I Know Where I’ve Been
Even when she was sure she was about to lose everything, beloved desert entertainer Keisha D kept on giving
Words by Kay Kudukis
Photos by Matthew Mitchell
Keisha D Mimms has played many roles in her life — daughter, sister, wife, mother, businesswoman, actress, chanteuse — but the one she was unwittingly cast in five years ago might be her most challenging.
More than a decade ago, when Mimms stepped on the stage at McCallum’s 2008 Open Call, she and the Coachella Valley instantly began a fierce love affair. No one else stood a chance. She is a powerhouse singer with a soulful, richly textured voice and a smart, playful stage presence. She doesn’t steal hearts, they’re offered.
“I remember being so impressed and so awestruck when she performed,” says local entertainer Brian Wanzek, perhaps better known by his drag queen alter ego Bella da Ball. “I sent — I think it was an email — to the person involved with the Open Call and asked, ‘Is it possible that you could either give her my number or you could give me her number?’ I just wanted to chat and talk about opportunities to work with this fabulous, talented superstar.”
Not only was Wanzek playing multiple clubs around town with his drag extravaganza, Delicious Divas, he was involved with multiple charities. Mimms was interested in giving back too, and a beautiful friendship and symbiotic working relationship coalesced. She sang for LGBTQ+ charities, including Palm Springs Pride, the LGBTQ Community Center of the Desert, The L-Fund, and many more.
Billed as Keisha D Sings, she’s got a big voice, which came in handy in choir, and on the mission-based tours where her pastor father preached, and her mother and she sang. Anyone who’s heard her belt out gospel knows she can get an “Amen!” out of a diehard heathen.
Mimms attended Christian high school but, “I started singing in nightclubs when I was 16, I was sneaking in,” she says, chuckling at her cheekiness. “We were just sitting in with the band. [I sang] ‘Summertime,’ ‘Come Rain or Come Shine.’ Anything Ella Fitzgerald.”
She received a vocal scholarship to Azusa Pacific, an evangelical Christian university where she did musical theater and opera. In fact, her favorite musical memory is not jazz, gospel, or Motormouth Mabel in “Hairspray.” It’s the titular character in Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” “That was just the highlight because I nailed it,” she says without a drop of ego. “This is something I never thought I could do.”
She moved to Palm Springs from Riverside for a position with a mortgage firm, but Wanzek wasn’t the only one who’d seen her perform at Open Call. Mimms was immediately in demand: The Purple Room, Vicky’s of Santa Fe, PS Underground, some clubs that have come and gone. But one thing remains the same. Her philanthropy.
“She’s been working with me and the Club probably for 12 years,” says Jan Darlington of the Palm Springs Woman’s Club. “She’s performed at benefits for us many, many times.” The charitable organization has been raising money for scholarships for Palm Springs High School students for the past 85 years.
Five years ago, Mimms began an unplanned journey: she started losing weight. Quite suddenly, she was half of her former self. She was performing, but her appearance was alarmingly delicate. Fans asked, “Is Keisha OK?” What they didn’t know — but what her best friends David Bader and Michael Shiplett knew — was that Mimms was very much not OK. The once energetic performer could barely drag herself out of bed. She was in constant, excruciating pain, and had recently stayed 14 days in the hospital with neither relief nor answers.
“When I got out, [Bader and Shiplett] took me back to my house,” she softly recalls, her voice catching. “They were with me on the phone in the middle of the night. I would be just crying in so much pain. It’d be 11:30 at night, they’d knock on the door, and then put me in the hot shower — that helped. I couldn’t shower alone.”
Bader and Shiplett suggested she try DAP Health, but Mimms demurred. She wasn’t unfamiliar with the great work the nonprofit was known for — she had donated her time as a performer for fundraising events, and for silent auctions for private concerts. It was a demographics issue.
“I’m not a guy and I’m not gay. And I don’t have AIDS. I know it’s not AIDS. We already ruled that out,” Mimms says.
Like countless others, Mimms misconstrued the breadth of DAP Health’s services. Many aren’t aware DAP Health is also a Medi-Cal and Medicare provider through Inland Empire Health Plan (IEHP), the largest not-for-profit Medi-Cal and Medicare health plan in the Inland Empire, and one of the fastest-growing health plans in the nation. Those who have fallen on unfortunate times can apply and choose from DAP Health’s exhaustive menu. The organization has programs and employees that cover virtually everything, including mental health and chiropractic care.
Bader and Shiplett called DAP Health and explained Mimms’ condition. “Within two hours: ‘Hello. I’m from DAP. I’m an intake nurse and we want to schedule you for an appointment for tomorrow,’” Mimms recalls. When she arrived, Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Morris was waiting.
“The first thing I said was, ‘Just help me die. That’s all I’m asking you to do. I don’t need your medicine. I need you to help me die. Please.’” There is no drama in Mimms’ voice, but the memory of the moment is absolutely palpable.
“He took my hand and said, ‘I know who you are. I know what you do in this community. And if there’s one thing I’m not going to do, it’s help you die. You will live under my watch. We’re gonna figure out what it takes to help you live.’”
If the horrors of the AIDS epidemic taught anyone anything, it’s that it takes a village. Morris secured an appointment for Mimms at the world-famous Loma Linda University Medical Center. After some rigorous testing and diagnostics, Mimms had a diagnosis: systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), an autoimmune disease. From the CDC’s website: “The immune system attacks its own tissues, causing widespread inflammation and tissue damage in the affected organs. It can affect the joints, skin, brain, lungs, kidneys, and blood vessels. There is no cure for lupus, but medical interventions and lifestyle changes can help control it.”
Mimms’ illness spurred her to develop a scholarship fund with Palm Springs Unified School District. That journey began years ago when her daughter took dance classes at Palm Springs High School. Her young teacher was having a tough time with some students. Mimms had credentials, and volunteered to help. “So, I started working with these kids,” she says. Not just her daughter’s dance class, but all the classes. “Then it went to working with the orchestra, and teaching vocals to the jazz kids. So, I was singing with the kids, dancing with the kids, and talking to the kids. They called me Mama K. I couldn’t get to the counter [without], ‘Mama K, Mama K’ and hugs, hugs, hugs.”
Budgets were tight for some families. Instruments, uniforms, and bus tickets for events were a low priority. So, Mama K provided. “As a kid, I had everything. If I was in cheer, I got a cheer outfit: the shoes, the jacket, the letter. I’m seeing these kids trying to get to college. That’s why I started the Keisha D Music Scholarship. Every year, seniors can apply for funds. I have a friend, he’s a philanthropist as well. He said, ‘I’ll match dollar for dollar up to $35,000 every year, but you gotta raise it.’ Every year since, I’ve raised … maybe a little less than $30K. He matched it.”
In 2020, Mimms received a star on the Walk of the Stars Palm Springs and recalls the shock at seeing pictures of herself at the unveiling. “I looked like Skeletor,” she says, grimacing.
Today, Mimms’ all-around care is monitored by Dr. Morris and his handpicked Keisha D team. “They’re keeping me comfortable,” she says, “and they’re keeping me well. They’re doing a fabulous job.”
Even though the last five years have been challenging, Mimms has still supported DAP Health by participating in its “Hope Begins with Health Care” televised special and by serving as a storyteller at the weekly IMPACT Hour tours (a by-invitation-only backstage visit of the facilities for prospective donors).
With her new regimen, Mimms is looking and feeling much better. Her pain is regulated so well that she recently did a show with her band, Hearts of Soul, at the Palm Springs Cultural Center (PSCC). Part of a series celebrating Black female singers, the first featured Chaka Khan and Tina Turner songs. “We had dancers and everything,” says Mimms. “I can’t believe I was able to do that.” She also has Soulful Sundays at PSCC; Wednesdays at Mr. Lyons; Thursdays, Roost in Cathedral City; and Fridays at the kitschy PS Air Bar. She stays busy.
Mimms sings a song from “Hairspray” that is Wanzek’s favorite. Sung by Motormouth Mabel, it’s the title of this article, and seems to encapsulate Mimms — past and present. In fact, it seems to speak to her core being. Here’s Mabel talking: “What do we do when we see something wrong? We fix it. And I’m here to tell you, I’m going to keep on trying!” And then, singing: “There’s a struggle that we have yet to win. And there’s pride in my heart, ’cause I know where I’m going, and I know where I’ve been.”
Amen, Mabel. Amen!