Lei Musings | Drag Queens Von Appétit and Blessica Benton
Muses of the Month: Two Hawaii drag queens think everyone deserves their time on stage to express themselves.
As told to Marc Graser Images courtesy of Von Ka’anā’anā and Tony Dia
“Paris Hilton once said, ‘If you’re not having fun then just leave,” and those are words that I live by,” says Von Ka’anā’anā, a go-go dancer who also is a drag artist under the playfully brilliant name of Von Appétit.
“In my life I have a lot of roles that I play but I’m always the same person no matter the context and so at a minimum I give 110% of myself in anything I choose to do. If I’m not having fun I choose to do something else and that’s really what ensures my satisfaction in life,” says Von, who grew up in Lā’ie, O’ahu.
Von’s significant other Tony Dia, a photographer, filmmaker, and fellow drag performer, known as Blessica Benton, shares that same creative lust for life.
As a filmmaker, Tony, who is producing a drag love story at The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, is drawn to “projects that are queer, brown, and fabulous.”
“Film is such a powerful medium,” says Tony, originally from Alaska. “Its influence can both give and take away voices. It excites me to see some of the diversity growing in an industry that is well known to be straight, white, and male. I want to be a part of that movement: to create unique stories, uplift voices not often heard, and shine a light on vibrant, colorful communities hidden in plain sight.”
Lei recently met up with the two before Honolulu Pride and the return of the annual Lei Pool Party, and launch of our 2023 print edition, to discuss the state of drag in Hawaiʻi, and what it’s like to explore the world with a creative mindset.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about your drag personas. What inspired you to take on those identities?
Von: I am the same person in and out of drag and so when I came up with my name, Von Appétit I wanted to incorporate my actual name in a play on words. I love when a queen name is a play on words or something not so serious. Von Appétit is a strong, confident, intelligent, charismatic, succubus with a sense of humor and an insatiable appetite. She does everything Von does just in a stiletto.
I identify as Māhū. I express Kū and Hina energy. My gender is completely fluid, and like the ocean, is affected by the lunar phase. When the moon is full I’m called to drag, kinda like a gender werewolf.
Tony: My drag persona Blessica Benton came from a list of popular Filipino girl names. I found it endearing because: 1. Filipinos love a quirky play on names and 2. It’s very fitting of my devout Catholic upbringing.
The name Benton comes from the Haus of Benton, a drag family I was extremely blessed to have been born into. My haus mother, Jerrica Benton, gave birth to me when she painted me for a local ball. That same night, I earned tens across the board, brought home a trophy, and thus began the age of Blessica.
Our haus also includes Sativa Benton, my gorgeous older sister and sometimes second mother, as well as Melanina Benton, our beautiful baby sister. The Haus of Benton is well-known to be a tight-knit family with a wide array of talents beyond make-up that includes photography, music production, and choreography. I take pride in the fact that we stand strong as a family. It’s not common to see drag families perform as a haus as frequently as we do on this island.
My gender is completely fluid, and like the ocean, is affected by the lunar phase. When the moon is full I’m called to drag, kinda like a gender werewolf.
How would you describe the drag scene right now?
Von: I’m really enjoying the current state of drag at the moment. Anybody can be a drag artist. I think everyone deserves their time on stage to express themselves. I was a drama kid at Kahuku High School performing ‘The Sound of Music’ in the cafeteria, so living my adult life on a stage is honestly a dream come true!
How would you like to see drag grow?
Von: I would like to see more Drag Kings on stage getting booked. Honestly, I feel like that’s what’s missing in Hawai’i. I would like for there to be more opportunities for our Kūpuna Drag Goddesses to take the stage again and ‘show us keeds a ting or two yah?’ I’m lucky to be a part of a multi-generational Banyon tree of a drag legacy and I see how the younger gen struggles to find their path without that type of connection. They have a lot to learn from our Kūpuna. Support your local queens! Aunty Sasha just won ‘Drag Race!’ Hawai’i queens slay!
Tony: Like Von, I would also like to see more Drag Kings. I’ve noticed that in Alaska, there has been a surge in Drag Kings. I lived in Juneau for a few years and became friends with some of them. One of the local Juneau drag queens, Gigi Monroe, has been actively pushing to make a space for them. I really admire that and hope to see more of that here.
Where are some of your favorite clubs and what makes them unique?
Von: Scarlet Honolulu, sometimes referred to as ‘Scarlets,’ is my home club where I go-go and perform in drag every First Friday with the Haüs of the Party Monsters. The Party Monsters create themed parties to challenge your inner club kid. I am our stage set designer, so it is my job to provide context for our concepts. Mother Monster G Dolce and Father Monster Jason brought me into their Haüs because they recognized and wanted to develop my potential. For that I am truly grateful.
Tapa’s Waikiki is where the Kama’ainā stay! Our Papa Mono of Haüs Von Wolfgang provides a safe space for the local queens to “give ‘em.” Fans of drag are in attendance and the girls are guaranteed to make Kalā. It’s a very queer atmosphere and that’s what I find is missing in a lot of LGBTQIA+ spaces nowadays.
I feel like you can learn a lot about a location based on its cuisine. I like to get a sense of their tastes, seasonings, flavors and apply that to expanding my worldview.
What kind of travelers are you?
Von: I am a planner. I like to have everything booked in advance. I’m a very anxious traveler so I make sure to research the culture of the place I go to so as to not infringe on the people who live there. Our one ask of Malihini who come to Hawai’i is to respect the culture, and so I find it of the utmost importance to do the same.
Tony: I’m a bit of a follower when it comes to travel. Von and I work well together because he creates the plans and I reap the benefits. As long as I’m traveling with loved ones, any kind of trip is worth it.
What’s your favorite thing to do when visiting a destination for the first time?
Von: Food tour! I feel like you can learn a lot about a location based on its cuisine. I like to get a sense of their tastes, seasonings, flavors and apply that to expanding my worldview. I’m always open to new food.
If you could be anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Von: Broadley speaking, Asia. I’m born and raised in Hawaiʻi so I’ve been eating Asian food my entire life. There’s a certain level of fusion that occurs just because of the diaspora here, and so I’d really like to try those same foods from their original country. If we’re talking specifics, Japan. Even more specifically, Osaka. One of my favorite foods is okonomiyaki and takoyaki and that’s where it’s from.
Tony: I’m happiest where I am at this very moment. If I had to choose a second option, I would love to be on vacation somewhere in Asia. Maybe Thailand or the Philippines.
Where have you been that really surprised you?
Von: Don’t hate me but New York City. I’m someone that really loves fashion and my first time in New York City was actually during Pride so the city was very alive. The thing that I was shocked by was the size of the buildings. Nothing is taller than Diamond Head, in Hawaiʻi, so seeing a building that was 100 floors plus was kind of jarring. What surprised me the most, though, is the smell of the city. Need I say more?
Tony: Honestly, my first time visiting Hawaiʻi was my biggest surprise. I grew up whitewashed due to being raised in a predominantly white community and the culture shock I experienced here was very intense. I had to unlearn a lot of internalized prejudice and self-hate. The celebration and pride of culture here is very inspiring.
What’s your favorite travel memory?
Von: My first time going to the Big Island with my grandma, we took Hawaiian Airlines, and I was so stoked that they gave us in-flight food. They gave us POG, and I was so eager to open it, I opened it towards me and it spilled all over me. My grandma just laughed and she turned the juice around and opened it away from her, and started drinking it. In that moment I realized I made a rookie mistake.
Tony: The first time I traveled alone, I visited the Castro District. I remember feeling a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. It was the first time I didn’t feel the need to act masculine while walking down a street. It was a freeing experience.
It’s important to explore all aspects of your life. If you wanna grow as a person, you have to look inward, you have to look outward, and you have to move your body through space.
Where is that one place someone should go at least once?
Von: A nude beach.
Why should people make time to travel?
Von: It’s important to explore all aspects of your life. If you wanna grow as a person, you have to look inward, you have to look outward, and you have to move your body through space. My favorite color is green and there’s grass everywhere.
What is it about Hawaiʻi that you love?
Von: I was born a Hawaiian and I will die a Hawaiian. I promised myself that I would never leave this place; I have traveled to other places, and I have been exposed to other places, and I’ve always compared them to Hawaiʻi. They always lose. My connection to my ancestral lands, the ocean, the people and community cannot be duplicated anywhere else! If it means I have to literally work my ass off in order to live here, so be it!
What’s that item you can’t live without when you travel? What’s essential for you to pack?
Von: My skincare is essential for me to pack. I would say a sleep mask is the one thing I cannot travel without. I require complete darkness in order to fall asleep, and to stay asleep.
What motivates you?
Von: Revenge. I gain a lot of satisfaction proving people wrong and doing things out of spite. But after a few karmic fumbles, I’ve learned, my niche is malicious compliance. Advocating for the underdog will bring me back from the brink of death.
What’s your proudest moment?
Von: When we were quarantining during the pandemic I decided to go back to the North Shore and stay with my mom and my nieces for a few months, and in that time I really got to know them individually. There’s three of them, Hiwalani, Mahina, and Kawena. I felt like a nanny, and my time spent with them was so rewarding. I was teaching them ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i in small ways like numbers and colors and concepts. We love to play Uno and they love to beat me, but I put up a good fight and I win a lot of the time too. One of my proudest moments was when we would go several rounds playing exclusively in ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i and eventually they could do it without asking me what the word was. I felt so proud to be their Unko teaching them Hawaiian.
Why should people attend Pride? What makes it special to you?
Von: People should attend Pride, so that nobody forgets why we have Pride. Pride is in an affront to the majority and a civil protest. The more numbers we have at Pride shows the rest of the world that we exist, and soon will outnumber you! Pride is special to me because I really enjoy seeing the families engage.Tony: I think the LGBTQIA+ community is starting to become more divided. Pride is a rare time and place for every corner of the community to mix, mingle, and celebrate as a whole. Every year, I find renewed strength in my identity during Pride. I hope those looking for community can have that same experience as well.
5 Musings of the Month
Attend Pride so that nobody forgets why we have pride. Pride is in an affront to the majority and a civil protest. The more numbers we have at pride shows the rest of the world that we exist, and soon will outnumber you! — Von
Take a Food Tour. I feel like you can learn a lot about a location based on its cuisine. I like to get a sense of their tastes, seasonings, flavors and apply that to expanding my worldview. I’m always open to new food. — Von
Support the individual. When teenagers and children and parents stop me to take pictures when I’m in drag I engage because whether or not these kids are queer, I am assuming this will be a core memory for them and they need to know that they are seen and accepted, and worthy and important, and we cannot be a community without supporting the individual. — Von
Don’t trust anyone with your life. If I’m traveling, I’m on a mission to eat myself into a coma and sometimes when you’re in a group and people want to eat other stuff don’t let them deter you from your mission. I’ve become more solid in my conviction. — Von
Visit small local convenience stores. It feels like a time capsule and a more authentic peek into the people that live there versus some tourist-y landmark. It also reminds of the small island in Alaska I was born on. Time moves slowly there and sometimes I miss that. — Tony