It’s Saturday night in New Westminster and Jamaal Parker is worried about showing up at work tomorrow. The morning’s breakfast sits unfinished on the kitchen counter next to a small bong and a sink full of dishes. His three cats play, scurrying across the floor.
The 23-year-old considers his reflection in the mirror, lips pursed.
“I have this other pink that’s better but it stains my face,” he says, surveying the make-up palettes in front of him.
“I think I’m going to have to. Sorry work,” he sighs, sweeping bright pink powder over his cheek.
Tomorrow he’ll be serving ice cream in East Vancouver. But tonight, Parker is performing as Vixen von Flex. Mixing contortion, acrobatics, dance, burlesque and drag, Vixen von Flex epitomizes fluidity.
Parker says that while he’s comfortable being a guy, he also identifies with the term gender-fluid. And he knows he’s doing his job if he’s confusing people.
“Being a drag queen and a burlesque person is like being two people,” Parker says. “I joke to my partner that he has a girlfriend and a boyfriend. He’s fine with it, but he has no closet space.”
First performing as a contortionist, Parker incorporated drag into his act when he started working in burlesque. Now it’s a core part of his performance. With his diverse skill set, Parker says he thinks of himself as a melting pot.
“Everywhere that I’ve worked has affected how I perform. There’s a lot of elements to what I’m doing.”
He choreographs his acts, mixes his music, sews costumes, and applies make-up — and he loves every minute of it. Challenging conventions is second nature to him.
“I’m a big guy wearing platforms, so when I walk onstage people make assumptions,” he says.
But when he starts doing contortions, he sees those assumptions change. And he likes surprising people.
The early days of a performer
Growing up in Nanaimo, Parker’s fixation with performance began when a friend gave him a Cirque du Soleil tape. He watched it every day, enamoured with the theatricality and fascinated by the contortionist.
“I knew I wanted people to look at me in awe the way they looked at them,” he says.
Parker says that, while other kids his age were doing drugs and getting pregnant, he was trying gymnastics. But when his instructors discovered his flexibility, they didn’t know what to do with it. It didn’t fit the traditional role of male gymnasts.
“They didn’t really like it because men are supposed to do more strength stuff,” he says.
When Parker set his sights on contortion school, his mom moved the family from Nanaimo to Vancouver.
“I guess we moved for me, so I could study contortion,” he says. “I think my mom just thought it would be better for me to have something to focus on and to get out of Nanaimo.”
Parker credits his mom’s support with shaping him as a performer. He remembers her selling everything so their family could move to New Orleans.
“And then my father left. My mom was stuck with me — and that wasn’t the plan. But if my father was in the picture, I wouldn’t be the person I am,” he says.
Parker said his father came from a military family, so he doubts his interest in make-up and glitter would have been welcome. But his mom was positive from the beginning, encouraging him to keep at it.
He discovered the burlesque community as a teen and, for the first time, experimenting with drag in his performances was encouraged. Something clicked – not only was he enjoying himself onstage, but the audience was receptive. Parker’s stage persona, Vixen von Flex, was born.
As Vixen von Flex, he’s a fixture at Man Up, a regular multi-gender drag event in Vancouver. He credits his mentors and peers there with helping him make drag his own.
He used to feel pressured to conform to a specific kind of drag. Traditional drag requires corsets, wigs and padding – things that look pretty but restrict movement. As a contortionist and dancer, that posed a problem for Parker.
“I can’t wear a corset and move the way I need to,” Parker says. “I used to wear four pairs of nylons to hide my hairy legs. I used to wear padding to give me a more feminine figure — but it’s hard to do the splits when you have things restricting you.”
Now, hairy legs are part of the Vixen von Flex package.
Taking the stage
Tonight he’s performing at the Rio Theatre. On the drive over, Parker’s pre-show jitters kick in. “Do you mind if I listen to my music?” he asks. “I don’t know my routine as well as I should.”
He calls his boyfriend’s brother. “Can you do me a huge favour? Can you bring one of my black fur coats? The longer one that we use to stop the door when we’re smoking weed.”
Backstage, his adrenaline manifests as irritation. He keeps getting glitter in his eyes and he has a headache from his wig. He jokes with the other performers but there’s a steely focus to him now.
Tonight’s show is called the Cartoon Cabaret. Performers have reinterpreted cartoons into burlesque and circus acts. Vixen will perform as Jem from Jem and the Holograms. Parker has always loved Jem – both for her sparkly style and her double life.
The ‘80s cartoon follows Jem, the rockstar alter-ego of Jerrica Benton. Jerrica transforms into Jem by issuing commands to hologram software embedded in her earrings. The command “showtime” transforms her into Jem and, with “show’s over,” she goes back to Jerrica. As Jem, Jerrica has access to otherwise out-of-reach experiences. It’s easy to see why Parker relates to her.
“She’s two people too,” he says.
At the Rio Theatre, the first act features a Calvin and Hobbes-themed striptease and a contact juggling routine inspired by Dragon Ball Z. Vixen von Flex is first up after the intermission.
“This act is for all you misfits out there,” announces the emcee.
Vixen enters, cloaked in the multipurpose black fur coat and a pink floppy hat. His hot pink lips shape the lyrics to his music. The crowd seems to be taking stock, guessing at what they’re about to see. As the audience cheers, his hat comes off, so does his coat. When he drop-splits at centre stage, there are audible gasps.
By the time he’s in handstand splits wearing a black teddy and nipple tassels, the crowd is erupting. They’re in awe, and Vixen is in his element. Flipping hair from his long blonde wig out of his eyes, Vixen moves into a backbender handstand, legs suspended over his head, his hot pink pumps dangling midair like wireless antennae.
He moves out of the position with ease, nonchalantly blows a kiss over his shoulder, and heads for the wings. For Vixen, the show’s over. Now Parker has to try and get the pink glitter off his cheeks in time for work tomorrow.