact the corporate offices but received no response. Ultimately, Dale filed a complaint with the Maryland Commission of Civil Rights against the store. Dale said he has also dealt with what he says are false accusations from a chain supermarket that cited him for indecent exposure.
“It’s not easy trying to be myself but getting banned from places. The [incident] really put me over the edge.” Dale says he tried to commit suicide but was taken to the hospital in time and later admitted to a mental institution. He says he wouldn’t try again but in that moment he says he just couldn’t handle it anymore. “I just wanted to finally get it over with,” he tells me.
I asked Dale what it is he is trying to accomplish. A Madonna music video plays in the background as he thinks. “A boy once asked me if I was gay. He was really young and I told him I thought he was too young to be asking me that. He whispered to me, ‘Well, I think I’m [bisexual] but I don’t know how to tell people.’ I told him to start with his parents and when he asked which one, I told him to tell his mother first. The boy did but endured a lot of bullying at school when he came out. I heard in the news that that kid hung himself. He was so young,” Dale said. “I’m ready to show the world who I am to an even bigger audience.” By doing this, Dale hopes to encourage others to be themselves.
“I became BritneyGirl to escape Dale because I hated Dale and this is who I am. I feel most like myself this way,” Dale says, as he watches Madonna dance across the stage on the television, his smile returning.