As testimony to the city’s vibrant drag races, Vancouver has boasted numerous beloved talents, including Carlotta Gurl, Symone Says, Isolde N. Barron, Tequila Mockingbird, Peach Cobblah, Conni Smudge, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and the House of Venus, to offer only a sampling of names.
Among those glittering stars is the brash, buoyant seven-foot-tall (that’s including the hair and heels) Joan-E.
The Calgary-born Robert Kaiser, who moved to Vancouver in 1990, created Joan-E when he started to do drag for Halloween and the owner of the now-defunct Denman Station, who recognized his talent, hired him for some shows.
Kaiser sings the praises of the “amazing drag-queen community here in Vancouver” and the role of drag within the LGBT movement.
“They’re the clowns of the community, and I mean that in the best of ways,” he says in an interview at Jim Deva Plaza. “They’re the entertainers. They’re the people who make people happy. They can convey sadness, anger. They’ve often been the MCs, they’ve often been the fundraisers and organizers. And in many cases, they’ve sometimes been the family to people who didn’t have a relationship to the families of their own, and they formed families with each other.”
Kaiser says it’s important to remember drag queens have historically played a much larger role than just wearing flamboyant fashions and makeup (which they fund out of their own pockets) and lip-synching to pop songs.
“Yes, they were drag queens, but more importantly they were activists …involved in the earliest moments of community-building,” he says.
He cites “lots of important pioneers of our community”, with the examples of Charity St. Peters, who is this year’s posthumous Vancouver Pride parade marshal, and ted northe, founder of the Canadian chapter of the International Imperial Court System that raises funds through costume balls and events.
Among the endless highlights of his career (not his hair), Kaiser cites singing with Debbie Reynolds, Toni Colette, and Nia Vardalos for the feature film Connie and Carla, hosting the Vancouver Pride parade for his 17th time this year, and having a show at the Odyssey nightclub for almost 16 years.
He has also been involved in Bingo for Life for almost 20 years. The event has raised almost three-quarters of a million dollars for the Vancouver Friends for Life Society, which assists people with HIV and AIDS.
Joan-E’s devotion to his community has not gone unsung, and he has amassed a long list of accolades, including the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal and induction into Canada’s Q Hall of Fame.
While Kaiser says he isn’t doing as many shows these days, he still enjoys performing in drag a great deal. Yet he pauses when asked if he would consider himself an activist.
“I would say I try to do my part, I try to give back to my community, and I try to be thankful and give back in honour of all that’s been given to me.”
Joan-E will be hosting the 38th annual Pride parade on Sunday (July 31).