The scene: Saturday night, 11:30 p.m., The Chart, Park Circle. The music starts, and I feel the bass thumping in my chest. The crowd is already hooting and hollering before the DJ announces the arrival of what we’ve all been waiting for, “Please welcome to the stage, Miss Ayanna Rodriguez!”
Everyone’s on their feet screaming and clapping, and from out of the darkness struts a lean, tall vision clad in a skimpy lamé number, four-inch heels, and an attitude usually reserved for cities like New York. Ms. Rodriguez is fierce. Her long limbs draw exquisite shapes in the air as she dances. She’s lip-synching Kylie Minogue, and there are four people waiting to give her dollar bills as she prowls by. She owns the room. I am clapping, exuberant, hooting, raising my hands in praise. It’s over far too soon, and everyone wants more.
Ayanna Rodriguez is Rahni Simpson, a 26-year-old Greenville native, who’s been doing drag since he came to Charleston in 2001 to attend the College of Charleston. His first drag show took place about six months after he arrived in the Holy City. “They just sort of threw me up on stage at Avalon [now Pantheon] and said, ‘You can do it.’ I did it, and I loved it,” he says, eyes wide and bright.
Sitting across from Rahni in a booth at Vickery’s downtown, several things become abundantly clear. He is both handsome and beautiful, with high, chiseled cheekbones. He’s seriously lean, (“I eat healthy, but sometimes I crave a burger.”) and holds himself with the grace of a dancer (classically trained in ballet, jazz, modern, and tap). He’s also a singer (his range: baritone to soprano) and a born performer.
Rahni grew up literally next to a Christian Methodist Episcopal church where he spent much of his childhood playing piano at services or singing in the choir. At home, his mom trained debutantes for pageant competitions. Perhaps that’s where he picked up his poise and grace. He’s the youngest of four boys, which means he knows when to be quiet and when to throw out a sassy comeback. When I ask if he’s ever been in love, he answers, without hesitation, “Yeah, with a pair of Chanel sunglasses.” He’s at once social and shy, confident and meek, playful and serious. He says with all sincerity, “I live my life the way I think everyone should live their life: the only person whose opinion really matters is my mom’s.”
Rahni’s local hero is another drag queen, Brooke Collins, she of the handmade feather headdresses and vintage style. It’s from Brooke that Rahni learned how to do his makeup, sew, and be a professional performer. In fact, when he moves to San Francisco in a few weeks, he says it’s the moments backstage with fellow drag queens like Brooke, Coco, and Jasmine he will miss the most.
When we talk sexuality, he says simply, “I’m just me.” And like any other part of our culture, drag queen culture is full of diversity: black and white, gay and straight. When I ask about the gay rights movement, he says, “My contribution is to entertain.”
I thought long and hard about that, because I’m certain there are plenty of folks within the LGBT community that might question that sentiment. But the more I thought about it, the clearer it became. Rahni’s life goal, “To give the world the best of me,” is about the most wonderful and well-intentioned goal anyone could have. How that best of ourselves manifests is as diverse as we are. Some people march. Some write policy. Some teach. Some write. Some paint.
And others, like Rahni, walk on stage to entertain, inspire, and empower. Without knowing it, they ask us to look for the power within ourselves. They ask us to live our lives in celebration, as an exclamation, hands stretched over our heads in praise of all that we are.