Hope & Triumph
Damian Calmett offers endless inspiration at DAP Health and beyond
Words by Greg Archer • Photo by Zach Ivey • Creative Director Snap Studios Ryan Auble
As the sun shines vibrantly outside DAP Health, inside the main building, things are just as bright. That’s because Damian Calmett is waiting to greet people as they arrive. The cheery 73-year-old resident of Vista Sunrise, DAP Health’s affordable housing complex, is full of wide-eyed optimism. Clearly, the man loves being the organization’s chief greeter and safety monitor. On any given day, Calmett helps people find their way around, and even offers compassion or bits of life wisdom from time to time.
A ray of sunshine? That’s Damian Calmett.
“What’s important to remember is that DAP Health is a place where people come at various levels of their health,” he says. “You may be the only light somebody sees that day, or the only person they encounter because many people are shut-ins. So, if you can make their day a little lighter for five minutes, great. Then you’ve done a wonderful service.”
Calmett knows about the “light.” Because he’s spent a lot of time emerging from the dark. The multi-faceted yet unpretentious soul is somebody you’d want to know, and he swims deep emotional waters, waxing philosophical with ease: “I believe within each of us is a homing device that is good; we were born with it, and it leads us to a power bigger than us.”
In the next breath, he may be brutally honest about his own journey: “I’m no stranger to homelessness, hopelessness, or hope, either. Or saying, ‘What is the lesson in this for me?’ Rather than, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ So, when I see people come into DAP Health, for me, it’s an opportunity to give hope.”
Calmett knows a lot about that. He had to rely on hope — even when he lost all signs of it — before he came on board at DAP Health in September 2021. And that’s where Calmett’s life story — a tale of heartbreak and triumph — becomes even more fascinating to explore.
Damian Calmett was born Stephen Bruce Ford in Salinas, California on January 30, 1950. Several days after his birth, the child’s mother left him, and he went to live with his paternal grandparents in nearby Castroville. Calmett says he got “saved” at their church when he was 2. Then his mother returned and took him back with her to Los Angeles, where they moved into a trailer with a man she’d been seeing, Willie.
“He was rough and tough, a ‘man’s man,’” Calmett shares. “What Willie said, you did. I was only 2 or 3 at the time, and more than anything, I thought I was going to die because he often waved a gun around and was drunk and acted like a crazy man.”
Calmett’s mother worked at a nearby bar. One time, when she wasn’t home, Willie “put the gun [with one bullet] in my rectum and proceeded to pull the trigger. I was terrified and probably also in shock. He had been abusive before, and each time the abuse got worse.”
What followed was a nightmarish labyrinth for any human to walk through. When Willie left for good, Calmett’s mother didn’t hang around much longer, and the child was tossed around from home to home.
First, there was Shirley and her husband, and their four children, in a single-wide trailer, where, Calmett says, “we ate hot dogs every day for almost three months, and I slept in the hall closet.” When the family abandoned him, he spent three days alone — or three weeks, he cannot remember — until a man name George, who frequented the bar where Calmett’s mother worked, arrived with his wife. The couple took the boy with them to Grants Pass, Oregon, but Calmett had shut down emotionally and quit speaking. He was given a new name, George Jr., but something ominous always lurked in the shadows.
George drank and always fought with his wife. When he disappeared, Calmett was taken in by the couple’s friends and was given yet another name — Richard. Eventually, he went to live with his maternal grandmother, Mary, and her husband Earl, in Compton, California. Earl was a gunslinger, which brought up disturbing memories of Willie. Somewhere in between, Calmett had to learn how to speak again, and when his paternal grandparents found him, he returned to Castroville, shaken, distraught, and full of trust issues.
“As long as I can remember, I always wanted to be someone else,” Calmett once shared. “I have never been comfortable in my own skin.”
Then fate stepped in…
Years later, having coped and dealt with tremendous psychological maelstroms, Calmett was asked to be one of the Gospel singers at an Oakland concert. Inspired by the performers, he found something that had been missing — himself. Could he, in fact, be as free-spirited as some of the entertainers around him? Something shifted within. Calmett legally changed his name to Damian — just Damian — and went on to perform worldwide in several mediums, hope and perseverance becoming major throughlines in his life.
Inspired to delve inward, he attended Oral Roberts University and at times, sang as a soloist on Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s “The PTL Club.” “I knew Tammy Faye,” he recalls. “She was genuinely naïve, and her eyes were full of love. But those long lashes were simply her armor against people getting close to her.”
When he took a position as associate pastor at a Southern California church, pressure mounted — all the other pastors had wives. The writing was on the wall. “My marriage to my wife, Kathy, was more or less an arranged marriage. I hosted a television program called ‘This Is Your Life,’ and Kathy’s parents saw me on TV and drove 100 miles to meet me.”
That was around 1985. Eventually, Calmett left the church — and his marriage to Kathy — and moved to San Diego’s Hillcrest area. “I had difficulty fitting into the gay world,” he admits. “Things were awkward for me. I was about 34, and I didn’t get why the leather guys didn’t want to associate with the drag queens, the bears, otters, lipstick lesbians, and dykes. For a community claiming to be so inclusive, well, it was anything but.”
One Halloween, he dressed in girls’ clothes. “I felt pretty and got attention,” he says, adding, “I never felt handsome as a man. As strange as it might sound, there was a sense of realness I felt [dressing up]. It was natural for me. In 1992, I had three titles — Mayor of Hillcrest, Mr. Gay San Diego, and Miss Gay San Diego.”
A stronger sense of self emerged. So did another personality: Ivana.
“For so long, I was just ‘Ivana,’” Calmett says of his famous alter ego. “I opened for Joan Rivers once, and let’s just say I drank a bit too much that night. Joan said, ‘Ivana, you’re just a tramp! Ivana Tramp. That’s who you are.’ The name stuck. I saw a different part of myself. Nobody ever referred to her [Ivana] as a drag performer, or as an impersonator. She was just who she was.”
Calmett performed as Ivana Tramp for nearly 20 years — from the Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Hotel in Las Vegas to the MGM Grand Sanya in China, and then some. “I realized that I’m more than one person,” he reflects.
Through the years, Calmett lived in Palm Springs several times, but when he returned to the Coachella Valley more than three years ago, he brought with him decades of life experience. He’d become an alcohol and drug counselor, and was a sober-living manager at one point. He also remarried between Ivana Tramp and Palm Springs, taking on the surname of his husband, David Calmett. Their marriage lasted about seven years. “Relationships aren’t the thing that I do best,” he says.
Still, Calmett used his latest move to Palm Springs to fuel a burning need: to instill hope. In addition to overseeing the welcome desk at DAP Health, he manages a 20–25 volunteer staff and makes sure everyone is trained on how to be “welcoming.” While he’s been a minister for many years, he recently became an Innerfaith minister. As Rev. Damian Calmett, he inspires hundreds of thousands online, and oversees a congregation at Innerfaith New Thought Spiritual Center Palm Springs. He says he’s ready to embrace what lies ahead, too, keeping in mind how he can best “serve.”
When asked what got him through the tough times, Calmett is candid: “We can either choose to go through challenges or grow through them. You don’t evolve, you unfold.
“I’ve had 10 lifetimes full of experiences,” he quickly adds. “I’ve met and worked with famous people. And I’ve met and worked with people who were in the gutter. These are all the same people. People are just people. I’m a survivor. So, I do what it takes to put one foot on the ground and the other foot forward … and just keep going.”
Learn more about Damian Calmett at damiancalmett.tv.