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Staying Power: Why an arts administrator-turned drag queen decided to stay in Phoenix

Last year, The Show series Exit Interview featured a series of conversations with people who had made their mark on Phoenix — and then left. They hit a ceiling or needed to grow. 

A new series called Staying Power looks at people who have made Arizona their home — like Brad DeBiase, who is also known as Kim Etiquette.

Brad DeBiase moved to Phoenix from Connecticut (hence the name Kim Etiquette) in 2012, he was planning on pursuing a Ph.D.

Now, almost a decade later, DeBiase is Ph.D.-less and totally engrossed in the Arizona art scene. 

Kim Etiquette has become a fixture in the Phoenix drag scene in the last few years, performing all over town, posing for Phoenix Magazine and doling out lessons on manners in size 12 stilettos with a blonde bouffant as high as the sky.

The man behind the big hair is Brad DeBiase. And his day job is also in the arts in Arizona — from a slightly different point of view. 

"Currently, I serve as the organizational programs manager at the Arizona Commission on the Arts," said DeBiase. "And what that means is I manage a couple of grant programs. I work on building professional development opportunities for arts and culture nonprofits statewide and keyword being statewide."

It’s a role that takes him across the state, to big communities and tiny ones, supporting local arts and the people making it happen.

"I never would have known that there is such a vibrant dance community down in Douglas, for example. I never would have known that the town of Wilcox, they have a fabulous movie theater and art center. But they're working on a virtual reality project that brings you back to a 19 century train depot in Wilcox. So, things like that, these little nuggets that they're so local. And you really just wouldn't know they're there unless you put in the time to go there."

But, DeBiase/Kim Etiquette didn’t start out in the arts at all. Unless you count being in theater as a kid. It was academia — not the arts — that first brought him to Arizona in 2012 to get his Ph.D. in anthropology of religion.

I was working on contemporary Maya studies. I had spent some time in Guatemala. So I was going to, I had imagined doing field work down there. I was really interested in this phenomenon of spiritual tourism," he said." And I was always kind of trying to retrofit my arts background to my academic studies."

But it never quite worked.

"Love what I studied. Endlessly fascinating. I still wasn't quite scratching the arts itch, though."

He never finished his doctorate, instead, he worked gig jobs for a while and he dove deep into the Phoenix arts scene, networking his way into his role with the Arizona Commission on the Arts.

"And it's actually been a great repurposing of my anthropology background with, like, interview skills and ethnography and field work and so on."

But how did this theater kid turned anthropologist turned arts administrator, turn into a drag queen?

"Oh my God, by total accident," he said.

It happened at what is called a turnabout show.

"A turnabout show is basically where you will take a group of nonperformance, get them all dolled up, usually match them with a, like, working queen or somebody who's, you know, doing drag," hje said. "And then you throw them on stage and people will, people will pay a lot of money to see a best friend, a coworker, an elected official — any number of people transformed."

DeDiase was part of a 2016 show for the nonprofit One-n-ten, an LGBTQ+ youth center in downtown Phoenix.

"I was paired with the queen and they dolled me up and I guess I really channeled my that the background right? That I had that I had put away in a box on a shelf for, for so long. It definitely came back and it felt kind of natural."

And just like with the arts world across Arizona, he found a rich drag scene.

"Arizona is really home to a rich diversity of drag styles, of artistic POVs (points of view). "You've got everything from your old-school campy comedy, over to your spookier, demonic type looks in a great way," he said. "Yeah, we got some gothy drag up in here. You've got wonderful, wonderful makeup artists who just turn these couture looks, and you've got comedic geniuses who can rock a spoken word piece. So, there's really a lot of different flavor in the Arizona scene — and very rich in the pageantry tradition as well."

He said in the arts and in drag, there's a sense community and a surprising sense of culture.

"I was delighted to feel like I was participating in something meaningful in sort of these emerging arts initiatives or or the world of drag, which was new to me and it's such a, I mean, it's gotten pretty mainstream ... But you know, it still kind of exists on the margins, and it still kind of feels a bit fringy. And it kind of crops up in different ways, like I've used my drag for voter registration drives, other types of fundraisers and seeing different events in support of different charities. So, it gets to appear in many different ways, which is kind of, I think unique to the art form."

And he's also helping to build these communities.

"We're trying. A big function of the arts commission is to be a convener, is to bring people together, create shared learning networks. We love being able to, sort of, cross-pollinate ideas and you know, let folks in Yuma know what folks in Flagstaff are up to because odds are they can compare notes in some way," DeDiase said.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.