If you’ve partaken in D.C.’s drag scene, when you make it to minute two of Taylor Swift’s latest visual pop confection, you’ll see a familiar face. Riley Knoxx, a performer known for her spot-on Beyoncé impersonations, represented Queen Bey in Swift’s music video for new track “You Need to Calm Down,” which dropped on Monday.
City Paper spoke with Knoxx to learn how she was cast, what it was like to be on set with one of the most polarizing pop stars of our time, and what she, as a black trans woman, thinks of Swift’s brand of allyship.
WCP: So how did you first get connected to Taylor Swift and the music video for “You Need to Calm Down?”
Riley Knoxx: She basically went online looking for a Beyoncé impersonator, found my website, stalked my Instagram. She hand picked me. When Taylor was talking to me on set, she was like, “Thank you for telling your story,” and I was like, “You know my story?” and she was like, “Of course, I picked you.” She’d seen my videos, she’d read my NPR article, she knew it all. I told her that when they told me she’d picked me, I thought they meant her people had picked me, but no, it was really her.
WCP: How did you feel when you heard you’d been cast?
RK: I was actually at Queeta’s Palace doing DreamGirls Twisted, doing Deena Jones. I was bouncing off the walls I was so happy. I couldn’t tell anyone. Someone asked why I was so hyper and I was like “I can’t tell you but I gotta be in L.A. on Wednesday.” That was on a Sunday. Honestly I didn’t even know what I was supposed to be doing. We didn’t know if it was going to be negative, there’d just been that press about Taylor ripping off the marching band from Beyoncé. Luckily, it was positive. It was really positive.
WCP: What was the vibe like on set?
RK: Taylor comes in, I turned around and she said “Hi” and I said “Hey” and she literally jumped in my arms. She sits on the couch and tells us, “I’m compared to all these pop stars, but of all the pop stars out there I’m most like Ed Sheeran, but nobody ever compares me to him, they want to compare me against these other women. So I want you girls here to represent that we’re all strong, fierce women.”
She was the most gracious, most kind person I’ve met in my life, not just celebrity. I totally had a different opinion of her before I met her. People say a lot of things. I mean she made a whole album about her reputation. In the media she’s painted as a mean girl, there are so many different controversies, Harry [Styles] and Kim Kardashian. But now, honestly if anyone tries to say anything bad about Taylor Swift to me, know I’ll be like “Eh! You don’t understand. This girl is amazing.”
WCP: You have so many Beyoncé costumes, most of which you design and sew yourself. How was the outfit you wore in the video selected? Was it one of your creations?
RK: Yes, I make everything that I wear onstage. She had seen the NPR article with this turquoise outfit I hardly ever wear that’s a look of Beyoncé, they liked that, very sheer, very see through, so I brought that, the white one, and a gold and black one I wore in my last concert. So I had to take pictures in all of them and send them the night before in the hotel. I tried them all on, and they wanted the specific one, the turquoise one. But then I got to set, obviously the most elaborate one and the most memorable replica was the white costume from On The Run II [Tour in summer 2018]. So the director looks at it all while we’re in wardrobe, and someone’s like “Where’s the one that we requested?” and the director said no, that he wanted the most memorable one, that the white one was the best. So that’s how they selected it.
WCP: One criticism of the video is that it rips off Beyoncé’s video for “Party.” What do you think of the similarities, and do they seem intentional to you?
RK: I never even heard that! Crazy. No! I don’t think so. I think it’s just a coincidence. Honestly the two videos are very different. I can see why people would say that, but I really don’t think that’s what Taylor is trying to do, I don’t think she’s trying to copy everything Beyoncé does.
WCP: What do you think of the criticism that the video puts a straight white woman at the center of the queer narrative?
RK: She’s championed gay people many times, in other videos and things. It’s like, when you have a platform like that, who better to use it for than communities that’ve been underserved. It’s like, you have this platform, you have this voice, what do you want to say? Use that to do some good. You know, she said nothing, and they complained that she wasn’t being political enough. Now she’s saying something, and it’s “appropriating culture?” How? How is she appropriating culture? She’s trying to help. She’s saying, “These are all my friends, go follow them, go to their shows, stan them.” And she also has a petition for the Equality Act. It’s basically her lending her voice. There’s been tons of straight white women who’ve lent their voice—Madonna, Cher—you know other straight women who are gay icons. Why not Taylor?
WCP: What do you hope that people take away from “You Need to Calm Down?’
RK: Exactly that, that they need to calm down. Like she says, “Shade never made anybody less gay.” Protesting and doing all this crazy stuff won’t stop people from being gay, from being trans. Nobody ever saw a sign and said, “You know what, maybe I will stop being gay,” because someone came and picketed. You know, we live on this planet together, we all have to share, and you don’t have to like what we do, or who we are, but respect us as a community.
This video will be iconic forever. Taylor even said to me, “This is the biggest video I’ll ever do.” And it’s probably the most important. It’s incorporating all queer culture. You don’t have to be gay to have the voice to help people; you’re an ally. She wants to be an ally, let her be an ally.
WCP: Where can we see you perform around D.C. this summer?
RK: You can see me perform every Saturday and Sunday morning at Queeta’s Palace at Benning Road, you can get tickets at eventbrite.com. And I’ll be touring soon and doing concerts and I’ll announce all that soon on my Instagram page, @RileyKnoxx. Two x’s.