Miss Gay Arizona Nevaeh McKenzie on Drag Inspiration and the 2016 Pageant

The Miss Gay Arizona America 2016 pageant on Sunday, June 26, will mark a big night for Nevaeh McKenzie. The local drag performer and reigning Miss Gay Arizona will oversee 10 contestants at this preliminary competition, the winner of which will go on to compete in Miss Gay America 2016.

Each contestant will be judged in such categories as male interview, solo talent, evening gown, onstage interview, and talent – a big production number. 

“It’s going to be an exceptional pageant,” McKenzie says. “We have 10 amazingly qualified contestants that are truly coming for blood, so it's going to be very much like Thunderdome.”

McKenzie – the first Arizona female impersonator to place in the top five at the national Miss Gay America – also will hand over the crown to the next Miss Gay Arizona. She says her excitement level for June 26 is "definitely at a nine, but then sometimes I think, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s ending, this is it, the end of this chapter.’" Then she adds with a laugh, "And then I’m like, ‘No, wait, I want one more week. Can I get one more year?’"

McKenzie, 28, started doing drag about six years ago with some encouragement from a local drag icon. “I really wasn’t interested at first, and Barbra Seville approached me about doing her newcomer contest, and so technically the first performance I did was a competition. I was already in competition mode right out the gate,” she says. That was at the now-closed Club Vibe.

Her influences range from Britney Spears to Phoenix-area queens – including her drag mother Mya McKenzie and Seville – to simply music. "I’ve been really inspired by the Arizona legends, and I’ve been so blessed to share that backstage area with them and hear their wisdom and their stories,” she says, “but I’m hugely inspired by just music. I hear a song, and I connect with it deeply, and that’s what great about performing drag … you hear a song and you connect with it and you make it your own.”

McKenzie has done a lot in her six years. “It’s awesome for me to hear from people, ‘You’ve come a long way in such a short amount of time.’ Six years for me is a lifetime.” She hosts Heels & Halos at Charlie’s Phoenix on Wednesdays, and performs on Fridays in the Elements: Drag Show at BS West in Scottsdale – all while previously holding down a job as a kindergarten teacher, and now at a law firm. “It’s exhausting at times,” she says, “Thankfully, I have the gym to wake me up early in the morning, and Red Bull helps.”

McKenzie also heads the #fitfish movement. It's a campaign that started off as a funny hashtag, as “fish” is a drag term for a queen resembling a biological woman. Now, McKenzie sells #fitfish swag – tank tops, and soon hats, sweatpants, and shorts – with proceeds going to, a "not-for-profit organization committed to raising awareness of obesity as a health issue and to providing responsible information on healthy weight management." As McKenzie has gone through a weight-loss journey, it started off as a fitness promotion, but has grown to include personal illnesses and tragedies. It's even gained national attention, and has been seen on former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Alyssa Edwards’ web series, Alyssa’s Secret.

“It’s great to hear how people expand on it, and to triumph over something as scary as an illness or a tragedy, or even taking those steps to get to the gym,” she says, “and to be able to inspire that, for me, is just huge. I love it. I absolutely love it.”

Once McKenzie has handed off the Miss Gay Arizona crown, she’ll be heading to Europe this summer to be what she called a “manny,” or male nanny, and taking a year off from the pageant.

“I really had intended to go back, but I just knew it was not going to be in the cards for me, so I definitely am going to miss going back this year,” she says. However, contestants the following year better watch out. “I have every intention of taking that crown home and bringing it to Arizona.”

Themed as “Sparkling Diamonds: A Night at the Moulin Rouge," the Miss Gay Arizona America 2016 pageant is Sunday, June 26, at the Tempe Center for the Arts. The show starts at 4 p.m., and tickets are $22.50 through Tempe Center for the Arts' website.
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Lauren Cusimano was the Phoenix New Times food editor from 2018 to 2021. Joys include eating wings, riding bikes, knowing everyone at the bar, talking too much about The Simpsons, and falling asleep while reading.