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Interview: Cosplay Drag Diva Oriana Perón

by Cindy Sibilsky,

Hailing from Bloomington IN, Christopher Simanton — whose larger-than-life drag persona, Oriana Perón, has quickly solidified her status as the most in-demand cosplay drag performer, host, and panelist in the Midwest — performed her signature Drag Race (inspired by RuPaul's mega-popular TV series with an anime-inspired twist) and Drag Show in the Main Events Ballroom at the Columbus Convention Center for 2019's Ohayocon. I first met Oriana in Ohayocon 2018 and was immediately impressed with her command of the large rowdy audience, her creative interpretations of blending cosplay and drag, her explosive energy, and her all-inclusive attitude toward fellow fans, especially those in the LGBTQ community.

This year Oriana has taken it up a notch, and Midwest conventions (and beyond) are taking notice of her unique and well-attended offerings. At Ohayocon 2019, her Drag Race on Friday night (in competition with the Roast of voice actor and director Aaron Dismuke) drew at least 1800 attendees to the 2600 capacity room, and the Drag Show was standing room only the next evening. The quality of the contestants made it hard to choose (particularly with the duet of ‘Defying Gravity’ from Wicked on Broadway for Lipsync For Your Life), but ultimately, the winner was a Drag King cosplaying as Haruhi from Ouran High School Host Club, who got to perform on the main stage at the Drag Show the following night. On the feedback forums, Oriana was named the second most requested guest (just under Funimation voice actor Chris Sabat).

So what transformed a nice Midwestern anime fan into the most sought-after drag cosplay performer and panelist in Middle America? I decided to get this backstory while receiving a full drag makeover because life can be a drag, but your conventions don't have to be!

Like most otaku of a certain age, Oriana's obsession with anime began with Sailor Moon: “Sailor Moon was my gateway drug to anime,” Oriana revealed, “Dragon Ball Z, Ronin Warriors, and the dubbed Grimm Masterpiece Theater on Nickelodeon all followed. Basically, all the Japanese animation of the '90s before I really knew what anime was.” This shifted into an appreciation for Japanese pop culture through being introduced into J-Pop and manga. “My friends and I would spend hours in Borders bookstore devouring manga,” Oriana confessed. Chris took three years of Japanese language in high school, then as a junior he got the opportunity to visit Japan for a month. It was a humorous culture shock compared to his initial expectations. "I was 5'11'' and when I would say ‘Konichiwa’ the girls would run away screaming with giggles."

The trip not only confirmed his interest in Japanese culture but it led to him working as an executive assistant at Japan American Society of Indiana for a couple years following high school. Simanton's foray into cosplay (and subsequently drag, initially due to the interest in portraying female characters) began in May 2006, at Anime Central for his first convention, making 2019 quite a full-circle journey for the boy who'd become the diva, Oriana Perón.

“It was an experience! We had no budget so we stayed in a very shady Super 8 Motel where the police made a bust in the room next door, but we just turned up the TV and ignored it,” Perón recalls, “I cosplayed as Eternal Sailor Moon, which became my signature. My friend made the costume as I didn't know how to sew at the time and I wore a bad wig with no makeup. We did get featured in the Herald Times of Bloomington though, which felt like a really big deal. All I knew was I was hooked!”

That first bite from the con bug led Simanton to voraciously frequent the various fandom gatherings across the Midwest where his planet-themed Pretty Guardian cosplay (though still slightly lackluster) garnered him the moniker of ‘Sailor Man’, and he competed with his cohorts in Masquerades at conventions during the early days of Youmacon, Ohayocon and many more. Simanton's first attempt at a Drag Race was during Kollisioncon in 2010 and 2011. “It was a mess but fun and engaging.” This led to trying it out at Youmacon in Detroit from 2010-2012, where part of the competition had contestants build a Sailor Moon character design from scrap material on a model from the audience, which has now becomes the trademark finale test of Oriana Perón's Drag Race.

Right around the time Simanton went back to school for costume design at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, a bar called The Back Door opened. The hidden gem buried in a back alley would become the place where Simanton would hone his craft as a drag performer and invent Oriana Perón (named for a princess on Felix the Cat and the surname of her own drag mother). Cosplay was always an element, and early Oriana Perón performances consisted of lots of Disney: Cruella, Winifred Sanderson from Hocus Pocus, and Cinderella. This is when the newly dubbed Oriana dove headfirst into all things drag: learning to sew and style wigs, lip sync, quip with the audience and contour, contour, contour. The days of ‘Sailor Man’ were long gone!

But the yearning for fellow otaku and conventions caused some discontent with his new lifestyle. The only way to remedy the longing seemed to be to combine all of these passions: cosplay and anime, conventions and drag all together, despite the seeming conflicts. “My issue was that many in the cosplay community have the attitude that you have to get every detail perfect and be utterly faithful to the original — that felt inauthentic to my own expression, so once I decided it was my own art and I needed to take charge of it in the way I saw fit, I fell in love with both drag and cosplay again.” Oriana took all of these assets and offered them to conventions in the form of Drag Races, panels, and cosplay entertainment. She was a guest, performer, and panelist at Youmacon, Colossalcon, Anime World Chicago and Indianapolis, Matsuricon, and finally Ohayocon. As for the unexpected success that started 2019, Oriana says, “I feel ready for this now. I looked out into the crowd of thousands and was unafraid.”

In terms of the future, Oriana is hopeful and eager, but still retains that Midwestern humility: “I think it is crucial for the LGBTQ community, who are such a big part of these conventions and fandoms, to be recognized and have a safe and exciting space to express themselves fully.” This is further reflected in her panels, which include everything from makeup and wig tips to advanced sewing and a LGBTQIA & Cosplay open forum for engagement, where coming-out stories are typical and a safe space is critical. As for her own personal vision for 2019 and beyond: “In my ideal world I would like to travel to 2-3 cons monthly, offer meaningful and fun panels, perform my drag cosplay and share Oriana's Drag Race with eager anime and drag fans just like myself across America, while still continuing to hone my craft and present new works of drag meets cosplay combos at my home bar, The Back Door.”

Thanks to Oriana Perón for this interview (and makeover) opportunity.

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