From Duke to Duchess on Duckworth
Friday, November 21, 11 o’clock. Velvet isn’t my typical stomping ground but I found myself waiting outside as the line crawled up the steps of McMurdo’s lane and in the door. A friend of mine was set to perform in the annual Drag Idol contest; their second time competing and my second time taking it in.
We stood freezing and speculating about the acts to come when I overheard a quip.
“It’s fine, they’re running on drag queen time.”
It was 11:20 and both I and the event were late but I’ve rarely known a show of any sort to run on time. The comment struck me, though, as scaring up the popular image of drag queens – of fierce divas so particular, they will delay an entire night on a whim. This hadn’t been my experience before and it wouldn’t be for this night.
I shuffled through the door and took to asking patrons what I would see when the lights went up. I already had a rough idea but the way people discuss things can be interesting for its own sake.
My brief exchanges inside roughly mimicked the comments in the lane. I was told that the catty and vulgar judges would waiver between love and hate for the contestants. I was told that lazy performances would be met by queens throwing shade.
Dragcabulary: To throw shade: shit talk; to publicly disrespect someone.
When the contestants took the stage, there we no lazy performances and no shade thrown. The bit about the judges was pretty spot on but one person in any crowd has to be on point.
The gender benders who stood before me on stage ranged from boisterous men with poised femininity to occasionally somber drag kings with the remaining queens littered somewhere in between. The contest was approached in different ways and clearly meant different things to each performer.
The annual American-reality-contest-styled drag event is in its 11 year and I had only been to the last two. It seemed like a fun topic so I decided to get the low-down on the art straight from the horses’ mouths (if that cliché can be made plural).
I spoke to some of the contestants and decided to start close to home with a friend of mine who kings.
Dragcabulary: To king is a verb outside of checkers.
Taylor Stocks is a female bodied performer who entertains as the drag king Dr. Androbox. They competed in each of the two last Drag Idols, is active in St. John’s Pride, and is rumoured to be a contestant on an upcoming series about drag kings called “the King is Coming.”
For Stocks, drag as a stage show represents an avenue to explore and define their own gender in an entertaining way.
“I’ve always been a ham and I like sparkles, and outrageous outfits, and putting on a performance. I performed a lot for my family and I like being on stage and being somewhat spontaneous about it,” they said. “In my earliest questions around gender, I looked up drag in the city that I was living in — Vancouver … and found that they had an amateur hour sort of night.”
“That kind of got the ball rolling and since then, it has been a particular way that I can pin down my gender expression for at least a moment,” they said. “I find that I’m chasing down my own gender half the time and it’s exhausting so drag is a nice way to say ‘this is what I’ll be, right there.’”
Stocks further sees the benefit of gender performance for the community that observes it.
“I think it’s important to showcase different demonstrations of gender that go to places that are normally invisible; or that are taboo; or make people uncomfortable because these are the questions I deal with every day,” they said. “it’s a good time and a good show and to be able to translate a lot of the really shitty stuff that goes on [surrounding gender] … into something that’s sparkly and funny and lighthearted and still puts that question mark and turns it a little in your head. It’s a cool thing.”
These boons don’t come easy, though. They explained that there are some elements of being a king that are fundamentally different from playing the archetypal queen.
“Being a female bodied gender performer, you don’t often see too many representations of yourself,” they said. “We don’t have the ability to just put on makeup and change our faces and be bigger and rounder. It’s like there has to be less. Less hips, and less chest, and less smiles and pleasing of the face.”
Crystal Thornhill plays the local drag king Johnny Diamond and came runner-up in this year’s contest. She regrets the difference in perception garnered by drag kings as opposed to queens.
“Even at this year’s drag idol, there were a couple of comments made like ‘I can’t judge you compared to queens because you’re just not the same’ but why not?” she said. “We’re both doing drag. We are both gender illusionists.”
Thornhill described a range of influences on her performances of masculinity including David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, and a host of other pop culture figures but feels that king performances can often be too bogged down in the pursuit of being sullen and manly.
“Typically when I see other kings do drag, they’re very focused on the masculinity and actually looking like a real man … and I don’t want people to stop pursuing kinging because a lot of people think it’s boring,” she said. “I really like to exaggerate things and have everything very flamboyant, Johnny Diamond is pretty much myself if I were a man but exaggerated completely.”
Irma Gerd, this year’s winning queen, whose performances included painting Madonna on stage in the run of about two and a half minutes, was played by Jason Wells. Wells said and demonstrated that he takes drag in the same vein of entertainment as Johnny Diamond. He described his drag development while he lived in Toronto.
“Toronto where I started doing drag seems to be really divided. There are the Church Street pageant queens and then there are the West end queens which is what I consider myself,” he said. “I like to think of it as clowning. We’re like drag clowns.”
Dragcabulary: Pageant queens: Drag queens who aim to be
seamlessly put together and to imitate womanhood.
Wells described the experience of helping to found the drag scene in his native Corner Brook as being selective in a positive way. He could promote a more lighthearted form of drag that would stick because of his inaugural position in the scene.
“In Toronto, the West end queens are sometimes looked down upon because it’s comedy and it’s not as serious,” he said. “Going to Corner Brook and starting a drag scene, really, and being able to say ‘this is what I think drag is’ and to leave that as kind of a first impression was great. So with Corner Brook, even though it’s a brand new drag scene, I think it’s a lot more fun of a drag scene.”
“Now, there’s only one or two other Queens out there but it exists and people like it.”
As I spoke to Jason over the phone, the dynamic of an artist and their medium became more clear. As Taylor had said before, drag could mean a way to break down taboos and boundaries. This doesn’t apply solely to gender, it’s also a matter of performance art.
“If I were to just get on stage without the wig, and the makeup, and the character, I think I would take myself too seriously. When I do drag, I can kind of let go of these restrictions that I and society put on me,” he said. “It’s a fun way for me to step outside of my boundaries of what I would do if Jason were doing performance art.”
“I’m not trying to convince anybody that I’m a woman. I’ve gone out with a full beard before in drag. While I’m dressing up, I can put on this character and become someone else for the night and when I’m a different person, I don’t fear consequence as much which I think is kind of important when you’re making art. You have to be aware of consequence but if it’s going to hinder your art then don’t be afraid of it.”
The whole night I was entertained by dancing, lip-syncing, painting, and costumes so elaborate I couldn’t begin to devise by first glance how they were made. I carried a note pad and a recorder the whole time, hunting for the common ground between performers and trying to distill what drag means both in terms of quality and message. I tried to answer the question: “what gives drag its charm?”
As much might not be possible to answer in a universal sense, the answer in the case of St. John’s rang true in my mind after speaking to the performers. No matter how great the show is, it’s not necessarily in what you see but in how they feel: uninhibited, confident, secure, beautiful, and fun. That’s something worth applauding.