BelMadea: the legend
Updated: Apr 15
She walks down the steps to take her position by the pep band. Her black work Crocs thud against the cement.
Where the shoes end, a pair of short, white socks emerge on top of another pair. The tall, red soccer socks reach up almost to the knees.
After a small patch of skin comes the hem of the skirt.
A modest length.
But the modesty quickly goes out the window.
Moving up the torso, something big stands out.
A banner with red, green and blue letters spelling out “BELMADEA” sits fastened on the front of her chest to draw even more attention to the overstuffed blouse.
A gray wig, boxy glasses and red lipstick round out the ensemble.
At basketball games, Antonio Peebles, the softspoken cafeteria worker, dons this getup to become BelMadea. The Belmont take on Tyler Perry’s iconic character stands in the endzone by the pep band dancing and waving pompoms.
But under a recently revised state law, Peebles might need to take a good look at his costume.
Governor Bill Lee signed a bill redefining “adult cabaret performance” and banning it on public property or in view of minors.
The bill includes, “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest” in the definition.
BelMadea does not aim to appeal to any sort of prurient interest - one that is overtly sexual.
BelMadea aims to bring a smile to students’ faces, like Peebles tries to do in all aspects of his job.
At his day job, he stands at the entrance to the dining hall to greet and chat with students, faculty and staff.
“I want you guys to feel comfortable here because a majority of students are away from home,” he said.
He started at the now long-gone Quiznos in the Curb Café before moving to Corner Court and then the old dining hall in the Gabhart Student Center, said Peebles.
A year before the dining hall moved to the new Johnson Center, BelMadea was born.
“I was trying to figure out what to do for Halloween because we had this big Halloween contest in the dining hall,” Peebles said. “And Miss Tonya was like, ‘Why don’t you do Madea?’”
Tonya Granberry, now in her 39th year at Belmont, currently serves as the lead supervisor for the dining hall. Along with giving Peebles the Madea idea, she also gave him a wig, glasses and lipstick, said Peebles.
He just needed to get a dress and figure out the ample figure.
“I used pillows for boobs,” Peebles said.
A few weeks later, BelMadea made her first appearance at a basketball game.
“The pep band was playing ‘Treasure,’” Peebles said. “And I just stood up and started dancing.”
Now, the band plays the Bruno Mars hit in every pregame lineup, said the director of the pep band, George Shannon II.
“BelMadea always gets a seat by the isle, so BelMadea can step out and do the dance,” said Shannon.
And dance BelMadea does.
Belmont sophomore Sydel Petty has seen a lot of BelMadea’s moves at the games.
“It was definitely a little shocking at first, then really funny,” Petty said.
She sometimes doesn’t notice BelMadea from her spot in the student section, but when she does, it makes her smile.
“It’s always nice to glance and see that dancing over there,” said Petty.
But as funny as the whole scene is, becoming BelMadea came with a learning curve.
Peebles switched from pillows to towels for the bosom to help absorb the sweat.
“I would just go home soaked every game,” he said.
The sweat also keeps BelMadea from making outdoor appearances.
Peebles went to a women’s soccer game but left early. The Tennessee heat and the resulting perspiration were too much.
“And when I sat in the car, it was just ‘squish squish,’” said Peebles.
Because of this excessive dampness, Peebles refused to go to even one men's game as BelMadea.
“I learned my lesson,” he said.
But more lessons came. BelMadea learned the hard way to limit when and where to jump.
At one game, BelMadea wandered off from her normal spot across the court and sat in the kids' zone, said Peebles.
During one of the media timeouts at every game, the kids’ zone plays host to the jump-cam.
BelMadea joined in.
“I wasn’t thinking,” Peebles said. “I was just flopping.”
He looked up to see himself on the screen and realized how BelMadea’s full figure appeared when jumping. He called it quits.
“Never again,” he said.
The abundant bouncing of BelMadea’s bosom was perhaps a bit beyond decent. And putting on this performance next to children didn’t help.
However, Peebles says children can often tell that he is a man under the wig, sometimes even before their parents.
Despite the criticism leveled against the bill, proponents such as Rep. Chris Todd, who sponsored the bill in the House, maintain it would protect children from inappropriate content.
“The bill only applies to performances that are considered harmful to minors under the state’s obscenity laws,” Todd said when introducing the bill to the floor. “This is a commonsense child safety bill.”
Other representatives expressed concerns over the potential applications.
But BelMadea, especially with the lessons Peebles picked up, should be in the clear.
“BelMadea is fun,” Peebles said, she is not meant to be sexy.
At games, BelMadea/Peebles wants to raise spirits and the roof, not cause problems.
“That’s not what God wants. God wants us to love each other.”
This article was written by Luke Ayers
This article was updated on April 15 to include George Shannon.