Arnold Myint is no stranger to the spotlight.
The 30-something chef and restaurateur runs a handful of successful Nashville-area restaurants, including Suzy Wong's House of Yum and the now-closed Cha Chah. But Myint, a former professional figure skater, refused to settle in to the chef-owner narrative. He moved from behind-the-scenes to the television screen, competing on both Food Network Star last year and Bravo's Top Chef in 2010. And the culinary world isn't the only place people are taking notice: He's also a recognized drag queen and, as of last week, the winner of Miss Gay America 2017.
Myint's done-up drag persona, Suzy Wong, competed in Miss Gay America preliminary rounds four times over the past five years before being crowned Miss Gay America 2017 in the final competition in early October. (Phoenix's Savannah Stevens, this year's Miss Gay Arizona America, placed as third alternate.) As Wong, Myint was previously declared Miss Gay Tennessee America, Miss Mid-America, and Miss Gay California. Wong also won this year's Miss Gay Western States America, a regional competition that feeds into the final and was held here in the Valley.
Myint will return to Phoenix, eyelashes and wig in tow, for the annual AIDS Walk Arizona and 5K Run, held in downtown Phoenix on Sunday, October 23. The event is one of Myint's first appearances in his new Miss Gay America role.
"It's a really important issue in today's society. ... I think any type of fundraising and community awareness is important," Myint told New Times during a phone interview about his upcoming appearance. "The good thing about walking is everybody can do it in their [own] capacity. This is something everybody can contribute [to] and feel that they're making a difference, be it a $50 donation or a $50,000 donation."
Myint will walk as part of Barbra Seville's Wonderful 100, a team of volunteer walkers that includes friends, fellow queens, and community members who want to help. Seville, the team's namesake, is a prominent Valley drag queen who met Myint's drag alter ego, Wong, when they competed against each other for the title of Miss Gay America 2017. (Seville competed after winning Miss Gay California America 2016.) Seville invited the newly crowned queen to join the team as one of her first public appearances.
"The team represents teamwork, leadership [...] it is about investing in your community. It's about saying, 'I love Phoenix,'" Seville says, adding that past notable participants have included Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, FOX anchor Kari Lake, Miss Gay Arizonas, and Phoenix Pride royalty. "It's an honor to have Suzy here."
The Valley's version of the AIDS Walk began in 1987 and raised nearly $1 million for awareness and prevention. The organization that formerly hosted the walk shuttered in 2003, but the walk was revived in 2008 with a new backing organization, Aunt Rita's Foundation. Seville is a co-chair of the AIDS Walk event, which became a statewide event two years ago.
"I've seen people wither and die from HIV/AIDS [and] I've seen them fight and thrive," says Seville, a co-chair of AIDS Walk Arizona. "AIDS Walk is a reminder that we can all fight for ourselves and sends a message: When others are too weak to fight, we'll fight for you. You matter."
Nearly 18,000 people in the state are living with HIV, according to Aunt Rita's, and one in six don't know they're infected. According to HIVAZ.org, which focuses on media campaigns, medical care, and prevention, approximately 40 percent of people who are HIV positive do not get the medical treatment they need. In 2014, 750 new cases of HIV were diagnosed across the state.
"[The AIDS Walk] also forces people to, at some level, realize that HIV/AIDS is out there. It didn't go away," Seville says.
"For me, it's just continuing that legacy of supporting people in our community and raising awareness," says Myint, who remembers his mother losing friends to the virus. "We're in a place now where science and technology has really evolved, and we need to keep this issue on people's minds. Raising awareness, one, [is] still very, very important and two, the funds can go to help those who can't help themselves."
New Times: Will you be participating in the AIDS Walk Arizona as Suzy Wong?
Arnold Myint/Suzy Wong: As we speak I'm trying to strategize the sweaty wig, the eyebrows, the makeup, and the outfit, because not only am I walking, I'll be in a dress and heels, a wig, and I'll be under the Arizona sun. [laughs] So, there's a lot of factors I'm trying to figure out right now.
I'd imagine these types of public appearances are only one part of being Miss Gay America. What are some of your other duties?
The new pageant season for 2018 doesn't happen until mid-March. There's city prelims now, but I don't jump in until the state and regional level. I get to go to all the qualifying preliminaries next year, I do a lot of planning and working closely with the new owners, and I travel a lot myself, volunteering and doing community outreach. I was already active before I won last week and I'll continue being active through my reign. In March, it's full speed, so I'm trying to pace myself now — even though I'm really excited and don't want to, I really should take some time for myself.
What was your experience like during the competition? How did that compare to being a contestant on reality TV shows?
For me, being a chef and being a businessperson, I missed the aspect of performing. As a child, I was a figure skater, and as a young adult, I toured as a professional figure skater. So going into business, opening restaurants, cooking, I kind of missed the performance aspect of my life, and Miss Gay America has afforded me that spark again. [I'm] rediscovering that love of being on stage. I wasn't really sure that, with all of my other commitments, if people would take me seriously, but knowing what I've done the past two and three years [with] traveling, media experience, and with being in front of people and philanthropic ventures, I felt that I was a perfect fit. Going into this pageant, my strategy was a little different, I wanted to show the business side of me and how it's contributed to the system, and I guess it worked because I got crowned last week.
Congratulations, by the way!
I know that like, it's 2016, so hopefully we've moved past this a little bit, but I wonder if on shows like Food Network Star and Top Chef you feel like you get boxed into being "the gay contestant"? Whereas when you're doing Miss Gay America, "gay" is in the title. It's a non-issue. Everybody is.
Right. And I would like to challenge Miss Gay America to have a straight contestant at some point. You don't have to like boys to be a female impersonator. We have Robin Williams with Mrs. Doubtfire, Dame Edna, we have other people in the past that have done female illusions that are not necessarily gay.
The thing is, we can say I was typecast as the gay character, but I don't necessarily think that that was a bad thing with shows and reality TV. Everybody is typecast for television. A cast of 10 white guys is probably going to be the most boring thing ever. Not because they're all white guys, but because they're all the same. Being Asian, first of all, being gay also, and coming from the South is enough character in itself, worthy of being cast. I understand that, [and] I feel it's a gift, an opportunity. That's why I love Miss Gay America so much: with that classification of gay, drag queen, female impersonator, chef, Asian, minority from the South, I have a lot of opportunity to be a voice for a lot of people.
We're living in this divisive moment for the LGBT+ community. We have a presidential nominee who has promised to overturn gay marriage and guidances against discrimination based on sexuality and gender. We have a community still reeling from the fallout of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando. But on the other hand, shows like RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars Season 2 are breaking ratings records and there are drag nights nationwide that are staples for a number of communities — gay, straight, whatever. What is it like being a drag queen at this moment? What sort of responsibilities do you feel you have in this role as an ambassador?
I think that's a really good, deep question. There's a stigma on any side; there's already a pre-conceived notion: red or blue, gay or straight also. I think for me, all I can do is act and think on a personal level. All I can really can do as an ambassador is be consistent and be the best human I can be and best citizen I can be for my community, and by that example inspire one person by one person. I'm not trying to move mountains, as they say; I want to make a difference in a small way.
I live in a very supportive environment. My parents and sister were at the pageant to watch me win; they are very open with who I am. Actually today, I was at my mom's restaurant eating, and she kept telling everybody I won Miss Gay America and kept showing all these pictures. [Everyone] could see how proud she was. By leading by example, that's what I mean. I don't mean lobbying, campaigning — there are plenty of people that do that. I just feel that putting out good energy and living our lives to the fullest and surrounding ourselves with people who do the same is one thing that we can all do that really doesn't take much investment. [My mom] doesn't blink twice when she talks to her friends about what I do; my dad doesn't either. We'll jump from talking about a boxing match to a pageant at dinner very casually, because, first and foremost, I'm their son. They don't care who I go to bed with unless I want to share it. They support me because what I'm doing is something they know that I'm passionate about. It's irrelevant whether I'm a homosexual or not. If I like rhinestones, I like rhinestones.
I also think that, to a certain extent, drag plays an important role. Like, in terms of taking what you're saying, that kind of casual conversation, if we're thinking of that as a metaphor for a national dialogue—
Drag is a gateway. [laughs] It's a perfect way to familiarize and have people that aren't familiar acclimate or get used to an uncomfortable situation or something that's unfamiliar. The use of drag queens has always been an icebreaker in social settings. They're exaggerated versions of what people think or the stigma of what flaming homosexuality is — and I say that in a very loving way. But it's also a good opportunity to kind of bond communities.
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You said that your mom has a restaurant, and you do as well. In my experience from working in restaurants, kitchens can be very boys' club environments? Has that been tough to handle as a gay man? Have you been able to change perceptions because of who you are?
[I'm] confident and very secure and open with who I am; I've never been in an uncomfortable situation with my staff. I have a couple restaurants, and one of my restaurants [Suzy Wong's House of Yum in Nashville], the majority of the staff are all trans men, and that's kind of a beautiful thing in itself. But in terms of the traditionally straight or butch-macho bro kitchen, I'm a bro as well. When it comes down to cooking, I throw down. My arms are completely scarred from burns and whatnot. I have war wounds. I lift and saute — I don't feel that I've been any different in the kitchen. When somebody's passionate about something, it doesn't matter what it is. I called my kitchen staff about two days after I won and the first thing they said was congratulations. They don't flinch. They see the beauty in what I do. I'm pretty normal — "normal."
When I was on Food Network Star, the final five was all boys actually, and I was one of those. We would go out, and I was the instigator of what a normal bro chef would do, doing shots of Jameson and eating chicken wings, because that's what I do with my guys at home. We pop open a six-pack at the end of the night and sit there and drink whiskey. And sometimes they see me with makeup and heels, and sometimes they see me sweaty with a chef coat, scrubbing the back of the line. It's just part of who I am and I don't hide any of it, and it's pretty seamless.
As a chef, I have to ask you if there's anything in particular you're looking forward to eating when you come to Phoenix this weekend.
It's so hot there, honestly, and I'm only there for like a day, so what I'm really looking forward to is the Bloody Mary at 6 a.m. before the walk. [laughs]
Suzy Wong, Miss Gay America 2017, will participate in the AIDS Walk Arizona through downtown Phoenix this Sunday, October 23, as part of Barbra Seville's Wonderful 100 team. Walker registration begins in-person at 7 a.m. at Third Avenue and Washington Street. Online registration is still available for individuals and groups who want to participate and donations are still open. To sign up, and for more information, visit www.aidswalkaz.org.