Laith Ashley (Photo: Greg Vaughan)

Love will shine on Fort Lauderdale Beach this Valentine’s weekend on Sunday, Feb. 11 from noon – 9 p.m. Pride Fort Lauderdale is expected to draw more than 60,000 people to Fort Lauderdale Beach Park, 1100 Seabreeze Blvd., to celebrate the nation’s only “Love Pride.”

The entertainment line-up includes the British Grammy Award-winner Estelle, The Love Boat star Charo, transgender performers Laith Ashley, Carmen Carrera and Jaimie Wilson, and internationally-acclaimed DJs Tracy Young, Deanne and Power Infiniti. The festival will also include the first South Florida Transgender Pride with special performers, vendors and resources.

It was a pleasure to sit down with two of their headliners: Charo and Laith for these exclusive Hotspots Interviews:

Growing up, I just remember seeing Charo all over the television (well we only had six channels), but my favorite was when she was on The Love Boat. She always put a smile on my face with her loud Latina personality and her infamous “Cuchi-Cuchi.” I can’t wait to meet her at pride.

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Were you always a ham, even as a kid or when did the performer come out? 

I was always a ham, even as a child.  I learned very early on that if I could make people laugh, I could get out of all the trouble I would get into.

Where did your iconic phrase “Cuchi-Cuchi” come from and when did you realize how popular it was?

“Cuchi-Cuchi” comes from our family dog called “Cuchillo” (knife) because he had sharp teeth. Cuchillo had an accident and he didn’t shake his tail like a regular dog.  Instead of shaking side to side, Cuchillo shook front to back. So, to get out of trouble I would shake like Cuchillo, but I would say “Cuchi-Cuchi” because I couldn’t say Cuchillo. When I got into trouble, I would just shake like Cuchillo and yell “Cuchi-Cuchi” and soon everyone was laughing and I wasn’t in trouble anymore.

Most people don’t realize that you were actually a trained classical musician. For how many years did you study guitar?

I trained with the famous guitar master Andrés Segovia from the age of 9 until I was 17, so for eight years.

In the 60’s and 70’s if anyone turned on a TV, they saw you as you appeared on Laugh In, The Carol Burnett Show (my all-time favorite), Hollywood Squares, The Tonight Show and of course The Love Boat. Did you have a favorite and why?

I love them all.  The skit with Carol Burnett playing my mother is a classic. I loved everyone on The Hollywood Squares and Johnny Carson.  I would have to say The Love Boat is my favorite because Aaron Spelling created the role of April especially for me.  We met for lunch and he laughed so much, he told me he created the role after that lunch!

Since you were on The Love Boat the most, who are you still in touch with?

I stay in touch with Jill Whelan. She is very lovely and was recently married!  She and I starred in an episode of Celebrity Wife Swap where we switched roles!  It was very funny!

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Last year you were on the 24th season of Dancing with the Stars. Tell us about that experience?

I had the time of my life on DWTS!  I love them all. I was voted out too soon and I enjoyed fighting with Bruno and telling him that his Eeeenglish sucks!  But I’m so happy I got to play the guitar in front of millions of people across America and they got to see the real me.

They asked me back, but I can’t do it because I have to cancel too many engagements to be on the show.

Describe yourself (now) in three words?

A Gypsy Soul.

Are you excited to be coming to South Florida and performing at Pride Fort Lauderdale?

I am soooo excited to be coming to South Florida to celebrate Pride Fort Lauderdale.  I have always been against discrimination in any form.  I have many, many gay friends and fans and I love them.  They are fun, compassionate, smart and loving and I don’t see why anyone wants to discriminate against them. I support LGBT rights and the right to marry, have children and live happy like everyone else.

What’s ahead for Charo?

Many, many things are ahead for Charo. I’m developing a reality series based on my crazy life in Beverly Hills with my sister and my son, his cousin and all their girlfriends. I’m also working on creating a line of fashion with my sister Carmen, who designs all my costumes and other fun projects.

Don’t forget to catch Charo at the Official Pride Kickoff party on Friday Feb 9 at the B Ocean Fort Lauderdale from 6:30 p.m.-10 p.m. and again at Pride on Sunday, February 11 performing live!

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Like most of you, I had heard of Laith and his journey and even seen his pics and seen him on the TV show Strut. Other than that I did not know much about him. As someone who has interviewed hundreds of people, it’s rare to find someone who sticks out. Well Laith not only stuck out, he has become one of my heroes. He is not only intelligent, he is kind, compassionate and truly cares about mankind. It really was my privilege to interview him and in the 50 minutes we spent on the phone (most interviews take 10-15 mins) I feel like he changed my life for the better.

Usually in interviews I start from the beginning, but I am a gay man, so I have to ask this first…..how do you stay in such great shape?

I have always been an athlete. My first sport at 3 years old was boxing. My dad played minor league baseball and golden boxing, so he started me off right away into athletics. I also played baseball and basketball. In college I played basketball and softball.

In 2011 I got serious about working out and that’s when I built the muscle mass. Before my transition I was working out six to seven days a week, and now I am at four to five times a week. If I can’t make it to the gym or I am on the road, I work out with my resistance bands.

Ok, now we can go back….What was your childhood like?

It was very ordinary. I had very loving and supportive parents. My mom was the typical Latina mom and my dad pushed me in sports and academics.

At what age did you realize you wanted to transition?

I knew from a young age something was different. I always wanted to play with the boys. My mom dressed me in poufy dresses and I would always rip it off and steal my male cousin’s clothes. I would be called a boy in school, and it wasn’t offensive, it was who I felt I was. I didn’t learn about Transgender until I was in college, where I followed people who were documenting their transition on YouTube. My mom is very religious and feared for me what would happen to me in the afterlife. I was also afraid, and felt a lot of shame from growing up religious, so I held off for a while.

It wasn’t until after I graduated college, when I worked in Callen-Lorde Community Health Center as a counselor for homeless youth (mostly LGBT), and I saw other trans people living a normal life, is when I decided I would transition.

When you realized you wanted to transition, did you ever think it would turn out the way it has?

Honestly, I transitioned and continued working at Callen-Lorde. I was going to apply to Hunter for Social Work. However, when I started to become more masculine I got more attention from the gay male community. Eventually a photographer asked to shoot me, and edited the pics the same night. I posted them on Instagram and it went viral overnight. From there I was contacted by NBC Universal to shoot. So, no I never expected this, but am so grateful!

What do you think is the biggest misconception about the Trans community?

That Trans people are just trying to deceive or fool straight people into being with them, however, we are just living our true selves.

With so many famous Trans people coming to the forefront of society, do you think it’s easier now for a Trans person to transition?

It’s definitely easier, but still not safe. Especially for Trans women. We need to work on our society to be a better space for letting people be who they are. People around the world follow American media, so if we start making it normal the world will follow.

You modeled at Fashion week and many other places. Who is your fantasy designer to walk for?

There are two: Tom Ford and Versace.

How was the experience, and what did you learn from filming Strut?

It was not what I expected, as I thought the show would be more around modeling and fashion and it focused more on each cast members story. In the end, I thought it was a positive spin. Unfortunately it only lasted a season, but I think it still made a great impact.

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You have recently launched a singing career releasing two pop singles in 2017: “Can’t Wait”, and “Before You Go”, when did you start singing, and is this something you would like to pursue full time?

I have been singing and dancing all of my life, especially songs from Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, etc. I have always wanted to sing. When my voice changed I couldn’t sing at all, but now I can.

Starting at 8, I started writing poetry, which changed into writing songs. When I could sing again I started writing again and then the recording happened. I am now writing some new songs and working on the videos.

Describe yourself in three words?

Honest, talented, and open.

In 50 years from now, what do you want society to say about you and your legacy?

I would like them to say I opened doors for Trans people in general, especially Trans men who are often times put on the back burner.

Are you excited to be performing at Pride Fort Lauderdale and what should we expect from your performance?

I’m super excited. I have performed four times on stage, and I can’t wait for number five at Pride Fort Lauderdale. I will be performing my two singles and possibly a new song if I can have it ready.

For more information on Laith please go to: Laithashley.com or on Instagram.com/laith_ashley.

As a reminder you can catch Laith performing at Pride on the main stage at 2 p.m.

SCHEDULE:

12:00 p.m. DJ Power Infiniti

2:00 p.m. Transgender models Carmen Carrera (“RuPaul’s Drag Race,” NY Fashion Week) and Laith Ashley (Oxygen network’s reality series “Strut”)

2:15 p.m. DJ Deanne

5:00 p.m. Award Ceremony (Awards to be presented to the Fort Lauderdale Police Department and Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau)

5:15 p.m. Charo (“The Love Boat”)

5:30 p.m. DJ Tracy Young

8:15 p.m. Estelle (Grammy-winner “American Boy”)

8:45 p.m. Fireworks

Pride Fort Lauderdale takes place on Sunday, February 11 from noon to 9 p.m. at Fort Lauderdale Beach Park, 1100 Seabreeze Blvd. Admission is FREE to Pride Fort Lauderdale, but donations are always accepted and appreciated at the entrance. For more information, or for a list of all the official pre and post parties, go to: PrideFortLauderdale.org, or Facebook.com/PrideFortLauderdale.