#DragIsPunk may just look like a hashtag to some, but to Rhiannon Cortez, it's a lifestyle. To Rhiannon, drag is all about art and pushing boundaries. Her aesthetic mainly revolves around performance and losing herself onstage. Starting her journey at an early age, she is not new to the definition of beauty and her passion for performance and art shines through.
1. Who is Rhiannon Cortez?
An artist first and foremost; a punk, glamorous gender rebel pushing boundaries; a free-spirited complete mess with a love for philosophy, cosmetology, eastern spirituality, and performance.
Every time I step on stage at Sway, the Little Rock, Ark. nightclub where I’m a resident artist, I’m revealing pieces of my two-spirited self that I once hid in shame. Rhiannon was born from the rubble of my devastating life before drag, when I had given up completely. Art and drag saved my life. I’m a dark soul with a colorful mind that’s obsessed with creating beauty and art with a statement.
2. When and why did you begin performing as a drag queen?
My first performance — which was in front of only about four people, including my drag father who tipped the only dollar I made — was on June 27, 2013, close to the day the drag community lost a legend, Whitney Paige (RIP).
I had been unknowingly doing closet drag since before I can remember. I won a baby pageant with my late mother at the age of one, and before long I was wearing dresses, playing the wife, obsessing over barbies, and braiding my stepmother’s hair. Then it was lip-syncing Alanis Morissette songs with t-shirts on my head and sketching gowns.
I was born to do drag. Without it, I'm empty. I have no choice but to be an entertainer. And once I began cosmetology school and learned how to create fake beauty, I turned my new evil powers upon myself to create the monster you see today.
3. Where did you acquire your drag name?
Soon after attempting suicide when I was 18, I heard the song “Rhiannon” by Fleetwood Mac, and it spoke to me spiritually. I began studying Rhiannon the welch goddess, mistress of the underworld. As the goddess of the moon and love, her power was to inspire artists through dreams. Her shroud of mystery led to her wrongful persecution, yet she remained humble and later found redemption through a pardon for her accusations. Her story gave me a deeper connection to the name, as I have always been an outcast and wish to remain one, even in drag. Since then, I’ve gone by Rhiannon both on- and off-stage.
4. What makes you unique?
My life experiences as a faggot in the Bible Belt shaped my perspective and aesthetic and made me into the rebellious artist I am today. I was always the center of unwanted controversy because of my journey to find my identity. My mere existence pushed buttons daily.
I think that experience is what makes me unique, because now, as an adult, I can push buttons and boundaries with skill. To me, that’s what drag is about. Drag is punk. Add beauty, and the ideas I’m communicating — whether they are about skewing gender lines or breaking the standard rules of drag — become more accessible. I’m lucky enough to perform at a venue that is also unique and that encourages my behavior.
5. Where did you learn how to do your makeup?
Before I ever considered gender identity, maybe around age 5, I would braid my stepmother’s hair and play with makeup and barbies. My obsession with femininity and glamour started young, and by 16, I was in cosmetology school. Since 2008, I’ve been a licensed cosmetologist, so I’ve had plenty of time to work on makeup, hair design, and many other aspects that help me greatly in the art of drag. Only upon starting drag, though, did I truly learn what it meant to beat and snatch a mug. To this day, I have yet to be painted by someone else.
6. What is your favorite and least favorite thing about drag?
I love bad, trashy, humorous drag, whether on purpose or otherwise. Drag is punk, and it's always fun to let loose, and usually much more entertaining than the same shit we see every week.
Least favorite? My toes after wearing many pairs of tights and tall heels all night. They feel like they’re retracting back inside of my body and sitting on my balls.
7. How has drag changed your life?
Well, I have one now. Before, I didn’t.
Drag turned my life around and gave me so much to live for when it felt like no one believed in me. Now I realize that I was selling myself short instead of going for something greater. Drag helped me overcome social anxiety and low self-confidence that came from severe bullying in a redneck conservative high school governed by an ex-preacher principal who liked to spank me when I dressed up.
Drag has given me a venue to express my creativity, to grow as an artist and human, and to belong in a beautiful, revolutionary community of artists.
8. What inspires you the most?
Sway’s #Glitterrock community, an island of misfit toys, a community of artists and lovers of this art form. I’m able to be limitless with my art because of their understanding as fellow artists and their support of my shows. Without their help and inspiration, I wouldn’t be able to present my shows at such a high level. And without this community, none of it means anything but a four-minute dance number. So I'm blessed and grateful to have Sway as a family and venue to grow with. I’m the artist I am because I’m here.
9. What has been your biggest accomplishment so far?
GagaBall, a live concert-style experience focused on Lady Gaga’s four major albums. It was comprised of multiple 20-minute mashup performances that included group dance numbers and complex light sequences. It was the first production of its kind at Sway, a huge success, and the beginning of a new wave of innovative productions that truly are reinventing gay nightlife in the South. I directed; my Gaga sister, Queen Anthony James Gerard, acted as producer; and our family, the legendary children of #Glitterrock, made up the cast and crew.
Also playing Magenta in Richard O’Brien’s ‘The Rocky Horror Show,’ Sway’s first piece of musical theater. Singing live in front of sellout crowds was new for me and challenged me as an artist. I also did the opening games, monologue, and Science Fiction lip sync. It was all terrifying and one of the most amazing experiences I have ever been a part of.
But it was meeting Sharon Needles via Sway at Little Rock Pride 2014 that started it all and led to some key accomplishments early on. The dark queen blessed me as a vision in black, recommended me, and called me a freak. After that, I hosted Sway’s New Year’s Eve show. Soon began monthly installments of my very own show exclusively at Sway, #RhiannonPresents.
10. What is the most misunderstood thing about drag?
That drag is always serious, and just about glamour and beauty. Being beautiful is actually easy. Drag is punk. Be beautiful, sure, but be MORE. Say something, God damn it! Art should provoke and make you think.
Also that drag queens are bottoms. Not always true. Okrt?
11. What is the biggest lesson you've learned as a drag performer?
Never stop growing. Imagine stripping it all off: the spotlight, the pads, wigs, lashes, costumes, mixes, heels, and makeup and tell me, is what you are doing on that stage entertaining, or nawl?
I’ve also learned not to set a car on fire in a rougher part of Little Rock while wearing a corseted drag gown and an afro at 3 a.m. alone on the side of the road.
12. What is your biggest dream that you wish to accomplish?
Just to work at a nightclub where I have my own show and can do whatever the fuck I want, and to have a community’s support, help and love. And I already have that thanks to Sway and my #Glitterrock family!
Being on RuPaul’s Drag Race wouldn't be bad. Next year, I hope to be prepared to audition for the first time with the help of my talented family.
And to write my unauthorized autobiography coffee table pop-up book, "Memoirs of a $5 Whore: A Southern Faggot’s Rise to the Bottom.” It’s a working title.
13. What is an obstacle you've had to face as a performer?
My self doubt. It used to prevent me from believing I was worthy of the spotlight. I once felt I had nothing to offer on stage because my expectations for myself were high, and I thought I would never be good enough for myself.
Ironically, I live in an area that worships pageant drag, as this is where it all started. It was hard to break through in that environment, but I have became the one who breaks the rules and standards of those systems and plays outside the box. Not conforming in any way to those systems is important to me, because doing so hinders the creative process. Drag should be boundless, fearless, and unfettered by any standard.
Also, tucking my large penis. #FatPussy
14. What is something not many people know about you?
I was born on a bayou in the conservative South on a cotton field. I drove a combine and tractor before a vehicle in my hometown of 400 people, where I graduated from high school with a class of 20.
I identify as trans but align more closely with two-spirit or gender X. I'm neither and both.
I have severe social anxiety and a fear of failure or disappointing myself.
I'm 25 and have yet to have a boyfriend in person, bottomed, or even go on a date.
I am Buddhist/Taoist and fascinated with philosophy, social justice, logic and rhetoric.
I played clarinet for 8 years and was drum major.
I am obsessed with Lady Gaga. Religiously.
15. What should people expect when they see you perform onstage?
Passion, glamour, vulgarity, and a shit ton of eyeliner.
Stalk Rhiannon Cortez:
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