“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.