Name Droppers

Every year hundreds of Miami's titularly challenged discover that a new name can mean a new you

After growing up in a series of chilly, drab-sounding places like Grosse Pointe, Michigan, Sioux City, Iowa, and Manchester, Massachusetts, a drab-sounding woman named Joann Kozlin settled in exciting South Florida.

In 1994 she got into the swing of things by declaring bankruptcy in Broward County. She took up singing after a near-fatal car wreck, underwent breast augmentation surgery, moved to Miami Beach, and discovered politics (of a somewhat attenuated bandwidth: Being a big fan of B- and C-complex vitamins, she lobbied against federal regulation of their over-the-counter sales). Then this past May 15, Joann Kozlin walked into the Flagler Street courthouse and filled out a four-page no-brainer called Florida Family Law Form 12.982, Petition/Request for Name Change.

Processing the form would take a few days and require a quick hearing before a circuit court judge, but there was little chance of denial. For all practical purposes, Joann Kozlin wasn't Joann Kozlin when she walked back outside and down the steps past the hot dog vendors. She was now Tira Misu.

"I actually expected the judge to give me a hard time," says the 32-year-old president of Sexess Entertainment (a sole proprietorship devoted to making Tira Misu a household word), as she fluffs a detonation of hair. "Usually when people change their name, they're criminals."

Someone, she explains, stole her purse in a nightclub recently and wrote a lot of bad checks, pretending to be Joann Kozlin. The mixup landed her in jail for a few days. So the name change was partly armor against further legal hassles, partly self-promotion. In addition to her singing career, she works part-time as an exotic bikini dancer at the Rio Verde Restaurant in northwest Miami. "Tira Misu is delicious," she notes. "I want to be known as something rich and sweet!"

While she shows off her new Florida driver's license, Tira Misu's singing voice issues from a CD player in the background. It's a naughty contralto flitting through a thicket of synthesizers and electric pianos and echo chambers ("Sex and Love drive my hormones to the sky, leave me breathless, I can't deny!/Boys want Sex and girls need Love, can you guess which one I'm thinking of?"). She points past a framed portrait of Madonna on the west wall of her cluttered Miami Beach efficiency. Beyond the breakfast table on the balcony lie the mansions of Star Island. "That's where I'm going to live next," she says. "Count on it!"

Approximately 800 people a year go to court in Miami to change their names. This number doesn't include the thousands of newly married women who take on their husbands' surnames, a routine procedure that requires no judicial review. Nor does it include many criminals. In the last six months only one applicant, Fitzgerald D. Guignard, was a convicted felon. (Now he's Mark Shabazz.) And Tira Misu is the sole example of someone adopting what could be viewed as an exotic stage name.

Some name changes require little explanation. Vladimir Mark Tchekanov, an FAU junior from St. Petersburg (the one on the Gulf of Finland, not the one on the Gulf of Mexico) wanted to be known as Mark Vlad Clay, and now he is. Jimmy Lloyd Parrott became James R. Parrish. America Cao, one of several victims of immigrant gratitude gone wild, officially switched to Amy. Todd Jared Gross reshuffled himself into Jared Todd Gross. Pebbles Jaleesa Lopez got rid of her cartoonish first name. Charnchai Luppanachokdee is now Charles Sim. The unfortunately named Louis Rodolfo Diaz (a woman) changed to Chantal Louise Diaz. A toddler who got shortchanged at birth ("Flores," his birth certificate reads in its entirety) got a full billing: Eduardo Jose Alvarez. David Lee Lathron changed his last name to Farr after discovering halfway through life that he was adopted in 1957. His wife Charlene Joyce Lathron changed her name too.

Name changers often have subtle motives, and there turns out to be more to their stories than court records suggest.

"I love my son," says Cesar De La Terga. Great, but why saddle him with a name like Hanoi De La Terga? "I didn't," the father contends. "Not exactly." He explains: "Twenty-two years ago when my son was born in Cuba, he was the only male baby in a military hospital. On that date the government was expecting the visit of Pham Van Dong, the prime minister of North Vietnam. Somebody said, 'Let's call this kid something related to Vietnam!' If you know anything about the political situation in Cuba, you can understand how it was not so easy for me to refuse what they were trying to do. I always told my son that if he wanted to change his name, it wouldn't hurt my feelings. But he liked his name fine until we came here one and a half years ago. Hanoi, it's not liked so much here in the United States."

Hanoi De La Terga, a surveyor for a local construction firm, officially adopted his father's name on May 9. He's now Cesar De La Terga, Jr. "I also have a daughter named Kenya," the elder Cesar adds. "But that's another story."

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