As far as multihyphenates go, Vivek Shraya is kind of running the game.
The Edmonton-born, Toronto-based artist is the author of 2018’s I’m Afraid of Men, which became a best-seller and was lauded by the likes of Vanity Fair; she’s shown her photographs in art galleries; her album Part-Time Woman was nominated for the Polaris Music Prize; she’s a seven-time Lambda Literary Award finalist; she was a MAC Cosmetics ambassador; and she wrote a play, How to Fail as a Popstar, that she recently adapted into a TV show for CBC Gem.
Despite all that, she wants it to be clear she doesn’t succeed at everything she tries. Hence, the impetus of Popstar: it’s the true tale of how she tried to make it as a singer and eventually failed. With sweet, funny, and snackable episodes, it premieres on CBC Gem on October 13. I caught up with Shraya ahead of the launch, and her upcoming Vancouver event, to discuss un-success, vulnerability, Edmonton, and Mariah Carey (you know, the Core Four).
I’d love to start with I’m Afraid of Men. It was released in 2018—looking back on that book, what does it mean to you now?
I love that you asked that question because this fall is the five-year anniversary of the project. I think at the time when I wrote it, if I can be totally honest, I had some mixed feelings. It was one of the most vulnerable things I had written. I also had just come out as trans, I think, two years prior, and it just felt really, really vulnerable. I wasn’t sure how it would get taken up, especially with the title as provocative as it is. I have to say I’m so glad I wrote it because to this day, I’ll get a DM at least once a week—I’m not even exaggerating—when people have discovered the book and it’s connected with them.
So it’s one of those things where I feel like I took a bit of a leap of faith and I didn’t have a lot of confidence. And I’m really glad that I went for it.
You’ve written a book, made music, written a play, and now worked on a TV show—how do you decide what form or what medium an idea is going to take?
With How to Fail as a Popstar, I immediately knew that I wanted it to be a play—and part of it is because it was inspired by reading music biographies. I was like, “I’d love to tell my music journey, which nobody knows. Most of the people in my life actually have no idea that I wanted to be a popstar.”
Immediately I thought of theatre because I was like, “Well, if I want to tell an anti-success story, theatre will allow the audience to not have to be familiar with my catalogue. They don’t have to be familiar with anything about me, in fact—I can take them on that journey.” So to answer your question, what I try to think about is: what is the best way to move the idea forward?
You mention the idea of an un-success story. Why is that something that you wanted to share?
Part of it was that I think as a fan of music biopics, there are these certain tropes that happen. It’s a small-town kid who has big dreams, does a bunch of tryouts, gets discovered, heads to the big city, and then suddenly has amazing success—then gets into bad management, gets into drugs and drinking, and then somehow there’s some sort of redemption at the end. That’s how most of these stories go. At some point it became frustrating, because I think we do glorify a particular kind of story.
A lot of those things happened to me, but what didn’t happen with the success part. And I think that sometimes biopics and also our emphasis on performing success diminishes the ability and the space to talk about hardship and struggle, and the fact that sometimes things don’t work out. You have big dreams and you do the tryouts and you get discovered and it doesn’t all just magically line up. How do we create room for those stories? How do we create space? Is my story of not making it any less valuable next to all these other music biopics? I’d like to argue that it’s just as important, especially because I do think there’s a way that success is performed on social media—and I think that it’s hurting our mental health.
I agree with what you’re saying about the glorification of a specific type of success story. I find in so many films and shows especially that the person is depicted as a creative genius, but really only because they’re tortured, or battling some form of demon. As if the two have to be connected: they are only a genius because they are tortured.
Yes—or they’re genius and therefore they must be successful. There are a lot of people I know who are extremely smart, extremely talented, who aren’t recognized. I’m a huge Mariah Carey fan and I was reading her biography; one of the things common in the format is: “I always knew I was destined for greatness.” There’s sort of an implication that if you just believe in yourself, if you really believe, if you really have the confidence, you’ll have success. I think the hard thing about that is that then for those of us who don’t, quote unquote, succeed, however we define success, it’s because we didn't believe enough. It’s because we didn’t have enough confidence. We didn’t manifest with The Secret. I find that really challenging. So I hope that Popstar pushes against some of these assumptions and expectations.
I don’t think anyone’s entitled to anything. People who are hugely successful in their field—there are so many different ingredients that had to be cooked together for that to pan out. Genius is maybe one of them or maybe not, and believing in yourself is maybe one of them, or maybe not. But if the recipe was consistent, then there’d be a lot more Mariah Careys running around.
Ha! So true. I have to ask you about Edmonton, because people have a lot of opinions about it. How has it shaped you?
I definitely have been able to appreciate it more now as an adult. And now that I’ve left! I think it was really hard for me to see the beauty in the city when I existed there because of the relentless homophobia that I experienced. But now I think one of the things that’s so special about Edmonton is the community support. You put out a project in Edmonton, you start a business, and then when people show up, they really celebrate—they really come out for you.
Speaking of putting out a project: something I think about a lot as a writer is this wild idea that you’re creating something to be consumed. And unlike other products that are a little more removed from the person, writing (whether it’s books, or plays, or songs) is extremely personal. When someone likes it, it means they are really connecting with a very real part of you. Do you feel that way? [Editor’s note: when I asked this question during the interview, it was a lot more rambly and a lot less eloquent. I’ve edited it here for clarity.]
I wish my answer was maybe a little bit more complicated, but the truth is, I started with songwriting—and songwriting is so vulnerable. In some ways you can hide it in metaphors or whatever, but I’m just so used to it. It was weird going to the premiere of the show in Calgary and being like, “Oh, this is like one of the few times I get to sit in the audience and watch the art as opposed to being on stage and being consumed.” When you start your career as a singer, you’re used to being on stage—you’re used to being the art. Not just your voice, but how you’re performing, what you’re wearing, what you’re singing about. I’m used to that vulnerability.
I think it’s harder for the people in my life who sometimes get roped into my projects as characters because they’re figures in my day-to-day life. I’ve had to do more work around respecting people’s boundaries of how much I can share about them. Just because I find it easy to talk about me and my life doesn't mean that people in my life feel that way. So I think that's where it’s been a little bit more challenging: trying to do that in a way that’s respectful of the people around me.
Vivek Shraya will be in Vancouver for an event in partnership with the Vancouver Queer Film Festival and Vancouver International Film Festival on Wednesday October 18 at the VIFF Centre Vancity Theatre at 7:30pm. The event will screen the first three episodes of How to Fail as a Popstar, followed by a panel discussion. Tickets are available here.