Zora Phoenix: Drag dynamo of burlesque
“By its nature, burlesque is a political art,” says local phenomenon Zora Phoenix.
By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly
Zora Phoenix is a force of nature. One of the city’s most visible performers, Phoenix — or Chris Stewart, as the performer is known by day — has earned the respect of Portland’s drag, burlesque, and philanthropy communities through years of tenacious advocacy, selfless engagement, and good old-fashioned fabulousness.
“I’m originally from Kentucky,” Stewart says. “In Kentucky, drag is so much different [than in Portland]. … In areas where gay culture is suppressed, drag comes out bigger, stronger, louder, and prouder. When you’re hated for doing what you do in bed, when you get up on stage you show who you are and bring it full force.”
Stewart first donned drag in 1998 and entered the Southern drag pageant circuit shortly thereafter. When he moved to Southern California in 2004, Stewart started regularly performing at a weekly bingo show in Long Beach, Calif.
It was in Long Beach that Zora Phoenix was born. “‘Zora’ came from the female winner of Joe Millionaire,” Stewart explains, “and ‘Phoenix’ was because I was recreating myself in moving from Kentucky to Southern California.”
Phoenix quickly ascended in the local drag and variety show scenes with a subtle-yet-bawdy style that Stewart was intentional in crafting.
“Part of why I love doing drag, especially in the style and capacity I do it in, is that I don’t need to draw attention by what I wear, I draw it by what I do,” Stewart says, “I don’t usually do, say, a ton of sequins, or hair to Jesus, or McDonald’s arches eyebrows — the makeup and looks are a bit more subdued. With that, I can walk into a room and not necessarily be the focus of the attention unless I want to be. At the same time, I can walk into a bar as Chris, and hide in the corner so nobody pays any attention.… Some people have only known Zora and don’t know Chris, or vice-versa.… It’s always interesting to me, because I look in the mirror and see the same person. If you ever see me in drag, though,” he notes with a smile, “I’m working.”
And work Phoenix does: she can be found at over a dozen regular monthly events at venues all over the city; she also regularly makes benefit appearances for organizations including the Oregon Bears, PHAME Academy, Oregon Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and numerous other community nonprofits. However, perhaps nearest and dearest to her heart is the art of burlesque. Through social connections, Phoenix was brought on to co-emcee the Best of Our Burlesque show at the now-defunct Berbati’s Pan in 2008.
“It was my first interaction with burlesque,” Phoenix recalls. “I didn’t know anything about it. … I was struck that it was an amazing, powerful, and beautiful art form.”
From this starting point, Phoenix has become one of the most dynamic forces behind Portland’s burlesque scene, hosting three regular burlesque nights (including the Phoenix Variety Revue, Portland’s longest-running burlesque show), managing the critical scene resource BurlesquePDX.com, and administering the Rose City School of Burlesque.
Phoenix’s involvement with the school helps bring the tools and sensibility of the art form out to all who can benefit from it, whether they intend to enter the performance scene or not.
“The purpose of the school is not to get people on stage,” Phoenix explains. “What it’s really about is body confidence and loving oneself — it just happens to be wrapped in glitter and sequins. We’ve had victims of domestic violence, girls who want to empower themselves, girls who’ve finally learned to love their body as it is. Sometimes it’s just getting over stage fright, or learning how to be confident when they go out to the club, or learning how to dance with a partner. Because we cover all the pieces — costuming, hair, makeup, bump and grind, the history of burlesque, and fully expressing yourself. Everyone can take what they need from their experience in the School of Burlesque. One of the lines I like to use on stage is that there are as many ways to perform burlesque as there are burlesque performers, because burlesque isn’t a ‘thing,’ it’s a style.”
Perhaps most motivational to Phoenix is the diversity and engagement of the school’s students. “We get 55-year-old grandmothers, 21-year-old chanteuses, girls who want to sing, girls who want to do hip-hop, former ballet dancers, belly dancers, pole dancers, folks recovering from injuries, all types,” Phoenix says. “A large portion of the burlesque performers are highly involved with the LGBTQ scene. Overall, the students’ devotion to each other and to the larger burlesque scene is just amazing. The students create a family, and it results in a community that really cares for and supports one another.”
Furthermore, Phoenix sees the history and future potential of burlesque as an important political force. “By its nature, burlesque is a political art. It was meant to be satirical, a parody of social issues — be that government or public opinion. When burlesque was in its original heyday, there was no television and no radio, so if one wanted to hear someone speak out about anything, they had to go to the theatre to do it. Burlesque was a major venue for this subversion.”
Phoenix also notes that many current performers incorporate political themes into their work, whether as a subtle exploration of feminine social roles or in explicit acts that examine political themes. “It makes people think, whether they want to or not,” Phoenix says.
“All in all, burlesque became a way for me to provide a space for people to do an art form that I find beautiful, powerful, and astounding,” she adds. “I considered it a challenge in a city that has the most strip clubs per capita of anywhere in the nation to change the public’s mind about what striptease is, and how it can be an art form that empowers performers and audiences alike. Overall, I’ve enjoyed the challenge.”
For upcoming events and further information about the Rose City School of Burlesque, check out ZoraPhoenix.com.
Portland State University Sociology Paper: December 9, 2012
Best Renaissance Man in Drag
On her business card, Zora Phoenix presents herself as a sort of jill-of-all-trades: a singer, emcee, graphic designer and burlesque producer. Nowhere does she use the phrase “drag queen”—even though, when she gets off her day job as a red-haired, bespectacled advertising executive named Chris Stewart, she changes out of her black slacks and gray shirt and into fake eyelashes, a dark bob wig and shimmering red dress. Instead, she prefers the term “gender illusionist.”
“I’m not really trying to be what most people think of as a drag queen,” says Stewart, 31. “I’m not transgender, I’m not a transvestite. But if you take drag queen, transvestite and transgender and put them in a triangle, I’m in the center.”
Zora singing Hot Child from Zora Phoenix on Vimeo.
Stewart began entertaining at age 8, as a square-dance caller in his hometown of Louisville, Ky. When he moved to Southern California in 2004, he picked up a gig hosting a bingo night at a piano bar in Long Beach, where he began to develop an act combining music and comedy around his Zora Phoenix persona. He describes Zora as “a seemingly promiscuous, dumb girl who’s really acerbic and witty and quick to catch you off-guard,” but insists that under the makeup, “it’s really just me.”
Since moving to Portland in 2007, Stewart’s job description has expanded. In addition to putting on burlesque events all around town—including Burlesque S’il Vous Plaît at Crush and Phoenix Variety Revue at Kelly’s Olympian—he runs the burlesquepdx.com website, uses his marketing background to teach performers how to better brand themselves: to, in his words, “use your T&A to help your S&L”). MATTHEW SINGER.
Original article here: http://wweek.com/portland/article-17782-best-of-portland-2011-best-people.html
Zora Phoenix, producer, emcee and gender-illisionist, gets around. Around town, that it is. With twoburlesque shows occuring this week alone, she's a one-woman whirlwind in six-inch heels.
Phoenix, who was born in Kentucy, '...came to Portland by way of Southen California,' where she emceed and performed in a number of variety and drag shows. After co-emceeing a breast cancer event in September of 2008, she saw the ways in which burlesque enriches women and was determined to find a way to participate. 'Seeing the self-confidence, sense of self and strength that it requires to be a good burlesque performer entranced me. The art form is beautiful, sensual and empowering in so many ways,' she says. A few months after the benefit, she was contacted by producer, Frankie Tease, of girlpartiespdx , to emcee her show entitled Big Top Bottoms Up, at Kelly's Olympian. After almost five months, Miss Tease audiences outgrew the room so she moved her show to a bigger venue. It was then that Phoenix took on the role of producer' in additon to her role as emcee. She's been at Kelly's over a year now, where she presents bi-mothly burlesque shows entitled, The Phoenix Variety Review.
Zora, who handles every aspect of each production, explains her duties this way: ' For my events, I act as booker, business manager, contract writer, graphic designer, marketing director, Internet promotions and publicity manager, set-up person, liason between bar and staff and production, emcee/hostess, music editor, finance manager and clean-up staff.' Where does she get her energy? Phoenix, who sings, dances and handles the microphone like a pro, says, ' I live to entertain.'
Phoenix claims that there are plenty of artistic pay-offs for the hundreds of hours she invests in burlesque. A self-proclaimed perfectionist, she sees her production company as a vehicle for other performers, ' ...as I age and mature, I find that sometimes the best way to entertain is to pave the way for others to perform. In this case, producing a solid show that is entertaining to the audience, ethical to the performers, and successful.' Likening her productions to rearing a child, she says, ' Having my name attached to an event over which I have total creative and artist control that people enjoy and want to return to see, is like seeing your child make its first step...it never stops evolving,'
Phoenix is appreciated in the burlesque community for her efforts to create unity. She works with burlesque producer, Rayleen Courtney, of SinnSavvy to make this happen. Together, they concentrate '....on brainstorming both concepts and concrete ideas to help provide cohesion. Besides hosting potlucks meetings among key performers and expanding each time to loop in more of those involved in the burlesque scene...' she's developed two Internet networking sites, ' One for the public to learn where to see it, what it is and how to become involved, and a separate site to produce resources and information to those deeply involved: performers: producers and vendor/skill-holders.' She admits that 'This has been a slow, painstaking process but has been moving along at a steady pace.'
Zora Phoenix enthusiasm for her art is palpable. Her considerable talent and dedication have impressed both peers and audience members alike. The next Phoenix Variety Review returns to the stage on Wednesday, May 19th at Kelly's Olympian. Burlesque S'il Vous Plait, which occurs the first Friday of every month, is "billed as a classic burlesque show with a contemporary twist..' Returning to the nightclub, Crush, this Friday, May 7th, this presentation begings at 9:00 p.m, and features Zora Phoenix, performer and emcee, dancers, Itty Bitty Bang Bang, Cherry Valance and Delilah Sinn, with belly dancing by Kristinh and live music by Stellar's Jay. Keep an eye on this ambitious producer/emcee; you can always count of her to deliver an amazing show.
Original article: http://www.examiner.com/article/producer-emcee-zora-phoenix-is-all-about-burlesque