Phoenix Rising

by | Mar 1, 2021 | 0 comments

  • Photographed by Scotty Kirby.
  • Photographed by Scotty Kirby.
  • Backup dancing for Coco Montrese at Milwaukee PrideFest.
  • With mom, Marcy, before riding in the Wisconsin AIDS Ride.
  • Performing at Plan B's Fruitfest.
  • At Madison Pride.

Drag Race calls you a Phoenix queen, but to us you’ll always be from here.

I was born in Iowa City, but I moved to Madison when I was like four or five years old.

When did you start performing?

I started ice skating when I was 11 or 12.

Was that at Madison Ice Arena?

Sometimes. You know Madison—there are so many ice rinks that if you skate, you skate at all of them.

For gay guys, ice skating has a history as stereotypical. I’ve wondered if that caused any bullying when you were younger?

I mean, who doesn’t get bullied for anything these days? But yeah, it did. I would go skating early in the morning before school, then I would try to schedule my gym class first, to kind of get all of that out of the way. I didn’t do things like track and field or soccer. It didn’t help that I was already feminine.

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When did you know that you were gay?

I think I always knew, but when you haven’t hit puberty yet, you’re not thinking about things like you do as an adult. Like today, I’m sexually attracted to men. I couldn’t say that when I was five or six. Although I just loved Prince Eric. Once I got to middle school I was like, “I am attracted to these people. I don’t really know why, but I know it’s not normal. So I’m just not going to say anything.”

Which middle and high school did you go to?

I went to Spring Harbor and then in high school, I moved back to Iowa City for freshman year. But from sophomore to senior year, I went to Memorial.

So when you came out, was it a big deal?

Actually, I didn’t technically come out of the closet until right before graduation. I think I was the last person to want to finally admit it. Then I realized, “Okay, I’m not going to see any of these people again. Let me live my life.”

I first met you when you started performing at FIVE nightclub. You were so young.

I was probably 19 when I discovered that realm, and I wasn’t even allowed to drink yet.

What initially introduced you to performing in gay clubs?

I remember going to Club 5, which it was called at the time, on Tuesday’s 18+ nights because I was 18. There was that horrid orange fence separating the dance floor and the bar on chicken nights. I remember I would have a friend go over to the bar, take a shot of tequila and then come over to the other side. And he’d kiss me and spit at my mouth. And that’s how we would get our alcohol when we weren’t allowed on the other side of that fence.

I remember I saw a drag show there, Ava Stone. And I was like, “This is the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen.” I was so excited to watch every drag show. It was the thing I looked forward to the most.

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Do you think that tied in to your ice skating background?

I don’t think so, but I’m a Leo, and I love attention. I’ll take it where I can get it. I was like, “Wow, they’re living their fantasy, doing what they do in the shower and they’re getting paid for it? I can do that.”

When you decided to start performing, what made you decide to perform in male drag?

Drag is really intense. There’s all this padding, and a lot of makeup. I remember the first time I saw a guy perform who wasn’t a stripper and kind of did male drag. And I was like, “Oh, you can do that? Okay. Let me do that.” I did that for a few years, then I finally said, “I’m going to be a queen now.”

As long as I’ve known you, you’ve been an incredible dancer. When did you start?

The dancing didn’t come out until after I started clubbing. There were no dance classes. I just loved to go out dancing. Then I auditioned and danced for an organization called Hypnotiq at the UW. That’s where I was exposed to eight counts.

How long did you do male drag before switching to performing as a queen?

I moved from Madison to Milwaukee to work as a ballroom dance instructor. At the time, I was like, “I’m going to really focus on this career right now.” That’s when I phased out of male drag.

Then a while later, I went to a pageant at La Cage in Milwaukee, and the prize package was incredible. I was like, “Wait a minute. They’re going to get all this money? Okay, I can do this.”

When you started performing as a queen in Milwaukee, what was the scene like?

The scene accepted me right away, but I guess you could say I already had an in. I’d already done back-up dancing with them. I asked that if I ever did drag, would they book me? They said, “Yeah, just let us know.”

So I did my first handful of shows for Hamburger Mary’s. Then I would do La Cage. And then I decided, “I’m not going to wear a wig and perform Pink. Let’s see how this goes.” I loved it, and they were okay with that. After that, I started to not wear a wig without performing Pink. And then everyone had a really big problem. I was like, “You guys just worry about yourself. Let me just live my little gay fantasy right now.”

I remember hearing stories here about queens waiting to get a chance to put you in drag. You literally had a list of people waiting for the chance to get you in a dress.

Oh yeah, for sure.

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With being fem in life, do you think not wearing a wig in drag came from wanting to create a really butch alter ego?

You know, I’m still figuring this out, I’ll be honest with you. I know I’m just this little gay boy frolicking around listening to Ariana Grande Monday through Friday. But in drag, I really like having this kind of rebellious punk rock attitude. I want to look like, “I can’t kick your ass, but I want to look like I can.” Some of that inspiration comes from entertainers like Pink and Eliza Dushku. Any action movie with a female lead is like that. Underworld’s Resident Evil, most of the female X-Men…
I just gravitate towards that. I’m not really feeling the damsel in distress vibe. I can open the door for myself, thank you very much. Once I take the makeup off though, then I’d want a piggyback ride!

Ballroom teaching took you west, right?

Yes. I knew I wanted out of Wisconsin. I knew it would be healthy for me to live somewhere else; I think a lot of people forget that you can always move back home. I was like, “Okay, now is the perfect time. I’m young. I have all these years ahead of me. I would rather not ask myself “What if?” So, I took the first opportunity that I could, and I moved to Arizona. I wanted to go to the West Coast. Arizona isn’t quite LA, but it sure is a lot closer.

When you finally got to Phoenix, how did that impact your drag?

I’d only been doing drag for a year before I moved here. I came out here to open up a dance studio. Then, I was able to get a booking, and they really enjoyed it. And they were like, “Do you want to be a monthly cast member? And I said, “Thank you so much, but I don’t have that much drag. I just do this for fun. I’ll do it every now and then.”

Andrew, our show director, really wanted me to be on cast. He talked to other queens and helped me get costumes. So, I finally said yes. After a few months went by, he asked, “What do you think about being on cast every week?” and I said, “Absolutely not. I don’t want to dedicate every single Friday for the rest of my life to drag.” We see how that turned out…

Where did your appeal to RuPaul’s Drag Race come from? I remember years ago when you and Collin Falvey back-up danced for Season Five’s Coco Montrese at PrideFest.

My drag is a little bit different. Even though I liked pageants, I knew my drag would be better for television than it would be for the USofA pageant. I could do a USofA pageant, but I feel like I’d have to do something different. I really just wanted to be myself.

So as soon I started painting, Drag Race was one of my goals. I even started my audition tape two months after I began doing my makeup, just to see what the process would be like.

I knew I wasn’t going to get on. I was disgusting. But I wanted to know what the process was, so that when I was ready, I had already done it a couple times.

So you get the call. Now you have to scramble to try to get everything together.

Oh, my God. That’s when the pandemic hit.

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What kind of magic did you have to pull off to get stuff together during COVID?

Luckily, I lived in Phoenix. At the time, they kind of didn’t think that COVID was real. We weren’t completely shut down like New York. I ended up driving out to LA a lot. I’ve never done that drive so many times in one month. I would go to the fashion district and buy fabric. I had my sewing machine in my trunk, and I would just go downtown and be sewing all day. I’m not that good of a sewer, but I also don’t have thousands of dollars. So I’m like, “We have to make it work. I’ll sleep when I die.”

Didn’t you guys have to quarantine before?

We had to quarantine for 12 days. It was crazy. Normally the girls will get there on a Friday or Saturday and start filming on Monday.

You finally show up on set. Besides just being surreal, what are your thoughts when you’re finally walking in?  

I’ve never been more nervous in my life. I remember waiting to walk into the werkroom. I can hear one other girl is in there. And I’m like, “Is this happening right now? This is crazy.”

I was really confident in my look. I had my chicken feathers on. I had my wet hair. It was this big plan: I’m going to wear a wig when I walk in so the girls are going to gag when I don’t wear one on the runway. That’s going to be my moment to talk about my actual drag aesthetic. I walk in, I meet Kandy Muse. The TV goes off. My plan goes down the garbage disposal because now they’re like, “You’re going to lip sync right now.”

What was your favorite memory from filming—on camera or not?

A couple of things: I didn’t get my first hug for about two weeks, and when I did, it was from Utica. Utica is like 8’9”. It was the best hug that I have ever gotten. I could just feel the serotonin rushing through my body.

Then, when we did the ball challenge, I had so much fun making my outfit. That was the most zen that I felt because I went into my zone and got to be creative while making it. Ironically, that’s when I went home, but that’s okay.

I knew that wearing no wig was going to be a thing. We did the ball challenge, and we had three looks, and I’m like, “I’m going to wear my own hair for my second look because I love this jacket. I know it’s been seen already, but it’s my favorite thing that I own, and I’m going to wear my natural red hair with it.” At least the fans are living for it.

The season promo finally drops, and the media hype takes off. Have you noticed any specific moments of growth either from being on the show or from it airing?

Oh yeah. I’m already seeing it. I’m looking at my makeup on the show right now and thinking, “Whoa, that’s not good.” But also it’s not like we had all the time in the world to get ready for this. Now that I got on, I also have this new confidence. It’s very validating, because when you start doing drag, a lot of people can be quick to put your drag down if it is different. So when you get that call, you’re like, “Actually, fuck all of you. I got the call from like the one queen that you want to call you.”

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RuPaul says it constantly, “You’ve got to brand yourself.” You’ve definitely done that.

Exactly. I’m very lucky. I’m the filler queen that lasted the longest.

Often you’ll hear past queens say that your time on the show doesn’t matter. What you do with that “is when the race starts.”

I’m having a blast. I have a manager now, and I’ll tell him, “I’ll sleep when I die. I want every single booking.” I finally made it here. Why am I going to say no to these things?

As long as I’ve known you, I’ve heard you talk about never being out of the country. You have your passport now, so where are your top places to go when it’s safe?

I really want to go to Australia. That’s really high on the list. I really want to travel around on a European tour. I also want to go to Israel, and I have to go to Brazil.

I can’t wrap up this interview until I know how your mom is handling all of this.

Oh, Mom is great. She’s very proud. She’s my number-one supporter. I just told her don’t read the comments. LOL!

I want to say how proud of you I am. I still remember the night my place got broken into. You came and slept on the couch to keep me safe. It’s funny that I, this gorilla of a guy, would need anybody to keep  me safe.

Then you look back, and it’s like, “You picked Joey? The smallest chihuahua of a gay.”

It’s been a joy to watch you go off and bloom.

Thank you. I’m loving every moment.

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