Local drag queens stole the show at Chappell Roan’s Phoenix concert

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Left: Queen Benediction, photo by Kili Goodrich | Right: Singer Chappell Roan, Photo by Mary Mathis / Getty Images

By Reagan Priest

December 5, 2023

When fans gathered for pop star Chappell Roan’s concert in Phoenix on Nov. 3, they weren’t greeted by a typical opening act. Instead of a band or solo artist, three local drag queens took the stage.

Throughout Roan’s “The Midwest Princess” tour, drag queens native to the cities she visits have opened the show. Local queens Benaddiction, Sayyora DeMornay, and Salem Vee entertained the sold-out crowd at The Van Buren in downtown Phoenix.

For the queens, it was an opportunity to perform for a large audience outside of the usual venues where they take the stage — and during a time when lawmakers across the country and in their home state are trying to ban drag performances.

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Ben Whitneybell, whose drag persona is Benaddiction, performs full-time in Phoenix at bars, clubs, and even drag competitions. He said it meant a lot to be able to perform for a different audience at Roan’s show, especially in the wake of attempted drag bans in Arizona.

“I was gagged,” Whitneybell said. “Drag tends to be confined to specific spaces that are more within the LGBTQ community. So, to have the opportunity to bring that to a wider audience, at a concert, at a bigger venue with stage lights and amazing sound and the capacity to hold 1,500 people; I was thrilled, I was super excited.”

The support from Roan comes in stark contrast to the opposition local drag performers have experienced from state lawmakers looking to attack the LGBTQ+ community in Arizona.

Earlier this year, four bills targeting drag performances passed through the State Legislature. The bills, all vetoed by Gov. Katie Hobbs, would have placed restrictions on “adult” performances or businesses that allow them.

“This is what I do to pay my bills but it’s also something that I love with all my heart, so the fact that there are people out there that think that what I’m doing should be illegal, says that they don’t know anything about what I’m doing,” Whitneybell said. “They’re not really educated on what it means to be a drag performer and they’re not interested in the lives of the people that are impacted positively by this.”

Drag integral to Roan’s art

Roan has spoken about how her makeup, costumes, and concerts are inspired by drag performances, going so far as to describe her stage persona as the drag-queen version of herself. The singer, whose given name is Kayleigh Rose Amstutz, told People that she knew she would bring drag queens along as her openers when she embarked on a headline tour.

Sayyora DeMornay, who performed with Whitneybell, said Roan made sure the drag queens were well taken care of backstage and even complimented her after the performance.

“I ran into Chappell backstage, and I was talking to her and she goes, ‘You’re a star now, you’re a celebrity,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my God,’” DeMornay said.

Additionally, Roan posted the performers’ Instagrams and Venmos on her Instagram account, as well as at the merch table, so fans could follow them and tip them for the show.

Whitneybell said a lot of the audience members had never been to a drag show before, but their reaction to the performances reminded him of the positive impact drag can have on audiences.

“One of the really cool parts was asking the audience how many people have never seen a drag show before and seeing a ton of hands and then seeing them love it, showing people what this is and what this kind of medium of art can be,” Whitneybell said. “It can be inspiring, it can be fun, it can be an escape for people.”

Bringing Drag to Broader Audiences

Elké Fajut, a fan of Roan’s who attended the Phoenix show, said she has seen drag performances at local LGBTQ+ bars, but that the audience at the Roan concert was different than the typical audience at a bar.

“The age range at the concert was like college-level, young adults, so having a younger set of people be around this kind of energy was more fun because you know that they’re gonna bring that energy for the performances and have a good time with music,” she said.

Fajut said she felt the drag queens at the show matched Roan’s aesthetic and put on a great show to warm the crowd up for the headliner.

DeMornay said it meant a lot to be able to perform for this audience because her goal as a drag performer is to bring hope to communities.

“I feel honored to be able to be that voice and be able to be myself and showcase that drag is about unity, it’s about love, it’s not about what people are making it out to be,” DeMornay said.

Author

  • Reagan Priest

    Reagan Priest expects to graduate in May 2024 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Priest is interning as an education reporter at The Copper Courier. Priest has also worked at The State Press, Cronkite News D.C., The Arizona Republic and Arizona PBS.

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