Where there's a Wiggle, there's a way: The legacy of one of Canada's most vital queer arts festivals

Celebrating 25 years of Michael Venus's drag and "wearable art" extravaganza — and the community it's built along the way.

Celebrating 25 years of Michael Venus's drag and 'wearable art' extravaganza

The wearable art of Wiggle's 25 years. (Saad Al-Hakkak)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

25 years ago, through the unlikely incubation of the city of Windsor, Ont., a legendary queer Canadian institution was born.

Michael Venus and his friends had just formed the art collective House of Venus, intent on "creating positive energy and doing theme parties and fashion shows." After exploring the queer scenes in New York City and Detroit, they wanted to have an annual event to bring that culture to not just Windsor but Canada as a whole because, as Venus tells CBC Arts, "there wasn't really anything like that." So they dreamed up Wiggle.

"Hugely" inspired by designers like Thierry Mugler and Jean Paul Gaultier, The Warhol Factory and the drag, vogue and club kid scenes in New York City, Wiggle originated as a "runway and performance event where artists and designers created wearable art." The inaugural event took place in Windsor as a fundraiser for the city's Arts Council.

"We basically invited artists, performers, performance artists, dancers to be involved in this sort of variety show of sorts — and to create wearable art which we also auctioned off at the very first one to raise money for the Windsor Arts Council," Venus says. "25 years later, it's always been a fundraiser and a community building type of event. And sadly there still aren't a whole lot of events like it, so that's why I really feel it's important to this day to do it."

Wiggle 2017. (Saad Al-Hakkak)

Venus and company did a second version of the event a few weeks later in Detroit, and then decided to head west. 

"We moved to Vancouver on a lark," Venus says. "We had sort of expired what we could possibly do in Windsor and we needed to move on. We thought about Toronto, but cosmic circumstances led us to Vancouver, where I think it took a year and a half or so to re-start Wiggle there. And it was still hopping with different artists and fashion designers and hair stylists, but it definitely became a lot more drag-centric and sort of became this annual drag festival as well as incorporating avant garde design and performance."

Wiggle's presence in Vancouver altered the city's nightlife, particularly with regard to drag. 

"At that time, the drag was very old school and into the coronation balls, and we were just not about that," Venus says. "We've brought a new energy to it. Our drag was a more supermodel kind of femme-realness with a positive vibe...we weren't bitchy queens we wanted to be all encompassing and include everyone."

17 Wiggles went down in Vancouver, with legendary folks like Lady Bunny and Candis Cayne each hosting the event twice.

"Vancouver is where Wiggle really gained its fame," Venus says.

A design from Wiggle's past. (Nicholas Jang)

Four years ago, Wiggle made its third big move — this time to Montreal. Venus had been offered the opportunity to open Never Apart, a non-profit organization and arts space dedicated to "bring about social change and spiritual awareness through cultural programming with global reach and impact." In addition to initiating programs like an LGBTQ film series and creating Colour By Icons (the world's first LGBTQ historical coloring book), Venus brought along Wiggle. And as a result, this spring both Never Apart and Montreal's Museum of Fine Arts will come together to help the festival celebrate its silver anniversary.

There's an ongoing retrospective of the festival — and House of Venus in general — running at Never Apart until April 6th. "We've got tons of posters and promotions and magazine covers and just like relics and artifacts from over 25 years," Venus says. "So it's kind of exciting and very surreal at the same time. Luckily, I am a pack rat slash documentarian so I kept it all!"

And that's just the beginning. In May, two big Wiggle events will go down — the first on May 1st at the Museum of Fine Arts (during an exhibition of one of Wiggle's greatest inspirations Thierry Mugler, no less), and then a second on May 18th at Never Apart (with Amanda Lepore as the special guest).

"It's going to be like a big reunion with a lot of people who have been involved in the 25 years of putting on this production," Venus says. "It's super exciting."

The poster for Wiggle's 25th anniversary celebrations. (Saad Al-Hakkak)

Looking back on Wiggle's legacy, Venus says the thing he's most proud of is the community the event has helped build — "that and the fact that it's been a launching pad for so many young, creative people," he adds. "And it's also a place for them. We are the misfits and we are the people that society says no to. I think as queers, we have to form our own community and that's, I think, the biggest thing I'm so happy about. We've created a legacy in Canada because, like I said, there aren't events like this, sadly. There needs to be more."

Part of what he feels is lacking beyond Wiggle is opportunities that really afford creative people to explore without rules.

"And that kind of goes back to when we started Wiggle because we would complain at that time. 'Why aren't there any cool events? Why aren't people doing this?' And whenever you have that moment...not to sound cliché and like Oprah, but it is an 'aha' moment that's like, 'Well, there aren't those events because it's the universe or your subconscious telling you that you've got to do it.' So I think Wiggle is really a testament to just believing your dreams and just doing it."

Congratulations to Venus and everyone else who indeed just did it, giving Canada these 25 years of Wiggle-ing in the process. We'd only be so lucky to have 25 more.

Learn more about Wiggle's 25th anniversary celebrations here.

About the Author

Peter Knegt has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and spearheading the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag and interactive project Superqueeroes, both of which won him 2020 Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.