By Tom Reardon, April 2020 issue.
I’ve never met Phoenix drag queen Kim Etiquette but after meeting the-man-behind-the-queen, Brad DeBiase, I’d certainly like to get a chance to get to know the budding icon.
I saw glimpses of “Kim,” who will have her own show on the main stage of Phoenix Pride in April, come out during the conversation DeBiase and I had over beers at Main Ingredient in Central Phoenix on an early March evening, but DeBiase is so entertaining on his own I think we’ll have do a follow-up conversation with Miss Etiquette down the road.
DeBiase, who during the day works for Arizona Commission on the Arts as a Program and Grants Coordinator, moved to Tempe in 2012 to work on his Ph.D at Arizona State University after living in Connecticut during his formative years and later attending Trinity College-Hartford in his home state where he earned a Bachelors in Anthropology. A theater kid at heart with a desire to become a “real life Indiana Jones,” DeBiase realized during his first year in Arizona that this route might not be the best for him.
“I was in grad school, working on a Ph. D in anthropology of religion and I was pretty miserable in academia. I realized I was not going to thrive there, and I had put my creative self away on a shelf. When I got invited to do drag for the first time, it was like kind of the first time my Arizona community saw me perform and I was very excited,” says DeBiase.
A handsome fellow, DeBiase has an easy smile and an intensity about him that easily draws you in. You want to listen to what this east coaster with no discernable accent has to say, and his theater background makes eye contact seem ultra-easy for him. In short, it’s not hard to believe that Kim Etiquette from Connecticut lives quite easily within DeBiase, but after watching video of her perform, it is also easy to wonder how Brad keeps Kim under control.
To understand this, it is best to journey back to the beginning.
Kim Etiquette was born when drag queen Afeelya Bunz reached out to DeBiase about a charity turnabout event she was hosting and wanted to see if he wanted to help raise money for LGBTQ youth.
As DeBiase so eloquently wrote in his essay that he read for a December 2018 Bar Flies event, “I consulted with my friends for all of a few hours — What do you think, should I do it? What would I even do? The usual considerations. I feigned hesitation, but in my heart of hearts, this moment was too good to pass up, and lowkey, it was an exciting prospect. Impact be damned.”
DeBiase’s piece was recently included in the 2019 book, Bar Flies: True Stories From The Early Years, and it sets the tone beautifully as he recalls his first-time doing drag. The glint in his eye while we discussed this might have been because of the delicious beers we were sharing, but my money is on the fact that when Kim Etiquette was born, Brad DeBiase was reborn as well.
“I’ve been afforded a lot of kindness in the Arizona Drag community. I feel very thankful. The drag, it happened very organically. It really snowballed. The charity show happened and then that turned into Afeelya inviting me to join her for something up in Flagstaff, which turned into me doing a newcomer contest, which turned into a guest spot here and was turning to a guest spot there. And so, it just really all just organically snowballed. And then some of the performers who I came up with and got going around the same time that I did in Phoenix, like Rubye Moore and Benaddiction and Espressa Grande, they are a few that come to mind, we all found ourselves in similar places,” shares DeBiase.
A fast learner, DeBiase immersed himself in allowing Kim Etiquette to evolve as he soaked up the experience of doing his first round of drag shows. With a theater past, both performing and on the technical side, the 30-year-old understood what it meant to put on a good show and leave the audience wanting more. After watching videos of Miss Etiquette on YouTube it is clear that she is extremely talented. With stage presence for days, two things clearly stood out in the handful of available videos: Kim is very, very funny and she can also move to the beat. DeBiase demurred a bit when asked about how much practice time he puts in when he is she, but there is visibly a lot of work that goes into a Kim Etiquette from Connecticut performance.
“I am so indecisive. When you have every option in the world an artist’s is the biggest barrier is to have to decide on the one thing, right? So, I will agonize over what I feel like performing. It’s always an exercise in considering your venue, considering your outfit, considering your audience. I want to bring something that’ll be successful in several ways,” says DeBiase.
One of the lessons that DeBiase has had to learn in his first four years of doing drag (and share with a newbie such as myself) was how drag shows are built. He shared that each hostess runs a show differently and figuring out where Kim Etiquette fit in, as well as what type of act to do, was a learning experience. It was within this learning that he figured out a base from which he could create and then allow Kim Etiquette to grow as learned what type of shows are best for her talents and personality.
While DeBiase is a “bourbon” guy, Miss Etiquette is a “vodka soda” girl, for example, from the East Coast who loves to take a theme and work it for an evening.
“So, you know, Kim Etiquette, the character idea began as this like housewife of the Southwest. Like this New England housewife in the Southwest. There is some cable knit sweaters in Kim’s closet. I call it ‘glamp.’ She’s got a little Stepford Wife by day, a little glitzy by night. Being from Connecticut, she’s a little snow bunny,” says DeBiase with a bit of mischief in his eyes.
As our evening wore on, DeBiase shared some of the music that Kim Etiquette likes to sing and dance along with and it is quite an eclectic mix. Everything from Britney Spears to Michelle Branch to Celine Dion to Nicki Minaj. DeBiase also copped to serious early 2000s love of pop music, especially Willa Ford (“I Wanna Be Bad”), and then disclosed that Etiquette does Hillary Clinton doing “If I Could Turn Back Time” by Cher. Now there is a visual that must be seen to be appreciated, for sure, but after getting to know DeBiase a bit, the best is definitely yet to come from this one-time anthropologist who appreciates history.
In fact, another refreshing part of our conversation touched on the reverence DeBiase holds for the quality of drag here in Phoenix.
“Phoenix is … (DeBiase pauses and takes a sip of his Ska Brewing Modus Hoperandi) it’s drag hotspot. We’re seeing new queens pop up everywhere. We are living in the information age, so folks who’ve got to grow up with YouTube have a resource that once upon a time didn’t exist. So, that allows for people to have a knowledge that once wasn’t as widely accessible. I like storytelling. I like histories. I like genealogy. I like the history of Phoenix drag. I like to respect spaces and like what’s happening in different spaces,” says DeBiase.
An appreciation for what has come before is an excellent base from which to build a balanced career and both daytime Brad and nighttime Kim know how to balance the needs of each other.
“I do a moderate amount of drag. I’d probably do maybe three or four gigs a month and not on a weekly basis. People who have a 10:30 at night on a Wednesday show and then have work at eight in the morning, my hat goes off to them. I would be cranky at work and that would disrupt my week. So, I admire their stamina,” says DeBiase, who often travels around the state with his work for Arizona Commission on the Arts.
It is evident DeBiase cares deeply for his audience as he expressed several times during our conversation the importance of putting on a good show for the audience and connecting with them in the space of the performance. With this type of dedication to his craft, an appearance on the main stage at Phoenix Pride is just a drop in the bucket for what is to come for Kim Etiquette, although it is still easy for him to remember what the first few times of becoming Kim was like.
“The first few times I did it, I felt like Brad in a wig. As a theater kid I was like, ‘This is what I’m supposed to, this is how I am supposed to act.’ I move my mouth to the music, and I do heightened behaviors and I lean into my comedic timing and the character kind of grew around them,” concludes DeBiase.
It will be fun to see what and who both Brad and Kim become. Be on the lookout for upcoming Kim Etiquette shows at The Womack and on the main stage at the 2020 Phoenix Pride event.