Becoming Beyoncé On Stage Helped One Trans Woman Come Into Her Own
When your job is to impersonate Beyoncé, you'd better know what you're doing.
Maybe that means you spend 14 years perfecting your act — studying every detail, every mannerism, down to how Bey holds a microphone.
Maybe it requires you to perform 18 numbers every weekend — or to have three packed, color-coded closets in your apartment, only one of which is for everyday clothes.
It might even help that when you're at lunch before an NPR interview, a stranger at P.F. Chang's calls you "Beyoncé" and says she's been to your show.
For Riley Knoxx, the stage name of a full-time Beyoncé impersonator and transgender activist living in Washington, D.C., it's all in a typical week.
She didn't necessarily start as a die-hard fan of Beyoncé. But emulating the pop star has transformed Knoxx's career and personal life — forging her confidence as an artist and as a trans woman.
"As she evolved, I evolved," Knoxx says. "As she grew, I grew."
Knoxx says she always knew she would be an entertainer. She just wasn't quite sure of the details. As a kid, she'd run around singing into a flashlight and wearing a pillowcase on her head, pretending it was long hair.
Then, three years after Knoxx performed for the first time in 2000, Beyoncé released "Crazy In Love" from her debut solo album. That song would launch Knoxx's career as a professional impersonator.
"It was the year of Beyoncé. You couldn't go anywhere where that song wasn't playing," she says. "The way it sounds and the way it crescendos, and the way it becomes bigger and bigger and bigger as you're performing it. ... It's iconic."
Knoxx doesn't remember the first time she performed it — but she can tell you about the show that earned her the title "D.C.'s own Beyoncé." It was a friend's birthday party in 2003.
"When I got to the party, ... literally 10 to 15 people did ['Crazy In Love'] before I did," she says. "But I had the wind machines, and I had the costumes, and I had the hair. So I went out and performed the song, and I had everything going. I did all the choreography and all this stuff."
With her last run of the chorus, Knoxx got a standing ovation.
"And when I performed it, no one else wanted to perform it after me," she says, laughing. "And I was like, well, I guess I got something to live up to now."
So, she performed it again. And again. And then it became a search for what other songs she could do and which shows she could recreate on stage.
Knoxx studied how the pop icon moved and talked. She focused on her facial expressions and the way she holds a mic.
"I certainly didn't look like her. I certainly didn't know her mannerisms," she says.
At first, she didn't even have a strong, personal connection to Beyoncé the way people might expect, she says. That came later.
"It just became something I was so good at," Knoxx says. "Over time I became a big Beyoncé fan. ... She's my favorite entertainer of all time. I think I would have to be a big fan to impersonate her the way that I do."
Knoxx has performed shows at the annual Capital Pride festival, the Kennedy Center and Jay-Z's 40/40 Club in New York City.
She has a team of backup dancers who call her "mother." She does her own makeup, styles her own hair and sews her own costumes — a vestige of her upbringing in the D.C. drag scene.
And although she says her job is "a lot of fun," Knoxx says her accomplishments aren't because of luck. She's worked hard. When she moved to D.C. 17 years ago, she was a teenager running away from home. She didn't always have the crowds she does now.
"Sometimes I performed for the chairs. It made me stronger," she says. "So now when I perform for 300,000 people, it's sort of like, 'Ooh, I came a long way.' I went from getting dressed in kitchens and coat-check rooms with half a door to having my own dressing room with posters of myself."
After nearly a decade and a half of imitating Beyoncé Knowles, you're bound to pick up a thing or two about confidence. Knoxx says over time, it's trickled into her personal life.
"Being someone who's transgender, I grew up very quiet, and very scared, and very lonely. Sometimes even suicidal," she says. "Because I didn't know anyone like me. I didn't have Laverne Cox to look up to, or Isis King or Janet Mock. And I'm so different as an adult because I gained that confidence through performing and having people love me enough to make me love myself. It's sort of like the audience loved me even when I didn't love myself."
Recently, Knoxx has made a conscious decision to branch out. She says she hopes to brand herself as an artist who performs not just for the LGBTQ community, but for everyone.
"It was never my goal to perform with drag queens," she says. "But I was lucky enough that they took me under their wings, and that they kept me there. And they watched out for me and let me make mistakes in this business and let me grow."
As someone whose life is deeply entwined with the highest-paid musician in the world, Knoxx says she makes conscious efforts to distance herself when she's not impersonating.
She gets ready by listening to music that's not Beyoncé. She has started wearing her natural, darker hair when she's not performing. The only costuming she does at home is her makeup — arriving at venues in sweats and sneakers to get ready backstage.
"The physical aspect helps me transform back into myself," she says. "I can't stay in the whole Beyoncé — it would drive me nuts. It's important for me to be able to take all that off and be Riley [after the show]."
She says finding that balance is the toughest part of being an impersonator. But she says she'll know when it's time to stop doing Beyoncé.
"When I no longer love it," she says, "that's when I know it'll be time to quit and move on. ... I have no sign of that. At all."