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They call themselves showboys. They are boys, men actually, who sing and dance. And, just as often, one can find them lip-syncing at gay bars or competing in male beauty pageants across the state and country. Three of the most popular in Michigan are Izaya Cole, Prince Cole and El’ Ross.
Born Cory Shorter, Izaya Cole grew up in Inkster and by 5 he had already started dancing and performing in theatrical productions.
“I did little school plays and I went to church and I used to sing in the choir,” Shorter said. “The first play I was ever in was ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ and I was actually the little drummer boy.”
After high school, he earned a degree in theater from the University of Michigan. Then in 2009, while still pursuing a career in theater, Shorter stumbled upon an interesting opportunity. Drag legend Natalie Cole was looking for dancers to compete with her in the Miss Gay USA Unlimited pageant.
“Natalie competed and she ended up winning,” said Shorter. “Natalie and I just bonded. She knew I did theater so she asked if I would ever be interested in performing as a male. And I said, ‘I love to perform, so why not?’ So, she adopted me into the Cole family and gave me the name Izaya and it started from there.”
Even with his previous experience, at first, Shorter was hesitant on stage.
“All I did was sing,” he said. “I had no costumes. I had nice clothes, and all I would do is sing. Then I got some coaching from my drag family and they said, ‘You can dance, you can move.’ So, I started getting costumes made and doing the dance numbers. I had to get comfortable with myself and start getting a little bit sexy and comfortable in my own skin.”
It wouldn’t be long before Shorter began to fully accept his role as Izaya, and he began moving all over the stage in costumes as flashy as they were racy.
“When I first started there was such a stigma that you have to be a man and you have to be butch,” he said. “And you can come out in jeans and tank top and perform a number. That’s not just the case. You still have to put on a show. We call it drag. Boy drag. Yes, you’re a man, but you’re a gay man so it’s OK if you want to come out in makeup or a little bit of sequins.”
To date, Shorter has won 25 pageants and is known as Michigan’s most-awarded showboy, along with the first to win a national title. In fact, he has three national titles under his belt: Mr. Gay USA Unlimited, Mr. Black National and Mr. Sapphire.
Today, at 28, Shorter works by day as the lead Emerald Club consultant for National Rental Car at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. And by night, even when he’s not out being a showboy, fans can find him onstage.
“Theater is pretty much a second job of mine,” Shorter said. “I’ve moved on to professional theater where I get paid for it and I have points which go toward becoming an (Actors’) Equity (Association) member.”
In addition to his own acting, Shorter also made his directorial debut last year directing “The Addams Family” for the Southgate Community Players. More recently, last summer Shorter played the leading role of Usnavi in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In The Heights” for the Detroit Actor’s Theater Company.
It was Shorter that got Prince Cole interested in being a showboy. Born Jeremy Smith, Prince Cole grew up in Detroit. He attended Fraser’s Arts Academy in the Woods and started his formal training in ballet, modern and jazz dance at age 13. Smith would on to earn a degree in dance from Marygrove College.
He was 20 years old when Shorter first approached him about performing as a showboy.
“I was one of his backup dancers in the very first national pageant that he won,” Smith said. “After that, I started doing shows and pageants. That was my entrance into the pageant scene.”
And Smith had no trouble making a name for himself at the outset. However, he soon discovered that being a showboy was not without its challenges.
“It’s very hard as a male entertainer to keep going,” he said. “There’s not a lot of appreciation for male entertainers.”
Challenges aside, Smith has so far captured 16 titles. Most are from Michigan, but he’s won competitions in Ohio and Kentucky, too.
“Every title I’ve won has brought me further and further and each title I’ve won has brought me recognition in different ways,” Smith said. “Then, in different states I get even more exposure so they all hold the same value to me.”
Along the way on his pageant journey, Smith began impersonating the musical legend from whom he took his name. Smith is also known for putting his dance skills to work in choreographing for other performers.
“I work with a lot of queens and the male entertainers building their talents,” Smith said. “So, in this community and throughout the Midwest, for the most part people know me as a choreographer.”
Not surprisingly, that’s Smith’s day job as well. In 2014 he bought his own dance studio and became artistic director of Staccato Dance Works in Oak Park. Even though he’s involved in a variety of other creative work, his love for being a showboy has not lessened.
“It’s kind of hard as far as trying to stand out in the drag community,” he said. “We are still technically a part of the drag community as far as the entertainment part is involved. The idea is we’re really just trying to be us, be our most authentic and not afraid to be feminine sometimes, but also masculine. Just embellishing the traits we have in our everyday personalities on stage.”
Like Shorter and Smith, El’ Ross is also a member of the Cole family of entertainers. He too was given his drag name by his drag mother Natalie Cole. Ross was born Maurise Smith and grew up in Southwest Detroit. He said he decided to start doing shows after witnessing performers like DeAngela “Show” Shannon and Jeremy Smith do their thing.
“I saw them burn the stage up and they looked so comfortable performing and competing,” said Ross. “I said I wanted to try it and see if I could do what they do.”
And try he did. Early on, Ross said he also learned about the double standards in the industry.
“I think with the boys, people try to compare showboys to showgirls, and there’s really no comparison,” Ross said. “The girls, they’re in drag more than the boys. When you’re doing Usher or Trey Songz, they don’t wear those kinds of lavish costumes like Natalie Cole does when she is doing [the singer] Natalie Cole.”
He continued, “That’s why I think the showboys are overlooked, because it’s not as big and glamorous as the drag queens.”
That said, Ross said he has had no trouble finding audiences to appreciate his skills.
“What I most enjoy about it is the rush and high from the audience,” he said. “When you have a great audience that’s into what you’re doing and loving it and dancing with you it does something to you that makes you want to give them your all.”
Ross has even moved beyond performing to actually producing shows. His first ever took place three years ago and featured showboys including Brian Rodeo, Ray Milliown, Fabulus, Christian Dior and Jeremy Smith performing as Prince Cole. They each performed together as the Men of Detroit.
Looking forward, Ross said he would like to create his own version of the existing pageant system in Detroit.
“I created the MoTown Awards and MoTown Honors to celebrate our own and hope to create a pageant system here that can go nationwide,” he said. “Detroit has so much to offer and we have a wonderful new pageant system here called Dazzling Detroit created by Jamar Boykins. It’s getting nationwide attention and I do hope to one day to reach that status.”
For now, however, Ross, who is 29, is the current Mr. Innuendo’s and Battle Creek’s Mr. Performer of the Year.