Since I began photographing the Arizona drag community, the subject of Blake Riley and his multiple ventures peaked my interest with his mild manner and natural charisma: here was a gentleman who threw out the notion of gigantic hubris by making the connection between his personal life and drag persona, separate, but conducive and unapologetic to his brand. Throughout the last year, I also became close to the man behind the persona, Cameron Foley; it wouldn’t be unusual to see our mutual friends and us enjoying drinks on the back patio of The Rock of the Phoenix Melrose District. Even witnessing the Judy Garland “peak” of Logan Lowrey did not frighten the steadfast Mr. Foley.
The main “meat” of the Blake Riley brand comes in the form of a Thursday night feature gig titled The Blake Riley Revue, which frequently stars local drag performers and newcomers from diverse creeds. On Thursday, the 13th of June, I made my way to Stacy’s @ Melrose to cover one of my many off-the-books visits to Blake’s show, this time featuring Queer Agenda original cast-member and career-woman Benaddiction, blunt and acerbic Arizona mainstay Coco St. James, and rising Ohio triple-threat, Lola VanHorn.
After taking my “congrats, you made it to the venue” shot, I talked with host Blake Riley on the record to discuss the beginnings of his career, and his long-term goals in the world of drag:
“I’ve been performing since February of 2017, but [my career] took off and I began getting noticed when I competed for Mister Charlie’s and winning Mister Stacy’s that year,” explained Blake Riley
“My first performance was at a bar called Airport Tavern in Casa Grande, [when their] monthly show was kind enough to give me a chance to get on stage and try it out.”
Riley went on to explain his year-long involvement with Stacy’s @ Melrose, with features like New Kings On The Block and The Boys Are Back In Town, geared to highlighting the unsung and growing drag king community in Phoenix. Blake said he sought to create the recent Blake Riley Revue as a more-inclusive outlet for performers of any background.
“I [also] hosted the Sideshow Stage at the RipplePHX spring carnival for the Seven Deadly Sins boylesque show,” Blake Riley continued.
“When booking, I try to consider the potential performers’ styles and drag personas, so there’s a variety of drag in each show.”
I later commented to Blake that they must have known of my arrival, since I witnessed performers who I would normally associate with other brands pull out their best darker, intrinsic performances; I consider it one of my staples to be more privy to the darker beauties of this world.
Blake began to fill me in on the charitable aspects of his contributions to the scene, and his position as Mister RipplePHX, representing HIV/AIDs awareness. He also underscored the importance as building his platform around his identity as a trans man, organizing the “TransConnections” monthly group to provide information and resources for trans and non-binary youth, ages 11 – 24 alongside 1n10. While also a “Lord” of the Imperial Court of Arizona, Riley wants to focus his energy on fundraising for the organization.
I took to my familiar perch on the side of the Stacy’s stage-space to witness the normally pretty-boy prep Blake Riley resorting to an unexpected punk-pop cover of a popular song (to the delight of my childhood). Clad in a bandana paired with his “rat-pack” styled suits, you can always expect straight-forward emoting in his choreography.
Later sporting a familiar be-dazzled suit featured in past performances, Blake explored his roots with a bit more of the pretty-boy sweetness I mentioned, but surprised us all with a sleek, “BDSM-lite” outfit and boots, while he caressed the dance-floor railing and engaged the audience. Over the past year, I feel lucky to have witnessed Blake Riley come out of his shell as he tries new things and tweaks his brand.
In the vein of shock, one of the main ladies on the bill served up some darker stylings then anticipated: Ms. Coco St. James has been on my radar since I came out at the age of 14 and learned about the art of drag; like Barbra Seville, I feel lucky to have been young enough during the beginning of the LGBTQA+ political landslide to have been at the right place, at the right time in 2010 at different periods of these queens’ careers. Although I’ve largely photographed Coco in her natural habitat, relaxing at The Rock, I felt it would be a personal injustice if I didn’t have the chance to catch her in performance. Unlike the preppier outfits I have witnessed her wear in the past, the darker themes of last Thursday’s Blake Riley Revue called for not only a signature “Bad Romance” Lady Gaga impersonation with on-point choreography, but what I would call a Disney-inspired outfit with Malificent-esque horns with a dress echoing Amy Lee and the band Evanescence in the music video, “Lithium.” Later at The Rock, I further inquired Ms. St. James about her career, and asked her and the other queens their take on what needs to change in the community:
“Within the Phoenix community, I think the newer queens need to find themselves and not look up to television shows or [Ru Paul’s Drag Race] queens specifically, but respect their elders, see what they do, and listen to them when they tell you something you’re doing right and wrong,” Coco St. James said.
“Figure yourself out, make yourself your own thing, and not copy what you see on TV.”
“I think a lot of newer queens look up to [performers not just] on Drag Race, but the Boulet Brothers, the “monster queens,” [and when] I started on the scene, I was the person who did that kind of stuff, [in a way] that helped create the newer queens in Phoenix,” St. James continued.
“It’s something that influenced the newer queens before Dragula and Drag Race, and I did things people didn’t expect. I may not be a ‘monster,’ or have crazy-crazy makeup, but I can do every genre of music with my own look, and that’s what people don’t realize.”
“You can be whatever you want and anything you put your mind to, and don’t have to look crazy, or you can! But you can always do what you want to do and not recreate other people’s drag, [which is something] I see in the younger queens. We want to see you do you and create your own character.”
Also featured in the evening was the aforementioned Benaddiction, a queen I’ve become quite privy to since I first covered The Queer Agenda; Benaddiction bends the craft of drag by focusing on darker, messaged performances that are frequently tongue in cheek. While some would call this style “alt,” the label can sometimes be unfairly given to queens who put darker twists or intense thought behind the narrative of their set. Benaddiction donned a familiar tightly ribbed corset / tank-top hybrid as she lip-synced her way through a true classic rock banger. This may not seem out of the ordinary since the genre has been utilized over the years in drag, but I hadn’t witnessed Ben mix queer femininity with a track frequently related to hetero-normativity. The unapologetic attitude she portrayed while performing the song serves as a “fuck-you” to the patriarchy.
Like with Coco St. James, I posed a similar question to Ben on her view on the progression of the Arizona drag community, to which she answered with a mix of vigor and grace:
“At this point, I don’t take [the term] ‘alternative queen’ seriously anymore because of how the drag scene has been, and I don’t consider it a label because it’s all drag to me,” said Benaddiction.
“Maybe there’s people out there who still look at it with labels, but that’s not how I see it. I don’t put myself in that box, and see myself bridging gaps between those two things.”
“I want to gear my performances toward things people will enjoy, but something I will fucking vibe with.”
The night also featured two sets (and a duet with Blake Riley) from Lola VanHorn. In the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of not only getting to know Lola, the character, but also managing to form a close friendship between our individual, past personal struggles and our view on the creative process. This mouthy, acerbic dance queen from Ohio has not given up since her move from her home-state to the dry desert, and continually works hard as a performer to secure bookings around the community. Presenting years of dance and vocal training mixed with her career of being a makeup artist, Lola VanHorn’s trademark performances carry heavy dance breakdowns and campy outfits. She frequently mixes Hip-Hop, Jazz, and old-school vogue-ing in her dance routines, and if there wasn’t at least one squatting vogue-move in her performance, I would be concerned. In what I call her “jelly-fish coat,” Lola took the crowd back to the early 2000s meme-world with the famous video titled “Where’s the Chapstick?” Humor is a large part of Lola’s craft, and even in the most serious of numbers, she still adds multiple beats to her set in a way which doesn’t overpower the other emotions. When asked about her hot-take on the local drag community, Lola echoed her own sentiment on what she believes needs to change for the Arizona drag scene to develop: .
“I feel [what needs] to change most is the cliquey-ness; don’t get me wrong, girls will be nice and support when they see each other out, but there is definitely a hierarchy, and there are defined groupings of entertainers,” said Lola VanHorn
“I enjoy [The Blake Riley Revue], and I’m co-hosting so I might be a little biased,” VanHorn continued.
“People who sometimes aren’t welcomed everywhere are encouraged to take the stage and share who they are, and I love that!”
The show for me ended as it always does: with my friends and I at The Rock until 2 A.M.