Wel­come to the sum­mer of drag

Two Cana­dian shows added to lineup that in­cludes ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ ‘Le­gendary’

The Hamilton Spectator - - ARTS & LIFE - DEBRA YEO

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.

CBC GEM PHO­TOS

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.

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