By Laura Latzko
Each Miss and Mister Phoenix Pride bring something different to the titles. The newest titleholders this year both come from artistic backgrounds.
On March 24 at the Tempe Doubletree by Hilton, cellist Vanity St. James and visual artist Gray Matter became the newest Miss and Mister Phoenix Pride, respectively.
As part of their talent numbers, St. James lip-synched to an Adele song and played the cello onstage, and Gray Matter did a politically-charged political number touching on trans rights issues.
Leading up to the pageant, they both tried to fundraise in creative ways. St. James raised money through raffling a trip to Mexico, and Gray Matter auctioned off pride-themed paintings and held a collaging fundraiser.
The two both share the distinction of having names inspired by songs. St. James’ comes from Christina Aguilera’s “Vanity,” and Matter’s was inspired by a line from Deltron 3030’s song “Upgrade.”
Mike Fornelli, executive director of Phoenix Pride, said that St. James and Matter are considered the faces of Phoenix Pride. As such, they are responsible for raising awareness and fundraising for the Phoenix Pride Scholarship Program, recruiting contestants and bars for preliminary pageants and attending major Phoenix Pride functions.
A total of 18 performers competed during the night of the pageant. Two performers were unable to compete.
According to Fornelli, the 20 contestants raised over $33,300 towards LGBT scholarships.
The performers all competed in the red carpet eveningwear and talent categories on the night of the pageant.
The top five competitors in each category answered an on-stage question.
The contestants were also judged on their fundraising totals and on a professional interview.
Here’s a little more about Vanity St. James and Gray Matter:
Miss Phoenix Pride Vanity St. James
For Miss Phoenix Pride Vanity St. James, drag performance and pageantry have always gone hand-in-hand.
The drag performer started performing three years ago because she wanted to compete in pageantry.
“The only reason I decided to don the dress, makeup and wigs was so that I could compete in pageants. I felt like I had a great foundation. I was educated. I had a talent … I felt right out of the gate, I had the makings of a successful pageant queen … I’m a very competitive person, and music was a very competitive thing for me when I was growing up. For me, it was a perfect opportunity for me to be creative, be competitive and play the cello,” St. James said.
After having done drag for five weeks, she took first alternate at her first pageant. She went on nine months later to win the national Miss Gay USofA Newcomer title.
Since then, she has competed and placed in the top 12 and 10 at the Miss Gay USofA and Miss Gay America pageants, respectively.
Before starting pageantry, she had backstage managed a few pageants, but she had no experience performing, doing her own makeup or making dresses.
She said that being able to play the cello helped her to stand out in pageantry, but sometimes audiences don’t know how to respond to her performances because they are so different.
“It’s definitely a culture shock, just because it’s not something that’s seen very often. I understand that it’s not everyone’s cup-of-tea, but in the pageant world, it’s something that sets me apart. Usually, I am memorable at the very least,” St. James said.
She holds a bachelor’s degree in cello performance, and while attending Northern Arizona University, she was one of the core members of the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra.
After school, she took a break from playing the cello, and doing drag given her a different outlet to be a musician.
“Leaving NAU, I was a little bit emotionally damaged from my training. Now, I use drag as my way to perform the cello. It’s a different avenue and a not-as-stressful way to go about something that I love to do,” St. James said.
As a national titleholder, she and her husband were able to get tricks and tips from top seamstresses and hairdressers. Now, she does her own makeup and makes her own drag costumes, and her husband does her hair.
“I was blessed to win Miss Gay USofA Newcomer and learn those things really young. Having not even done drag for a year, I was already learning things that people had yet to learn, even doing drag for 10 or 12 years. There’s always a learning curve, and I don’t think that will stop. I don’t think necessarily that I’ve learned everything because I honestly still make mistakes. It’s one of those things that as opportunities present themselves, it’s the perfect opportunity to grow from it,” St. James said.
She is a member of the St. James family, and since early on, Naomi St. James has been one of her biggest supporters. Lawanda Jackson, a drag queen out of Las Vegas, has also been one of her major mentors.
From the start, she has always tried to bring glitz and glamour into her drag.
Although she just moved back to Phoenix in Sept., she grew up in Mesa and attended Red Mountain High School. For most of her drag career, she has been based out of Tucson, although she did travel extensively her first year as a national titleholder.
While living in Tucson, it took some time to establish in the Tucson drag scene. She said at first, she received mixed reception from the local drag community.
“Even after winning nationals, I had a lot of not necessarily negative feedback but wary feedback because no one knew who I was. It was definitely a ‘who is this new girl?’ I had a lot to combat, in regards to just image-wise, trying to portray an image of someone who’s not necessarily a new girl who is a new girl … I knew that I had an idea or image of what I wanted to project. Half the battle in squashing any negative feedback is to basically prove it wrong. If they have no ground to stand on, there’s nothing they can say at that point,” St. James said.
In Phoenix, the drag performer has found it easier to enter the drag scene because of her experience. She is a regular cast member in Stacy’s at Melrose’s Saturday night show Opulence.
This year was first time that she had competed at the Miss Phoenix Pride Pageant.
Miss Phoenix Pride was a different experience for her because she went in it with a goal of giving back to the community.
“When I was reigning Miss USofA Newcomer, I performed quite a bit in Phoenix. I felt like it was my opportunity, since I was going to be around, to really give back to a community that was always there for me whenever I was home. Now that I live up here, it was my chance to really do it and show that I am here for the community,” St. James said.
St. James feels prepared to hold the title because of her experience as a national titleholder.
As Miss Phoenix Pride, one of her major goals is to change the structure of the Pride pageant and put more of the fundraising responsibility on the titleholders. She hopes that she and Gray Matter can raise enough money to add another scholarship.
During her time as Miss Phoenix Pride, she hopes to encourage others to live authentically and not be afraid to be themselves.
“I’ve always been a big believer of staying true to you, and I think that that’s honestly going to be my biggest message. I’ve been successful in pageantry and in drag because of that, because I stood my ground in doing what I want to do and how I want to do it. I feel like that is the perfect message for the community is to embrace yourself and live your truest color because that is ultimately going to bring you the most success and the most happiness,” St. James said.
Mister Phoenix Pride Gray Matter
Mister Phoenix Pride Gray Matter is newer to performing but has quickly started to establish himself as one of the top drag kings in the Phoenix scene.
The drag king started performing a little over a year ago as a contestant in the King E.O.Y. system. He went to nationals his first year starting drag, an experience that helped him to grow.
“I learned a lot of what not to do and just learned my faults so that I could fix them,” Matter said.
Before doing pageantry, he had only done two amateur shows while living in Michigan.
At first, he was hesitant to compete in pageants because of pre-conceived notions, which he has found to be untrue.
“I never really pictured myself as a pageant individual because I don’t like necessarily having to censor myself or stay inside of a box. Of course, I didn’t know much about pageants, especially drag king pageants. I know EOY was for creative individuals. That’s their focus. I felt that that would be a good system for me,” Matter said.
Although he had done pageantry before, the Phoenix Pride Pageant was different from EOY because of the interview category. He found talent to be the most difficult category to prepare for because of the need to make sure his highly-conceptual talent number make sense to the audience.
His drive to more a part of and give back to the community inspired him to go for the title.
“I wanted to do something that wasn’t about myself. While here, I’ve focused more on my transition, myself and my work. Yes, I’m involved in the community but more the drag community. I want to know the organizations. I want to know the resources. I want to give people the answers to their questions,” Matter said.
As titleholder, Matter is striving to be a positive role model while staying true to who he is.
“I don’t want to let anyone down, but I’m still going to be myself. I’m going to do my absolute best, but if I happen to slip up sometimes, I’m going to do my best to recover. I’m making sure that I’m a motivator, a positive person. That’s what I’m about anyways,” Matter said.
Along the way, Matter has had different drag queen, male entertainer and drag king mentors. One of his biggest supporters has been former Miss Phoenix Pride Eva Angelica Stratton.
Former Mister Phoenix Pride titleholders Eddie Broadway and DJ Galaxy have also helped him to grow as a drag performer.
Matter is newer to the Phoenix community, having lived in Arizona for three years. As Mister Phoenix Pride, he hopes to learn more about and work with different community organizations.
One of his biggest goals is to create more awareness about the scholarship program.
Matter has a background in visual arts that he hopes to bring to the table. For 10 years, he worked at Michigan’s Adventure theme park, where he did airbrush tattoos, pastel portraits and caricatures.
Now, he is an employee at the Phoenix Art Museum, where he is surrounded by art on a daily basis.
He hopes to incorporate this artistry into his drag more in the future, especially in his makeup techniques.
Although he has experience in painting faces, he has found
drag makeup to be a whole different monster.
“I’m just trying to experiment and see what looks good,” Matter said.
For the drag king, being onstage has been a challenge because he is an introverted person.
From the start, Matter has always tried to stay true to himself while also finding ways to connect with his audiences.
He hopes to challenge his audience by presenting different sides of himself. In the same night, he may perform more feminine and masculine numbers.
“I just want to show individuals that anything can be beautiful, open up their mind a little bit,” Matter said.
Matter often touches on political issues, such as transgender rights, in his drag performances.
“I like to do that, emotionally charged and politically driven [numbers] because I’m starting to get more educated,” Matter said.
Throughout his life, Matter has struggled with self-esteem issues. Before entering the pageant, he had to overcome thoughts that he wasn’t deserving.
Motivational videos have helped him with developing a sense of self-worth.
Growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness, Matter had to hide who he was because LGBT people weren’t accepted. In leaving the community, he was shunned by his family and congregation. He has worked hard to become a different person.
“I come from a place of being uneducated, being ignorant and spewing hate. Now, I’m the exact opposite, and I’m super proud of it. I just think that speaks on who I am and what other people are capable of doing,” Matter said.