‘Drag is our business’: Ottawa drag performers face challenges in pandemic entertainment scene

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Live drag performances were one of the many casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic, with public health restrictions leading to the shuttering of bars and restaurants, and prohibitions against any sort of public in-person shows.

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While lockdowns have been lifted, only to be reinstated, a few times since March 2020, things have never gotten back to normal in Ottawa’s drag scene. Health rules continue to prevent the return of the frenetic and energetic shows – rife with audience participation – seen pre-pandemic, and with the latest lockdown caused by the emergence of the Omicron variant, venues have once again closed to performers.

With bars and restaurant shows no longer an option, drag performers in Ottawa have had to seek out new opportunities to make ends meet and stay relevant in the competitive scene, all while contending with low pay and high costume and makeup costs, and for some, all too present racial discrimination.

“We’ve been affected a lot because this is what we do for a living,” said popular local performer Aimee Yonce, whose legal name is Wilnest Domingu.

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“When bars and restaurants closed, we had no place to work. We were trying to do shows online, but it’s not the same. ”

Making money as a drag performer in Ottawa was never easy. Shows typically take place in bars and nightclubs, and performers must don elaborate outfits, wigs, make-up and prosthetic hips and breasts.

Kiki Coe, aka Sandro Pangilinan, said drag performers typically raked in $ 150 a night performing at a bar, but had to be on-site from 8:30 pm to 2 am However, a single costume could cost from $ 500 to $ 1,000.

“I do not think we get paid enough. I do not think we are appreciated enough by the places we perform, ”Coe said.

“It’s everything, we’re doing a whole transformation. Going from a boy to a girl, and you have to buy everything. ”

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Tips from audience members are the only way to cover the costs for many performers. However, this, too, was curtailed by COVID rules, which prevented audience members from interacting with performers on stage.

Yonce, who works full-time as a drag queen, purchases a new costume, including a dress, wig, and make-up, twice a month. Collectively, working as a drag queen costs Yonce about $ 2,000 a month, far less than what is paid by clubs and bars.

While Yonce says drag is a passion project, it’s also a job.

“I know the bars and the clubs are doing business, but we’re doing business, too,” Yonce said.

“Our drag is our business. I’m doing drag full-time now. This is how I make my living. ”

When COVID-19 hit, shuttering bars and nightclubs for months, drag performances no longer had access to their most visible and popular venues. And, when those bars returned to business, public health rules meant the drag performances of the past could not continue.

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Coe, who appears as a competitor in the drag queen reality show Call me Mother, had to adjust, booking private performances and finding new venues.

“We were always doing private shows, but, because of the pandemic, we had to get creative. We had to find places to perform… even tomorrow I have a virtual bingo with lawyers, ”Coe said.

“Now we’re looking for brunches, for private events. We’re stepping out of clubs because, once we’re out of the clubs, the pay gets better. ”

“I do not think we get paid enough.  I do not think we are appreciated enough by the places we perform, ”said Kiki Coe.  Supplied photo
“I do not think we get paid enough. I do not think we are appreciated enough by the places we perform, ”said Kiki Coe. Supplied photo jpg

Despite these challenges, Coe remains committed to the drag scene.

“I’m very serious about my drag. I worked hard to get on Call me Mother. My name means something, and I think I deserve some recognition. ”

“Drag is very powerful. It’s not just to look pretty. Drag can be political. It depends on how you want to use your drag and your talent. There are a lot of things we can do to make the community better and we are doing it. We deserve respect and support, ”Coe said.

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The drag circuit in Ottawa is competitive, just like it was before the pandemic. Yonce said it took over a year of free performances before bars starting paying for their shows. It’s something that Yonce said was made more challenging as an Afro-Caribbean person who was new to Ottawa.

“I needed to make sure they loved me and that the bar saw that. The bar needs to see them love you before you become a house queen. You need to fight, and it’s hard, especially as a Black queen. ”

Yonce said performing as a Black drag queen in Ottawa had exposed some ugly truths about the city.

“As a Black queen in Ottawa, I love Ottawa, but this is a racist city. I moved here five years ago, and could not speak English when I started drag. I learned English by myself and through doing drag. And still my English is not perfect. People make jokes about it.

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“For example when I started doing drag, one of the drag queens came into the change room and her makeup was bad that night. So she said, ‘Oh, my God, my makeup looks like a Black drag queen,’ “Yonce said.

Jaden Slawter, who works for Capital Pride Ottawa, which organizes many drag shows in Ottawa, acknowledges there’s a lack of Black representation in Ottawa’s drag scene. Slawter, who is Black and hopes to start performing in drag as Caramilk Queen in the near future, says performing is a way to “represent my community and my identity.”

“When I talk to the other queens, we talk about how there is not a lot of Black representation of drag queens in Ottawa. I want to represent the Black drag community.”

And, despite these issues, Slawter maintains that drag is for everyone.

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“When I say drag, I do not think a lot of people understand that there are not just drag queens. Drag ice for everyone. When Capital Pride does a Ms. Capital Pride event, we crown a drag queen, but we also crown a drag king, ”Slawter explained.

It’s something echoed by Saltina Shaker, aka Jesse Lesniowski, the recent winner of Ms. Capital Pride.

“Drag is first and foremost an art form. It’s something that people of all ethnicities, physical abilities, gender identities and sexual orientations can use to express who they are outside of themselves, ”Shaker said.

“We do that with everything, though, when we paint, sketch, sing, dance, and the thing about drag is it encompasses all of that. It’s its own universe. ”

For Yonce, drag queens and kings are “kind of the face” of the entire queer community.

“Drag is about revolution. If there is something going on in our community, drag queens are the ones who will pass the message. We have power. If someone has a problem, we can lead the way and do fundraising for it. ”

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