Make no mistake about it — whether in drag or not, Maya Montana is the most adorable drag queen on Duval Street. When I strolled into the empty Aqua Nightclub at one o’clock on a Monday afternoon, Maya was there to greet me with a million-watt smile, a huge hug and a giggle so cute you’d swear it came from a 5-year-old girl. Judging from the number of times Maya said “I love it here” during our conversation, I think it’s safe to say that she loves Key West just as much as Key West loves her.
Maya moved to the United States from the Philippines in 1987 and lived all over the Eastern Seaboard before she settled in Key West. In 1994, Maya was living in Washington, D.C., and happened upon a newspaper ad for a drag pageant while she was riding on the Metro. You would never know it, but at that point she had never seen a drag performer or show in her entire life, let alone an entire pageant. Intrigued, Maya studied the ad, decided what she would need to create a female persona, and competed in her very first drag pageant having never even experienced drag, much less tried to perform it herself.
“I always had inclinations to dress as a woman,” Maya says. “I’ve always been very feminine and wanted to entertain, which was one of the reasons I moved to the United States from the Philippines. I love dancing and performing, so drag seemed like a perfect outlet to express myself.”
Unsurprisingly, drag came absolutely naturally to her. Though drag was a completely unfamiliar medium, Maya placed eighth out of 10 competitors. “Not so bad for a first timer!” Maya laughs.
Fast forward four short years to 1998. Maya had been competing in drag pageants fairly regularly and she decided to compete in Miss Gay America, the first and longest-running pageant for female impersonators. Winning Miss Gay America was definitely a life-changing event.
“Competing for and winning Miss Gay America gave me the opportunity to travel all over the country,” Maya says. “Because I had to be there for all of the preliminary competitions and then got to tour after winning the title, I had the incredible opportunity to see this beautiful country, meet new people, and make new friends.”
The most interesting part of Maya’s development as a drag star is that she never had any preconceived notions or specific inspirations for her character. Most drag queens like to channel Cher or Bette Midler or Barbra Streisand, but Maya is a character all her own. At first, she says, “I was just having fun. I picked a look I thought would work and just went with it! At this point, I’ve been doing drag long enough that I’ve developed my own identity and look and characters but at the beginning I just did what felt right. And now that I’ve been doing it for over two decades, it only takes me about an hour to get into full drag.”
And the name Maya Montana? “The “maya” used to be the national bird of the Philippines, so for me that was an important part of sharing my culture and background with my audience. The Montana part is silly!” Here, Maya blushes and shoots me her signature giggle. “At the time, I thought Joe Montana was really cute, so I figured the last name Montana was perfect.”
Although she is a permanent fixture on the Aqua stage, Maya has only lived in Key West for eight years. Her move here was largely a fluke, but we can thank fellow Aquanettes Jessica Deveraux and Faith Michaels for Maya’s grand entrance onto the scene.
Back in August 2008, “I was living in Alpharetta, Ga., and Aqua needed someone to fill in. I knew Faith and Jessica from the female impersonator competition circuit and they invited me to come down, so I drove down and I worked at Aqua and after the show they invited me to stay full time. I fell in love with this island instantly and I never take it for granted.”
The performance schedule at Aqua Nightclub rotates regularly, so make sure to check out www.aquakeywest.com to see when Maya Montana is performing with the Aquanettes. You can find Aqua Nightclub at 711 Duval St. ¦