Welcome to the summer of drag
Two Canadian shows added to lineup that includes ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ ‘Legendary’
It feels like you can’t swing a stiletto these days without hitting a drag queen TV show.
The mother of them all, “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” recently began its latest all-star edition on Crave. HBO just renewed “We’re Here,” which stars three “RuPaul’s” alumni, for a second season. And “Legendary,” which features the drag subculture known as ballroom, is drawing buzz on HBO Max, as well as HBO and Crave here in Canada.
Soon, there will be new Canadian entries in the genre.
“Queens,” a comedy mystery series featuring Toronto drag performers, debuts on CBC Gem on Friday. On July 2, “RuPaul’s” spinoff “Canada’s Drag Race” premieres on Crave, with Canada’s most famous drag queen, Brooke Lynn Hytes, on the judging panel.
For Hytes and the queens who star in “Queens,” this growing mainstream focus on a performance art that was once an underground queer phenomenon is very welcome.
And it’s not just the eye-popping elements — the costumes, the wigs, the makeup — that draw people in, they say, but the underlying humanity.
“I think at the crux of drag is human connection,” said Champagna, one of the stars of “Queens.” “It plants seeds in people’s minds who might not be into queerness or drag, and then suddenly they see you as a human.”
Hytes, in a separate interview, echoed that thought: “For a long time people thought drag queens were circus freaks or freaks in general, or these weird lowlifes who hung out in bars,” she said. On TV, they can see “that we are people, and we do have stories and lives, and hopes and dreams like everybody else.”
Hytes trained as a ballet dancer and spent four years with the New York-based drag troupe Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo before transitioning full-time into drag in Toronto, but you could say she got her start in drag as a child.
“As a kid I was always playing Barbies. I was fascinated by my mom … I always wanted to wear her jewelry, try on her clothes,” Hytes said.
“I just wanted to be beautiful.” Hytes became the first Canadian contestant on competition series “RuPaul’s Drag Race” —
“the drag Olympics,” she calls it — after winning the prestigious Miss Continental pageant in the U.S. and moving to Nashville.
But the scene she left behind here in her hometown is thriving — or at least was before the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to live performances — according to the cast and creator of “Queens.”
“Drag in Toronto has never been better. We are a hidden gem in the world of drag,” said local queen Allysin Chaynes.
She’s one of eight Toronto drag performers who star in “Queens,” a whodunit set in Toronto’s Gay Village in which someone is out to sabotage the Miss Church Street pageant.
Chaynes sat in on a Zoom call with co-stars Champagna and Jada Shada Hudson, as well as series creator Justin Gray, who also performs drag under the name Fisher Price.
Each found their way into drag for varied reasons.
Chaynes was an OCAD University graduate who had been using makeup as part of her art when she went to a drag show at Queen West bar the Beaver and was adopted by her “drag family,” the House of Filth. Hudson, a singer and dancer, performed as a man when she first moved to Toronto from Barbados, but lost a talent contest to a drag performer and got talked into trying it for herself. Champagna and Gray were both taking breaks from trying to find work in the film and TV industry when they fell into drag and “all the doors started opening,” Champagna said.
It’s fun but challenging work, they say — and not just because of the two hours or more it takes to put on makeup and get dressed and bewigged.
Hytes described drag as “one of the only artistic jobs where you are solely responsible for everything … with drag, you have to buy your own makeup, you have to buy your own wigs, you have to get costumes made, you have to figure out what music you’re going to do, you have to choreograph that number.”
“You have to constantly be updating your looks and your esthetic … to figure out how you’re going to make yourself different from the other drag queens … I don’t think people realize how much money drag queens spend to be drag queens.”
Champagna joked that she hasn’t invested in her non-drag wardrobe in four years and hasn’t been on a vacation since 2013. Yet they love what they do.
Even before her fame skyrocketed with “Drag Race,” Hytes said she would “just stop sometimes and be ‘What is my life?’ ”
“It’s a wonderful job. I dress up as a woman and I go onstage, and I perform for people that literally give me money. Like, how fun,” she said.
Said Gray: “I’ve met some of the most interesting people in my life doing this, people that you would just never generally talk to. I’m a really shy person as a guy, so drag has taught me a lot about myself for the past 10 years,” added Hudson. Beyond how it makes them feel, the queens are also gratified by what others get from their performances, whether in a bar, at a party or corporate event, or someone’s home.
Hudson talked about young queer people who “can’t be themselves at home (who) will come (to the shows) and will be so happy to just get away from it all.”
Chaynes runs an amateur strip night for people of all genders and body types. When she hears from spectators who “say things like, ‘I’ve never seen anyone that looked like me performing’ or ‘I’ve never connected with a performer like that,’ that’s why I do it.”
On the other hand, one of Chaynes’ favourite shows was for a group of 50-somethings in Stratford, Ont., who were “just enjoying the creativity and art of the performers with no prejudice or stigma or barrier against enjoyment.”
“The only thing stopping people from not finding the drag that they love in the world is themselves because there is drag for everyone, there absolutely is,” she added. The same goes for the show “Queens,” she said. “If you enjoy humans and you enjoy laughing, you will enjoy this show.”
“Queens” debuts at 9 p.m. Friday on CBC Gem and on the Pride Toronto website as part of its Pride Month “Feature Fridays.” There will be a post-screening Q&A with the cast at 10 p.m. at PrideToronto.com.
Allysin Chaynes is Naomi in “Queens,” a show set in the Gay Village in which someone is out to sabotage the Miss Church Street pageant.
Toronto drag queen Champagna is Elaina in CBC Gem’s “Queens,” which premieres on Friday.