By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
MiAsia sat in a barber's chair in a little shop in central Los Angeles. It was May 1983, and MiAsia, a Mary Kay cosmetics saleswoman, was looking for a dramatic change.
The barber dyed MiAsia's short, dark Afro auburn, but that wasn't enough. She came back a week later, asking for a shorter haircut. "There's nothing there now," the barber protested, then started clipping.
MiAsia wasn't satisfied. "I could still see hair up there," she recalls, so she returned for another session the next day. "Everybody in the barbershop was in shock when they saw my bald head," she says.
²After that, MiAsia's barber refused to cut her hair again. "Don't people laugh at you and point at you and look at you strangely?" he asked MiAsia. "I said, `Yes. What does that have to do with it?'"
For eight years, MiAsia, now a Phoenix resident, has garnered attention with her striking hair style- or lack of one. "Girl, I got three marriage proposals right after I shaved my head," she says, laughing.
Her shaved head and the inch-long fingernails-nails painted with 18-karat gold polish-were MiAsia's trademarks during the seven years she sold her own blends of exotic perfume oils. "She is one of the master fragrance creators, I would say, and I've worn fragrances from all over the world," says Fatimah Halim, a Phoenix city employee and former customer.
Dramatic changes are nothing new for MiAsia, whose friends call her "flamboyant" and "metamorphic." On several occasions, she has reinvented her life, and now she's done it again.
Even her name is an invention. "MiAsia" was bestowed by her second husband, a Muslim man she married the same year she changed her looks. The marriage didn't stick, lasting just four months, but the new name did.
It means "my paradise, in Swahili," she says. She won't reveal her given name. "Unh-uh," she says. "I don't ever utter it anymore. My parents aren't even allowed to call me that."
MiAsia's life changed when she moved to Arizona last May to be closer to her two daughters, who live with their father, her first husband.
It was a change for the worse. She was disillusioned after three divorces, she says, and distraught about the prospect of turning 40 alone. Within months, she suffered what she calls a "nervous breakdown." She stopped working. She turned to cocaine and became estranged from her family.
She hit bottom when two men, armed with beer bottles, beat and mugged her on the streets of west Phoenix one night last September. She received emergency treatment for a slashed face and broken jaw at the Maricopa County Hospital. She was too embarrassed to call her family. "They were so used to me being the strength of the family," she says. "I didn't have the strength anymore."
Police dropped her off at Central Arizona Shelter Services, the downtown Phoenix homeless shelter.
Friends, even those accustomed to the unexpected from MiAsia, weren't expecting this. "I never would have thought someone like MiAsia would be homeless," says Juanita Johnson, a friend since schooldays back in Flint, Michigan. "Really, I was shocked when I found out she was staying at the shelter. That's the last place I would have expected to find her."
Now, four months later, MiAsia is back on her feet, reinventing her life all over again. She's applied for employment at the shelter, as well as a position on CASS' board. She's met with Phoenix City Councilmember Calvin Goode to talk about problems at the shelter, and set up a panel for residents, which she calls the "Resident Arbitration and Advisory Board." Two days a week she volunteers for "Clergy Against Drugs," a program designed to offer drug counseling with a religious message.
And last November, she met a man.
Fred Gatlin was known at the shelter by the nickname "The Rev." "They thought when I told them I was a man of God that I was crazy. From my understanding, she was trying to get away from me, too," Fred says, nodding his head at MiAsia. "But I seen that bald head of hers, and I knew she was the one for me."
Fred, 37, is an ex-convict and former drug addict. He gave up drugs, he says, about ten years ago when God first called him to the ministry. Now he works as a taxicab driver while he is training for the pulpit.
On their first date, Fred took MiAsia to lunch at the Matador Restaurant. "After shelter food," she says, "I just sat there looking at the cheese and I thought, `It's been so long.' He didn't even eat. He was fasting." Afterward, they went to Woodland Park, where Fred preached from the Bible.
They began to date regularly. "About the third time we went out is when he said he wanted me to be his woman," she says, rolling her eyes. "I just told her, `You know, we have to get married,'" is how Fred tells it.
Although Fred had never married, MiAsia wasn't the first woman he had proposed to. "For three years," he admits, "I would go up to women and say, `I'm looking for a wife.'"
This time, Fred was successful.
On November 24, in a brief ceremony at the Lord's Temple, a nondenominational church at 1333 West McDowell, MiAsia and Fred Gatlin were joined in marriage. Performing the ceremony was the Reverend Wilfred McFadden, pastor of the church that ministers to homeless people, and the man who's training Fred for ordination.
"I'm confident that it will work," says McFadden, "and I'll tell you the reason-it's MiAsia. Fred is close to being a fanatic about salvation. She is channeling his energies, and she is really educating him."
Some 40 people from the homeless shelter attended the wedding. MiAsia's oldest daughter, 22-year-old Isis, escorted her mother to the altar. "She told me, `Next time you get married, I'm sending a telegram,'" MiAsia says.
"I was so nervous," Fred admits, "because I'd never been married before. When I heard those powerful words... . As much as I'd been begging for the woman, the first words, I was stuttering. Everyone was staring at `The Rev.' But I got it right."
After the ceremony, the couple ate dinner at the church with other shelter residents. Then the couple whisked away in Fred's taxicab. On their wedding night, the Gatlins cruised Phoenix streets in the cab, picking up customers. "She made me quit at midnight," the bridegroom says.
That's not the only time his wife has put her foot down. She handles the couple's finances. Fred admits he used to give most of his money away. "My mother told me, `You were about the stupidest man I ever met,'" he says, "because even when I was on an ice cream truck I would give it all to the children."
Fred feels lucky to have found MiAsia. "I tell people I hit the lottery, the jackpot, bingo, everything," he says.
In the first month of their marriage, the Gatlins have spent just a handful of nights together. Fred moved from the shelter in December, and is staying in a downtown apartment. The couple plans to find an apartment when MiAsia checks out of the shelter this month.
MiAsia Gatlin has an answer for those who might question her judgment in marrying a homeless man, a street-preaching taxi driver she had known for less than a month.
"Whenever I think about how many times I've been married, I feel like Elizabeth Taylor," she says. "But I don't like being alone. God put us in each other's path. We didn't choose."
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