Tucked away in a holler of the Appalachian Mountains in eastern Kentucky, you’ll drive right past the tiny town of Vicco — population 334 — if you blink. Its downtown strip less than half of a football field long, Vicco was once a thriving little coal town before the industry began its decline in the region and years of government mismanagement and crumbling infrastructure left it a rusted shell of its former self, slowly on the verge of vanishing into a ghost town.
However, as its new unofficial motto suggests, Vicco — “The Town Too Tough to Die” — is suddenly showing signs of life, from what many would call the most unexpected way imaginable.
At the beginning of 2013, the town was completely unknown to most people in Kentucky, but now has sprung to national — even international — fame, as a stereotype-shattering beacon of hope for LGBT rights. In February 2013, Vicco unexpectedly became the fourth city in Kentucky to pass a LGBT fairness law prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
An article on the ordinance’s passage in The New York Times thrust Vicco into the national spotlight, along with the star of the story: their chain-smoking, wiry, openly gay hairdresser and mayor, Johnny Cummings.
A flood of media attention descended on Vicco, reaching its apex when the town’s story was immortalized in an epic segment on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” last summer, titled “People Who are Destroying America.” In the satirical bit, fake conservative blowhard Stephen Colbert was dismayed to find that this little town in the Christian heartland didn’t just pass such a law, but their citizens seemed to have absolutely no problem with it, Mayor Cummings or treating LGBT citizens as they would have others treat themselves.
But even with a fairness ordinance and national notoriety, Vicco’s chronic problems have not disappeared. The town still has a long-neglected sewer plant and water lines in great need of repairs, and a small city budget that is dependent on coal severance tax revenues that are shrinking just as fast as coal mining jobs in Appalachia.
Despite those overwhelming problems, Vicco has not given up hope, and as crazy as it might sound, their openness to respecting the rights of LGBT residents might have given the dying town a new lease on life. Vicco has not just been flooded by supportive letters and checks sent from all over the country, but now stands poised to make what has to be the first economic transition of its time: a town switching from coal dependence to a large investment from reality television.
Mayor Johnny Cummings and Vicco’s cast of characters that are too tough, eccentric and stereotype-busting to die will soon be in the national spotlight once more, and on a major cable television network near you, hoping to turn their upcoming reality television show into a financial investment that will save their town from extinction and give their often maligned region a brand new positive image to be proud of.
I met Johnny Cummings on a cold, rainy day in early December at the Vicco City Hall, which consists of one tiny office and an adjoining small room where their City Commission holds public meetings. Cummings, his first of many cigarettes to follow already ablaze, was still recovering from Vicco’s Christmas charity ball the night before — as well as its pre- and post-party that went well into the night.
“I ain’t been up for two hours, buddy,” said Cummings. “I had a rough night. I got drunk with the bishop of the Episcopalian church. Well … he didn’t get drunk.”
Cummings, who grew up around Vicco and has lived there most of his life, served on Vicco’s City Commission for a decade before being appointed as mayor in 2012 after the previous mayor stepped down for health reasons. The mayor he replaced — and the one before him, convicted of embezzling city money — had both long neglected the city’s aging water pipes and sewer plant, resulting in huge fines from multiple government agencies and the city losing more money from water than it was taking in.
“I was the only one foolish enough to take that job,” said Cummings. “We were $300,000 in debt and nothing was working. You’ve gotta be pretty stupid or crazy to do it.”
Cummings, pushed into the new role as mayor because he was one of the few people with a grasp of the problems, started taking them on right away. He began contacting state and federal agencies to tackle the neglected issues, freeing up money from the state Division of Water to start repairs on the sewer plant. Cummings, who was formally elected a few months later with 75 percent of the vote, also worked with the state auditor’s office so Vicco could receive state road funds for the first time in 12 years to put blacktop on their streets, while also continuing his past work on holiday programs for kids in the community.
Despite these improvements, Vicco’s city budget was still decimated by late and declining payments from the state’s coal severance tax fund, which made up half of the city’s $350,000 budget, making future improvements by his small team of city workers all the more difficult to maintain.
After his election, Cummings also began to push for the LGBT fairness ordinance, which passed in February, making Vicco the smallest city in history to pass such a law and putting it in the national spotlight.
“The first week after The New York Times article, there were about 20-some production companies who contacted us about making a reality show,” said Cummings, who began to wonder what possible funds such a show would be able to bring to Vicco, though he was also wary about how it would portray his town. He signed an initial agreement with a production company, who came to Vicco for the filming of a promo “sizzle reel,” but Cummings remained skeptical that anything would come of it.
After turning down many requests, he finally agreed to go on camera with “The Colbert Report,” which aired in August and quickly became one of its most-watched segments of the year, bringing audiences to both laughter and tears. Cummings said the producers were amazed by the lack of backlash over the ordinance and his sexual orientation, who told him “they could only find three people out on the street who did not approve of it, but they wouldn’t say that on camera, because their wives would kill them.”
Cummings guesses that 10 years ago, people would have had the opposite reaction in front of a camera, but times are changing fast. “One of my friends called me the night before the vote and said, ‘I really love you, my family loves you and the work you’re doing, but there are some homosexuals we don’t agree with because of the way they act,’” said Cummings. “And I said, ‘This is the exact reason why we need a fairness ordinance!’ But people are slowly getting it.”
While Cummings began receiving letters of praise and donations from all over the country after Vicco passed the fairness ordinance, they also started getting visitors coming to their front door almost every day from all over the country after “The Colbert Report” segment aired. Aldermen from Milwaukee, bikers from Georgia, students from Texas … they all wanted to see if Johnny Cummings and Vicco were real, because it seemed too good to be true.
The city has used the donations to go toward local people in need, and the creator of “Will & Grace” even donated an entire children’s playground set for their park, only asking for a plaque dedicating it to the daughters of himself and his husband.
At this time, the production company put the Vicco show on the auction block for networks, beginning a bidding war between them. After showing the sizzle reel to five network executives, three of them cried.
Cummings admits to not being a fan of reality shows — which are almost always quite negative — so he made sure to be very selective about what network to choose in terms of how they portrayed the town, and how much economic benefit it would bring to his constituents.
“I want ‘Duck Dynasty’ money,” said Cummings, pointing to his long wish list of things he wants to bring to Vicco, such as a scholarship fund and a new community center for children. “There are a lot of families who just stop by to use my computer because they don’t have Internet. And these are smart kids. It’s not that these people here are less intelligent; it’s the fact that they don’t get the opportunities people from bigger towns get.”
Cummings is also wary of networks or producers who would play up negative stereotypes of Appalachians, or focus too much on his being gay. “One of the producers from California, his scheme was that he wanted to do it as a play off on small-town Mayberry, me and (Vicco police chief and lifelong friend Tony Vaughn) as Andy and Barney, and call it ‘Gayberry,’” said Cummings in horror. “He actually tossed that out to me! And I was laughing about it the next day, and it just spread like wildfire. That scared the hell out of people.”
But even with their new fairness ordinance and the opportunity to infuse reality TV show money into the city budget, there are some things about Vicco that won’t change. Asked if there’s any chance of Vicco passing a smoking ban for public buildings — all city commissioners smoke during public meetings — Cummings took another drag and said, “I’m looking at the smoke eater thing that goes on the ceiling so it kind of dilutes the smoke, because it does get a little hazy in there. But all the commissioners smoke, and they say they won’t come to the meetings if they can’t smoke.”
I drove back to Vicco in March to catch up with Cummings, who spent the brutal winter battling with more water pipe problems and was busy that day trying to figure out what type of health care plan they would choose for city employees.
The big news was that Cummings had signed a deal with a major cable network to air the reality show about Vicco, having already filmed part of it and production crews ready to come back and do the bulk of the filming for the first season soon. He said he got nine out of the 10 things he asked for from the network — which he isn’t revealing publicly yet — and felt comfortable with the portrayal the network wants of his town for the show and the considerable sum of money it will bring to Vicco. In fact, he said that if the show is picked up for a second season, it could easily make up for the loss in coal severance money the city’s budget has relied on, and could also spur private economic investment in new businesses — of which there are currently six in Vicco, including Cummings’ hair salon he lives above three doors down from City Hall, only double their number of churches.
“It looks like we’re going to replace the coal industry with reality TV shit. Go figure,” said Cummings. After noting some of the other stereotype-reinforcing reality shows based out of the region, like “Appalachian Outlaw,” he added, “And they thought I’d make us look bad? Excuse the fuck out of me. I don’t watch most reality TV shows. I just don’t want to be another Honey Boo Boo.”
“I can’t smoke on the show because they say that will offend people … but I can still drink,” said Cummings, who plans on making use of his e-cigarette, but not on this day, as he puffed away on tobacco in the City Commission room.
This was a few days after the whiplash given to LGBT-rights supporters in Kentucky when Attorney General Jack Conway announced he would not appeal the court ruling that struck down part of Kentucky’s constitutional ban on recognizing same-sex marriages, only to have Gov. Steve Beshear immediately announce afterward that he would hire outside counsel to appeal it.
“On the radio the other day, I called it political bullshit, which I guess I’m not supposed to do,” said Cummings. “I’m supposed to be nice and just say that the governor disappointed me.”
While Cummings said there remains no considerable backlash against the passage of Vicco’s fairness ordinance, he said one aspect he is wary of is the reaction locals have had to the newfound media spotlight, which will only increase once the reality show airs. “I took more flack for ‘The Colbert Report’ thing than the fairness ordinance, for sure. Some people just didn’t get the satire.”
Such political concerns may pop up for Cummings this fall, as he runs for re-election. While there’s a fairly strong consensus that Cummings has turned the long-dysfunctional and corrupt City Hall around, he expects to see as many as five challengers file to run against him — all of which the show will cover. While there’s concern over how the show will play with the citizens of Vicco, the influx of money into city coffers and new private investment would be certain to vanish without Mayor Cummings at the helm.
As for the newfound fame of Cummings, some of his closest friends say that all of the attention has not gone to his head — as he remains quite self-deprecating and baffled as to why he’s so interesting to warrant being a TV star — and he hasn’t changed a bit.
“He still doesn’t believe he’s famous,” said Lana Combs Rose, his assistant and longtime friend who noted that Cummings is constantly working from morning to night between his hair salon and mayoral duties. “Johnny’s always been Johnny. Even before he knew he was gay, he was Johnny. He’s always been larger than life.”
Cummings will not be the only star of the show — which will also feature the town’s Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley impersonators, the latter being a daredevil “snake freak,” according to Cummings — as it will also prominently feature his best friend since high school, Vicco’s part-time police chief, Tony Vaughn. Cummings refers to the pair as the show’s “Laurel and Hardy.”
Vaughn was featured prominently in “The Colbert Report” segment standing up for his old friend Johnny and LGBT rights, after which he received four marriage proposals online to become wife No. 5 for the buff, sensitive officer of the law. Cummings said producers have told Vaughn that he should lose 10 pounds for the show — since he will become a “sex symbol” — and he suspects Vaughn will be married again by the second season of the show.
Vaughn recently put Vicco in the national news yet again by requesting that his salary be paid to him in Bitcoins. After Cummings checked with lawyers on Vaughn’s request — which sounds an awful lot like the plot of an episode — they’ve gone forward paying him in Bitcoins, making sure the city isn’t on the hook.
LEO caught up with Vaughn that day in March at the Mexican restaurant he partly owns just down the road from Vicco in Hazard. This was only days after national news that people had lost millions in Bitcoins, but Vaughn said it didn’t make him second guess the decision.
“Oh, I loved it,” said Vaughn. “I love the turmoil, that’s part of the attraction. To me, anything new you do in life is a risk and a gamble. I always feel those are the people who get ahead. If you don’t take a risk, you never know.”
While Cummings suspects Vaughn also enjoys the risk of a brighter spotlight on him that comes with a reality show — he is also in talks for another cop reality show featuring himself — Vaughn believes Cummings is not going down this road for fame.
“It’s not for his personal gain, it’s for the city itself,” said Vaughn. “If we can help and make some money for the area, that’s great, because we need it. If we keep losing jobs the way we are now, it’s going to be devastating.”
Vaughn is also perplexed as to why Vicco’s story would make for uniquely entertaining television, though he does readily admit that Cummings is “funny no matter what he does. He can take a normal situation, open this mouth and turn it into a comedy.”
Shortly before I visited Cummings last December, he had emceed a jam-packed drag show at Summit City, a bar 30 minutes down the road in Whitesburg — a much larger but similarly progressive and eccentric oasis in Appalachia. “Some got upset ’cause I acted like a bitch,” said Cummings. “But that’s how drag show emcees are supposed to act!”
Most Americans have an image of what Appalachia is supposed to be in their head, but if Cumming’s new show takes off later this year — which he is hoping will be called “Only in Vicco” — that image will likely be obliterated. At least, Cummings hopes.
“The people with the show told me the other day that I’m quite the actor,” said Cummings. “I wasn’t quite sure how to take that. Did you just say that I’m full of shit?”
Cummings told me he can’t live as wild as he used to, what with the importance of his job as mayor and the recent media attention over the past year, which might soon be magnified exponentially by a hit reality show on a cable network.
“Everybody knows my business, now I just have to watch myself,” he said. “That’s the only thing I hate about the whole thing, that I have to get up and comb my hair every day, because you never know who’s coming in that door with a camera.”
But cameras in his face and calls from reporters are well worth the reward for Cummings, as this is his chance to give back to the community that been so accepting and warm to him his entire life.
“When I was a kid, we actually had two sides to the street,” said Cummings. “We had businesses, and we actually had a library at one time. But as the coal towns here shut down, people had to relocate — which is happening again now — to get jobs. But the people who remain are still a very close-knit, loving and caring community. That’s why I stayed here, and that’s why I’m trying to see if we can get something for these folks.
“Life was so much simpler when I was just cutting hair for a living. I made more money, too. But it’s fun. I don’t regret it at all.”