Inside Winnipeg’s ‘Drag Renaissance’
Bobbi Hudon and Brielle Dorais-Fleming in performance. | All images by Graeme Houssin/Drag in the Peg.
It’s nearing midnight at Club 200, a gay bar in downtown Winnipeg, and local drag queen Stara David steps out onto the stage. She’s wearing a white dress, black heels and a fiery red wig, and she’s lip syncing to Neil Sedaka’s 1961 song “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen,” which recently appeared in the trailer for Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
Egged on by the cheering crowd, Stara twirls around the stage until a crack of thunder comes over the speakers and she strips off her dress to the soft guitar intro of Neko Case’s “Vengeance Is Sleeping.” She kneels down on the club floor at a small table and begins furtively writing a letter, before ripping the paper to pieces and tearing off her bra and wig. The crowd goes wild.
Out of drag, Stara is Ezi Raizen, a 21-year-old theatre student at the University of Winnipeg.
They performed that number at a show in December hosted by Slunt Factory, a group they started last year along with their friends Caity Maskiew, who performs as Moxie Cotton, and Brielle Dorais-Fleming, who performs as Dirt.
You never know what to expect at a Slunt Factory show. At the same show as Stara’s theatrical Neko Case performance, Dirt ate raw beef on stage while lip syncing to a mash-up of nine different versions of Wham’s “Last Christmas.” Later in the show, Moxie Cotton floated around the stage in a rose print dress lip syncing to Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose.”
The shows cater to a new era of Winnipeg drag that some people are calling the city’s “drag renaissance.” In addition to Slunt Factory, there are more and more opportunities for young people to get into drag, both in and out of the bars. A local theatre company started a drag performance class last spring, and a local cafe held a drag bootcamp in the fall. There’s even a new podcast that started this month dedicated to documenting the city’s drag community.
Looming over this local drag resurgence is a renewed international interest in drag, fuelled by the mainstream popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Although many of the new performers in Winnipeg admit the show was their first entry point into drag, feelings toward the show are mixed.
“ Drag Race is an incredible thing in that it gives people access to the concept of drag in an easy, consumable way. And it's so amazing to have queer people on TV,” Dorais-Fleming says. “That being said, once you kind of get into it and once you are observing it, you realize how manipulative and narrow the show is, and how restrictive their view of drag is.”
Many people have criticized the show’s host RuPaul for comments he made about whether he would allow women to compete on the show. In an interview in the Guardian in March 2018, he said he wouldn’t allow “biological women” or trans women who have had gender-affirming surgery to compete. RuPaul later apologized and allowed trans drag queen Gia Gunn to compete on the latest season of Drag Race All Stars, although she has since accused the show of editing out a confrontation about anti-trans discrimination from the show.
With the drag world’s most prominent spokesperson making comments like that, Winnipeg’s new generation of performers are pushing back against the narrow definition of drag that has been given mainstream airtime. The three founders of Slunt Factory are all assigned female at birth (often shortened to AFAB), while Raizen identifies as non-binary and Maskiew identifies as agender. They’re not what one would expect from a drag performer if their only drag reference was Drag Race.
“It was definitely something I was scared of going into it,” Raizen says. They say they've heard from friends in Toronto that the drag scene there isn’t as inclusive of AFAB performers.
Kerry Bertoncello-Dale says he doesn’t think they would have let an AFAB performer onto the stage when he started doing drag eight years ago. He performs as Satina Loren, and is affectionately referred to by many of the newer queens as “the patron saint of drag babies” because of the support and mentorship he’s offered them.
“I think renaissance is a really good way to put it, because it’s a complete shift in viewpoints,” Bertoncello-Dale says. “I'm not saying this in a bad way, but they're the weird kids,” he says about Slunt Factory. “We have a group of the weirdos, and it’s my favourite thing to see.”
These days, some of the most highly-praised drag queens in the city are AFAB, and there are more AFAB performers coming out every month to make their debuts at Slunt Factory shows.
“I think that the idea of drag really boils down to playing and subverting gender, and I think that anyone with a gender can do that,” says Anika Dowsett, who made her drag debut as Petty Davis at December’s Slunt Factory show.
At that show she lip synced to Mitski’s “Me and My Husband” while wearing a fur coat, a black wig and a pencilled on moustache. She ended her performance with a lingerie reveal, “because I felt daring,” she says.
“I think I felt really insecure about not levelling up to the other queens, or going there and just looking like a girl in makeup and not a drag queen,” Dowsett says. “But once I had the wig on and everything, and the high heels, I felt so feminine and so funny. I usually don't flounce but as soon as I had the wig on I was flouncing and making all of these little cooing sounds. It was definitely exhilarating.”
In addition to becoming more accepting of AFAB performers, Winnipeg’s drag scene has evolved in other ways over the years. David Kirton says the scene was “cutthroat” when he began performing as Vida Lamour nearly two decades ago.
“I actually witnessed another queen cut dresses. It was vicious,” Kirton says. “It was an ugly scene, it wasn't friendly, and through the years part of my mission in doing drag was to support the newer girls, because I never ever wanted them to experience that or go through that.”
In particular, drag performers who were Indigenous, trans or sex workers have historically been marginalized in Winnipeg, says Levi Foy, a two-spirit member of Couchiching First Nation who performs as Prairie Sky. That began to change four years ago, when Foy co-founded a drop-in program called Like That at an inner city community centre where he and Kirton both work.
The program spawned the Sunshine Bunch, a group of drag queens who Foy says had previously been ostracized from the mainstream drag scene. “The Sunshine Bunch drag was definitely way more raw, less polished, and really about giving people a platform to be as wild and crazy as they wanted to be,” he says.
The group quickly made a name for themselves in Winnipeg’s drag community, and around that time Foy says he saw two schools of drag emerge in the city. On the one hand, he says there were established “court queens,” who came up through formalized drag institutions and pageants. On the other hand, there was the Sunshine Bunch.
“We were doing all these wild things. Stuff that people just weren’t doing,” says Bobbi Hudon, the other co-founder of Like That. “We were visiting rural areas for their first pride, and supporting them, and using drag to do that.”
Hudon’s been performing as Pharaoh Moans for nearly a decade. He was raised in rural Manitoba, where he says it was difficult growing up as a queer person. When he moved to the city at 16 he says he soon became interested in the drag community, but he found that he didn’t fit in there either.
“When I first started doing drag there was only one group of drag royalty that would be given a lot of the gigs. They really monopolized the drag scene,” Hudon says. “I was always kind of the outsider, so in many areas of my life I've learned that if you don’t have something that you need for your own survival, you’re compelled to create it.”
“Lo and behold I was part of this creation of this whole other group of drag performers and we built and we built and we built and then all of a sudden we were seen as equals,” he says.
After a local theatre company caught wind of what was happening at Sunshine House, they asked Hudon and Kirton to start teaching a class about drag. Prairie Theatre Exchange’s first drag performance class took place last year, and it’s second group of students enter the program this month.
Although the class does teach students about the technical aspects of drag, such as make up and lip syncing, Hudon says the most important part of the class isn’t about drag at all—it’s about creating spaces where people feel safe expressing themselves.
“We want as many people from as many different backgrounds as possible,” he says. “All drag is valid drag, and all expression is valid expression. Especially expression that challenges the binary and allows folks to express their gender in ways that they probably wouldn't have been able to here in this landscape ten years ago.”
Many of the students who graduated from last year’s class have become regulars at Slunt Factory and other drag shows in the city. One of those former students is Alex Nguyen, who performs as Ruby Chopstix.
“Now they’re like my family,” Nguyen says about the community of people he’s met through drag. “I feel at ease that I’m in the community now.”
For the founders of Slunt Factory, fostering connections between Winnipeg’s newer and established drag performers is central to their goal. Some of the most memorable moments they share from the past few months include sitting down with their mentors and hearing about the history of Winnipeg drag and learning about the community they’ve become part of.
“Drag has been the way that I've found my queerness and how it works for me,” Maskiew says. “I've found the biggest network of support.”
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