Every Tuesday night, junior Psychology major Cyrus Manian performs at “Dinner is a Drag” at Hamburger Mary’s, a benefit show featuring youth drag performers, which raises money for Kansas City Pride.
Phoenix Rishon, Manian’s alter-ego and creative drag persona, quickly became one of Kansas City’s newest and most popular drag queens. Crowd-pleaser Rishon deliveres enthusiastic performances while modeling stylish outfits, dancing and lip-syncing.
Manian has been involved with drag for almost a year. Since Rishon’s impressive debut in the spring 2011 Drag Show hosted by UMKC’s Queer Alliance, Manian’s drag persona began to attract a following.
In October 2011, Rishon gained more exposure in the drag world when Manian was crowned KC Pride Princess at the Pride Youth Royalty Court pageant.
Manian’s outfits for his drag identity often include glittery lipstick, dresses, heels and padded bras. Outfits require hours of preparation for each performance, and have become more elaborate and convincing since Rishon’s initial debut.
Recent outfits emulate the popular musical artist Jessie J, solidified by a short black wig.
“When I first did Jessie J, people were astonished at my uncanny appearance and representation of her,” Manian said.
Though he enjoys performing, participating as a queen is personally meaningful to Manian.
“I’ve dedicated my life to helping LGBT youth. I want them to know they can be who they are and be loved for it,” Manian said. He is currently a member of Queer Alliance and helps out with Growing American Youth in St. Louis, an organization that provides a safe space for LGBTQIA youth.
Manian first considered performing as the opposite sex after attending a drag show in his native city, St. Louis. He deemed drag an “art form” rather than a flashy show.
Manian then began compiling outfits. He discovered he was a natural at walking in heels. Leftover money from paying bills was budgeted for makeup and other performance necessities to get the ball rolling.
“You really just have to keep your eyes open for inexpensive things,” Manian said.
He even purchased accessories and outfits at common retail stores like Target.
Starting out inexperienced didn’t discourage Manian. He taught himself and observed other performers. Drag queens can receive help from experienced performers, called Drag Mothers.
“They offer their knowledge to someone who is just starting out and teach them the basics,” Manian said. “I am teaching myself, picking up tips here and there, and have improved drastically since I won princess.”
Manian’s parents are supportive of his interest in drag. Once, his mother gave him money and insisted he buy a dress for Rishon’s wardrobe, so he purchased a red gown. He also discusses with his father about his interest in performing as a queen.
“He called me up and told me he bought a book about cross-dressing. I told him that was nice, but what did it say about drag queens, because they’re not the same thing,” Manian said.
Drag isn’t without issues, however. Drama takes a new form in the realm of drag queens.
Some queens are catty with each other behind the scenes. Some adopt arrogant attitudes, fueling the stereotype about how most queens are egotistical and obnoxious.
Manian intentionally avoids the gossip or drama.
“Dare I say that other queens don’t do drag for humble reasons,” Manian said.
While men performing as queens often experience criticism, even from some in the LGBT community, Manian says it doesn’t affect his decision to participate.
“Clearly, it’s something that’s not socially accepted by many,” Manian said. “I’m going to stand my ground because I have friends to support me.”
Manian emphasized that drag promotes self-discovery and combats personal insecurities.
“Everyone should do drag at least once in their life,” he said.
At “Dinner is a Drag,” weekly performances as Rishon keep regular attendees interested.
Rishon performs enthusiastic dance numbers around Hamburger Mary’s in high heels, singing along to popular songs while receiving tips from excited spectators. There is a quick outfit change after the song since queens dance twice at the event. Manian has acquired numerous outfits for Rishon’s wardrobe, but plans to expand the collection.
Manian participated in high school theatre, which provides a helpful performance background. However, drag requires personal planning for the outfits and dance routines, among other differences.
“In theatre, you’re surrounded by people,” Manian said. “In drag, it’s usually a solo performance. The biggest thing, though, is in theatre, that role ends when you walk off stage. Drag is more personal. When you get off that stage, you’re still living in that persona.”
To see Manian’s next performance as Rishon, attend one of the “Dinner is a Drag” events, which are 8 p.m. every Tuesday at Hamburger Mary’s.