In 1999, when Christian Castelan dragged his closeted Forsyth Central High School classmate Brian Trapp down from Cumming, Georgia, and deep into the festivities of Atlanta Pride weekend, it ended up changing the trajectory of Trapp’s life. Along with hundreds of other Pride revelers, the two teenagers ended up in Piedmont Park on Sunday night to watch the weekend’s signature closing event—Starlight Cabaret, a two-hour drag spectacular featuring some of the city’s best performers, including Charlie Brown, Raven, Shawnna Brooks and Heather Daniels.
“It was one of the most magical moments of my life,” says Trapp. “I’ll never forget, Barbed Wire was the big movie at the time, and Heather Daniels came out as Pamela Anderson looking fierce as hell with these dancers. The productions were so grand and big. I was mesmerized; I just remember standing there in silence watching these incredible queens perform. I didn’t even fully know what drag was at the time. I just knew I loved what I was watching and feeling the energy of the crowd.”
Four years later, as a baby drag queen—taking his stage name from the mythological bird that rises from the ashes—Phoenix stepped on stage at Charlie Brown’s Cabaret at Backstreet for the first time. By 2011, Phoenix would achieve international fame as one of the most memorable performers from the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the show that launched Trapp’s global career in drag.
And this Sunday, Phoenix will produce and emcee Atlanta Pride’s 33rd annual Starlight Cabaret solo for the first time on the Coca-Cola Stage at Piedmont Park. It’s also the first time the show will be back on stage live and in-person since 2019. Debuting in 1989, Starlight Cabaret is one of Atlanta Pride’s oldest and most beloved traditions. For over 30 years, hundreds of LGBTQ+ people, their friends, and family pour into the park each Pride Sunday at sunset for the festivities.
“I’m so excited to be back in person this year,” says Phoenix. “During the pandemic, we did an online version, and while I enjoyed producing something for people when everyone was missing Pride and drag, it didn’t have that same spark of packing hundreds and hundreds of people together in the park. When you look out into the crowd, all you see are smiles.”
Phoenix has assembled an all-star drag line-up for this year’s return too, including Extasy Grey, Lena Lust, Destiny Brooks, Lala Ri, Kyra Mora, Cici Nicole, Brigitte Bedet, Taejah Thomas, Mona Lott, Iv Fischer, Dynasty St. James, Raquel Rea Heart, Nicole Paige Brooks, Charlie Brown, and Pryncess Carter.
“I’ve been doing drag now for 22 years and people always want to know what the biggest moment has been in my drag career,” says Phoenix. “Most people think it’s RuPaul’s Drag Race or the movies I’ve been in. But for me, while Drag Race is certainly amazing, getting the phone call to take over Starlight Cabaret was a huge deal, something I’ll always remember. As a kid, it had such an impact on me. I never dreamed I would someday get to produce and emcee it. It was a full circle moment. When they called, I immediately called Christian to tell him!”
Phoenix’s former co-emcee and drag partner in crime, Genre Monster, now lives outside of Biloxi, Mississippi, and is helping coordinate things behind the scenes for this year’s Starlight Cabaret return. In 2019, the emceeing duo required a raft onstage when, just as the show began, the skies opened. “When we first walked out, I had this heavy sequined gown on with this long train and massive hair,” Phoenix recalls laughing. “I could just feel that gown filling up with water. I just dragged it around the stage. Hundreds of people put their umbrellas down so everyone could see. We all got drenched together. That’s how much people love Starlight Cabaret!”
This year, Phoenix is thrilled that Atlanta drag icons Charlie Brown and Lena Lust will return to the Starlight Cabaret stage as well. Back in 2003, Phoenix (as Brian Trapp) was tipping Shawnna Brooks on night during her number at Backstreet when Brooks whispered in his ear, “Charlie Brown wants to see you in the back.”
“My heart dropped to my knees,” Phoenix recalls. “I had been doing drag for a couple of years but I was a hot mess, basically and now I’m supposed to walk into a dressing room with literal drag legends?! So I go in the back and see all of these iconic drag queens until I get to the end of the aisle where Charlie Brown and Lena Lust are doing their make-up. Charlie looks up and says, ‘I’ve been hearing great things about you.’ When one of the girls would call out, he started using me as a fill-in. He saw something in this busted little queen and I will always be grateful.” At Atlanta City Hall on Monday night, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens kicked off Pride week by presenting Brown with the Phoenix Award, the city’s highest honor.
On Sunday night from the Coca-Cola stage in Piedmont Park, Phoenix will be scanning the crowd for the young people seeing the show for the first time. “I always want to keep the level of greatness I saw when I was 19 years old experiencing it for the first time,” he says. “I always hope there’s that next 19-year-old out there who walks away with that same feeling I had. I want to be able to pass that on.”
The 33rd annual Starlight Cabaret hosted by Phoenix will take place on Sunday October 9 on the Coca-Cola Stage in Piedmont Park from 7 to 9 p.m. The event is free.