Years before he became a yeoman 3rd class in the United States Navy, Joshua Kelley was entertaining exuberant crowds under his drag name, “Harpy Daniels.”
The 24-year-old Berwick, Pennsylvania native, who currently serves as an administrative supervisor aboard the forward-deployed aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan, brought Harpy along for the ride when he decided to join the Navy in February 2016, a choice he said was heavily inspired by his father.
“I’ve heard many stories of the Navy from my father," Kelley told Navy Times. “He’s a 24-year senior chief Navy counselor, so it was something I always had insight on. I grew up with the service, so knowing the benefits of it made it an easy path to take.”
One of those benefits was financial stability, something Kelley was struggling to maintain while pursuing drag.
“With drag being my number one passion, it quickly became costly,” he said. "On top of just struggling to make ends meet and then pay college loans, the Navy became a great option to get myself situated in life.“
Now, despite the furious operational tempo the Navy demands of its personnel, Kelley manages to find time to perform as Harpy Daniels on ship during MWR-sanctioned events designed to boost morale and provide sailors a much-needed break from daily burdens. He even took home a $1,000 Navy Exchange card for a second place finish in a recent lip sync competition.
Boosting morale and spreading joy through performance has appealed to Kelley since he was a youth, he said.
“I walked out of my mom doing death drops and splits,” he joked with NBC News about his knack for performance.
“I’ve always been an entertainer at heart,” he said. “It’s something you just feel and the vibes you bring with you when the spotlights are on. As a performer, your greatest joy is bringing smiles and laughter to those around you.”
And it turns out Kelley has an equally impressive knack for life as a sailor.
Within his first year in the Navy, Kelley was voted to be the president of Strike Fighter Squadron 115′s Coalition of Sailors Against Destructive Decisions, became the public affairs officer for the carrier Reagan’s Gay, Lesbian and Supporting Sailors association, was named VFA-115′s Blue Jacket of the Year and earned his first Navy-Marine Corps Achievement Medal, a Navy release said.
“Kelley has performed his demanding duties in an exemplary and highly professional manner and demonstrated tremendous initiative and attention to detail,” the former commanding officer of VFA-115, Cmdr. Samuel Gray, wrote in the release. “He was instrumental in his administrative duties and he reinvigorated CSADD program participation, creating social and volunteer opportunities for junior Sailors."
The “exemplary” sailor’s interest in drag first developed when, as a 16-year-old, he began watching the popular reality show, “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Next came his first in-person drag experience in 2013, when his then-boyfriend took him to a show at Pennsylvania’s Bloomsburg University.
“I never knew a man could embrace his femininity in a creative and entertaining way like that and I knew it’s what I wanted to do,” he said in the release. “Doing drag allows me to embrace my feminine side and allows me to bring my diversity and creativity out. When I put on a face, it’s a face of art and creativity, not just a face of make-up. To hear people cheer, laugh or cry, or even join in with you during a performance is an absolute thrill.”
The thrill, unfortunately, was not always mutual for his family.
“My parents did not understand what a drag queen really was," Kelley said, “so they were confused and quite concerned for what I do.”
Despite the fog of skepticism, Kelley told Navy Times that his father’s concern lifted the first time he saw his son perform as Harpy Daniels at Bloomsburg University.
“After the night was over, he was in tears of joy and overwhelmed with inspiration from his son,” Kelley said. “He told me, ‘I never knew you had so much talent, or what this all really was.’ That day my father saw me perform, he finally understood that it’s more than a ‘gay thing.' It’s simply a way to entertain and inspire others by being bold and beautiful.”
Kelley, who was named the pageant queen in 2015′s Miss Gay Harrisburg, continues to find joy in performing drag and as a sailor aboard the Reagan. And despite the differences between the professions from an outsider’s perspective, he says his dedication to performing has only helped his efficiency as a sailor.
“Competing in Miss Gay Harrisburg was similar to boarding for Blue Jacket of the Year,” Kelley said in the Navy release. “They both required a board-styled interview, including questions of history and current world events in their respective social setting and inspections on professionalism and grooming standards.”
Those similarities didn’t seem possible when he first enlisted, he said. The thought of being around so many different sailors who shared none of his flamboyance made him nervous, a fear that was quickly quelled when he was warmly welcomed by his peers.
“I’ve been accepted everywhere I go,” he told Navy Times. “Those outside my command don’t know I’m the drag queen who slayed on the ship. To most sailors, I’m just YN2 Kelley. Once they find out I’m Harpy Daniels, I’m praised as an inspiration and see so much joy in their reactions for simply being who I am. My command alone has given me the most support. I can’t thank the ‘Eagles’ (VFA-115) enough for being not only outstanding sailors and leaders, but a family who takes care of each other.”
While he’s not exactly certain what the future holds, Kelley anticipates that he’ll head to the East Coast once his tour in Japan is up. There, he expects to reenlist for at least another three years to finish what he started as a sailor, he said.
“I’ll just keep following my gut and stay on this path, because right now, everything is feeling just right,” he said.
Part of that feeling for Kelley is his hope that this positive experience as part of VFA-115 will serve as an inspiration for others who may feel ostracized.
“I’ve inspired many by being who I am today,” he said. “I want to show people that anything is possible and that acceptance is there. No matter where you come from, who you are or what you do, never be afraid to take a risk, have fun and be yourself. At the end of the day, we live for ourselves and should never be afraid to do what makes us happy."
Jon Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.