Last November, Lisa Frank Cortez had barely touched down in Denver. They had been here less than six months and were trying to find their footing in the local drag scene—no easy feat here in the Mile High City. They had only what they could fit in a few suitcases and hit the ground running.
Known for outlandish performances and gender-bending looks, they waited alongside the stage at Gladys: The Nosy Neighbor confidently, ready to destroy the competition in the final lip sync at Weirdo’s Hunger Games-inspired night.
As Green Day’s “American Idiot” started blaring over the speakers, the single spotlight found its first target of the lip-sync: Lisa Frank Cortez. Dressed as a tree wearing a confederate flag singlet and noose, the audience was both gagged and in love.They couldn’t take their eyes off of Lisa Frank Cortez as they flailed around the stage wrapping the audience in their noose.
“That performance was so on-brand for me,” Lisa said. “I’ve always drawn inspiration from radical black queers and trash punk queens. I used to call myself a ‘trash queen’ but, because I’m on the trans spectrum as nonbinary, I stopped calling myself a ‘drag queen’ and I consider myself a ‘drag artist.’ I’m a ‘trash artist’ now.
“Most people only consider drag as an art form if you’re dressing as a real girl. I think drag is gender expression in general, so I don’t dress as a woman or man. My drag is also nonbinary.”
When Lisa was 17 and living as a “young scene kid,” they saw Party Monster for the first time, which continues to inspire all of their looks and performances today. After college, as they began partying more, Lisa found themselves at Little Rock, Arkansas’ queerest house parties hosted by the Haus of Avalon. The first time Lisa went out in drag was for their Disco Bloodbath party.
“I’ve always loved performance art, couture fashion, and extreme pride in queerness. So, when I started pulling looks, that’s what I was trying to do, the club kid look. It stuck around,” Lisa said. “People ate it up, because I was this black queer who was pulling these very, very weird looks. It had never been seen before in Little Rock.”
At that same party, Lisa was approached by their drag mother and joined the Haus of Cortez—also home to recent Ultimate Queen Kelela Cortez and Reprobabe. As a Haus, they would travel to surrounding states and cities to branch out of their home base
In January 2017, Blush & Blu booked the Haus of Cortez for a show. The weeklong visit to Denver pushed the artists to move out to Denver—thanks in large part to Yvie Oddly and Anka Shane. Yvie offered to help them get gigs, and even let them crash at their house in Rhino. Lisa set a date to be in Denver in three months.
At the end of that three months, Lisa packed up a few interchangeable day outfits and a lot of drag into a few small suitcases that they stacked alongside Kelela, Reprobabe, and one other’s few, small suitcases in a four-door Sedan. When the bags didn’t fit, they spent the morning pulling out what they could bear to leave behind.
When they touched down in Denver, Lisa had $150 and the drive to make a name for herself. They snatched a a job at Mile High Hamburger Mary’s and booked as many gigs as they could.
“When I first started working here, everyone compared me to Yvie, which I understood, but it was annoying,” Lisa said. “I felt like it was because we were both experimental, brown queens. But we are different performers with different brands. For a while, I wanted to stop performing, but winning this reaffirms that I am appreciated.”
Today, you can catch Lisa Frank Cortez performing in a number of shows, getting witchy at Gladys’ Koven, where they are a resident witch, or hosting Drip at X Bar alongside their drag sister Kelela.
“It feels really humbling to be voted the best in Denver,” Lisa said. “There are so many phenomenal performers here. I mean, I know I deserve it, but I’m ecstatic that others do, too.”
Photos by Stu Osborne and Mike Bomberger