Usually when life's a drag, it's not by choice. For these ten ladies drag wasn't a choice either, but rather a calling. From veterans to newcomers and everything in between, here are 10 of our favorite men known for primping, pinning, and tucking to become some of the Valley's most recognized and followed female impersonators.
We hung around the best gay bars in Phoenix to find our favorite leading ladies who always win us over with their sass, charm, and penchant for big, big hair.
See also: 10 Best Drag Shows in Metro Phoenix
Tyra Marie will be the first to admit drag is like therapy for her.
"I had a difficult childhood, was bullied throughout elementary school and didn't have a lot of confidence growing up," she says. "As time passed and I started getting more into drag, I started to build more confidence. That confidence grew on me and to my male persona."
Named partly for Tyra Banks and partly as family tradition ("all the females on my mother's side have "Marie" as their middle name. Yes, all eight of them," she says), Marie, like many of the others on this list, was crowned Miss Gay Arizona America last year -- a presitigous statewide title that leads to competition at the national Miss Gay America pageant. She entertains as a frequent guest star at bars like Karamba Night Club and Apollo's Lounge.
"My inspiration comes from our GLBT community," says the performer, who isn't currently working on a regular show, but appears at any number of gay bars as a guest star. "The love that our community gives to the drag queens is amazing. That love is my inspiration to continue this art."
"My first introduction to drag was from my mother," says Barbra Seville, a towering woman with a presence to match. "She saw the legendary Kenny Kerr in Las Vegas in the 1980s [and] came home gushing about the show. Oddly, when I first started drag people told me I reminded them of Kenny [and] many years later, I worked with him. He was a consummate pro."
Seville is known as a pioneer of sorts, in and among the gay bars of Seventh Street and Avenue. She's gained attention in the past for her Jan Brewer YouTube video sensation and her "Ask Barbra" column in the biweekly Echo magazine. After 15 years of performing, Seville (a.k.a. Richard Stevens) has amassed both an impressive collection of breasts and Miss Gay Arizona and Miss Gay Phoenix titles.
She's hosted an annual awards show, the Barbra Seville Golden Wighead Awards, and marshaled gay pride events across the country. But she's also a bit of a hometown hero, performing around a variety of Valley stages, from former Taco Bells to the Orpheum Theatre, she says. Weekly she headlines at Charlie's (Mondays), The Bar on Central (ShowTime Thursdays with co-host Ian Christiansen), Cruisin' 7th (Fridays), and the Rock (Saturdays) -- the only constant at each of them being "big blonde hair," she says.
"The drag scene is diverse. There are a lot of shows, and a lot of queens, so you have to do something to stick out," says the recently crowned Miss Phoenix Gay Pride 2014. "I think my 'hook' is live comedy. Others are known for their look, their dance ability, or their impersonations of celebrities. The gay scene is fun and welcoming. Gay Phoenix -- and Phoenix in general -- has a serious inferiority complex, though."
"I have been a performer since I started trying on my mom's wigs when I was a little boy," says Richie Black, who regularly performs as Celia Putty around the metro Phoenix area. After high school Black partnered with Richard Stevens (known drag queen Barbra Seville) for a costume show called "Richard & Richard."
"In 1994, around the age of 23, we both made the decision to approach female impersonation more seriously," he says. "We carved hip pads from sofa cushions, stuffed old stockings with bird seed to create boobs, and we studied seasoned drag queens for make-up tips."
Once the host of four long-running shows ("Freaky Friday" at Friends Again, "Two Girls One Cup" at Kobalt, "Queens of the Damned" at Amsterdam, and "Sunday Morning Madness" at Cruisin' 7th), Putty elected to take a break from "the responsibility of hosting shows," and instead makes semi-frequent guest appearances at Crescent Ballroom and the Rock.
"The drag scene here in Phoenix is enormous, but most performers fall into different sub-categories of drag and lifestyle," says Putty, who once placed in the top five for Miss Gay America. "I pride myself as an entertainer first, someone whose drag is secondary. Drag is merely my vehicle to deliver the style of comedy I enjoy."
"A handful of off-duty, uniformed police officers eagerly asked me if they could escort me through the crowd and stand behind me on stage while I performed," she explains. "Halfway through my performance, and not having seen my routine before, they realized they got caught up in the moment and had made a mistake. There were cameras everywhere and suddenly it must have dawned on them that their superiors might frown upon their time with me on stage. Just as I pulled up my skirt and revealed to the audience my giant tea bags, the five cops scurried off stage in a huff."
Weekends at Charlie's, arguably the metro area's most prominent gay bar (even if it is part of a chain) essentially belong to Pussy LeHoot, with her wide smile, heavy eye makeup, and head-bitch-in-charge attitude. The hostess with the most-est holds a weekly Saturday night patio show (10 p.m.), typically as a donation platform to local organizations, with Sunday nights (8 p.m.) reserved for "Pussy LeHoot and Friends," a two-hour-plus endeavor featuring talent from all over the city and state. The two are the longest running drag shows in Arizona, the latter being the longest running female impersonation night in the Southwest, says LeHoot.
"What makes this show different is it's a true variety show, combining all aspects of the art of female illusion," she says. "Drag today tends to be all high energy dance shows... yawn! At 'Pussy LeHoot and Friends,' even though we are on a huge dance floor we bring the true cabaret-style show to the stage, to packed houses for the past 14 years."
LeHoot has been on the scene since 1980, with an impressive collection of titles under her belt including Miss International Gay Rodeo (2005) and Miss Gay Phoenix (1989). Her strongest asset is emceeing in true queen form, with "bitchy, sassy, unforgiving zingers pointed at audience members, current events and relevant celebrities are all fair game for the acid-tongued queen," she says.
"I think there are too many people trying to get into show business," she says. "Yes, some look good, but without the character and personality, you're just a man in a dress."
"I decided on 'Stevens' because I like to say I am the prettier sister of Samantha Stevens from Bewitched," says Savannah Stevens, who started drag as an extension of her own theatrical background.
"People should know that my shows are highly interactive," she says of her monthly Friday night hit, Scandaleyez at the Rock. "I draw inspiration from so many sources, but look to queens who came before me and set the standards of "drag." Some queens I greatly admire are India Ferrah for her amazing makeup and dancing, Cotti Collins for her stellar impersonations, and several local performers for their emcee abilities and comedic wit."
"I would have to say that the Phoenix drag scene is very eclectic," she says. "We have a wide range of entertainers from comedic to glamorous. As a whole, our gay community has shown time and time again that we are one and despite differences, we can all come together in times of need."
Stevens, who has been entertaining for 13 years, was recently crowned Miss Gay Phoenix, America 2014 and once placed in the top 10 at the National Entertainer of the Year Pageant. She placed as first alternate for Miss Gay Arizona, America 2014 (Grecia Montes d'Occa).
Olivia Gardens "My dress doesn't fit my boobs!" Olivia Gardens says mid-costume change. It's a busy Thursday night at Crescent Ballroom -- the lounge is packed and the ballroom empty as it nears midnight. She studies the plush, white padding and works to create the perfect cleavage. "These are the first boobs I ever bought."
Gardens is toned and petite, the kind of drag queen who might, if you weren't paying attention or perhaps had had one too many, make you do a double take before you realize that beneath all that woman is, well, a man.
"I've always loved being the center of attention, so doing drag made total sense," she says. "[And] when I first started drag, Olive Garden was my favorite restaurant -- it still ranks top five, I can't break free from that salad dressing! So the name 'Olivia Gardens' seemed appropriate. And who doesn't like a good tossed salad joke, right?"
Gardens, who has been crowned Miss Phoenix USofA (2010), Miss Phoenix Gay Pride (2011), and Miss Gay Phoenix America (2012), performs weekly on Wednesdays at Kobalt for Garden Variety Revue and Thursdays at Crescent Ballroom for Truth, Drag or Dare -- always playing with a collection of ladies who, she says, keep "the drag scene wonderfully diverse."
"Audiences can expect fun, frivolity, and a few bad puns," she says.
Coco St. James
The saying goes, "behind every great man stands a great woman." And if that's true, then behind every great drag queen is a great drag husband.
That's the story with Coco St. James (real name Mikee Leon) and his long-term boyfriend, Robert Maynard, who brushes St. James' long, blonde wig while the impersonator sits on a couch in Crescent Ballroom's green room, lacing a pair of stiletto thigh-highs.
"I first did drag because my partner encouraged me to do an amateur drag competition," St. James says. "[And] I loved the feeling when I won! I kept doing drag because of the artistic expression -- I love creating new things."
"My name came from the old way to pick your stripper name: take your first pet's name (Coco) and the street you grew up on (Gaylord)," she says. "After I did a few shows and committed to drag. I dropped the 'Gaylord.' Then Naomi St. James asked me to be her 'drag daughter,' and I became Coco St. James."
St. James teams up with Olivia Gardens for their elaborate Thursday night "game show" of sorts, Truth, Drag or Dare, and the duo is working on a new weekly set at BS West in Scottsdale. "Manic Mondays" will debut at 9 p.m. Monday, July 14, and will also include a collaboration with drag queen Lady Christian.
"Lady Gaga is a huge inspiration to me," says St. James, who has been named "Best Celebrity Impersonator of the Year" for her portrayal of the star two years in a row by Arizona Drag. "I love recreating her costumes and hair and dance routines. I love her story and her vision. I try to do a Gaga performance at every show."
It's hard to choose an adjective to describe Lady Christian. "Fierce" might be one. "Experienced" could be another. But one thing is for sure, the veteran drag queen has plenty of stories after performing for nearly a decade.
"When I turned 19 years old, I sang gospel music professionally for three years before deciding I wanted to come out," she says. "I went about two years without performing after I came out, and then decided to create a character that was unlike anything that was out on the market at that time. I created Lady Christian and have been doing that ever since."
"My first job in the gay industry was working at a gay bar as a bouncer," she says. "They used to stick me all the way down at the end of the street to watch the cars, so [when] there'd be a fight at the bar or whatever and they'd always accuse me of going behind the dumpster and turning tricks and that's why they couldn't get a hold of me if there was a problem. And I'd always reply to them, 'Number one, I'm a lady, and number two, I'm a Christian,' so they started calling me Lady Christian."
The lady hosts her main show, Lady Christian's Trailer Trash Revue, at the Rock on the last Friday of every month. Her other monthly gigs include performances at Kobalt on the first Wednesday of each month and a monthly Sunday brunch at Harley's Italian Bistro. Starting in July, she'll join Gardens and St. James for their new weekly gig at BS West every Monday.
"The door is wider in this industry than it was when I first started. I blame a lot of it on RuPaul, and that's a good thing and a bad thing," she says. "There used to be a time where if you wanted to perform onstage you earned your way. A lot of the new girls come up expecting to be at a certain level. But [they] force us to push the limits a little bit. There's a lot of talent that's coming up -- and coming out."
26-year-old Kira Daniels may be one of the youngest ladies on our list, but that doesn't make her any less talented. Daniels, a trained dancer, promises high energy shows with a wit to match. She cites her best friends and desire to be "the best entertainer I can be" as her inspirations, and it's worked so far. Last year she made first alternate to Miss Gay Missouri USofA Newcomer 2013, won first place for overall talent and placing third nationwide (second alternate) at Miss Gay USofA Newcomer competition.
"I started as a backup dancer, [then became] a choreographer for drag queens," she says, "I loved the art in all of their different transformations. There is almost every different type of performer here in the Valley, you just gotta find out where they are performing."
The entertainer, once crowned Miss BS West 2012 and Miss Supernova Newcomer (2012), regularly guest stars next to Olivia Gardens when not hosting her own events like Kira Daniels' Tic Toc Revue at Zoan.
"I'm not at a specific weekly venue or bar," she says, "I like to try and give everyone a lil' slice of Kira. [Audiences] will be entertained by not only my dance moves but my quick tongue!"
Daniels (whose real name is Topher Freeman) is a newbie with a lot of promise -- and résumé to match. This Amazonian lady is one to watch.
"When I moved to Phoenix from Washington D.C., I dove into the theater scene and could only land roles playing women," Pandora DeStrange explains. "The owners of Ice Pics Video Bar saw me in [a production] and asked me to do a drag show at their club. I gathered a bunch of friend and began The Follies -- a year later we won best drag show and several of Barbra Seville's Golden Wighead Awards."
Today DeStrange, a self-described punk rock princess, spends much of her time with her band, The Flaming Queens, which recently performed at Horns and Halos Fetish Prom alongside Sharon Needles, and frequently makes solo appearances at Truth, Drag or Dare at Crescent Ballroom, The Garden Variety Show at Kobalt, and ShowTime at The Bar on Central. She regularly produces shows at the Rock including "Snatch: An Act of Drag Terrorism" and "Dirty Disney," both performed by her drag troupe, The AZ Gender Outlaws.
"My performances are not for the faint of heart or the easily offended," DeStrange says. "Divine was a huge inspiration for me. I loved the way she terrorized people and pushed the proverbial envelope with her expression of art."
DeStrange and her friends have spun that idea one step further with their concept, "Drag Terrorism." One of their earliest acts was to go out in public dressed up and record the reactions of passerby.
"We consider it 'Teaching Tolerance through Drag Terrorism'," she says. The group performed at Fiesta Mall in Mesa one summer and were subsequently kicked out and banned for a year.
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"So, a year later, on July 5 we declared Drag Independence Day and went back to Fiesta Mall [to] perform again," she says. "The security guards' only passive aggressive act was to turn off all the escalators. As if we couldn't run up an escalator in high heels!
"We ran into an older couple whose son was transgender and had been struggling to connect with others in our community. We were able to give them contacts for their son to find support to make the transition easier. They were very appreciative and thanked us profusely for showing up at the mall that day. Drag Terrorism Success!" she says.