The kingdom of Ziam

It’s dark in the Detroit Art Space, a music venue and art gallery hidden among silenced industrial buildings in inner-city Detroit. The audience is a hodgepodge of diversity: black, white and neither; some in baseball caps and khakis, others decked to the nines; hip, grungy, motherly, techno, ghetto and just-off-the-street. They’re getting antsy. The show was supposed to start at 10 p.m. It’s midnight.

Luckily for those waiting, there are jugs of wine and a keg of beer behind the bar.

An art student slugs down a drink and grumbles about the $10 he spent to get in the door. People move around the room shooting still photos and video.

How the crowd learned of tonight’s event is unclear. The show is Liquid Silver — a fashion-music-dance-performance art extravaganza that’s been a staple in downtown Detroit for years, drawing on a strictly underground following. No advertising is done — just word-of-mouth and random fliers. Yet sometimes hundreds of people show up.

As if to satisfy the audience’s hunger for entertainment, a young man dressed in fatigues gets on stage and makes loud screeching noises with a guitar and does something — is it singing? Whatever it is, it has the effect of shuffling the impatient out the door and into the quiet night. Others in the crowd have experienced this before, and they’re not moving. They know full well what’s to come.

Through a curtain along the stage, shadows of magnificent human forms can be seen moving rapidly, kicking their legs, throwing back their heads with laughter.

At long last, the music changes. A large, muscular man, an architect by day, in a bright loincloth, and a tiny, taut woman, a sculptor, scantily clad, walk slowly to the front of the stage. Music thumps as they intertwine in an erotic waltz — simulating sex with yoga-like moves and dance, swinging brightly colored scarves.

A drummer takes the stage and pounds a steady African beat with his palms. It’s what the audience has been waiting for. From behind the curtain comes a cascade of models, women and men. They work a makeshift runway like it’s the center of Paris — or, rather, the center of underground Paris. The models are freeform, moving and dancing, jiggling and laughing as they please. They are gorgeous and shiny with sweat and vigor — some large with round buttocks, some lithe, some in-between, yet each carrying a distinctly international, exotic air.

The fashions are a mix of African-, Asian-, and Spanish-inspired garb in a sparkling explosion of intense color, with lots of umbrellas and wooden hats. Faces are painted to look like warriors.

From stage left, a tall, lean figure in a shiny, sequined pantsuit makes a dramatic entrance, throwing his arms into the air, jutting his hips toward the gallery. He struts the stage like a fashion gazelle. The androgynous man, clearly the leader of this crew, goads the crowd:

“Get loose! Loosen those bra straps! Put your hands up, put your hands up, put your hands together!” He launches into song, belting out a pop dance ballad about acceptance, love and respect. He sings an ode to his alter ego, “The Prince of Plastic Pop,” someone who could be anyone who is picked on and made fun of, even though the critics are intrigued by this maligned person, as they are with pop stars. The singer works the stage. His voice is fervent.

His name is Ziam.

“What a diva!” screams one patron, a young black businesswoman, who’s in a thrall.

“I would love to be in one of these shows,” pants Kristy Sager, a Rosedale resident who’s been dancing with friends to the beat of the music.

“It’s absolutely incredible!” says her friend, Amber Bracken of Belleville. “Ziam looks like the Technicolor Dreamcoat man!”

Rapper Flex Moore stands to the side, looking tough. He just signed a record deal in New York City. He never misses Ziam’s shows.

“It’s what we’re looking for,” says Moore. “This is most definitely the new Detroit — clothes, music, style, the urban look. The way it’s supposed to be. I hope it gets bigger than this.”

Diva Detroit

Ziam — a uniquely Detroit character, known on the streets for his everyday fashion statements and dramatic persona — has used Liquid Silver to shock and delight audiences for 10 years. His show is a sort of Cirque de Soleil of fashion; a psychedelic, surreal mix of glam and futuristic rock, tribal eroticism and poetry.

Notable shows have included naked men wrapped in bright green plastic swinging from the rafters of an art gallery. Typical Liquid Silver musical acts defy genre — a large bald man dressed as an angel with hoop earrings and covered with glitter, for example, who sings the blues while backed by an industrial punk band. Gorgeous women dance wildly and shake their asses to the beats of African drummers and electronica. New Orleans/Detroit jazz singer Sky Covington often appears, wooing the crowd with her beat poetry and sultry vocals, sometimes while lying naked on a velvety couch.

The show lives up to its name: liquid, always changing.

“What’s poppin’ daddy-o?” Ziam greets a friend at a downtown diner. A little mascara remains on his eyes from revelries the night before. He plops a huge bag overflowing with beads, fabric and crumpled up papers on a bench and orders coffee. Today he is doing a Mad Max thing, with fur and high collars.

Ziam’s music and style are eclectic, inspired by Diana Ross, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Lou Reed, Parliament, Grace Jones, Annie Lennox and Peter Gabriel.

He’s often seen leaving bars or coffee shops downtown, looking the spitting image of Lenny Kravitz, Detroit-style. He’ll stroll Greektown with a garbage bag sculpture on his head and wild bell-bottom pants. At the 2003 Fash Bash, Ziam wore a handmade backless denim outfit covered with metal pins — a show-stopping creation. He favors bangles and Superfly shoes. Always, he turns heads.

But Liquid Silver, he explains while sipping coffee, is about so much more than glitz and style. Detroit was bleak in the early 1990s when he started the show. His vision grew from a desire to spread a message about human dignity, through a celebration of diversity, he says. His signature fashion statement in Liquid Silver is a shiny silver football helmet that he says protects his thoughts from negativity in the world.

“Liquid Silver started as a way to teach the message that people should respect each other. And to do that, people have to find the love inside of them. I wanted to create a show that would break the barriers of race, sex, social status — whether rich or poor, straight, gay, Chinese, black, white, whatever. All you need to be in Liquid Silver, you have to be cool. And that’s cool with a capital ‘C’. At the end of the day, yes, we are all different. But we are just as much the same. Every human just wants to be loved.”

He should know. It hasn’t always been easy being Ziam.

He hails from the “so-called ghetto” of Detroit. He’s got no telephone or bank account. He lives from meal to precious meal. To pay the rent, he poses nude for artists at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. Yet when he wanted to go to New York City and Paris after high school, he found a way to make it happen.

He trawls the streets looking for performers and materials to feature in his shows. Without a budget, dressing rooms are makeshift spaces behind hanging sheets or in closets. Venues can be bitterly cold or unbearably hot. Models don’t get paid; sometimes musicians do. Yet his troupe loves it, they love him, and they love their chance to shine. The cast of professionals, housewives, artists and bureaucrats keeps coming back for more.

Somehow, Ziam pulls it all off, creating spectacular fashion dramas like magic — virtually from thin air. His clothing is designed from scraps of material, found objects, borrowed pieces reconstructed. Liquid Silver usually features three or four music acts. Sometimes, the shows are impressive displays of talent and visual inspiration; other times, Liquid Silver leaves something to be desired in the way of organization and production quality.

Always, Ziam offers a glimmer of delight.

He won’t reveal his given name or age, though he’s around 33. He doesn’t like talking about sexual preferences, either — it’s the spirit of humans that matters, he says.

“Those categories are social. That’s the kind of thing I’m trying to get people to get past,” he says. “Deal with me for my content and character. So often, society forces us to live a lie. People aren’t black and white. I refuse to fit into those categories, and that confuses people, and upsets them. I’m trying to break down those barriers.”

Ziam, who’s got a daughter, says when people ask if he’s gay, he’ll often say, “I’m not interested.” It’s gotten him in some trouble, he says, but he’s determined to bend conventional thought.

It’s not been easy. At Kettering High School in the 1980s, Ziam was ostracized, he explains. He suffered from acne. He had many friends, but got picked on relentlessly because his voice was different, his walk was funny and his clothing bizarre. He wouldn’t be caught dead in expensive sneakers or NBA jerseys.

“People made me feel different,” says Ziam. “I always thought I was just normal. I didn’t understand why people would point me out. I learned to accept that. I found the beauty in it.

“My message comes from that. For me, Liquid Silver is a platform to preach love, peace and harmony, and acceptance. I never want other kids to experience the kind of pain I did. I always wondered, ‘Why can’t people just love each other and get along?’

So many times, we learn to love each other when it’s too late.”

Ziam’s never made any money from his fashions or shows; in fact, his family and his credit rating have suffered for Liquid Silver, he says. But he’s not out to be a paid designer.

“That’s not my focal point. I’m an artist. My concentration is creating musical theater, with strong elements of costume. I’m not a fashion designer. I’m not a singer. I’m not looking to mass-produce my styles.”

Ziam admits there are problems with his production, organization and promotional skills, but the problems come from putting on a huge show with large casts, without such basic tools as headphones. Without a budget to pay professional performers, his cast has day jobs, he says, and, therefore, tend to arrive when they want to.

“It’s been a problem. I’m working to fix that right now.”

He says he lacked knowledge about getting grants and support from benefactors, things he hopes to employ with future ventures.

“I’d do it all again,” he says, “but I’d do it differently. Mainly, I just wanted to give people ground to express themselves. I wanted to give myself a place to express myself. I just wanted to get it off, to do it, to make it happen.”

He has made it happen. In doing so, he’s become the homegrown Pied Piper of Detroit. People follow his tune wherever he goes.


Behind the stage curtain at the Detroit Art Space, the bawdy world of bohemian entertainers comes alive. There’s a profusion of flesh and hosiery. Performers methodically squeeze tubes of liquid glitter into their hands and rub the paste over their bellies, legs and faces. Tables are covered with powder, lipstick, lotion, makeup and shiny beads.

In addition to the architect and sculptor, the cast includes a social worker, an accountant and a couple teachers. One stout fellow in the corner has been standing on his toes for 20 minutes, flexing his leg muscles. He has golden eyes shaped like a tiger’s, and he looks vaguely Asian, like a street denizen out of Blade Runner. He’s buff.

He says his stage name is Damn, but his real name is Tom Traylor, an exotic dancer and martial artist. “I’m erotic by nature,” says Traylor.

Alex Carr, 30, is wearing a skirt and purple pumps. “I’m a student, I’m president of the honor society and student council (at Henry Ford Community College). I study English, theater and interior design,” says Carr. “I do this for fun. We all work our asses off. I like this because I’m a humanist, and there’s no gender bias, no sexual bias, no race bias. If I want to wear a pink halter top and tights, that’s what I’ll do. Let’s face it — men’s fashion sucks.”

Scrappy sits in the corner. He’s been doing Liquid Silver shows for three or four years. He’s a little drunk and very shy. “It’s a free-base thing,” says Scrappy of Liquid Silver. “You can go out and do your own thing. Ziam showed me an outlet. I feel good when I do this. What I really want to do is movies.”

A gorgeous woman with curly black hair is practicing swinging a hula-hoop.

“I love this experience,” says Zhanna Rozenberg, a social worker. “It’s one of the few places where you can let your inner freak out, and feel the vibe without worrying about conventions.”

Fashion dreams

Ziam began managing and producing events when he was 6.

Growing up with a sometimes single mom, two older brothers and two younger sisters on Detroit’s east side near City Airport in the 1970s, Ziam was different.

On a recent summer day, his mother, Mary Pennington, sits in her small apartment in southwest Detroit and recalls when Ziam was a kid. The outside of her building looks run down but inside her place it’s golden and cozy. Crystalline beads hang from bright lamps. The room is immaculate. Two baseball-sized goldfish gurgle around inside a fish tank.

Today’s her day off. Pennington cooks for Chili’s restaurant at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Because she takes the bus, she leaves at 10 a.m. and gets home just before midnight, five days a week. A professional cook for 27 years, Pennington is searching for a job downtown to reduce her commute.

It all started, she says, with playing school. Ziam would get all the kids in the neighborhood to meet in his back yard. He was the teacher.

“They had homework and everything,” she says with a hearty laugh.

At the end of the “semester,” Ziam informed his mother that a graduation ceremony and party were necessary. He ordered gowns and diplomas, and a menu of hot dogs and sodas. Pennington helped him.

Commencement morphed into fashion shows. Pennington says Ziam created clothing and accessories from anything he could get his hands on, from the time he was about 7, raiding her closet and the entire house for supplies.

“Christmas lights weren’t even safe,” she recalls. “Everything was a prop to him.”

The shows never stopped. Kids from a three-block radius signed up to model, she says, and even the smallest children would be decked out in his creations.

“He said, ‘Mom, I need you to help me with some costumes. I’m having a fashion show tomorrow.’ And I’d say, ‘What? Tomorrow?’ He’s always been like that.”

Ziam’s father and uncles helped him construct a makeshift stage in the backyard; Pennington’s stereo provided runway music.

“The house would be filled with kids,” says Pennington. “The rooms would be stacked with clothes. It was fun. I miss those days.”

The shows were neighborhood events.

“If we sold tickets, they’d be all sold,” she says. “He always had a good crowd.”

As the shows progressed from the backyard to bars, Pennington was surprised at the quality.

“He would amaze me. I would say, ‘Where do you get this? How do you think of this?’ He was always thinking, in his head, of the things he wanted to do, and somehow, he made it happen.”

Ziam had a fairly normal, stable childhood, he says. His memories of growing up are happy ones. The kids went to school, the parents worked, they ate and played together, rode bikes and roller-skated. His parents threw barbecues and parties at the house. Monday through Friday were workdays, Ziam says, and Friday night, “they’d turn up the music and it was time to party.”

“My parents, they would dance on the tables. They taught us to dance. They’d get dressed up and have friends over. Those were good times.”

Ziam says the men in his family dressed to stop traffic.

“My father taught me to shine my shoes and shave my face. He had a closet full of suits — and snakeskins from City Slicker. He had $1,000 green suits and red suits and shoes to match. I used to love looking at those suits. Daddy-o!”

His grandmother, who had a wig shop, showed him how to apply makeup and style hair.

Though he was bullied some in high school, Ziam’s two older brothers protected him. Their reputation alone kept kids from hurting him.

“My brothers were good kids, they were cool,” he says. “But they had to join gangs and get their asses kicked by the Big Four.”

The Big Four is what black neighborhood kids called the police, who would ride four to a squad car and beat up boys that looked like hoodlums, Ziam says.

After high school, Ziam wanted to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. The college costs $15,000 a year for out-of-state students, not to mention the costs of living in New York. Ziam’s maternal grandmother, who lived in the Jeffries Projects, somehow paid for him to attend.

“She took care of me when I was in New York. Everything I had there was through my granny. She was my best buddy.”

A remarkable woman in her own right, Ziam’s grandmother was a social worker and attended Wayne State University until two years before she died. She died while he was still in New York. Around the same time, his parents lost their house.

It was a rough time, in Detroit and Gotham City.

“In New York, living was hard. I hustled my ass off,” he says.

Often hungry, Ziam worked in clothing stores and at a Jewish rec center. He modeled fur coats.

“I’d call people pretending to be someone I wasn’t, hanging out backstage trying to meet people. I worked for Karl Lagerfield as a head dresser. I snuck into fashion shows.

“I was scandalous.”

At the Fashion Institute, he made good money dressing models. Once it nearly got him kicked out of school. He was hungry to the point of illness. He remembers drooling as he walked by midtown Manhattan delis. He was counting on the $200 he would make at an upcoming show. But the designer decided only women could work backstage.

Ziam went anyway — in drag. He thought he could pull it off. But he was suspected by the other dressers and caught on tape. The institute’s administration put him on suspension.

After nearly five years of trying to “make it” in New York, he came back to Detroit, worn out. He waited tables and saved $3,000 to move to Paris, where he signed with a modeling agency. But when he heard he was to have a daughter, Moon, he came back to Detroit “to face up to parenting responsibilities.”

Liquid Silver was born shortly after his return.

Curtain call

After a decade of shows, Ziam says Liquid Silver has run its course in Detroit. He wants to take the show on tour — he’s thinking Chicago, New York, Toronto. He’s been plotting a national move for years, but this year, he insists, it’s finally going to happen. He’s got an invite to bring the show to Brooklyn, N.Y. But already he’s looking toward the next phase of Ziam.

A group of filmmakers is creating a documentary of Liquid Silver throughout the years. And Ziam is working on 12 original songs about his life for an album titled The Ziam Picture Show. He hopes to have the album done by the end of this year, so he can begin work on a one-man singing/fashion/video show, complete with back-up singers who can do their own thing and sport his styles.

As for Liquid Silver, Ziam says, “I’m ready to let it go. I’m ready to move on.”

He’s planning a final show, a swan song extravaganza. The ending is a new beginning, and Ziam is feeling the bittersweet pang of nostalgia.

“I’m happy that I’m older and learning, and that I’ve lived out a personal journal. I truly live what I believe. I am blessed that my art came to life, that it brought people together and broke down barriers, even within the art world. I don’t want Liquid Silver to be in vain. I want to let it go, so it can live on.

“I have a lot to do,” he says, with a sparkle of excitement in his eyes. “It’s time to get this party poppin’!”

As the interview ends, Ziam gathers together his bag, which appears to hold all he’ll need to live for the upcoming week. He’s got lots of appointments and meetings downtown today, he says. As he turns with a flourish, his silver bracelets clink and clank. He waves goodbye, kissing the air, and struts down the street.


Detroit, this could be your last chance to experience Ziam's Liquid Silver fashion/music/performance extravaganza. Then again, never say never. See it Sept. 20, 9 p.m., at Metropolitan Center for the Creative Arts, 6911 Lafayette, near E. Grand Blvd. Call 313-259-3200 for info.

Lisa M. Collins is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected]
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