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Remembering Desiree DeMornay: Renowned performer and community staple in Phoenix's drag scene

Desiree DeMornay was a celebrated performer in the drag pageant circuit, in Phoenix and across the country. Following her recent death, LGBTQ+ community members from multiple cities have come together online to grieve.

DeMornay, a nine-time national champion in the pageant circuit, died in January at age 51.

Scottsdale club owner Mike Fornelli said her reputation preceded her when they met at a pageant around 2007.

“Desiree is a person that can command an audience no matter what she's doing,” he said.

The woman behind the persona, Dana Randolph, was also larger than life.

“Desiree is just Dana amplified a million times,” said Fornelli.

While many think of drag as being mainly for men, both cis- and transgender women have been instrumental in shaping it for over a century. DeMornay was one of many women who have found success in the drag world, and comfort in the art form.

Fornelli said it brought them together, but their friendship went beyond running into each other on the pageant circuit.

“That's when I got to know Dana more as a person,” said Fornelli, “outside of the the the drag world and the drag persona.”

A few years later, he was searching for a new cast member to add to "ELEMENTS," a recurring drag show at his nightclub.

“At the time that Desiree was thinking of moving out here,” he recalled, “I was looking to replace a cast member.”

The pieces seemed to fall into place; for years, DeMornay was a steady cast member.

“Even though she worked for me, we weren’t — it wasn’t a relationship of ‘boss and employee,’” Fornelli explained. “It was a relationship of friendship where you’re putting your best foot forward.”

DeMornay brought out the best in everyone she met, according to Fornelli.

“She wanted to make sure that everybody felt they were part of her family,” he added.

For many members of the LGBTQ community, found family is hugely important.

“In the drag world,” Fornelli said, “you adopt, for lack of a better term, up-and-coming entertainers to be part of your drag family so you can help them out, give them advice, whatever. Desiree has the largest drag family of anybody I have ever known — and not just here in Phoenix, but all over the country.”

Alejandro Perez became part of that family when they met in Tampa, another city where DeMornay had become a community staple.

“I'm just trying to kind of adjust to this new normal of not having her in my life,” said Perez. “I mean when you have someone in your life for 25 years, it’s a constant — I mean, you can’t — that kind of friendship doesn’t really exist all the time.”

From casual hangouts to bartending while she was onstage, Perez said their bond was instant.

“I always remember being at her home and her cooking,” he recalled. “She would always cook for my birthday every — I mean, ever since I knew her. We have, just, so many memories.”

“I love to cook,” DeMornay said in a 2020 interview with Raul Griffith. “Everybody knows that I love to cook: All my children, all my gay children, all my family — everyone is in love with my cooking.”

Even backstage, Perez remembers DeMornay always taking care of people.

"She could be competing against you in a pageant, and then do your hair and makeup,” he said.

DeMornay did her own hair, makeup, and even sewed some of her own stage wear.

“She was 100% done every time you saw her,” said Perez. “She was basically a one-stop-shop, she did everything on her own.”

Despite being among the best to hit the stage, Fornelli said DeMornay wasn’t threatened by others’ success.

“She was a true queen,” he said. “And she held herself that way.”

Perez echoed that sentiment: “The LGBTQ+ community is very, very fragmented at times. I mean, she would traverse those kinds of boundaries freely, and she would do that onstage and offstage.”

In 2022, when she served as Miss Phoenix Pride, DeMornay was diagnosed with cancer.

“She went through her radiation, all of that stuff,” said Fornelli, “but still maintaining her responsibilities as Miss Phoenix Pride and doing everything that she could to give back to the community.”

Through it all, Fornelli said her dedication –—to her art and to the values she represented as Miss Phoenix Pride — was unmatched.

“Right after she had had one of her many surgeries, her biggest concern was not being able to give a full-fledged dance performance, which she was pretty much known for,” he recalled with a small laugh. “And we were like Desiree, nobody is expecting that of you, right?”

And yet: “She came out and she danced the house down even though she had gone through all of that.”

Perez hopes those she left behind will remember Desiree through things she valued, like education and storytelling.

“She would always say, like, you know that grieving is — it's sad,” said Perez. “But it was for the living, right? She'd always want to emphasize that the person was in a better place.”

Fornelli said that in recent months, there’s been an outpouring of love from people who knew DeMornay across the country.

“When things were not looking good, you would be amazed at how many people flew out here to see her, be with her, help with arrangements,” he said. “I don't think you will find one person that did not enjoy, get along with or respect Desiree. You know, you can't say that about a lot of people.”

Eva Angelica Stratton described DeMornay as her big sister in the drag world, but also so much more.

““She was a friend, mentor, daughter, sister, mother, and grandmother,” Stratton told KJZZ News in a written statement. “She was a beacon of light affecting the lives of so many all over the country and I was blessed to call her my sister, the time I spent with her will impact me forever.”

Statton described DeMornay as “a cheerleader for all,” full of love.

“She loved her community, her family, friends, and baby she loved her drag!” wrote Stratton. “I will miss everything about her, especially the warm loving energy that she gave freely to everyone.”

Before her diagnosis, DeMornay said she felt that love, too: “I just can say that I’m honestly blessed to have had people who loved me and cared for me.”

Above all, Fornelli said, DeMornay’s legacy will be the way she made people feel.

“She did everything she wanted to do,” said Fornelli. “She did it to the very best of her ability. And she was loved by everybody. What bigger legacy can you have than that?”

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Kirsten Dorman is a field correspondent at KJZZ. Born and raised in New Jersey, Dorman fell in love with audio storytelling as a freshman at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2019.