Arizona Divas

Two former Arizonans return to the Valley as part of Divas starring Frank Marino

By Megan Wadding, Feb. 26, 2015.

Kenneth Blake and Andrew Ryan both formerly called Arizona home, they’re both female impersonators by trade and they’ll both return to the Valley this weekend as part of Divas starring Frank Marino.

Echo caught up with the divas ahead of their three shows at Talking Stick Resort in Scottsdale to talk about their journeys to the Las Vegas stage. (Read more about Divas Starring Frank Marino here.)

Kenneth Blake, age 44

Kenneth Blake 3 (c) Divas Las Vegas

Kenneth Blake. Courtesy photo.

Echo: What part of Arizona did you grow up in?

Blake: I was born in Kansas and I moved to Arizona when I was four and was there until I was 16 or 17. I moved back to Kansas then when my parents sold their property in Arizona and I graduated high school in Kansas, but then moved back to Arizona in 1989 and was there until 2004. So, I had three years of high school at Canyon del Oro [in Oro Valley, Ariz.].

Echo: Did you always know you were meant to be a performer?

Blake: I come from an entertainment family. My father was in the entertainment industry, so I’ve been performing since I was 3 or 4 years old. I started as a vocalist and I was a member of the Tucson Boys’ Chorus in Tucson and toured with them for several years.

Echo: How did you first get involved in female impersonation?

Blake: I discovered female impersonation through theater. For my 16th birthday, my mother bought me tickets to see a musical and that’s when I decided that was something that might interest me. Basically, I just studied it on my own, sort of in secret. Once I was back in Arizona, I continued to pursue female impersonation through the pageant system in Arizona. I was actually Miss Gay Tucson in 1997, Miss Gay Arizona American in 1998 and Miss Gay Western States America in 2001. Tucson basically gave me my start in female impersonation.

Echo: How did you end up in the Divas show? What led up to you being cast for it?

Blake: I auditioned for Norbert Aleman who owned An Evening at La Cage in Las Vegas at the Riviera Hotel and Casino. I auditioned for him as Madonna and was given the job doing Madonna, Dolly Parton and the finale of the show called What Makes a Man a Man. I was there from 2004 until its closing in 2009. Right now I portray Madonna and Dolly Parton; I just retired from doing What Makes a Man a Man last October. I also do Lady Gaga.

Echo: Why did you retire from What Makes a Man a Man?

Blake: I decided to let someone else take that on for a while. I had done it for 12 years and it was time. It’s a lot of makeup to go through. You actually de-drag in front of the audience in under five minutes. We just take it a step further and it brings our show full circle. We want everyone to know that we come to work as gentlemen and we leave as gentlemen.

Echo: What is your process for learning and becoming a character?

Blake: I actually won’t put anything on stage until I’ve studied a person for a minimum of four to six months. The costuming has to be right because it’s not just the physical look you have to recreate. It’s the walk and the mannerisms. That takes a lot of time.

Echo: Who helps your get ready for the show? Do you have anyone doing your hair and makeup?

Blake: All of the cast members do their own makeup. I make all of my own costumes for the show. Some of the things I send out that are beyond my ability. [My mother] used to make all of my costumes and then she taught me how to sew.

Echo: What is the hardest part and the easiest part of being in a Las Vegas show?

Blake: I make the joke that the hardest part of being in a show in Las Vegas is keeping it fresh. You can’t get lazy. You have to change it up. The easiest part of the show is the exact same answer. I don’t have to worry about what I’m going to do every night or what I’m going to wear every night because it’s the same structure.

Echo: What do you think is the key to Divas being such a successful show?

Blake: We try to bring in a new character or change the music of an existing character at last every two years. If there is a hot new diva out there, we try to bring her into the show. Recently, we’ve added Pink and Katy Perry. Our show has something for everybody. We have Bette Midler, Cher and Dolly Parton, but also Britney Spears and Lady Gaga.

Echo: Do you enjoy taking the show on the road?

Blake: It’s a lot of work to go on the road. I do enjoy it because it’s kind of a paid vacation. It’s a lot of work to travel with a show of this size when you have dancers and female impersonators and lighting; I wouldn’t want to do a traveling show fulltime.

Echo: What do you do in your free time?

Blake: I do costuming and hair, because it’s something I enjoy doing. But whenever I have a day off, I like to relax. I have a wonderful relationship with my mother. We just bought a house together in Las Vegas. I’m a single parent. I have two great dogs, Zoey and Gunne, that are my children.

Echo: Are you looking forward to coming back to Arizona do the show?

Blake: Working six days a week, we don’t get too much time to vacation, so I don’t get back to Arizona as often as I’d like to. I’m looking forward to going to Phoenix. I haven’t been back in a few years.

Andrew Ryan, age 29

Photo courtesy Divas Starring Frank Marino.

Andrew Ryan. Photo courtesy Divas Starring Frank Marino.

Echo: What part of Arizona did you grow up in?

Ryan: I grew up in Parker, Ariz., and graduated from Parker High School, class of 2003.

Echo: Did you always know you wanted to perform?

Ryan: From third grade on, I was on stage singing, dancing, acting and doing anything I could that gave me a spotlight.

Echo: How did you first get involved in female impersonation?

Ryan: I first tried drag at Karamba in Phoenix. Diamond Dallas gave me the opportunity to perform in her show and former Miss Arizona Mikayla Kay did my makeup. I performed there at Karamba for about a year. I also performed at BS West and Charlie’s. I loved the creative outlet it gave me to design costumes and try new things. I always saw it as a challenge.

Echo: How did you get involved with Divas?

Ryan: I auditioned for Divas almost four years ago and I have been a cast member since. I loved Divas from the moment I saw the show and when it was over, I said to myself, “This is what I want to do,” and made my goal to be in the show.

Echo: Which characters do you do and how did you choose them?

Ryan: I was originally hired to do Katy Perry in the show. Later, when Shania Twain announced her Vegas residency, and I developed her as my second character. A year later, Shania came to Divas to watch me and complimented my impersonation of her. I am so proud to have her seal of approval and a photo of us together.

Echo: How do you learn how to perform as each character? Do you study them?

Ryan: I learn a lot about my characters from watching YouTube videos of different performances and interviews. It’s a great resource to stay current. Shania Twain, Katy Perry and Kathy Griffin all come to Vegas often and I try to see them every time they are here to see new costumes, hair or get new ideas. I like all of my characters because they have distinct looks and songs you can sing along to.

Echo: Which is your favorite character to perform as, and why?

Ryan: I love doing Katy Perry. It’s fun and colorful and the costumes are very bright and cartoon like. Most singers today don’t do “drag” like they used to. I think she is one of the few that still brings unique and crazy costumes to the stage.

Echo: Who does your makeup and costumes for the show? Do you get to choose your costumes?

Ryan: We do our own makeup, I have my wigs made for me and updated as needed. Costumes are usually a group decision based on the most popular or recognizable look for each character. Women that come to see the show are always surprised that we do our own makeup. And then they want to know how to do theirs. I have a passion for costuming, so I spend a lot of time designing new looks with my drag mother, Coco Vega. She has made every outfit in my career.

Echo: What is the process of making your own costume?

Ryan: Once I have an idea for a costume and it gets approved, I am very hands on from start to finish. Coco Vega Designs hand-makes my garments and I personally embellish them.

Echo: Other than the celebrity characters you impersonate, do you have any other part in the show?

Ryan: What Makes a Man a Man is a part of the finale, but not the last song in the show. I also do a glamorous drag queen and take my makeup off on stage and exit as a man. This is my favorite and also a crowd favorite that gives them a look into what they don’t normally get to see. Kenneth [Blake] used to do it. I do it now in the show full time.

Echo: What are you guys like backstage? Is it a fun atmosphere? Is it super hectic?

Ryan: Backstage is nonstop running. We are changing makeup, wigs and costumes to get ready for our next song. We help each other with zippers and jackets when needed. All of us are friends from shows up and down the strip from the headliners, dancers, acrobats and crew. It’s a very social community. We are like a big, loud family and the goal each night is to laugh and have fun.

Echo: Do you enjoy taking the show on the road?

Ryan: I love traveling and experiencing new cities, cultures and cuisines. I try to do as much sight-seeing and dining as our schedule allows.

Echo: What is the best part of being in a Vegas show?

Ryan: We perform the same show every night, but what makes it fun and interesting is to see a new audience and reactions from people from around the world that love them. It never gets old. It’s really is a dream come true.

Echo: What do you do in your free time?

Ryan: My partner Cody and I enjoy the outdoors. We spent Christmas in Park City, Utah, skiing and playing in the snow.

Echo: Do you come back to Arizona often? Are you looking forward to being back for the show?

Ryan: I don’t get back to Arizona enough, but I am excited to see all of my friends and family at the show. I am going to get out and visit as many of the clubs that I performed in as possible while I am there.