Over the past few years, RuPaul’s Emmy-winning reality show Rupaul’s Drag Race has been successfully branching out internationally. After a Thailand version, the Canadian version of the show titled Canada’s Drag Race premiered in July, building up to a sensational finale, where the show crowned its first winner: a drag queen named Priyanka. Given that we rarely see South Asian representation on Drag Race, having someone like Priyanka on the show meant a whole lot for brown queer fans everywhere.
Born as Mark Suki to Indo-Carribean parents, Priyanka has always believed in fighting for her place in a predominantly white world. One of Suki’s first memories as a kid sees him sobbing, running to his mother, and crying in confusion. “What's wrong?” his mum had asked. “The neighbours called me brown,” he replied. Even as a child, Suki could sense the condescension in his neighbours’ tone. But because he had no idea what his skin colour meant in Whitby, a town in Canada’s Ontario where he grew up, he was more confused than hurt.
VICE got a chance to connect with Priyanka over a Zoom call, where she took a break from her tour as the winner of the show to speak to us about her roots, her obsession with Bollywood movies, and how Indian culture heavily inspires her drag.
VICE: How did you first discover drag?
Priyanka: I was a fan of drag queens growing up. I would go to the clubs, looking for some man, while a drag queen would be performing. I learned to appreciate the hard work and talent that goes into this art back then itself. It was definitely an interesting transition for me, because when I became a drag queen, I met so many different members of the queer community, and I realised how difficult it is for people of colour to exist in these spaces.
Has it always been difficult for you as a brown person to make a mark?
Growing up, I was really unsure of myself, but my mom always told me, “Walk into a room and don’t let your skin colour be the reason that you don't get the job. You are just as qualified as the white person next to you.” So I had no option but to walk into a room and work really really hard and give these big dreams no choice but to come true.
You've said that drag queens are the mascots of the LGBTQ+ community. Is that what drew you towards becoming a drag artist, because of the ethereal nature of it all?
There's definitely something to it. Being a drag queen, you're the loudest voice in the room. That's where that quote comes from, because we are leaders. I don't get it when drag queens say stuff like, “I don't get what the big deal is.” I have to remind them that as drag artists, you have to care because people will listen to you.
We finally got to see a brown queen doing Bollywood the right way. Did you know going in that these looks were going to kill on the runway and the internet?
I was so proud of these looks. And I am so glad you loved it, because people like you are the reason why I did it. People like you are the reason I name myself Priyanka. I am so happy, especially with the finale look. It was in my suitcase and I was sitting on it for the longest time, I didn't want anyone to see it.
I feel it all connects, because growing up brown in Whitby, I would be scared to take curry for lunch because I didn't want it to stink up the room. But now with me walking down the runway, I am like, “EVERYONE GETS CURRY FOR LUNCH!” Mainly because I am so sick of being ashamed of culture. It’s like when you are listening to the soundtrack of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, but when your friends ask what you are listening to, you lie and say, “Spice Girls”. I want people to own their cultures more, because it's beautiful.
Was there a lot of Bollywood influence on your life growing up?
Oh yeah, I love movies like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, and Hum Saath-Saath Hain. My grandmother was convinced I looked like Mohnish Bahl, and I would scream, “No! I don't look like that old dude.”
You have been going back to tweets or posts dissing you on social media from before you won the show, and responding to them now while also spilling the tea. How does that feel?
I think it's hilarious because I am never one to get angry, I am not a fighter. I will stick up for my sisters if someone calls them a racist term. But if someone would attack my drag online, I’d save that tweet or Insta post, so when I won I could call them out. Because I think the biggest problem on the internet is that people are not owning their words. I retweeted a tweet that said, “I love Priyanka but she didn't deserve to win!” and I was like: “You don't love me!” People act like they need to hate somebody to support their favourites.
The judges on the show got the worst of the Twitter backlash, so much so that Jeffree Bowyer-Chapman had to delete his account. What do you feel about the fandom and the form it's taken online now?
You know, I get it. I was a big fan of American Idol. And if Kelly Clarkson didn't win, I would’ve tossed a chair out of the balcony or something, so I understand that you feel passionate about a certain contestant. The problem here was that this was an introductory season for the judges, so they are yet to build that rapport with the audiences. But by next season, I am sure the audience will get where they are coming from.
Which queen's exit was personally shocking to you?
The only elimination that was shocking to me was when Lemon went home. Of course, I was like, “Bye competition,” but honestly I saw myself in the top 3 with Rita Baga and Lemon.
You said on the show that your father doesn't know that you are queer and that you do drag, and that he thinks Priyanka is your girlfriend and not you yourself. Since you won, has he met the real Priyanka?
My Dad has not met Priyanka. I went home to celebrate with my family last week. We popped champagne, he gave me a big hug and told me he's proud of me. But one of the neighbours asked if he's met Priyanka yet, and he said, “I don't know” and kept drinking his champagne. It's weird for him, because boys do not dress up as girls—be it in Guyana or India. I'm proud of him for taking the time to process it and not jump to a place of anger. Of course there's a lot of growing up to do but I am super proud of him.
Going forward, how do you plan on using your power as a drag superstar to reach out to others?
The very fact that “Priyanka” won the first season of Canada's Drag Race gives every single person of colour that beacon of hope—that not only has she won and that POCs can do this too, but that she was good on the show too. If it wasn't for my hard work, this wouldn't be happening, and I want to inspire people to work harder and not take anything for granted. I also want to be accessible. I believe that drag queens are approachable pop stars. That's what I have always been, and I will always be—albeit now, with a crown on my head.
Every queen wants to cash in on their TV appearance to go out on tours and make some coin after their newfound fame. But the pandemic hit your season's cast as well as Season 12 of the American Drag Race version. How do you plan on manoeuvering through the situation in the next few weeks?
It's crazy, I won't lie to you. In Canada, we lucked out. I got to be somewhere for a viewing party every week with a capacity of less than 50 people. By the time the season ended, I was at the Phoenix Concert Theater with 100 people. I think it's important for these countries, provinces and regions to implement rules and keep the numbers low, so we can get back to live performance art. Drag queens, theatre people, comedians, singers… we are all suffering right now. But thankfully the cast of Canada's Drag Race is heading out on tour next week. I do feel bad for the Season 12 girls, though, but I am sure their time will come. In fact I've always wanted to come to India. Do you think I can come and perform there?
Not until we have a vaccine or maybe when everything opens up by 2021, I’m guessing.
I am patient, I am understanding. I've been waiting for a man my entire life, and I'm still single, so…
Maybe the man is in India.
Maybe it's you!
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