Like many others before him, Christopher Hunte fell unwittingly into drag.
It was Halloween and he and a group of friends were hoping to celebrate by traveling from Vancouver to New York City decked to the nines in the best their local MAC counter had to offer. Those plans ultimately fell through, but a friend convinced him to hit up Odyssey Nightclub, which was then situated at its original location on Howe Street.
That night, dressed for the first time as Symone Says—“Vancouver’s first lady of glam”—Hunte won the Odyssey’s contest for best drag. He was so good, in fact, that the club hired him three weeks later to appear in its weekly drag show.
“It was empowering because people recognized drag and liked drag,” the former corporate banker tells the Straight by phone. “And now, Symone is a celebrity in her own right and Christopher is also well known in the city.”
“Celebrity” may seem like a stretch, but some 20 years later, it’s almost too superficial of a word to describe the role that Symone has played, and continues to play, in Vancouver’s LGBT community.
As a performer, she has entertained crowds at everything from intimate dinner gatherings to elaborate runway shows to raging circuit parties. She has done work for virtually every charity in the city, bringing the house down at fundraisers, dances, and galas for the St. Paul’s Hospital Foundation, the Vancouver Friends for Life Society, and A Loving Spoonful, among other organizations.
She’s appeared at the Vancouver Pride Parade and, somewhere in this hectic schedule, even found the time to take on the part of Mother Ginger in Goh Ballet’s The Nutcracker in 2012. On stage, she belts out an infectious set list of tunes by some of the 20th century’s most iconic black divas. Tina Turner, Diana Ross, and Ella Fitzgerald are all key characters in Symone’s larger-than-life arsenal—and she never misses the opportunity to slip a bang-on jazz impersonation into her routine.
“I can’t hide the fact that I’m black,” Hunte says, “so I make sure to celebrate it.”
However, Symone’s exuberant persona isn’t reserved for moments of revelry. As one of the city’s most recognized drag stars, she also steps forward during times of turmoil. It’s in these circumstances—when the LGBT community is most in need of love, support, and reassurance—that she employs her hosting abilities for healing. “We are the fairy godmothers when it comes to vigils, when it comes to events where people need to join hands,” says Hunte. “It’s usually the drag queens that are in the middle.”
And although this weekend’s Vancouver Pride Parade marks the first time in over two decades that both Hunte and his glam alter-ego will be absent from the festivities—the affable artiste is spending the summer on Gambier Island, where he’s taking a small break from drag—he has no doubts that the LGBT crowd will find comfort in the queens present.
“I hope that they see it as entertainment, education, and support, especially those people newly coming out,” he says. “I’ve had so many conversations with young gay men and women, and they just say, ‘I’m really happy to have a drag performer here; I’m really happy I was able to bring my parents to your show. Thank you for letting them know that, yes, being gay is okay; drag queens are okay. Everything is fine.’ ”