Lizzo stans learned earlier this year that Portland burlesque dancer Jayla Rose Sullivan would compete on the singer’s competitive reality series, Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls, which launched in March on Amazon Prime. Sullivan responded to an open casting call and was chosen as the series’ only transgender contestant.
“Being a trans woman walking into a house with nine cisgender women, you don’t know how you’re going to be perceived, but for everyone to be completely on board and supportive and uplifting was the beauty of the whole project,” Sullivan tells WW. “Everyone from the production to the choreographers to the girls in the house, everyone just wanted everyone to succeed and feel comfortable.”
Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls bucks tropes for female reality TV characters, showing a cast of professional dancers preparing for the biggest show of their careers, without overblown or artificially instigated conflict. Sullivan competed on reality TV in 2015, as part of the Caravan of Glam troupe for America’s Got Talent, and described the difference between those experiences and Big Grrrls as “night and day.”
“Lizzo has been an advocate, not just for the gay community, but specifically for the trans community,” she says. “She’s been outspoken about [our] rights.”
Sullivan’s story arc is central to Watch Out for the Big Grrrls’ overall plot. Without giving any spoilers, let’s just say she proves that self-love and self-acceptance have to be fought for daily, even when you get affirmations directly from pop’s reigning queen of self-esteem.
“It’s really nerve-wracking…because I never saw myself represented ever growing up.” Sullivan says. “And it wasn’t later, until my adult life, where you started seeing openly trans women in the industry thriving, and you look up to that, and you hope that it helps to shift a dialogue. But to be in the middle of that dialogue? It’s surreal.”
Sullivan has danced for Lizzo with her Big Grrrls Squad at such concerts as New York’s Global Citizen Festival and Miami’s Art Basel, but her favorite performance so far has been the season finale concert at Minneapolis’ Treasure Island Resort & Casino. Beyond life with Lizzo, her favorite performances have been all-ages events, such as a concert at OMSI before the pandemic.
“It gets us out of bar settings and interacting with youth and parents and allies that want their kids to experience as much as they can, and know that just being yourself and different is OK,” she says.
Sullivan came to Portland in 2011 from Buffalo, N.Y., where she taught dance and performed in studio settings. Originally a gymnast, she studied ballet, tap, jazz and hip-hop, but is best known for her jaw-dropping back flips and splits drops, often performed in small spaces like brunch restaurants.
Eventually, Sullivan met boylesque performer Isaiah Esquire at CC Slaughters and the now-closed local outpost of the bar chain Hamburger Mary’s. Esquire cast Sullivan regularly in his cabaret show BOYeurism, first billing her as the back-flipping queen viewers could see streaming on their screens. She was then cast in the Caravan of Glam alongside Esquire and his partner, Johnny Nuriel.
Sullivan joins Esquire, Nuriel, and the voguing kiki House of Ada for a dance performance at the Portland Pride Festival’s main stage on Saturday, June 18. She will also return to her twirling roots at Bit House Collective’s weekend Diva Drag Brunch.
For Sullivan, Pride is a time of love, freedom and acceptance, and a celebration of what LGBTQ+ people have overcome in their lives to be their truest selves.
“Going through the year, I think Pride should be every single day,” she says. “But when you’re working 9-to-5′s or working in corporate America, you forget to celebrate yourself, and Pride gives you that excuse to take that moment of selfishness and just be like, ‘You know what, I’m here, I should be proud, I should be loud, I should unapologetically be myself.’ That’s the power of Pride, that overwhelming feeling of acceptance and love.”