By: Mike Givens*/TRT Assistant Editor—
It’s the 2017 New York City Pride Festival—one of the most attended Pride celebrations in the country—and two scantily-clad young women dressed in black strut across the small stage. The 2003 Britney Spears/Madonna smash hit, “Me Against the Music” begins to play as the two dancers confidently position themselves on either side of a runway projecting into a crowd.
With their backs facing the enthusiastic audience and slowly shaking their hips back and forth, a third person walks across the stage: up-and-coming drag queen Miz Diamond Wigfall. She immediately sets about working the stage and lip syncing the words of the furiously-paced song, all while performing a well-choreographed dance routine with her two backup dancers.
The performance segues into the 2001 Lady Gaga song, “Marry the Night” and Wigfall and the dancers continue their routine, which is replete with pantomiming, twirls, and seductive poses.
“That was so cool,” said Wigfall, who’s also known as AJ Fenway Parker.
Parker, 23, mentioned that the experience was one of his favorite drag performances. On stage, Parker was dressed in knee-high black boots, a pink leotard, a long blonde wig, and heavy makeup with copious amounts of eyeshadow and mascara. The performance wasn’t perfect, however.
“The crotch on my leotard popped open and I was like, ‘Whatever, I’m going to keep going and from that point on, I always had a safety pin,’” he recalled with a laugh.
Like a true performer, Parker went on with the show, though for the remaining 30 seconds of his performance, his snaps flailed around wildly while he finished the song.
“Honestly, it did happen again on New Year’s Eve and I was like, ‘Welp, you just can’t learn, can ya?’”
According to Carleen McLaughlin, Parker’s mother, he was always destined to be on stage entertaining others. As a child growing up in Salem, Massachusetts, McLaughlin said Parker often shunned sports. She said she keeps a photo on her refrigerator of Parker at t-ball practice one day with a big frown on his face.
“When we tried to get him into karate or baseball or whatever, he’d actually sit down … and pout and say, ‘I’m not doing this,’” she said. “One day, he heard some music in downtown Salem and him and his dad looked and it was a dance studio, and from that day on, he was in dance and theatre.”
Parker’s father, Jonathan, agreed with McLaughlin about their son’s love of dancing.
“If there was a beat—I don’t even care if it was a washing machine—he just loved to dance and loved to move around,” he said. “The more he was dancing, the happier he was.”
As a young father, the elder Parker said he was concerned about his son’s aversion to the typical activities that boys engaged in, but after having a conversation with a pediatrician, he decided to accept his middle child as he was.
“It is what it is and we all just kind of rolled with it,” he recalled of his decision to not force his son into playing sports.
“We put him in baseball, we put him in soccer, we put him in karate, and he was miserable,” he continued. “This [dancing and singing] is what he wants to do, so let’s do it. From then on, we just supported whatever he did. One hundred percent. We were right behind him with whatever he needed.”
McLaughlin said that junior high school was difficult for Parker as he was often ridiculed and harassed by classmates for his penchant for dancing and singing.
Around the age of 12, Parker was accepted into Walnut Hill School in Natick, Massachusetts, a private boarding school for youth interested in the arts. McLaughlin said that Parker received a $30,000-a-year partial scholarship to the school. With two other children besides Parker, both parents had to foot the bill for the remaining $18,000 in tuition and fees, but it was worth it.
“He got support and friendship and friends that supported him,” she said, noting that she felt it was a transformative experience for the four years he attended.
McLaughlin said that her most vivid memory of Parker being at Walnut Hill was when he was cast in a production of the 1930s musical, “42nd Street.”
“I remember being in the audience, and the curtain going up, and seeing his feet—his feet were the first ones there—and I got goosebumps, and I knew it was going to be amazing,” she said.
McLaughlin said she’s certain she cried throughout the entire performance.
“He taught most of the kids who were in the play how to tap dance because tap dance is definitely his forte,” she said proudly.
Parker’s father recalled a different occasion when his son, around the age of 5 or 6, showed off his dancing talent. The family was out to dinner at an outdoor seafood restaurant with a cover band.
“I don’t remember the song that they were playing, but they usually did Jimmy Buffett, or James Taylor, or some Cat Stevens … AJ got up and he danced to every song.”
Jonathan Parker remembers the band’s singer saying to the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, this was the first time we’ve had interpretive dance done.”
“ … twerking is one of the best stress relievers out there!”
Parker attended the Boston Conservatory for college from 2012 to 2016. During his sophomore year, a student group put on a drag show to benefit the Trevor Project, a nonprofit that focuses on suicide prevention in the LGBTQ community.
Thinking it would be a fun time, Parker decided to perform at the event.
“I never thought about looking good,” he reflected on his first drag performance, which he admits was over-the-top, but not as polished as a professional drag queen.
He enjoyed the experience so much that for the rest of his time at the conservatory, he participated in the fundraiser, even going so far as to coordinate the event his junior year.
“I still didn’t think about looks at that point,” he recalled with a laugh. “I really didn’t think about looks until I moved to New York, it’s how the game is played here.”
Jonathan Parker recalled his son’s announcement of his first drag performance.
“AJ was very good at introducing his father to drag,” he recalled with a chuckle.” One day he came home and he had some lipstick on, and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s different.’”
“One day, he came home and had lipstick and nail polish on and I was like, ‘Oh, he’s following it a little more,’” he continued. “Then one day, he says, ‘Dad, I’m doing a drag performance’ and I was like, ‘Well, that’s not really unexpected at this point.’”
The elder Parker never hesitated in supporting his son, saying that his next response was whether he could attend.
“It’s a feeling of pride, it’s a feeling of love,” he said. “It’s just a little feeling of discomfort because you’ve never been there before. It was something I had never experienced before. But, I got over it and honestly it was a blast.”
Rosie Ramos, who met Parker at the conservatory and quickly became friends with him, recalled how they bonded over dance.
“We hit it off right away and enjoyed dancing [and] twerking to Beyoncé, JLO, Britney Spears, Ciara, you name it,” she said. “We always found time outside of class to create art that spoke to us. He helped me realize that twerking is one of the best stress relievers out there!”
Ramos also recalled watching Parker’s first performance in drag.
“What struck me the most was his ability to put together a cohesive piece that had purpose,” she said. “His special attention to detail really shined in that performance as well as all performances that I have witnessed.”
After graduating from the Boston Conservatory with a bachelor of fine arts in 2016, Parker moved to New York.
“I just wanted to meet these people and be in the hustle of it,” he said. He currently resides in Washington Heights, on the border of Manhattan and the Bronx.
He pursued projects in art, fashion, design—anything that would allow him to create. He landed a job at Kidville, a daycare for infants and children from 0 to 6 years old, where he teaches dance.
“It’s really sweet and awesome,” he said.
Miz Diamond Wigfall
In October 2016, the Manhattan gay bar, Boots and Saddle, was having a drag competition, Vincent Cooper Presents: Lady Liberty, an opportunity for aspiring drag queens to perform and showcase their skills. Parker decided to participate.
Wearing short-shorts, a pink velvet crop-top, a torn skirt, and big white leather boots, Parker performed in his first major drag show.
“I didn’t feel good about my look,” he recalled solemnly.
But he didn’t let that deter him.
“I was like, I don’t look as good as other people,” he continued. “I’m not wearing nails, but I know I can kill this routine because I practiced and it’s mine and I know that it’s something that I can do that’s fun. It was the first time I lip synced to people in a bar.”
He made it to the top 3 and though he didn’t take home the top prize, he had a realization.
“Why would I pretend like I would want to do anything else,” he realized.
He took money from a security deposit he received and started to buy wigs, makeup, and other necessities to fashion a drag persona. He frequented the gay night scene, meeting other drag queens, learning makeup tips, and building up his confidence to begin his own career.
“You have to be polished to do anything here,” he said. “[Miz Diamond Wigfall] was just me dressing up as a girl for a while. I didn’t know who she was.
“It was a great way for me to learn. I learned how to do hair. I was doing my own hair at that point. I don’t think my hair is amazing at this point, but it’s definitely come way, way far and I am constantly working on it.”
Parker would go on to compete in more competitions, all the while refining the Wigfall persona, improving his application of makeup, buying better wigs and outfits.
“I would always try to do new looks and push my makeup and push myself,” he said. “I would do a competition once a month or twice a month.”
Parker would do drag performances in New York and Massachusetts, all with the encouragement of family and friends.
“I was excited for him because I could always see him doing it,” said his older sister Devin Newton-Parker. “I mean, come on, when he was 3-years-old he was dancing to Britney Spears doing all of her choreography.”
As he started becoming more comfortable in his drag career, Parker’s father, Jonathan, always had kind, but firm words to share to keep his son down-to-earth.
“I love to see him, he’s come so far, and I will tell him the same thing, when he started and went to New York and started performing, his makeup was bad,” he said. “Not that I know that much, but I’ve seen enough to know he had work to do. And he knew.”
Amanda Gray, Parker’s friend, stepped in and helped him with his makeup, adding more glamour and glitz to the Wigfall persona.
“Seeing AJ perform as Miz Diamond Wigfall is a dream come true,” she said. “The energy she brings to a stage is something you need to be born with, and she definitely was. There’s nothing like seeing one of your best friends excelling at what they love.
Parker’s boyfriend, Ansy Kebreau, also helps style Miz Diamond Wigfall and noted the evolution of her style.
“Every time she performs the costume fits the story the performance is telling,” they said (note: Kebreau uses the pronouns they, them, and their). “Miz Diamond started as [and] is a thrift store queen. Many vintage silhouettes [and] high waisted garments fit AJ like a glove and that carried over into the queen that is Miz Diamond.”
The West End Lounge in Manhattan hosted a nine-week drag pageant back in October. Miz Diamond Wigfall competed in every competition. Every week there was a different theme and performers had to create corresponding outfits, choreograph their performances, and build their own sets.
“It was like a mini Rupaul’s drag race, but you didn’t have to sew, so that was really easy,” Parker recalled.
“I always feel a little nervous when [Miz Diamond Wigfall] performs at a new place or in front of a new crowd of people, but it all goes away once the music starts,” said Agata Gulgowska, a close friend of Parker’s who attended all nine of the pageant competitions to show her support.
“She is empowering,” said Marti Cummings, who hosted and produced the pageant, of Wigfall. “What was awesome about her performances was her ability to turn a three-minute number into a full performance piece telling a story for the audience.”
Kebreau lauded Parker’s sense of style and ambition in developing the Miz Diamond Wigfall character for the competition.
“Anyone who knows AJ knows that he’s been choreographing, putting together mixes and videos well before drag was on the horizon,” they said. “Miz Diamond is an elevated presentation of AJ. She has an eclectic style and you never know what to expect to see her in!
“I really love that Miz Diamond is living in the music when she performs. Her mixes are meticulous, her choreography is specific, and she acts out every subtlety of the lyrical content.”
Parker’s father, Jonathan, said his son never lacked confidence.
“He kind of told me from the first week of the competition, ‘Dad, I’m pretty sure I got this,’” he said.
“Proud as a peacock”
In mid-December, Miz Diamond Wigfall won the pageant at the West End.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder,” said Newton-Parker. “I knew that this was a big deal to him and I can’t wait to get to New York to see one of his shows.”
For one year starting in February, Parker will have his own monthly drag show, “Sure Did … Sure Did.”
Jonathan Parker has pledged to attend every other performance and has already requested time off work to attend the kickoff show in February.
“It takes a lot not just to follow your dreams, but when other people are expecting things from you … he followed his passion and it’s coming to fruition,” he said. “And he’ll only get better. He’ll only get more successful and I’m as proud as a peacock. And I’m just so happy for him and I’m proud of him.”
“He worked so hard,” said McLaughlin, Parker’s mother. “I was so thrilled.”
“I get to choose whatever I want to do with it, which is super exciting,” Parker said of his upcoming stint at the West End Lounge.
Jonathan Parker sees nothing but success in the future for his son and confidently shared his prediction.
“Life is long,” he said. “You work hard and you don’t want to be doing something you’re not happy at and he’s just done that. He’s happy and he’s creating. You just wait. Just wait another year or two or three down the road … I just think he’s got it in him … ”
*The Rainbow Times’ intern, Nick Collins, contributed to this article.
[This story first ran in the Feb. 1, 2018 issue of The Rainbow Times].