Isaiah Tillman Will Take His Roses Now

The burlesque superstar on how he’s endured Portland’s racism and made his way on the road to fame.

By Andrew Jankowski Photography by Johnny Nuriel July 2, 2020

What does it cost to keep Portland dance titan Isaiah Tillman tender? For you, the starting price is $15. That’s general admission for BOYeurism, Tillman’s long-running cabaret revue and home stage for his boylesque persona, Isaiah Esquire. Tillman’s personal cost, meanwhile, is incalculable. He questions how much of his reputation for kindness and gentleness is his true nature, or defensive nurturing against racism.

“Any time someone compliments me because I’m being kind and gentle, that’s how I feel myself to be, that’s how I know myself to be,” Tillman says. “I have to also think of how my personality would be different if I didn’t feel that I had to have the responsibility of disarming everyone around me when I enter a room.”

While many Portlanders have been taking neighborhood walks to break up quarantine monotony, Tillman says he stopped going on neighborhood walks years ago, in case someone thinks he looks out of place. 

“When Trump got elected, I couldn’t leave my house for days, because the target on my back just got that much bigger,” Tillman says. “I had already been called the 'n' word, and had skinheads ride by. I dealt with that in high school, I dealt with that downtown, I had dealt with that going to Parkrose and having people driving up and down 122nd, so to be back in this community during that time, I just … couldn’t.”   

Walks aside, Tillman's 2020 has been as eventful as you might expect for one of the world’s foremost burlesque artistsBOYeurism’s spring revue was canceled, and the Halloween revue is too far down the road to call, so in the meantime, Tillman, a mildly agoraphobic introvert, made the switch to streaming fire dancing performances from the home he shares with Johnny Nuriel, his husband and BOYeurism co-producer. On June 13, he spoke to parents and students at a Black Lives Matter youth rally in Lents. 

The week prior, Tillman mourned the unexpected loss of local drag luminary Topaz Crawford, his CC Slaughters co-host with queens Bolivia Carmichaels and Honey Bea Hart back in the Before Times. He’s spent quarantine catching up on his reading list —which includes the works of Dr. Joan DeGruy—and watching queer Portlanders uplift the community’s historic Black figures on social media. He wonders aloud when his peers will share his story: while he’s alive, or after he’s gone.

It’s a lot to share, but here goes nothing. Before he was on America’s Got Talent or in the documentary Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe; before he flew his boylesque to Finland and Jamaica; before he danced for touring queer rappers including Mykki Blanco and Le1f; before he kiki’d with Kevin Aviance, Perle Noire, and Hector Xtravaganza, Jr.; before he became the honorary grandfather of the House of Ada and referenced vogue figures like the caller Kevin JZ Prodigy and Miss Joanne Prada aka Joanne the Scammer in his music mixes; before he worked alongside RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni including Jinkx Monsoon, Monét X. Change, and Raja Gemini; before he appeared in music videos and walked runways; before he was the face of everything from the TBA art festival to Dante’s Inferno, Tillman was a Parkrose High School dance club member who got his start dancing in a sober community space. He was a teen club kid with body dysmorphia who didn’t see himself reflected in media for much of his life.

“Part of my commitment to staying visible and doing interviews and things like that while being this introverted hermit of a person, I commit to that because someone needs to see that,” Tillman says. “Someone needs to see me because I am like them.” 

Tillman was a nonverbal child due to a severe stutter he sometimes still shows. He describes his childhood anger as explosive but says he largely got control of his feelings by the first grade, which he credits to lessons from his grandparents that he still carries with him.

He came out as gay early (Tillman now identifies as pansexual), and was part of the Parkrose High School dance team. He made his club debut at 14, underage even for Portland's old 16+ clubs, but being 6’1” and 198 pounds in middle school landed him early entry. Though he's often compared to Grace Jones and has referenced her in his work, Tillman says he was more drawn to the androgyny of Tina Turner and Prince. There was a point where Tillman thought he might be transgender. With age, he has grown into his own self-spun masculinity, embracing natural femininity instead of suppressing it.

"Someone needs to see me because I am like them."

Image: Hawa Arsala

In 2007, Tillman founded Burlesquire, the troupe that inspired his stage name. (There are over a dozen Esquires, but Isaiah remains the most visible.) While Burlesquire was often compared to the avant-garde drag troupe Sissyboy, Tillman says it was more dance- than drag-oriented. “We were dancers stuck in the commercial and dance team worlds, which are more PG,” Tillman said, “We felt stifled and wanted to have a space to make the art we wanted to create. We weren’t following any format.”

As Isaiah Esquire, Tillman might paint himself into stunning, self-imagined creatures or keep his stage looks as simple as a red lip, sturdy pumps, and negligee. Tillman says he’s been compared to the performance artist boychild more than once. No matter what he is or isn’t wearing, he delivers electrifying original choreography with sharp character work. But when Tillman first entered the drag world, he says he was called lazy for not wearing wigs, pads, and other items once considered must-haves. He was told he only did "half-drag."

It didn’t stop there. Tillman holds three gay pageant titles: Mr. Gay Pride 2010, Mr. Oregon Gay United States 2012, and Mr. NW Fierce 2014, and he says his appearance was heavily regulated every time he ran, with his greatest criticisms being his penchant for high heels. His queer androgyny sticks out even more in the heteronormative burlesque world. “That’s still a community working on being more inclusive of what it likes,” he says.

In 2012, though, Tillman says he reached a sort of tipping point with the support of fellow Black performing artists. That was the year he performed with burlesque legend Perle Noire at the former Someday Lounge in Old Town. They have since developed a friendship, one Tillman says extends offstage. It was also the year he held a kiki vogue ball with queen Raja Gemini and Hector Xtravaganza, Jr., where Tillman walked against an 8-year-old. “She was fierce," he says. “It was close. I really beat her.”

Tillman says he knows he is a guest in spaces like burlesque and vogue. White women in the burlesque world often give frightened looks if he’s not in a costume. He gets asked for ID at shows where he’s on the poster. Though he learned some about vogue from Kumari Suraj and Dashaun Wesley (House of Xclusive Lanvin, Pose, Legendary), Tillman mostly learned about it from the internet and America’s Best Dance Crew, not from daily life in the subculture. “You can still have cultural appropriation while being a Brown person,” Tillman said.

With BOYeurism, Tillman’s stage is his unrestricted vision of beauty. It’s a space where he can uplift performers who don’t get supported elsewhere in town, and where he can perform anything he wants. A few weeks ago, Tillman streamed a Juneteenth boylesque performance with choreography he wrote about fetishizing Black people that explored the monetary value placed on bodies (e.g. how go-go boys lose their jobs when they gain weight, how femme-presenting gay men might not get hired as often as more masculine figures). In a post explaining his performance, Tillman confessed he'd been rethinking his relationship to his own body. He and Nuriel—who met in BOYeurism's early days and wed in 2015 when the United States legalized same-sex marriage—have learned a lot from each other’s experiences with racism. They hope Portlanders use 2020 to get back in touch with themselves and learn from the stories Black people share. 

“You can be a kind, gentle person, you can lead heart-first and still be celebrated,” Tillman says. “[You can] still be respected and have power and influence tied to your integrity and what you inspire.”

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