Nova Scotia

'An exploration of gender:' Increasing number of women performing drag

Traditionally, drag queens are men who dress up and perform as women. But as drag becomes more mainstream, the art form is being more widely adopted by all genders.

As drag becomes more mainstream, the art form is being more widely adopted by all genders

Ellen Tomie, aka Dolly Pardon, first got into drag in 2017. (Conor Sweeney)

Drag queen Dolly Pardon explodes onto the stage inside a small north-end Halifax theatre, tossing her billowing pink hair from side to side as she clutches a microphone and vigorously sings Joan Jett's Bad Reputation.

Dolly is not what you may think of as a typical drag queen ⁠— she's a woman.

Her real name is Ellen Tomie, and she's one of a growing number of women across Canada who perform drag. They're sometimes referred to as "hyper queens" or "bio queens."

"I think being a drag performer doesn't necessarily have to mean anything … It's an expression or exploration of gender," said Tomie, as she carefully etched a line of liquid black eyeliner under her eye, in preparation for a show that evening.

"It's interesting to put it into all these boxes. I've been given so many different types of names, but we're all just going out and finding something in our gender that we want to explore."

Drag, as it's grown in popularity, is being adopted by all genders. Halifax is home to a budding community of developing queens. Enter, Dolly Pardon. 4:16

Traditionally, drag queens are men who dress up and perform as women, often exaggerating femininity. But as drag becomes more mainstream, the art form is being more widely adopted by all genders.

Tomie, who grew up performing theatre and singing, said she had an "aha moment" at a drag show in Australia in 2015 after she was pulled on stage.

"In many ways I think I've been a drag queen my entire life. I just don't know that I knew the right words for it," said Tomie, a 30-year-old graphic designer.

Ellen Tomie debuted her drag persona Dolly Pardon at last year’s Halifax Pride Festival. Months later, she was fronting a local band as her alter ego. (Rob J Fletcher)

She started researching drag and attending shows. Finally, she decided that she wanted to "see what it would feel like," and so she got into drag for the first time in 2017 and went to a drag bingo event.

Tomie then spent a year planning her drag persona, and debuted Dolly Pardon at last year's Halifax Pride Festival. Months later, she was fronting a local band as her alter ego.

"A couple (drag) queens and a (drag) king came to one of our shows and cornered me and said, 'You need to move into our space' ... and I was absolutely terrified," said Tomie.

She was asked to do a drag pageant in December — and won. Since then, Dolly Pardon has appeared on the bill for countless drag shows across the Maritimes.

Tomie, who grew up performing theatre and singing, said she had an 'aha moment' at a drag show in Australia in 2015 after she was pulled on stage. (Rachel McGrath)

Her name often sits alongside drag queens, kings and transgender, gender fluid and non-binary performers.

"Halifax has a lot of very young ... underdeveloped queens that are just finding their way. I'm one of them," said Tomie, who refers to her drag alter ego as a "country disco clown."

"I was very concerned initially about being seen as appropriating in a space that maybe didn't belong to me ... but I have been received with a lot of love. People have been very kind to me."

Drag queen Eureka Love, also known as Tim Humphrey, said hyper queens have been welcomed into Halifax's drag community.

"It means that drag queens have been doing something right that everybody wants to dig in and find their own form of expression through attire and what we put on," said Humphrey, standing next to fellow veteran queens Rouge Fatale and Farrah Moanz.

"Because like RuPaul says, 'You're born naked and the rest is drag'."

Jason Spurrell, left, Brad McRae, middle, and Tim Humphrey, also known as the Queens of the Glamazon, agree that hyper queens have been welcomed into Halifax's drag community. (CBC)

Farrah Moanz, also known as Brad McRae, said drag is a form of heightened gender expression, and "as gender becomes more fluid, the idea of what drag is becomes more fluid."

Rouge Fatale, aka Jason Spurrell, added that drag is simply an art form just like music or poetry, and while the concept of a woman doing drag still sometimes needs to be explained, it does not amount to appropriation of gay culture.

"Who are we to say what gender is what? We're not. Anybody who wants to put on what we put on and get out there and live their best life, do it," said Spurrell, sporting a fully painted face and a long red wig.

Lisa Morrison, who performs as Lizzy Strange, said when she started doing drag in Halifax in 2015, she did sense some pushback.

"I definitely heard whispers of people behind my back being kind of like 'I don't know if this is technically considered drag' or 'maybe it's appropriation of gay culture,' which I thought was absurd because I myself am queer so how can I be appropriating my own culture?" she said.

Lisa Morrison, aka Lizzy Strange, says drag has grown exponentially in the past several years. (Lisa Morrison)

Morrison, who is now based in Montreal, said drag has grown exponentially in the past several years, and attitudes have been changing.

"As we learn more and more about the art form and as we expand our views of what gender is through the art of drag, it's really promising and I'm really hopeful to see more and more inclusion in the drag community," said Morrison, who identifies as gender fluid.

Tomie said her only regret is not having tried drag sooner.

"It's just an escape … It lets you view life a little bit differently," said Tomie. "And it's helped me to become a more confident version of myself."