He couldn’t read or write when he dropped out of secondary school and ran away from home to fend and live in the gritty streets of Montego Bay, followed by Half Way Tree in St Andrew.
“I was on the street pushing cart in the Montego Bay market for many many years – sleeping in the market, sleeping on the sidewalk – just like what a regular runaway would do,” said Lacell Parnell, the actor popularly known as Girlie and Mr Handsome.
He told The Jamaica Beacon that his main reasons for fleeing his Maroon Town home in St James included underdevelopment.
“I wasn’t being abused at home; I wasn’t being neglected. I was just being me – just being bad and wanted to run,” added Parnell.
He eventually traded the streets of Montego Bay for those of Half Way Tree, and would oftentimes seek refuge in The Half Way Tree Playhouse – a theatre.
When the theatre operators eventually discovered that he was sneaking into the building at night, they gave him the opportunity to sleep there, but under the condition that he would clean the facility. “By taking that choice to stay, I took the opportunity to watch every play at the Playhouse,” Parnell noted.
Parnell first appeared on stage when an actor did not show up for a play, and actress Paula Powell suggested that he be used to fill the void, playing the role of a policeman. “Some of the actors think I was funnier than the original person that was supposed to play the role.”
However, Parnell, who attended Chatsworth All Age School and later dropped out of Maldon High in St James, ran into a massive hurdle.
“One of my downfall is that I couldn’t read the script,” he admitted. “It was a dream crushed for me, but I still pushed on.”
Another opportunity popped up when, in about 1992, actors were being recruited for the ‘Story Come To Bump’ play.
“One of the persons auditioning was Orville Hall. I told him about my situation and he actually voice-recorded the whole script and gave it to me,” Parnell recalled.
“I listened to the tape every day, every night until I knew it back and front. That’s how they ended up putting me on stage and, from that day, I never looked back.”
Parnell went on to secure roles in other productions such as Twice My Age, Murder She Wrote, Hataclaps, Girlie Maternity, and the two-part Fire Inna Yuh Wire.
“My biggest breakthrough in theatre was when Ian Reid wrote the play Fire Inna Yuh Wire. That’s the first time I played a major role – the straight female character known as Girlie,” said the actor, who turned 48 last month.
The Girlie character, he explained, was to be a vulgar woman from the inner-city.
During rehearsals, Parnell brought the character to life far better than the woman initially picked to play the role. The rest was history.
“When I finish that show and take off that dress, I am Lacell. When I put on that dress, I become Girlie.”
Parnell, who also played female roles in other productions, has no qualms about how he may be perceived in a society that takes umbrage at anything questioning masculinity.
“Whatever people are gonna say about you, they are gonna say it anyways – whether they gonna call you gay or may – whatever! For me, I am not uncomfortable. Girlie is just a character.”
“When I finish that show and take off that dress, I am Lacell. When I put on that dress I become Girlie,” added the actor, who underscored the importance of using his talent to earn a honest living despite what naysayers may say. “I am not gonna thief!” he declared.
Marriage, death of wife
At the height of his career, Parnell, in 1996, migrated to the United States. He stated that he eventually got his green card as well as a job at Woodhull Medical Center in Brooklyn.
He also opened a company called LRV Production, he told The Jamaica Beacon.
Parnell added that he became a father of three children and wedded a United States citizen, Veronica, who passed away a month after surgery in 2004.
“When you lose someone it’s like everything started to go down,” he posited, adding that his in-laws were a tower of strength during that challenging period of his life.
He ended up back in Jamaica in 2012 after being convicted in a United States court.
“That was the past; I am here comfortably now. It is only hard at times because of the type of work I do,” Parnell said, adding that he is available for emcee jobs and commercials.
Since he returned to the island, the actor, along with playwright Everton Dawkins, tried unsuccessfully to resurrect the Girlie character.
“As long as you are not active in Jamaica, it seems like somebody else is gonna come and take the baton from you,” Parnell explained.
“When I came back to the island, I tried to pick up where I left off in drama. I tried every different ways to get the Girlie character up, but it seems I am pushing water uphill without a pump. I came to the point where I said I am tired.”
Changing stage name to Mr Handsome
Parnell turned to the church and was baptized. “The best thing for me to do was to surrender my life. I changed my life in 2014; got baptized. I am in church ever since,” he said.
The actor, who also is a singer, stated that most of his work now is linked to the church. He is working on a Gospel album and promoting his new stage name, Mr Handsome.
Parnell also hopes to start a sitcom, House of Handsome, on local television or cable. He, along with Matania Samuel, wrote the sitcom.
“We have good writers; we have good directors; we are good actors; we just need to be helped. A lot of people overseas are appreciating our shows, but we down here [in Jamaica] aren’t appreciating them,” Parnell lamented, but said he is pleased with his career so far.
“My journey has been rough and fun, but it is worth every bit of heartache,” he declared.
“There were many times when I fell down in the gully, not knowing that I would ever get up again. But here I am; here I am today.”
Noting that he has made the best of the ‘little bit of education’ he received, Parnell encouraged young actors to be creative and different. “Come up with your own style; create your own character. Once you do that, people will want to see it. Don’t try to be anybody else; be yourself,” he advised.
By Horace Mills