When the pandemic sashays away, what is the future of drag — and how are our kings and queens doing?
A candid conversation about how these drag artists have survived the past year and their hopes for what's next
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
It's been 12 months, 3 weeks and 6 days since the pandemic took the vast majority of our live, in-person drag performances away. And there's no one for whom that's been harder for than the performers themselves. Although the drag withdrawal has been eased by a whopping six (and counting) editions of the Drag Race franchise airing during that span of time, unless you were a queen lucky enough to be on one of them, the pandemic has been ... a serious drag.
Here in Canada, as our vaccine rollout putters slowly along and infection numbers rise yet again, it hasn't been an easy spring for anyone. And the drag community, particularly in Toronto, was hit hard by the passing of Canadian drag legend Michelle Ross late last month, especially with the countless performers she inspired unable to properly mourn her on the very place she became an icon: the stage. But drag artists across the country are continuing to do their best to push through, hoping with the rest of us that this is finally the beginning of the end to this existence and some semblance of normalcy is waiting for us.
So I wanted to do a little vibe check with a few of the alumni from the CBC Arts series Canada's a Drag, inviting 11 of them to participate in a little "drag forum": Irma Gerd (St. John's), Charli DeVille (Montreal), Gay Jesus (Toronto), Tynomi Banks (Toronto), Yovska (Toronto), Mx. Wolverine (Toronto), Allysin Chaynes (Toronto), Mango Lassi (Mississauga), Rose Butch (Vancouver), Alma Bitches (Vancouver) and Vivian Vanderpuss (Victoria). I asked them how they're holding up, what we can do to help and what their dreams are for the post-pandemic drag world. And I'm happy to report that, in general, everyone seems very hopeful that if there's any community of artists we should never underestimate to rise gloriously from the ashes, it's drag performers.
We are somehow nearly 13 months into this pandemic, and drag performance has been so drastically affected by the closure of bars and venues. Have you found a way to keep things up in other ways? And if so, have there been any silver linings to this adaptation?
Gay Jesus (Toronto): One of the biggest things I've missed this year has been sharing space with my queer community. Working online has not only allowed me to connect with many of them, but it's also helped me expand it entirely. I've gotten to work with kings and gender performers around the world and interact with queer people on a global scale. My queer experience prior to the pandemic was largely tied to physical spaces and in-person interactions, but these new relationships have been life-changing for me. From meeting a slew of Latinx kings, to dancing virtually with people in different time zones on Club Quarantine, I've gotten to fall in love with queerness and my culture in a whole new way.
Irma Gerd (St. John's): My home bar did not survive the pandemic, so I feel a sense of loss over that. But I keep reminding myself that a community is not a venue — it's the people. I've been able to maintain and strengthen a lot of relationships with my fans via social media since things have slowed down. I've been playing online games on Twitch, where I get to meet new people around the world but also really get to know people who have been acquaintances for years. Who'd have thought Dead by Daylight was such a queer game?
Tynomi Banks (Toronto): I think the silver lining with the venues and bars being closed is that we've kicked ourselves into survival mode by tapping into another creative side using social media to stay connected and grow our businesses.
Alma Bitches (Vancouver): Here in Vancouver, we had a few outdoor events during the summer, and in the fall we had two weeks of live drag shows before live events were made illegal. I used to perform 5-6 nights a week here, and I have maybe done drag 6 or 7 times in the past year. I am drawn to being live in front of an audience and haven't been motivated to go digital. It has been cool though to watch some of my friends reach new audiences by participating in digital shows.
Vivian Vanderpuss (Victoria): Restaurants have been open in Victoria for the better part of the pandemic. Because of this, my friends and I at the Vicious Poodle did live performances as long as we could (within the provincial government regulations of course) inside our plexiglass box we lovingly called "the aQUEEReum." When live performances were no longer allowed, we filmed in the space when it was closed and then showed it a couple of days later on a projector in the space. Like catching the game at your favourite sports bar, but with more mascara! We came out in drag for the viewing and, with everyone in their own bubble, laughed and shared a funky, distanced sense of community. There has been a lot of "going with the flow" and improvising new ways to bring drag to the people. Luckily we have had the support of our amazing community tuning in to whatever we are doing.
Rose Butch (Vancouver): Since the closure of all venues and most in-person shows, I've been working with my collective, The Darlings, and over the past year we've created five full-length digital shows, including a three-part quarantine series that we created from our four separate homes using our webcams and whatever technology, costumes and sets we had access to at the time. We made the first two last spring at the start of lockdown, and the third just recently. Keeping in touch and staying creative in a new medium has been a blessing.
Yovska (Toronto): When things first closed down and we went into lockdown I was doing a lot of digital drag shows, though now I've decided to jump into video game streaming on Twitch. It's definitely been a bit of an odd journey but I am really glad I started streaming as it has allowed me to connect with my fans better and also meet a lot of cool new people. I guess that's one thing I'm thankful for, as I'm not sure I would've taken the leap so soon otherwise! I just regret not doing it sooner as it just makes a lot of sense for me as an avid gamer.
What has really impressed you in general about what drag done to rally during these times?
Allysin Chaynes (Toronto): I'm consistently impressed by drag performers in so many ways, but watching folks be able to pivot so quickly, and get online and create so immediately after the first lockdown, was so cool. Between Twitch, Instagram Live, Facebook Live, YouTube, it's been very cool to see folks be able to find any avenue possible to create and reach an audience still. Aside from just talking about our channel, you've got to look at someone like Ivory Towers, The Tequila Mockingbirds or the House Royale collection of kings and gender performers who have consistently been making content since the beginning. It's all been beyond impressive.
Mx. Wolverine (Toronto): I am so blown away by the creativity and innovation of drag and gender performers throughout the pandemic! Virtual performance has created a super unique space for folks to explore expression in new ways. I've seen everything from music videos to short film-type performance videos and everything in between. Artists are adapters, and we will not only make do with what we have available to us, but do so in a way that is impactful and inspiring.
Charli Deville (Montreal): Drag to me has always been about supporting the community during difficult times, and the pandemic is no exception. During the BLM protests, the Montreal drag performers put on a digital drag show hosted by Canada's Drag Race alum Kiara and we were able to raise over $3,000 for different local charities.
Mango Lassi (Mississauga): I feel like because of mass amounts of queens who entered the online space all at once, it forced a lot of people to find whatever makes them unique and go full-force with it. It forced people to get creative to survive. The political climate also helped gender performers take a look at themselves, their presence, and realize that it's political. I found that a lot of folks became more politically active with issues that didn't necessarily affect them; we all became better allies.
Irma Gerd: Creative people do not know how to stop creating. Artists have no choice but to rally. Even now when everybody is depressed, people are still trying to connect through art and I think that is magnificent.
Yovska: Something I admire about the drag community is the persistence we have to find ways to flourish. It's like when you get bedbugs and you just can't get rid of them no matter what you try! (I don't have bedbugs, in case you were wondering.) I think it's a quality you need to have as a drag personality — being able to find ways to spread your art and keep going.
Gay Jesus: What's impressed me most about drag during the past year has been the resilience of queer joy. Drag fights for a future that's bigger than what our current reality wants us to believe is possible. Over the course of this pandemic, I've watched drag performers and producers alike being incredibly creative with limited resources in order to bring messages of hope, joy and resilience right into the homes of audiences around the world. There's an intimacy in that. Over the past year, I've seen the beds, kitchens and closets of friends and strangers alike. In a way, as both audience and performer, we've been interacting from some of our most vulnerable spaces – the places we grieve, find pleasure, hide. We've opened up those spaces to each other all in the name of joy. Or, on some days, something better than sad. That's always something that takes me aback and it's always worth it.
How can we as a drag-viewing public help our local drag performers as we start to dig ourselves out of all this?
Rose Butch: Just keep supporting! Follow artists that you love, like and share their posts on social media, attend some digital drag shows, and if you have the means, tipping is always amazing!
Irma Gerd: I've done a number of online gigs in this pandemic, and there may be exceptions, but as a rule I'm gonna say they're not lucrative. Also they make my apartment look like a tornado spun through on its way to Oz. Views are important, but what we do costs money. So if you're watching something online that you like, and you can afford to, send that creator a tip. When we get back to live gigs, book us.
Alma Bitches: Most people are broke right now so I'm hesitant to say, "Tip your local performers," but if you got it to spare it would be much appreciated. If you feel safe going to a show when they happen again, pay the cover/buy a ticket. It's very simple. In the meantime, be active with us on social media (liking, commenting and sharing posts). Give us the digital serotonin until we can see you in person again!
Mx. Wolverine: Tune into and show up for virtual performances and online shows!!! We're here and we're still creating, and we want to continue to share our art with you. Send tips and encouraging comments, and help promote our shows/events for us via social media! If you're able, financially support venues and queer organizers who have been trying to move virtual as well, like Glad Day Bookshop in Toronto, who has been dedicated to supporting local artists.
Allysin Chaynes: You can help now by supporting what the performers are doing online in the meantime! I'm not going to lie, it still surprises me when people message me and ask what I've been doing for the last year, because I've been publicly advertising and broadcasting what I've been up to, doing at least one show online a week for the last 53 weeks. So come check out Speakeasy-tv.com! But the best thing possible would be to just listen to performers for what they need. Coming out of all of this, things are going to feel strange for everyone. We're all not used to interacting with a lot of people at once, and my alcohol tolerance isn't nearly what it used to be, so those first shows back, just enjoy it. Enjoy the experience of live entertainment, enjoy having somewhere to gather, leave the catty gay bullshit where it belongs in the pre-pandemic world, and come just revel in being able to be around other queers in common spaces again. Oh, and tip. We're all pretty fucking broke.
Gay Jesus: When it comes to returning to the bar scene, I highly encourage audiences to remember that what you want out of a show matters to producers and venues. Racism and sexism are very much alive in drag spaces, as they are across any other industry. In Toronto specifically, we've lost many of the venues that welcomed drag kings and gender performers as well as venues that held events that focused on queer BIMPOC events. Know that as an audience, you can absolutely reach out to producers and venue to let them know that diverse lineups representing the full spectrum of the Toronto drag scene are important to you.
Are you hopeful about the future of drag? And what's something about the "before times" you hope never comes back when things evolve to whatever the "after times" will be?
Irma Gerd: I think that shows will be even more lively. I know when I can dance with strangers again I'm going to meet so many new people. I'm leaving my phone at coat check; I don't want to take selfies or check Grindr — I want to live in the moment. I think people will be less afraid to be weird and vulnerable, and I can't wait to be unhinged together. I think there will be a surge of new performers and glow-ups from people we know. Also I hope when the "after times" come we will have eaten the rich.
Vivian Vanderpuss: I am hopeful! I think you have to be. Artists are adaptable; we're idea people. I hope that when we return to having shows again, people will have a greater value of what it means to be an artist and to come out on stage to brighten people's day. At the beginning of the pandemic especially, I saw so many people turn to the arts to entertain them and keep their spirits high. I hope they remember that.
Gay Jesus: I'm always hopeful about drag. When it comes to the "before times" versus the "after times" it's hard to say because our industry has changed, not halted. Drag, for many of us, hasn't stopped and so the idea of before and after is far more complicated than it may seem. One big thing that I would love to have continue, however, which we've found to be entirely feasible over the course of the pandemic, has been to increase accessibility in drag shows. We've received a lot of feedback from audiences that online drag has allowed drag, but also queer spaces in general, to become more accessible to them. It's important to remember that it's relative, as not everyone has access to things like computers or internet connection, but it has been a really big shift for our artform here in Toronto. There were a couple of shows last summer that had a live component but that also streamed through various platforms for audience members that either couldn't make it or that didn't feel comfortable attending in person. Additionally, captioning and subtitles have become an important practice for pre-recorded drag performances as well as streaming parties. This makes drag accessible to so many more community members, and it's something we can absolutely continue to integrate into live performance.
Yovska: I'm not really sure what the "after times" would look like for the world of drag, but I think it has become a lot more accessible for people in numerous ways, so I hope that means an even bigger amount of drag fans. For me, I'm excited to keep doing digital and physical drag once this pandemic situation improves.
Alma Bitches: Always hopeful about drag in general! Right now drag is having a huge mainstream moment, but at its core it is an underground movement and it'll never go away. If drag is ever "dead" it means the people who sucked the life out of it have moved on and it'll be back in the hands of those who love it again. For me, in the pre-pandemic world I was way too busy for my own good. The people I work with know going forward that I will be taking the night off whenever I want to and not because I'm unwell, but because I'm going to be out there living my best life.
Mango Lassi: I am definitely hopeful! I think 2020 gave people a different perspective on what drag is and what it can be. One thing that I hope does not come back is the hate that a lot of "look queens" or online queens got. Now that the playing field is even for everyone, there should be no more of that.
Allysin Chaynes: I'm incredibly hopeful about the future of drag! I think online content is here to stay in a big way. The things that we've discovered on the channel working through Speakeasy has been that there are massive benefits to online drag that will still be benefits when the world re-opens. We've heard firsthand that digital drag has ended up being a wonderful thing for so much of our audience for so many reasons. For folks that have been made to feel unwelcome in typical gay or queer spaces, folks with accessibility issues, sober folks, people with social anxiety, people in small towns far away from any local drag scene, folks who have kids or work full-time schedules and can't always get out to a bar to see a show, we're able to reach a huge audience as performers that we may not have been able to before.
From the before times, I can say first hand that queer folks wasted a lot of time fighting with each other, cattiness, general acidity, bad attitudes. I'm pretty over all that. I think a lot of that came from the community falling into a place of complacency and taking the ability to gather and be with each other for granted. I hope people can just genuinely enjoy all their time together more after this.
What's the first thing you'll perform when you get back on a stage in front of a live audience?
Allysin Chaynes: And give away all my secrets? I don't think so, Peter! I do really look forward to getting back on a stage, though. Throughout the year my first song back has changed one hundred times over. Between caffeine rushes and hundreds of joints, I've staged and scrapped too many numbers to count at this point. However, I am working on something quite big for the whole community at a new venue for when we're back, and my number for that I've got pretty much figured out, and it's a fucking jam. I really think folks will dig it.
Tynomi Banks: The first thing I would love to perform is a full-out production concert. I want to have my girls from Canada's Drag Race as well as my local queens together performing and doing what they love.
Rose Butch: The 7+ minute long version of Céline Dion's "It's All Coming Back To Me Now."
Charli DeVille: "I'm Still Standing" by Elton John.
Mx. Wolverine: Hopefully my Frybread Act! It was the performance featured in Season 3 of Canada's a Drag. I only got to perform it once or twice before lockdown happened, and it doesn't carry the same energy in a virtual space. It needs a live audience and I need my Indigiqueer community!
Vivian Vanderpuss: The first thing I will perform to a live audience will be "Cabaret" by Liza Minnelli because I feel like it's the ultimate "welcome to the show" song!
Mango Lassi: I am dying to perform some Tanerélle! I discovered her late last year and have been obsessed with her since.
Alma Bitches: I'm not sure which song I'll do first, but I know that the first show back is going to be a marathon! "Oh, so you wanted an encore? How about a whole second show?"
Yovska: I'm just looking forward to walking around a club as a big tiddy goblin sipping some drinks with all of you!
Gay Jesus: I have absolutely no idea. This year has been so life-altering that its impact on me as a person has inherently changed my art. When creating drag performances, it really depends on what moves me at the time, and that can range anywhere from a fabric to a song to current events, etc. I'm not sure if I'll want to bring back a classic Gay Jesus performance for the audience or make something completely new. What I do know is that I'm really excited about getting to be back in a room with my community and sharing a changeroom with my fellow performers because it'll mean we're safe and, right now, that's one of the things I want most in the world.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for length.
Watch all of the performers in this conversation across three seasons of the Canadian Screen Award-winning Canada's a Drag on CBC Gem.