Sound Style: ‘A lady of fashion and justice’

Aug 23, 2017

Lesli Sparkman-Williams, the artist also known as DJ Mahealani, unearths hidden magic and spins it out into the universe. This is one of her superpowers. It manifests in music when she slides discarded disco cuts and forgotten soul gems into her dance-floor-popping mixes, where they mingle with old-school hip-hop rap-alongs and your favorite junior-high dance tracks. She says these songs call to her from the dusty bottom-shelf thrift store bins where she finds them. She thinks of them as vinyl spells.

In collage, her preferred form of visual art, musicians grow mermaid tails, little girls sprout butterfly wings and dappled unicorns are adorned with hibiscus blooms.

That sensibility bleeds into her personal style, which is whimsical and eclectic, with aspirations to be, as she says, “tacky and fabulous.”

She developed her knack for repurposing found items in ways that are unexpected and delightful out of necessity when she was young. She grew up poor. For her family, back to school shopping always meant combing through secondhand shops.

The tangle of untamed color and texture that defines Sparkman-Williams’ style spills out of her cozy East Austin house into the garden where massive agaves compete for sunlight with 6-foot-tall sunflowers. Laura Skelding for American-Statesman 

“You can’t dress like the popular kids at thrift stores,” she says. “Maybe three years later, but by then it doesn’t matter. So I had a subscription to Elle Magazine when I was 12. … I was trying to figure out how I could look like some of the cool stuff in the fashion magazines with my cheap thrift store stuff.”

The key to pulling it off, she says, is confidence. “Fancy people are trying to copy people from the street all the time,” she says.

It also helps to have a sense of humor about yourself. She has a tendency to pile on accessories because they’re fun. She mismatches metals with aplomb and describes her basic style as “either all black or kind of a barfing rainbow. … The more patterns and colors, the better.”

“I tend to be either all black or kind of a barfing rainbow,” Sparkman-Williams says. “That’s sort of my style. The more patterns and colors the better, or I tend to wear all black.” Laura Skelding for American-Statesman Photo: American-Statesman Staff

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If her more daring choices sometimes inspire dubious side-eye glances, she’s not particularly concerned. “Would someone laugh because they feel joyful or laugh at me because they think I’m a fool?” she muses. “And if they laugh at me because they think I’m a fool, am I OK with that?”

When she’s not spinning records at nightclubs, she works as the evening child care coordinator at the Austin Community College children’s lab school on the Eastview campus. At first glance, her work environments seem like disparate worlds, but she sees commonalities. “I want everyone to be safe. I believe in play. No inappropriate touching,” she says.

Years ago, she stumbled across one of her favorite fashion mantras while teaching a lesson on the Navajo to a group of fifth-graders. They have a saying: “Perfection invites envy of the gods.”

“I try and remember that,” she says with an easy laugh. “OK, perfection invites envy of the gods. It’s cool, don’t want any gods being jealous.”

“I used to fight with my closet more before gigs,” Sparkman-Williams says. She says she’s become more relaxed about her style as she’s grown older. “Self-acceptance is a hell of a drug.” Laura Skelding for American-Statesman Photo: American-Statesman Staff

Comfortable detachment has become easier with age, Sparkman-Williams, 44, admits. “When I see women who are older than me in all their glorious imperfection, being confident, that inspires me to no end. Especially if they’re tacky and fabulous,” she says. “That’s one of my favorite things. So sometimes I look in the mirror and I’m like, ‘OK, if you weren’t you, would you think you were tacky and fabulous?’”

Music has always been an integral part of her life. As a college student at the University of Texas in the ’90s, she hosted a hip-hop open mic in the student union, but she didn’t start spinning records until she was 30. At that point, almost 15 years ago, there weren’t many women behind the turntables, and it affected the way she approached her look. “It took me a while before I got residency gigs, and depending on the gig I felt pressure to be, like, prettier or cuter, you know, girlier,” she says.

At the same time, with her long golden hair and blue eyes, she felt a need to work against the “dumb blonde” stereotype.

“Luckily when I play, that speaks for itself, so I don’t have to worry about it too much,” she says.

The 6-inch heels Sparkman-Williams bought for a residency gig at the W rarely leave her closet these days. Instead, she tends to opt for comfort and safety. These black and white Oxfords that she scored at a thrift store are one of her favorite pairs of shoes. Laura Skelding for the American-Statesman Photo: American-Statesman Staff

These days, she has a solid reputation and regular roster of gigs, and the 6-inch heels she bought a few years back, specifically for a residency at the W Hotel, don’t leave her closet much. She’s more likely to rock a tomboy chic look: overalls, a music T-shirt and a jaunty hat, her own variation on hip-hop style.

“I love hip-hop, but I’m a white woman; I’m not going to be with cornrows, whatever. … So even if I’m repping hip-hop … I think there’s something that’s a little nerdy or a little hippie or a little something that throws it off, skews it a little bit,” she says.

Her low-key look also has practical considerations when she’s working.

“I have gigs that are close to Sixth Street. At the end of the night, yeah, I’d rather be wearing a big, baggy T-shirt and tennis shoes loading my equipment, but I love looking really girlie, too. So even if I’m wearing my T-shirt and my big old tennies, I’m still wearing earrings and red lipstick, most likely.”

“Of course it’s flattering if someone is attracted (to you), but it can be annoying, too. Especially if people are drunk. They’re inappropriate,” she says.

If you catch her after a DJ gig, she’ll also almost certainly be wearing a hat to combat her “headphone hair.”

“I get real sweaty and gross,” she says with a laugh.

Her favorite hat is a straw bowler, “probably an old grandpa hat,” that she picked up at a thrift store years ago.

“Look at this,” she says, pointing to a label that reads Cuauhtémoc, Sombreros Alta Calidad. “What’s the history of that? I think this is some kind of Mayan or Aztec god that it’s named after. How cool is that?”

Another one of her favorite hats has a more personal history. It belonged to her husband Lauritz Williams’ grandmother Nancy Johnson. She was a fancy church lady who attended St. James Episcopal in East Austin.

Sparkman-Williams wears a hat that once belonged to her husband’s grandmother Nancy Johnson, who worked to integrate Austin in the ’50s and ’60s. “She was a lady of fashion and justice,” Sparkman-Williams says. Laura Skelding for American-Statesman Photo: American-Statesman Staff

“She passed away a few years ago, and I feel like I wear hats more often, and I feel like she kind of gives me that confidence,” she says. “To me, she was a lady of fashion and justice … she had a lot to do with integrating child care centers in Austin. She was also the first black woman to work at Snyder-Chenards … a fancy department store … Lady Bird (Johnson) shopped there. Farrah Fawcett shopped there, and she helped dress them.”

She was close to her husband’s grandmother. “She called me her baby,” Sparkman-Williams says.

“It’s special to me when I get to wear some of her hats or her jewelry, too,” she says. “It’s like, OK, I’m going to be a lady of fashion and justice like her, like my grandma.”