Arial StaxXx was born in a pair of heels, but the firecracker persona of 25-year-old Jonathon Torres didn't make her debut as a drag star until the 2015 Ultimate Queen competition at Tracks. That contest is known for testing the mettle of the most seasoned performers through fourteen weeks of makeup, dance and costume challenges, and it didn't hurt that Arial was born into the StaxXx Navy, the brash sorority of stage stompers — Mia, Gia, Andrea, Yazmeen and Alysia — that has taken home two of the UQC crowns in the last few years and knows a thing or two about hair-flipping and ass-shaking. Arial absorbed the lessons and put her own spin on their fierce formula, a mix of My Fair Lady and She's All That.
Although she didn't take the crown then, what a difference a year makes! Eight queens entered the first Ultimate Queen All-Stars challenge, and when the dust and sequins settled, Arial stood victorious. We talked with her about this victory:
Westword: Congratulations on winning Ultimate Queen All-Stars! What was going through your head as you stood there waiting to hear the winner? And when they called your name?
Arial StaxXx: All that was running through my head was, "Please, try not to cry." Whether I had won or not, I knew pictures were gonna be taken, and I didn't wanna look bitter or dramatic. I also had a flashback of my whole career and every week of this competition. I was reminding myself that no matter what the outcome was, I had worked hard and did everything I could to win. I knew I had left my heart on the stage every week, and it was all down to this moment. I was in complete shock when I heard Mia say my name. I was not sure if it was real or what had just happened. I stood there blank, filled with happiness, and couldn't breathe. I knew it was all real once I saw the roses placed in my hand. At that exact moment, I felt relieved, I felt happy, I felt accomplished. Every tear cried and sleepless night had paid off. I had won, and that feeling lasted all night
My second thought when I heard my name was to hug my sisters standing next me. Each of them had worked hard week after week, and I wanted them to remember that I love them all and we are all All-Stars.
Did you have a strategy for getting to the top of the heap? What did you do differently from when you first competed in All-Stars?
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My strategy going into this competition was to not worry what the others may or may not do, but to do better than I ever would. I would ask myself every week, “Is this something you would normally do? Is this how you would normally look? Is this your best?” Week in and week out, I was pushed and pushed myself to the limit — and I feel that was what got me the crown.
The main thing different from when I first competed in Ultimate Queen All-Stars was that now I wasn't an amateur, even though I’ve only been a queen for less than two years. I knew what I was capable of, and couldn't settle for less. With the push of my mentors, friends, family and myself, I set out for the crown and I got it!
Some folks know that you have a great voice and can sing live; why haven't we heard much of this talent of yours? What do you want to do with that gift in your drag career?
I love to sing, and singing has been my biggest passion since I was a child. I originally started drag in hopes of being a singing queen, but I quickly let dancing take over. I sing live occasionally, but not as often as I should. My goal is to start singing live more and just letting the world see that part of me. It's weird, because as a boy, I have sung all my love in front of thousands of people, but when I am in drag and sing, my nerves go crazy. I had never felt so nervous to sing as I did in this competition, but with practice, anything is possible — and I'll soon be the dancing, live-singing queen I always sought to be.
You are the third StaxXx to take the Ultimate Queen title. How much support did your sisters give you? Was it hard competing against one of them?
Honestly, I was worried competing again due to my last name. Many people criticize our family because we have won so much, but what they don't see is the work each of us gave for our crown. I wasn't around when the other two competed and won, but I do know the work I gave in both of my Ultimate Queen seasons. I never let my name guide me or prevent me from anything. I am a queen who has her own talents and career; I just happen to part of the fiercest family in Denver. Of course I knew that competing would have its difficulties, and one was going against my sister Gia. Although we are family and love one another, we both knew we were gonna go in this competition with one goal: to win, and that was it. We supported each other as much as competitors do, but we also kept certain things separate so we could succeed.
I had help from my drag family along the way, week after week. I would call Andrea every day just to go over idea and thoughts. She was there for me constantly, and I appreciate her so much. Mia was constantly pushing me to re-evaluate my thoughts and get my mind right. She kept me sane when I was overwhelmed, and without her I don’t think I would have made it to the crown. Yazmeen would call to do checkups and make sure I was on my A game, so I would never do less then my best. All their support helped and pushed me more and more.
So, tell us about the first time that you ever performed in drag.
The first time I ever performed in drag, I was nervous but so excited. When I was younger I was scared of drag queens — and here I was about to take a stage in drag as a StaxXx! I didn't know what to expect, but I knew I was gonna give the best performance I could. My mother, Yazmeen, had painted me, and I was in total shock seeing myself for the first time as a queen, but I instantly fell in love with the makeup, the crowd and just being on stage.
What is the origin of your drag name?
That's a funny question. In typical StaxXx tradition, it involved a notebook and a bottle of tequila. After hours of writing names in a notebook, my sister Mia, my drag mom, hubby and I picked my name, Arial, and I couldn't be happier.
When you’re not working it out on stage every week, what’s your occupation?
I am a server by day and a queen by night.
What cultural icon do you admire the most, and why?
I would have to say MC — Mariah Carey. She has been one of the biggest influences in my life. Her music has guided me in some of my hardest times. Between her and Selena, I found my own talent in singing, and that has guided me to being the performer I am today.
Explain what it feels like to get into all of your drag and hit a stage.
Getting into drag is fun. It's a lot of work, but fun. Personally, I like to take my time and listen to music and just enjoy painting. We don't always get the chance to take our time in painting when we have busy schedules, so you enjoy the days you can just appreciate the art. But to me, the best part of drag is performing. I like to go out and give a show every single time I am on stage. It don't matter if it's five people or 5,000 — I give my heart to every performance, and that me keeps me going. I enjoy the vibe from the crowd and people just cheering my name. It is the best feeling in the world to me.
Who/what inspires you to keep pulling out the makeup brushes every day?
My fans, my drag family, the gay community and my husband. It gets tiring, and I get a workout at times, but I get pushed from all the important people in my life to keep going. There is nothing like when a kid who may not be out of the closet or a mother who is watching her first drag show comes up to you afterwards and says, "You inspire me." That is what keeps me going and makes it all worth it.
Favorite brand/item of makeup?
Jeffree Star has to be my favorite brand right now. I use multiple brands when it comes to makeup, but his brand is the only lip I feel comfortable with. I often sing out loud while I performm and it makes me happy to know when I’m doing that that my lipstick is there and not all over my teeth (laughs). I like that it goes on wet and dries matte. My opinion is, there isn't a better lip out there right now.
Name three very important items in your purse/drag bag you can’t leave home without.
1. Bobby pins... I am a dancing queen, and bobby-pinning my hair is a must. I do too many flips and head shakes to not have my hair pinned and secure. One of my biggest fears is losing my hair on stage, and I'll do whatever I can to prevent that from happening.
2. Duct tape is also a must, because I tape my head, my tuck and pretty much anything I can. One of the most asked-for products in the back from performers is duct tape, and every queen will agree. We tape everything!
3. My translucent powder and puff. When you give your all on stage and have eight layers of pantyhose on, you tend to sweat. So there is nothing better then to dust your face off and absorb that sweat before it ruins that mug you spent hours to create. Ain't nobody wanna see a queen with an eyebrow smeared to her hairline!
Is there an item in your drag closet (outfit, jewelry, wig, etc.) that holds a lot of emotion or memory for you? If so, tell us about it.
Yes! I have two outfits/looks that I hold dear to my heart. First would have to be a white rhinestoned body suit that I wore for my first Drag Nation. When I started drag, I had one goal, and that was to perform at Drag Nation. I had been several times and always admired the queens who performed with dancers and put on the biggest show in the nation, and I swore to myself I would be there one day. After taking second place in UQC in 2015, I was given the opportunity to perform there, and so that costume will forever hold a close place to my heart. My second look would have to be my Willy Wonka costume that I created for All-Stars this season. This look meant the world to me, because it was when I finally looked at myself as a queen and knew I had no limits as long as I pushed myself to be better internally.
When you’re out in drag, what one thing does everyone want to talk to you about? What do you wish they would actually talk to you about?
The biggest thing I’m asked about when I am in drag is makeup tips or lessons, and I don't mind at all. My advice to all is practice. I picked up my makeup pretty quickly, but I had great people teach me along the way, like Andrea, Valerie (Shearz), Janessa (Befierce), Mariah (Spanic) and Mia. But they also all made me practice over and over, and that is what has got me where I am. All people want to talk about is makeup, costumes or music; honestly, I don’t mind at all. If it's friends or people close to me, the only thing they'd better be asking me is if I want a shot of tequila!
If your drag persona had a theme song, what would it be?
My persona would have to be more of a soundtrack. Something like Now That's What I Call Music: Volume Arial! It would of course include some Nicki Minaj, Selena, a little bit of techno and a splash of slow songs for that occasional ballad.
If they were casting the movie about your life, what actor and actress would be perfect to play both sides of your coin?
I would definitely pick Adore Delano to play both roles. She is my favorite queen, and her male persona sings like I do. I feel it would be a perfect match, plus we both like to party and we are both mermaids!
Which is harder to do in the drag world: tucking or having a relationship?
Although tucking is so uncomfortable and annoying at times, I would have to say maintaining a relationship is the hardest part of my profession. I am blessed to have a husband who stands by and supports my career, but it gets rough — not only on me, but on him, with constant bookings, scheduling and all of the work. It's something we both took time to adjust to, and now we are like the perfect team.
What was it like growing up gay? Does your blood family know about and support your art?
It was hard growing up gay. I lived in a small town that does not view homosexuality as a norm or even as acceptable. Getting teased constantly for being too feminine or only having girls as friends was something that was a norm for me. I found it hard to be accepted everywhere I went, and the bullying was constant. My family was not supportive of me coming out while in school — I feel mainly because they feared the backlash — but once I came out, I was like a rainbow flag, and nobody could hold back my colors. After years of adjustment, my family has become one of my biggest support groups. They make it to shows whenever they can and always call to check on my competitions or gigs. It means a lot to me to have that call from my brother, sisters or parents just to say how proud they are of me and my accomplishments.
I feel validated and loved for who I am and what I love to do. I know that isn't the same way for everyone, and to those who don't have this support, please know that I am here and I will be your family. Stay strong!
What does the word “family” mean to you, and have you found your drag family here in Denver?
Family to me is more than blood. I, of course, have the family I was raised by and love with all my heart, but since becoming a queen, I've gained a new family that I also love. I have my drag sisters, close friends and husband who are my family. We fight like real families do, but the love and support between us is unconditional.
Drag allows you to change or alter physical parts of yourself. Do you use that power to always change any one thing in particular ?
My eyebrows! When competing in All-Stars, I was doing drag three or four times a week, so I shaved my eyebrows off. Yes, I was that committed! But whenever I am in drag, I enjoy painting beautiful brows. I am currently growing my brows back, so it won't be long that I have to rely on my drag brows — but until then, I'll keep living for them.
If there was a bank error in your favor - giving you $15,000 - what’s the first thing that you would buy?
Food! I love to eat, and even if I was going to go buy a car or makeup or something, which would definitely be on my list of things to buy, I would have to eat on the way to buy them so I had a clear mind. Haha! I love to eat. Who doesn't?
For all of the cost — monetary and emotional — and all of the blood, sweat and tears and drama, why do you want to make a career in drag? What does the art form mean to you?
Drag costs more than most people do realize. When they say it costs a lot to look this cheap, they are exactly right. I have broken down and been pushed to my limits, I have torn hamstrings and broken fingers, I have spent my last dollar on pantyhose — but it's all worth it. Drag is my passion; it's my way of expressing myself because at times it's hard to say what I really need, too. It's an output for all my emotions and fears. The art of drag means that I am carrying on what many other queens did before me, and I am standing against all of the people who put the LGBTQ and drag communities down. I am sharing the same fight that many of us fought before, and for that, I am proud. No matter how hard drag gets, I plan to keep on performing and keep showing my passion to spread love and entertainment to all.
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When we check back on you in three years (2019), what do you think you will be up to in your drag career?
In three years, I hope to have perfected my art. I hope to be performing in every venue in Denver that I can, and with my own show in as many of those venues as possible. On top of all that, I hope to audition and be ready to be on RuPaul’s Drag Race. It was never a goal of mine when I started off doing drag, but as I have grown into this scene, I have set that as my number-one goal.
Where can Denver folks find you performing on a regular basis?
Since winning, I am pleased to say that I will be performing for the next six months every last Friday at Tracks for Drag Nation. I also have regular performances at Charlie's for Glamazons on Sundays, #Slay (hosted by Yazmeen), Fatality and Yaaas Queen. I perform some Wednesdays at Potreros for your weekday turn-up. I get booked often also at Lipstick, if you wanna see me sing live there, and I definitely don't want you to forget amazing shows like Lit and The Odd Hour at Tracks (first and third Thursdays). You can always add me on Facebook — and I post my gigs regularly so you can make sure not to miss my next one!
In Diva Watch, we profile the passionate, diverse and fascinating performers who light up Denver's drag community, expanding on our Diva Dozen list from 2015 and our Freshest Faces list for 2016 by asking different queens — from established to ingénue — questions that take a peek beneath the wigs, heels and makeup.