How Drag and the Pandemic Brought Alexander Propios and Issa Perez Together

Hailing from opposite ends of the country, but united in their love for performance, spectacle, and each other, Alexander Propios and Issa Perez are a creative powerhouse couple.

Interview and images by Mahina Choy-Ellis

In the heart of Brooklyn, one can find Alexander Propios and Issa Perez laughing, dancing, and sewing a 9-foot-long durag. Surrounding them is a sea of corsets, fishnets, and custom pleather bodysuits—all tailored to fit the multidisciplinary, split-dropping, politically-charged, hip-hop performance duo The Dragon Sisters, the drag act comprised of Issa and fellow dance extraordinaire Cain Coleman.

As The Dragon Sisters, Issa and Cain have been featured in the likes of Vogue and Billboard, and on the fierce stage at 3 Dollar Bill, the premier queer bar and performance venue. Often, they are outfitted and co-styled by Alexander.

Alexander and Issa, partners in love and life, are a creative powerhouse couple. A graduate of Honolulu Community College, Alexander trained under designers Ari South and Kini Zamora and has designed custom pieces for Hawai’i’s top drag queens and pageant queens.

Since moving to New York in early 2019, Alexander has pivoted tocreating showstopping wares for The Dragon Sisters, while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in textile design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Their work together has been a culmination of Issa’s classical training as a dancer and Alexander’s devotion to fashion design.

I’ve spent many days and nights with Alexander and Issa in New York City—from kikis on Manhattan rooftops to shooting for hours on end at Egg Studios in Bushwick. Recently, I had a chance to catch up with Alexander and Issa in Honolulu, where Alexander and I were both born and raised.

We reminisced and talked story about the couple’s serendipitous meeting, the impact of Hawai’i and New York City on their artistry, and their hopes for the future.

Issa, left, and Alexander, right, met during the pandemic and immediately began collaborating creatively.

First things first: What are your pronouns?

Alex    He/him.

Issa      All of them! Just as long and they’re used with respect.

Alex, I met you in Hawaiʻi in 2016. What influenced your decision to move to NYC and how has New York impacted your work?

A         Ever since I was young, I was always drawn to the city. When I was in college at HCC, I knew that it was the best place for me. It was on my first trip to the Garment District in Manhattan that every fabric, trimming, everything is at your fingertips. The range of costumes, the gay culture, and streetwear in Manhattan and the queer scene in Brooklyn is just so exciting. The vibe is just unmatched.

I          I was born and raised in New York. New Yorkers are so community based—it’s a tough city to live in. People take care of each other. It’s this upbringing that raised me to be efficient. The best drag queens come to New York. If you want to be somebody and go somewhere, you have to keep up. And I love it.

Second most important thing: How did you two meet?

A         It was a Covid love story! I was coming back from Oregon visiting my family. I was actually ready to move back to Oregon. I literally landed. I opened my Grindr. And there he was and we had our first date the next day. The rest was history.

Alexander outfits and co-styles The Dragon Sisters, composed of Issa and fellow dance extraordinaire Cain Coleman.

How soon after you two met did you start working together creatively?

A         It was our first date! Rupaul’s Drag Race came up and I was like, “I love drag! I have so many drag queen friends!” Issa showed me photos of her in full drag, doing a full extension in Times Square, and I was in love! It was after our first date that we were magnetized to each other.

I          It all started with the first piece: a pair of 6-foot-long durags. It took a while but we had so much fun. It was after that one night working together that we knew we could work together. And we’ve just never stopped. I say that I’m a professional improvisor and Alex is a professional planner, so we balance each other out so well. We always keep each other accountable. We encourage and support each other always.

Alex, when did you first start designing?

A         As a kid. I always loved to imitate my dad and grandpa, who were both artists. From houses to trucks to all kinds of people from chopping off hair to put onto drawings. In 2012, I saw Ari South on Project Runway which led me to go to HCC. Ari was such a huge inspiration. My freshman year at HCC I did an internship with her.

Issa, when did you start performing?

I          I performed during family parties and school talent shows, and I took it very seriously. It wasn’t until I joined Drama Club that I considered performing professionally. In my family that’s not a likely career choice. I started doing drag in 2018. Over the years, I was doing it all in parts: classical art forms, classical dance, my experience as a Latinx Black New Yorker. My Dragon Sister, Cain Coleman, also put in all the hard work through dance. We met at the North Carolina School of the Arts. All of our efforts have accumulated up to this point: to becoming The Dragon Sisters.

The Dragon Sisters have made waves as an atypical hip-hop duo, combining classical dance, rap, and elements of drag.

That’s a great point, Issa. What does your family think of your respective career choices?

A         Both sides of my family are so supportive! They’ve seen me excel in design and art since I was a child. There was no concept of the “starving artist.” Before my father passed when I was 17, he helped me write my letters to the Art Institute of San Francisco. I always showed my family all the costumes I made for dancers at Scarlet and such and they just gagged.

I          My family was so supportive because they see that performing is where my heart is and where they saw me excel. I first fell in love with musical theatre, so I went to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, a very selective performing arts conservatory for acting. There are only about 20 students that get selected for your senior year. I felt muted in a way because I was still in the closet. I would get made fun of in fear of saying something that’s “too gay.” I think this stifled my ability to really express myself fully.

Thank you for sharing that with me. Speaking of, how has the queer community influenced your designs and your inspiration as a performer?

A         I came out right after my dad passed when I was 17 years old. That changed the trajectory of my entire life. When I came out, this whole world opened up to me: drag, Scarlet, working with Kini Zamora, of course. Being able to work for Kini Zamora and being surrounded by people like me, it was empowering. It was the definition of freedom not only personally but creatively. Learning from Zamora helped me design for so many drag queens in Hawaiʻi and later New York. It was actually through Covid—when all drag shows were cancelled—that I realized the gravity and how beautiful and important the drag and the queer community—my people!—have impacted my whole life.

I          It was when I started drag that I really did see how the queer community not only influences me, but how I could contribute as well. Before I started drag I always had a superficial idea of what drag was, until I was more educated and dove deeper. Quarantine gave me and Cain the gift of time to really develop and invest our time and creativity into who The Dragon Sisters are today.

You’re never going to “make it.” Because it’s 100 percent about the journey. No matter what level you’re at, you’re always going to be working.

Issa Perez

What is your creative process together?

A         My background is in custom and dramatic bridal pieces. I was always surrounded by volume, sequins, and drag all within a beautiful Hawaiian context. So I come to New York and I meet Issa and Cain and they’re so creative! Our friend, Braden Clark, born and raised in Hawaiʻi, helped design The Dragon Sisters’ beautiful cover art. We are so grateful to be able to collaborate with friends.

I          Our creative process is a gorgeous collaborative tornado! It feels so good to have support creatively and we can all bounce off of each other all the time. I am super inspired by Alex’s concept of color, proportions, and depth.

A         What makes it perfect is both of us growing separately before we met each other. Our relationship is a combination of culminating to this place where we can take our skills and past experiences and put them together. It’s just so awesome to see Issa grow on his own too. It’s so beautiful and I’m so proud.

What do you see for yourselves in the future?

I          We’re going to be on tour. Gettin’ money. 

A         More extravagance. Bigger stages. Collaborating and creating a team for us to just up the ante!

I          A year ago, I could have never known where we would be today. The only thing I knew for sure was I was very in love with Alex. I could never have guessed what this journey would hold.

“Our creative process is a gorgeous collaborative tornado,” says Issa. “It feels so good to have support creatively and we can all bounce off of each other all the time.”

What words of advice to you have for any young, queer, and/or BIPOC creatives?

I          You’re never going to “make it.” Because it’s 100 percent about the journey. No matter what level you’re at, you’re always going to be working. Know your purpose. Zoom out, look at the bigger picture, and see where your strength lies and be honest with yourself.

A         As far as coming out, I felt like I was in a dark room and then a light just came on. I hope you have the courage to be yourself and sit in your power. It’s a beautiful thing. For the young creatives, it doesn’t matter how many covers you’ve been on or how many gorgeous dresses you’ve made—there’s always more to learn. And lastly, like what Oprah said, a good indication of what you want to do is what you don’t want to do. And use that to point you in the right direction of where your passion is!