A Club Called Rhonda's Phyllis Navidad Talks Finding Purpose in Drag
The Los Angeles drag staple gets candid about the growing pains of building her nightlife alter-ego & being a "mother" mentor to LGBTQ youth.
The essence of a person is not determined by extrinsic forces, but by how they intrinsically react to them. Juggling the manic menagerie of isolation, depression and doubt that oftentimes comes with being an LGBTQ identifier can take a devastating toll on one's mental health and even relationships, both intimate and platonic. However, that very struggle also serves as the receipt to a life lived -- a life of risk, bravery, mystery, but still of love. Through this process, through this continuously unfolding story, a purpose is uncovered.
L.A. drag fixture Phyllis Navidad fully embraces this philosophy.
"Drag is the extension of a persona that you always knew was inside of you. Everybody has this; drag is just a different way to express it," Navidad tells Billboard. "It's the extension of something inside of you that just wants to be completely free. That's what drag means to me. That's why I did it: I wanted to be free."
Nearly three decades since coming out as gay, Phillip Bandel -- known to most as Phyllis Navidad, the drag gatekeeper of Los Angeles' pansexual party collective A Club Called Rhonda -- has found meaning as a mentor to LGBTQ youth confronting their own truths.
Raised in Los Angeles, Bandel became heavily involved in the city's underground '90s rave scene beginning in his teenage years. Citing the "restlessness of being a kid" and not yet out to his family, he was enamored by the drag scene in San Francisco, where he moved immediately after graduating high school.
"I didn't come out until my late freshman year in college," Bandel recalls. "My sexual preference was pretty sheltered living in Los Angeles, but it was when I got to San Francisco that I really found myself. I really blossomed there and found myself in the performance art hub, if you will, which is the Tranny Shack scene." The iconic mid-'90s offshoot is a long-heralded drag performance collective in the Bay Area, which has hosted music superstars Lady Gaga and Gwen Stefani over the course of its two-decade reign.
Dropping out of college sophomore year, Bandel admits his infatuation with art, music and "going out a lot" led him to instead join a dance company in Oakland while at the same time becoming acquainted with many of the greater area's party promoters and event producers. He even remembers frequenting the early hatchings of one of today's biggest house music labels. "I was definitely still attracted to electronic music and was going out to a lot of the Sunset Crew parties," tells Bandel. "On Tuesday nights at the time, they had an artist by the name of Justin Martin who was starting a new record label Dirtybird, and I watched that whole label blow up with him and his brother [Christian Martin] and Claude VonStroke. At that time, it was a small bar called The Top, which is now SF Underground. We all knew they were going to be famous."
Phillip also cites legendary psychedelic theater group The Cockettes, formed in the city's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in 1969, as an inspiration behind his "punk rock, campy" aesthetic that complemented his love for both dance and experimental performance art in drag. Most famously, the troupe spawned gay disco legend Sylvester, whose hits "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" and "Dance (Disco Heat)" off his 1978 album Step II both landed in the top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Bandel reminisces, "I was this 20-something 'queerdo' running around San Francisco getting trained in a gay punk rock scene and at the same time hanging out with a bunch of ravers who were either making music, spinning music or throwing parties."
At the same time, A Club Called Rhonda began its preliminary party nights in the second-floor Glass Room at S&G's venue, Globe Theater. Here, party regulars and co-founders Loren Granich and Gregory Alexander birthed their pansexual party paradise, which eventually grew large enough to warrant its own location, bringing along Phyllis essentially as the "face" of the affair. The sultry enigma known as "Rhonda" now had its most palpable figure.
"I admired those boys so much, and I think that's why we got along so well," Phyllis notes. "We all sort of took our chances no matter what. I've definitely throughout my life taken my chances on whether or not things were going to work out; taking chances has always been a part of my artistry."
Simultaneously booking steady drag gigs around West Hollywood, including Hamburger Mary's, Phyllis not only became synonymous with creative freedom and expression within L.A. nightlife, but grew more in tune personally. "The timing of who I was and what I was doing in terms of my character Phyllis Navidad was perfect," she says. "It was a really special time for that thing to happen. And I took advantage of it."
For those who have never attended a Rhonda party, Phyllis advertises the experience as "polysexual hard partying" and that "when you theme a party 'polysexual hard partying,' some freaky shit is going to go down." More importantly, the gender-neutral, unified lair of mental, emotional and sexual liberation has evolved into a safe haven for all walks of life, particularly LGBTQ youth. The same mentorship and comfort Juanita More! provided, Phyllis admits it's now her turn to adopt the "mother figure" role.
The importance and power of this responsibility was fully realized in a pivotal moment Phyllis recalls happening nearly four years ago. A young man named Ben called her, saying that his good friend, Chad Bird, who was a Rhonda regular back when the club was running weekly, had been a longtime admirer of Phyllis' larger-than-life persona, saying, "He loved who you were and you made him so happy every weekend he saw you." Navidad admits she didn't know who he was referring to but thanked him profusely for the kind words. Ben then revealed that Chad had been killed by a drunk driver.
Taken aback, Phyllis apologized and felt even worse that she couldn't remember who he was talking about and apologized again. Ben mentioned that he and some of Chad's close friends and peers were gathering at a community center for a memorial back in his hometown and invited Phyllis to attend, saying it would have meant everything to his late friend. Overwhelmed at first, Phyllis gladly obliged and asked a close friend from L.A. to come along. They showed up to the center, which was also a recently closed marijuana dispensary, and were immediately greeted by Ben and a tightknit group of community workers. With Chad's photo erected for the remembrance, Phyllis stopped dead in her tracks.
"As soon as I saw his picture, I knew exactly who he was," Phyllis recollects. "I knew exactly who this kid was. He was the sweetest, effeminate youth kid I had ever seen come through the doors at Rhonda. Just a lovely kid."
She continues, "Part of my early job was to walk the line and make sure that if I saw people that gravitated towards me in that way -- whether it was their look or their vibe or how they spoke to me -- my job was to grab them and bring them to the front of the line. He was one of those people. I watched him blossom over a span of like two years. He became more comfortable wearing heels, putting on makeup, wearing less and less clothing or more clothing depending on if the look was more or less feminine. He was able to feel free in a place where it was absolutely OK. And he was celebrated, we celebrate people like that."
This was when Phyllis began to comprehend the importance of her role -- not just as a carefree, vibrant mood-setter at L.A.'s greatest party, but as a full-on mentor. Her years of practicing creative and personal freedom, however difficult the journey became, led to her purpose in drag. "The character Phyllis Navidad is about representing a level of acceptance in queer nightlife in Los Angeles that was not around [at the time] as much from what I could tell," the now 37-year-old remarks. "When you leave this earth, if it's tragic or not, like it happened to Chad, I got to see the people that I touched. I got to be the energy that was there for him. That was important for me to see that when he left this earth, the energy and comfort he left behind and was able to have was so important. He isn't forgotten."
A Club Called Rhonda's LGBTQ-centric vibe has always incorporated all gender identities, but its world-class house music bookings have taken the raunchy rave to a new echelon of partying, while attracting a new crowd, many of whom may be caught off-guard by the event's hedonistic atmosphere. It's Phyllis' job to not only set the tone, but to make certain the people she lets in don't distract from it either. "We were supposed to have Frankie Knuckles play before he passed away," she recalls. "I remembered asking myself, 'Will people even know who Frankie is?' We would have these artists like Tony Humphries and Carl Craig. I thought it was a very young college dance crowd who think Dirtybird and tropical house are the only kinds of dance music and don't understand techno originators. As an older person, it can be a little hard to see these kids come through with an attitude about it.
"But when we do have those artists come through, they really do play their hearts out. So those kids leave wanting to know more about the artists they just heard because they've never heard anything like it. I had to take a step back and be like, 'We're teaching the children.'"
Traveling to acclaimed party destinations like New York and Europe, Phyllis says Rhonda's door policy might not be as exclusive as renowned venues such as Berghain or Ministry of Sound, but the right demeanor is necessary. "All these places don't discriminate on whether you're gay or straight, they discriminate on whether or not you're an asshole. That's the way doors should be run. ... I've had to hone in on determining whether somebody in line looks like they know what they're about to get themselves into."
Navidad admits she understands the generational gap, but also tries not to come across too motherly, joking, "I'm like, 'Oh God, am I this old woman now teaching the children?' But I've learned to embrace my own age and what I like to do as far as being a drag queen mentor to younger people in nightlife."
Finding value and merit in nightlife may seem unlikely, but A Club Called Rhonda -- Phyllis Navidad's temple -- is an untouchable dome of resilience baptized in self-love, freedom of expression and resistance to monotony. "I'm so grateful I was raised in the underground, a place that taught me to love differences, especially being queer."
Phyllis Navidad asked that this article be dedicated to "the memory of Chad Bird and Brendan Cameron and all the beautiful children of the world that may ever be misunderstood because they are too fabulous for this place and have moved onto the stars. May they rest in power."