What the battle with Kari Lake was like for drag queen Barbra Seville

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Wednesday, January 17, 2024 - 12:45pm
Updated: Thursday, January 18, 2024 - 7:21am

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Richard Stevens
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
Richard Stevens

You probably recognize Richard Stevens’ stage name, Barbra Seville, from the famous feud he had with then GOP-gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake in 2022. It exploded after Stevens spoke out about her attacks on the gay community — drag queens included — after having been a friend of his for more than 20 years.

But, Stevens' story is a whole different one. 

He grew up as the youngest of nine kids and remembers performing from a very young age. He found drag as a teenager and has now been performing it in the Valley for 25 years. And, when he found himself at the heart of the culture wars in Arizona, he told The Show, he knew he was the right person to be there. 

In the latest edition of Deep Dive, The Show sat down with Stevens to learn more about his story, and why he has always found himself performing — even as a kid. 

Conversation Highlights

How did you get into drag? How did you discover this, you've been doing it for a really long time.

Yeah, I discovered it while I was pretty young. Like, I was still in high school when I discovered it. But if you think about it, drag has been around your entire childhood. You've seen Bugs Bunny do it, you saw Robin Williams do it, you saw Jim Carrey do it. Like, it's just, it's always been there.

But I think that my story is unique or interesting because the lens that I view it was, sort of, through like the “Carol Burnett Show” or “Saturday Night Live” or “Tracey Ullman Show” where people would just be characters.

And, for this show, you would need to be a girl or for this show, you would need to be an old man or for this show, you would need to have an accent and I did all that stuff, you know, growing up. And then when drag presented itself, I was part of a LGBT youth group. It was a very small group, there was no government funding. It was like some serious dark times and they were trying to raise money to just sort of pay their expenses and, you know, have coffee in a coffee pot type thing and they were like, well, how are we going to raise some money? And someone said, “Let's do a show.”

It was a very Mickey Rooney, Just Garland, let's put on a show. And we did a drag show fundraiser and everyone else was lip syncing to Madonna or Jody Watley — that tells you how old I am.

And I did sort of a sketch from Saturday Night Live and we did it live, and people were like, “Oh my god, you're really like, you're funny and you're just doing that yourself?”

And that was that.

What do you like about it?

Well I like the freedom of just, sort of like being a different person and, sort of just, creating a different personality. But also I grew up watching the “Carol Burnett Show.” I grew up watching “Saturday Night Live.” I grew up watching Tracy Ullman. I grew up watching “In Living Color.” So I loved all these sketch shows and I loved all these comedies and I love the idea that, you know, by putting on this hat, you became a different character. I loved that by putting on this accent, you became a different character.

And so, it wasn't always about me being a girl. It was just like, “Oh, now I'm this,” or “Now I'm that.” But because of that, like watching all that growing up to me drag, which is like, “Oh, yeah, I could try this and I could be a girl,” and I don't think I'm a girl, don't get me wrong, you know, but like during those seven minutes that I'm on stage, you can't tell me anything.

Richard Stevens as Barbra Seville
Scotty Kirby Photography
Richard Stevens as Barbra Seville.

Talk a little bit about the growth of this character, sort of, picking a character and staying with her for so many years and just how much the drag scene here has grown in that time.

I would say the biggest development of the character is that I have really nice clothes now. I have beautiful costumes that are made for me and I have beautiful wigs that are done for me and that I can do myself. And when I first started doing drag, it was stuff out of a thrift store.

I really feel like a glamorous showgirl now, whenever I do it. But I also feel like there's a respect that has developed for drag and I also feel like there's a respect that has developed for me and for what I contribute that if I may say so, I've earned.

How do you feel about the growth of drag, like the popularity of it shifting so much? Was this like a good thing in most ways for you?

Well, it's been a good thing, you know, from a financial standpoint, absolutely. But I've been part of it for so long that I sort of saw it coming. 

So it's not like, to me, you know, you just open the door and “Boom!” it's right there like I saw it coming very gradually and I've always been an outlier, in d that I worked outside of traditional drag venues because I'm a hard worker and I'm responsible.

You know, I get invited into spaces that maybe a lot of drag entertainers don't. So I saw this coming but it's insane to see it.

So like it was on “Jimmy Kimmel” yesterday, they had a drag queen story hour on “Jimmy Kimmel” yesterday. It was a parody of it. You know, that wasn't happening when I was a kid.

Let’s talk about the backlash. Because at the same time or maybe not long after we saw this big rise in the popularity of drag and just the ubiquity of it being kind of all over the place. Of course, there has been a massive backlash and you have been a big part of that. People probably know your name in relation to Kari Lake, right? When she was running for governor, you didn't like what she had to say about drag queens, about the LGBTQ community in general and you spoke out because the two of you had been sort of friends over the years. Did you feel like it was about more than just you?

Yes and no. I mean, obviously it wasn't just about me specifically, but it also isn't really about drag. It isn't about drag performers. It's about accumulating power. It's about accruing credibility. It's about getting hits on Fox News. It's about getting on — it's throwing meat to, you know, red meat to people who are mad.

Woman in red top speaks into microphone
Gage Skidmore/CC BY 2.0
Kari Lake speaking with attendees at a meeting of the Arizona Legislative District 28 Republican Party at Westbrook Village in Peoria on Nov. 20, 2023.

And the expression that I used so frequently was, "When you go see the Eagles, they're going to play their hits. When you go see Madonna, they're going to play the No. 1 hits,” and for certain parts of the Republican Party — do you see how I phrased that for certain parts of the Republican Party — anti-LGBTQ content has always sent them to the No. 1.

How did it feel, though, to be the person at the center of that debate for a little while there? I mean, this must have been attention both positive and negative.

It was insane, because I didn't expect it to happen like that. And then for like the first 36-48 hours nothing happened. And I thought, “Oh, well, I was just screaming into the wind,” and then like one day the dam broke, and I was just inundated with so much stuff.

It freaked me out because I am a professional entertainer. I was like, “Oh, well, let's see where this takes you, you know, take advantage of this, maybe this will fill seats at some shows.”

But also, when I realized exactly how divisive it was, I realized that I was the right person to be in that moment because, you know, I'm well spoken, I'm lucky in that aspect I have a decent education. I'm not afraid. I'm also 6 feet tall, almost 200 pounds. So I'm not easily intimidated, and I was glad that if this happened to somebody, that it happened to someone like me who had the strength physically and of character to fight back.

Were there moments though where you felt afraid?

There were a couple, yeah, there were a couple of moments that were like, truly like, “Ok, what now?” But honestly, it was like 2% like that. The other 98% were positive comments. They were encouraging comments. There were people and they tell you don't read the comments and I don't ever read the comments anymore after I saw some crazy things, but some of the comments were just like, “Wow, he's like my brother.”

“Oh, that he reminds me of my nephew.”

“He reminds me of my English teacher.”

“Why would she do that to him?”

You know what I mean? And so I realized that I was putting a human face to a caricature, which is what they were trying to do to the drag community.

And the thing I always say, I don't want to perform for your kids. Kids don't have any money. But that being said, you don't have to protect your kids from me. And this performance is appropriate for a Saturday night in a bar full of adults that are 21 that are drinking and this content is appropriate for story time in a library and most artists understand that.

I want to ask you a little bit about the way you approached the media, the attention, like you did these interviews for the most part from what I can tell as yourself, right? Like as Richard Stevens and sort of spoke, like you said, like a person putting a human face to this. Why did you approach it like that?

I knew that if I rolled up on CNN in drag, that people would say I was ugly, that I don't look like a girl, “What's wrong with him?” you know, and they would try to offend me with those sort of things and that would become the conversation is what I was wearing. The overtop Barbara Seville seen here in a $6,000 dress, you know, that's gonna be the headline.

But I knew that if I presented myself the way I present myself 23 hours a day — you know what I mean — I would probably come off more authentic and people would see the truth behind my existence and the truth behind my words.

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