The disco ball spun under a red glow as the song “State of Grace” swelled. Out stepped the bearded Alma Bitches in a long trench and scarf, welcomed by the roar of shoulder-to-shoulder Taylor Swift fans — Swifties — in the intimate venue.
That was the scene earlier in the month when on Nov. 14, 1181, a popular Davie Street bar in Vancouver’s gay village, hosted a Taylor Swift tribute night featuring Carmen Dior, Aries Season, Rogue, Cheryl Trade, Rich Elle and Carrie Dawn as part of its Icon series, which features drag tributes to celebrated musicians. The Swift tribute shows were some of the first at 1181 since COVID-19 capacity limits were raised in October.
The two sold-out shows, organized by local drag queen and self-proclaimed Swiftie Alma Bitches, were a celebration of Swift’s new album, “Red (Taylor’s Version).” When tickets for the first show sold out almost immediately, a second show was added. Some attendees flew in from as far as Calgary.
Todd Hoye, the owner of 1181, said that having to shut down during the first COVID-19 closures created uncertainty for the future of his business. However, since reopening, Hoye says, events are bouncing back — especially the Icon series.
“I was surprised by how fast the show sold out because it was before any promo and before any real announcements,” said Hoye. “That’s the power of Taylor, I guess.”
Vancouver is home to a vibrant drag community. However, when COVID-19 caused nightlife to shut down, drag queens and artists were out of their jobs and show-goers were left searching for their community — and entertainment fix.
“During COVID-19, when things were shut down, I actually shut down,” Alma Bitches said. “That thing that fills your cup up at the end of the day — like making people happy and the cheering and all that stuff — I missed that completely.”
While Alma, who has their own studio as a massage therapist, had work outside of drag, plenty of drag artists rely on shows to pay the rent. About 52 per cent of Canadian LGBTQ2S+ households experienced either layoffs or reduced employment due to the pandemic, versus only 32 per cent of overall Canadian households.
Hoye says that losing the physical space of bars and clubs was tough on the gay community as well.
“Our spaces are kind of like our safe spots, like our living rooms. They’re where we go to meet,” he said. “I grew up at 1181 before I bought it. That was where I went to meet people and feel part of a community.”
In lieu of in-person shows, some drag artists received support by moving online. For example, The Darlings, a collective of drag artists that included Continental Breakfast, PM, Rose Butch and Maiden China, created an online platform called Queer Based Media, where drag artists can upload videos or stream live performances.
“One of the big things during the pandemic was to tip us because we’re not making any money, so people got into the habit of tipping digitally,” Alma said. They added that people learned how to better support their local drag artists through tipping online.
Though Alma Bitches says they didn’t partake in online drag, they say it’s been great to be back in person.
“You can have those little moments where they’re singing the song, you’re singing the song and you’re pointing right at them or holding the microphone in their face — that kind of thing.”