It’s nearly show time at the Cobalt and Valynne Vile is “bloody nervous.”
This will be her first time performing in drag, ever.
Performing is a scary thought. There’s a saying in Vancouver that when a drag queen screws up, you don’t hear an awkward silence – you hear gunshots being fired.
Not only is Valynne performing on stage for the first time, she is also competing against 13 other drag kings and queens in the second annual Mr. or Miss Cobalt Drag Competition in this preliminary round.
Valynne smooths down the ends of her long silver hair over and over.
“I’m really excited just to show everybody my character and who I really am.”
In everyday life, Valynne’s real name is Ryan Stewart, and he works as a quality-assurance lead in the video-game industry. After a lengthy break from drag, he showed up at the Cobalt dressed as Valynne last month and was invited to take part in the competition. He promptly said yes.
But as much as Valynne is focused on her own performance, she is actually carrying out a more important role by showing up at the Cobalt at this mid-March first round of competition.
Drag queens have been central to the identity of the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgered-queer community: as visible, flamboyant characters, as social convenors, as leaders who test the limits of acceptance.
In the past few years, spaces for queens to perform have become increasingly scarce in Vancouver as clubs have closed.
But the Cobalt, on Vancouver’s east side, has recently turned into a new mainstay of the city’s drag scene, and shows like “Apocalypstick” are creating opportunities for newcomers like Valynne.
Tonight’s competition kicks off three rounds that end Easter Sunday with the crowning of a new king or queen.
To start it, one of the hosts, Peach Cobblah (the drag persona of Dave Deveau, the event’s creator), sashays on stage.
Her attitude is even sassier than her red sequinned dress and over-the-top hair.
“Hello, darlings, we’re gonna’ start the competition very soon, so let’s make this place hot and juicy together, all right?”
The crowd roars back. Valynne Vile’s heart pounds.
It’s show time.
The Queens of Vancouver
Drag isn’t just about pageant hair and outrageous makeup.
The Junction on Davie Street hosts two weekly shows. On this Saturday night, Daniel McGraw is waiting in an hour-long line to get in the night club.
“I’ve been hired a lot by corporate people,” says Carlotta Gurl. Tourism Vancouver has employed her to do travel shows promoting Vancouver as a gay tourist destination. For the past five years, TD Canada Trust has hired her for its huge Pride Parade floats.
“It’s cool to have a drag queen at your party now, whereas before you would have a juggler or something else,” she adds.
But that popularity, welcomed by some, makes others worry that drag queens have become depoliticized.
“The historical context in which they emerged was very significant and drag queens do embody this symbolic meaning,” says Bard Suen. “They were people who couldn’t hide. They had to be who they were and I think they deserve a lot of respect for that. But I worry that today we sort of just think of them as these characters, “Oh they’re so funny and so entertaining” but no, they have a really important role to play,” says Suen.
When Suen was coming to terms with his sexuality as a teenager, drag queens like Carlotta Gurl helped him realize it was okay to be who he was.
“I really identified with them and they were there when I was figuring stuff out. Apart from all of these political analyses, I feel like they mean a lot to me in some way and I wish that they got the credit that they deserve.”
But Deveau doesn’t think that appealing to a greater audience is the same as selling out.
“It’s a paycheque that enables them to do the kinds of things they want to be doing elsewhere. It’s the same as a theatre actor who books a Tim Horton’s commercial – you’re going to do that because that’s going to pay your rent while you continue to do your art,” says Deveau.
“I think the historical role is often completely under-emphasized and often times completely ignored. Low-income, trans, people of colour and drag queens were the people who created Stonewall,” says McGraw, referring to the legendary New York bar that is seen as Ground Zero of the gay liberation movement.
McGraw’s friend Bard Suen chimes in.
“I think that drag queens represent a symbol for pushing the boundaries in the community so although I’m not brave enough to challenge those sort of norms – I feel really glad that there’s someone out there doing something like that.”
While McGraw and Suen are waiting outside, inside The Junction, Carlotta Gurl, one of the most well-known drag queens in Vancouver, is getting ready for her weekly show.
She headlines “Dragulous” on Saturday nights and has been performing for 20 years.
“I remember a time when I was doing drag for a living. I had four or five shows a week at different bars.”
Back then, the money was good and gigs were constant.
Today, a guest queen will take home between $100 to $150 to perform two numbers. Hosts like Carlotta Gurl make more, though not enough any more to support herself only with those gigs.
When fewer people started showing up and the bars began to close, things changed. “I realized I had to get myself a regular job in order to survive. I’m a manager at IGA.”
An Odyssey ends but the journey continues
The declining audiences had been a slow trend. But then Vancouver’s drag scene was hit hard by the closure of The Odyssey nightclub in 2010.
“The scene went through a bit of a hump after The Odyssey closed. They had drag almost every night of the week and were employing a lot of the community,” says Deveau.
Deveau and his husband, Cameron Mackenzie, are local theatre professionals who created the Zee Zee Theatre Company. Their work explores the experiences of marginalized communities. Together they produced “Tucked and Plucked: Vancouver’s Drag History on Stage” and are perhaps better known as their drag personas, Peach Cobblah and Isolde N. Barron, the Queen of East Van.
“For a period of time, we were the only weekly drag show, which is crazy, but now there are three weeklies happening on Davie Street, so that’s promising as far as people getting work and people being able to enjoy drag,” said Deveau.
In keeping with the creation of inclusive, communal queer gathering spaces, the Cobalt also acts as a venue for the city’s only regular drag king show, “Man Up” which celebrated its fifth anniversary recently.
May the best king or queen win
Tonight’s drag competition is heating up.
The queens and kings compete for a $500 cash prize, three booked performances and the title of being crowned Mr. or Ms. Cobalt 2013.
“We used to have a segment [of Apocalypstick] called Mean Keen Queen where we had a new performer trying out a number every week because we know our audiences are great,” said Deveau.
The hosts actually warn the audience not to insult performers or they risk being escorted out.
But the judge’s themselves don’t hold back. One queen is chastised because her tuck, the method performers use to conceal their genitalia, is visible through her black leather leotard. A king is docked points for not having enough facial hair.
No wonder Valynne, who is still waiting to perform, is nervous. She doesn’t know what to expect.
“I’m kind of sexy, kind of slutty, kind of weird and evil at the same time. I’m performing a Korean pop song but an English version of it. I wanted to grab something that nobody had done before.”
Valynne’s mom, Tracy Stewart, stands in the crowd. This is the first time she has seen Valynne perform. It’s also the first drag show she’s ever been to. (It won’t be the last performance. Valynne didn’t win the competition — TranApus Rex did — but she make it to the final round on Easter Sunday.)
The audience is also a mixed bunch: families, friends, gay, straight, lesbian, transgendered and everything in between.
“I love that people’s families come out, I think it’s encouraging and it feels nice that the space we’ve created feels like somewhere you would want your family to come and support you,” says Deveau.
At 10.30 p.m., Valynne finally steps on stage.
As the heavy beats of her Korean pop song blare through the speakers, her nerves seem to disappear. She struts forward confidently, pumping her hands in the air and shimmying her shoulders provocatively.
Her mom and sister smile and cheer. Even the judges applaud.
“I got good feedback. It was very constructive.”
But most importantly she had fun.
“I was shocked because there’s this stigma with drag queens that they’re all bitches. And so far the Cobalt queens have been super nice.”
But maybe the niceness is not so surprising as both the old-timers and the newcomers recognize that they’re not in competition — they’re actually creating a community.
Correction: April 18, 2013.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Valynne Vile’s mother’s name. Her name is Tracy, not Sandy. The authors regret the error.