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Show business is such a drag

The Daily’s Whitney Mallett gets the inside scoop on the Montreal drag queen scene

If Cher could turn back time, she would find herself in a period when drag was dominated by copycat Chers, Madonnas, and Barbara Streisands. However, in the early nineties, a new movement in Montreal transformed drag queens from impersonators of famous females to performers with their own unique and eccentric characters, often mocking the singers that previous drag queens strove to emulate. One of the most prominent faces of this movement was Mado Lamotte.

Although many of her contemporaries disappeared from the scene, Mado has maintained her celebrity status over time. This theatre school dropout has solidified herself not only as a fixture in the queer community, but in the Montreal cultural community at large. Over the past 20 years she has transformed herself from a shooter girl into a columnist, comedian, commentator, spokesperson, actor, and entrepreneur. In 2002, she opened Chez Mado, her own cabaret club in the Village.

Chez Mado is unique because it is the only venue in Montreal predominately showcasing drag. “There has been a little competition between us and Sky since the dawn of time, but [competition] is not our cup of tea, us new drag queens,” says Tracy Trash, one of the current performers at Chez Mado. Complexe Sky is another club in the Village that Mado used to emcee at; however, it is not exclusively cabaret like Mado’s joint.

Still, Tracy Trash does not see the need for any more drag venues in the city. “Why make competition in a world that is already so small?” she asks. Tracy points out the need for community in a non-lucrative business: “If you see a girl who has talent, you help her out.” The Montreal drag scene seems to break the stereotypes of catty and crass queens with egos as big as their hairstyles. Tracy notes that compared to other cities, Montreal’s performers are less crude and more into the glitter and show.

Watching one of the spectacles on a Saturday evening, it is easy to see what Tracy means. The performances are often sexually charged but always tasteful. The show is diverse – the older queens, Mado and Titi, provide witty banter while the newer generations’ acts range from a Shania Twain lip sync to songs from the Phantom of the Opera. Although some of the performers don G-strings and give the expected Britney Spears lip syncs, others, clad in frumpy Value Village dresses, present comedic skits and retro French songs.

Although the performers look ridiculous more than they look like women, it is still shocking when one of the performers’ wigs falls off to reveal a head of short hair. I wasn’t sure if the exposure was intentional or not, but it made me consider how these performers – by presenting a hyperfeminine caricature of women – somehow subvert the binary between a male or female identity. As Tracy Trash suggests, drag queens are meant to portray exaggerated femininity as opposed to passing for believable females – which they certainly don’t. However, it is still surprising when the males underneath are revealed.

The swan of the show

Although the performers are all talented, none of them will be the next Mado. Mado brings something more to the table than a dolled -up face and a sexy strut, and as Tracy notes, “You can be pretty as hell and not make it.” But Mado, with her bilingual double entendres, her unstuffed chest, tattooed arms, and clown-like, over-the-top makeup has a unique presence. She jokes that she is the ugliest drag queen, but it’s evident that she is the swan of the show and that her personality is the reason for her club’s success.

Mado’s political edge is one of the things that sets her apart from the other queens who are often only interested in performing. “You can’t get Mado started on politics; she won’t shut up!” comments Tracy Trash. This passion for current affairs introduces the idea of drag as a vehicle for political commentary. Do outrageous hair and costumes, in turn, elicit outrageous political statements? Mado, for instance, uses her persona to make brash comments about bilingual issues that might be typically considered offensive. Although political discourse in Montreal is not limited, this freedom of speech is vital in areas where discussion is largely restricted.

In Pakistan, a man in drag hosts the popular Late Night Show With Begum Nawazish Ali. Ali Saleem puts on a silk sari and dramatic makeup to interview his guests, who are often politicians and other prominent figures. The persona lets him get away with provocative questions that would usually be taboo in the conservative state. Just as fiction writers in the past risked treason and exile from using characters to represent their controversial views, Ali’s alternate female persona permits him to express otherwise hazardous opinions. In a country like Pakistan, this forum for otherwise restricted discussion is imperative.

Too queer for queer?

Drag queen culture is a deeply-rooted tradition, both in political movements and as a symbol of queer communities. In 1969, the Stonewall riots in New York City were inspired and led by drag queens. Despite their long-standing role as figures of queer culture, drag queens have not always been accepted in the queer community. In the early 1990s in Montreal, drag queens often faced hatred in the Village, driving Mado to work at Lézards, a club outside of the area.

Today, some prejudice still prevails. “I think it is better accepted outside of the Village than in the Village. We all say, ‘Oh my God, we are never going to get boyfriends,’ and it’s a little true,” notes Tracy Trash.

The diverse audience at Chez Mado indicates the appeal that drag has beyond the usual patrons of clubs in the Village. “Drag performances are kind of a link between the straight and the queer communities. Everyone can appreciate the performance,” says Aubrey Trask, a McGill student who participated in an amateur drag night for a Queer McGill charity event this year.

However, acceptance of drag does not necessarily result in openness toward homosexuals, transvestites, or transsexuals. For instance, Verka Serduchka is the stage name for a Ukrainian drag queen who is one of the most successful pop acts in the country. She was even chosen to represent the Ukraine at the Eurovision Song Contest last year and clinched second place. Despite Serduchka’s popularity, homosexuality is still considered shameful in Ukrainian culture and has only been legal since the country’s independence in 1991. “They accept it in character, but reject it otherwise,” Trask comments.

“There is a difference between pleasure and work, between being a drag queen and having a different sexual or gender orientation. You can’t confound the two,” asserts Tracy. A wide acceptance of drag may suggest an open-minded city, and in fact Montreal is largely tolerant of the gay, bi, and trans communities. However, distinctions are still important to recognize. Drag queens are often considered symbols of the queer community, but Trask adds,“The reality is [that] I have met a wide range of people that do drag, more associated with the queer community, but not exclusive to it.”

“Drag is like a uniform”

While drag queens are widely embraced as fixtures of Montreal nightlife, there is definitely a lack of drag kings on the scene. “I think women are probably afraid…. People are more accepting of the fact that men dress up as women, but they are less accepting of women dressed up as men because they haven’t seen it,” suggests Tracy.

Another possibility is that it is already considered the norm for women to take on male traits and dress in everyday life. For instance, when a woman puts on a power suit and masks her femininity to be “taken seriously” in the office place, is she playing drag? It is often considered humorous for a man to put on a skirt and pretend to be a woman, yet no one laughs when women put on pants on an almost daily basis. In turn, these arguably disconcerting gender inequalities mean that men are rarely able to don women’s clothing without raising a few eyebrows.

Mado has been known to say that drag queens are clowns, but with her political edge it is obvious that her aim is not strictly to entertain. Other queens see the role merely as a job; for instance, Tracy insists, “McDonald’s has its own uniforms. [Drag] is like a uniform, but it’s a fashionable uniform.” Arguably, however, performing in drag is a job that incites political discourse, questions gender roles, and pushes social norms in ways that flipping burgers never will.