For 20 years, Richard Stevens has entertained Valley audiences as Barbra Seville, a sassy character who looks a bit like Bette Midler and talks a lot like Joan Rivers. Seville ranks both among his all-time favorite women, though nobody’s more magnificent than Dear Mother (“I learned how to be funny and sarcastic and dry from my mom,” Seville says). When not performing in the weekly “Barbra Seville Show” Saturday nights at The Rock in Central Phoenix, Seville delights YouTube viewers with impersonations of Jan Brewer and Paula Deen. October’s a busy month for the Phoenix resident, who competes in the Miss Gay America pageant in Memphis, Tenn., on October 5-9, before participating in the annual AIDS Walk in Phoenix on October 23.
Do you prefer the term “drag queen” or “female impersonator”?
I call it both. Nothing bothers me. It’s hard to get too uptight about that when you’re wearing three wigs and a headdress. Sometimes I feel more like a Macy’s Thanksgiving float than a female impersonator, you know what I mean? Other than Cher, what females look like that?
How has drag performing changed since you started 20 years ago?
There are two things that have changed. Number one, people don’t go out to clubs the way they used to, so you have to really work hard to get an audience. And speaking of holding an audience, this [grabs cell phone] has become a cell phone with a camera and a video and a Snapchat, and that has become the bane of almost any live performer’s existence. You hear Beyoncé and Adele telling people, ‘Hey, put down your phone and enjoy the show’? It’s a hundred times worse in a bar, and in a drag show. It’s harder to get people to connect with you.
How would you describe your show? Do you take “campy” as a compliment?
Obviously, there’s a camp element to it, but I like to think my act is a little more sophisticated than camp. I think it’s more clever, I think it’s observational. When I think of camp, I think of I Love Lucy [and the scene where she is] stomping grapes. But on the flip side, Cher in an evening gown singing a ballad is pretty campy, too. There’s always an element of camp, but I also like the glamour part, and I like the comedy.
What are some of the causes you’re passionate about?
I love AIDS Walk. This year, our goal is to raise $20,000, which is a lot of money, but for me, the most rewarding part about all of that is – our team, it’s like a community-building exercise. It makes people just feel better about themselves, makes them feel better about where they live… I’ve seen it change people. People who’ve been a part of our team or on our committee, it really brings out their better instincts.
You’re competing in the Miss Gay America pageant this month. Tell us about that.
I won Miss [Gay] Arizona a long time ago, and I won Miss Gay California [this year]. I’m preparing a really cool competition package – and if you win that, it’s a $10,000 prize package, plus you get to tour the country on behalf of the system. There are 25 pageants across the country. You sort of oversee them and promote the contests. So I’m excited about that. RuPaul’s Drag Race has been on for seven years, I think. This has been around 40 years. People have been trying to win this since I was born. So it’s a pretty prestigious thing in the realm of female impersonation and in the gay community in general.