Ilona Verley made Drag Race herstory as the first two-spirit Indigenous queen to appear on the reality franchise.
Based in Vancouver and raised in Nlaka’pamux Nation, they moved to Los Angeles and auditioned for season 11 of the American series before landing a spot on the inaugural season of Canada’s Drag Race.
Once on the show, they proudly repped their Indigenous identity while delivering no-holds-barred confessionals, high-gloss pastel runway looks, and a memorable meltdown or two (or three or four).
Verley lasted seven episodes before sashaying away following a performance in a hybrid improv comedy-pageant challenge that the judges deemed a little too one-note.
But the rest of their time on the series was anything but one dimensional.
Verley established themselves as a runway contender to watch with a jaw-dropping poodle-inspired look in episode 3. The outfit staved off a potential bottom ranking, and a week later they sent home Toronto drag legend Tynomi Banks in a suitably raucous lip sync to Avril Lavigne’s "Girlfriend".
Verley also became the focal point for fan critiques of the show’s judging when Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman and Brooke-Lynn Hytes read them for not applying full-coverage foundation on their exposed butt cheeks for the Canadian Tux-Shedo: Denim On Denim On Denim runway.
The morning after Verley’s elimination, we caught up with the west-coast drag artist to chat about experiencing Drag Race as a nonbinary/trans performer, trying to make it in Los Angeles, and monetizing that notorious ass critique.
How did you become a drag artist?
Back in the day I used to cosplay. I was always dressing up as anime characters. I always wanted to be the female characters, but I didn’t know if that was, like, a thing. I was talking to one of my friends about it, and it was like, “Okay, you have to watch this show. And we sat down and watched RuPaul’s Drag Race. We watched it for three days back-to-back-to-back. It changed my life and really inspired me. I started cosplaying the female characters I like and eventually I got sick of being characters and wanted to do my own thing.
You have a very specific monochromatic pastel colour palette you stick to. Can you talk about how your drag style evolved?
When I first started doing drag I had just got out of high school and I had no money. I would go to thrift store and whatever could fit me was the fashion. I was doing “grunge” looks—big oversized shirts and I used to wear dog collars from the pet store [laughs]. I was a little grunge girl and eventually got pastel grunge/pastel goth. Eventually I decided to snap and do the full-on pastel lifestyle. Pastels make me so happy, they make me feel really good and it’s been three and half years now of me doing this whole moment.
You moved to L.A. and tried to audition for the the American version of the show. What was that like?
I have American citizenship so I auditioned for Season 11 and then I seriously auditioned for Season 12. In my audition tape I fully lied and said I’m currently living between Vancouver and L.A. Eventually, as the audition process was furthering I decided to move to L.A. Also, I made myself homeless: making my season 12 tape cost me so much money and I couldn’t pay my rent. It was this whole thing. I packed up three suitcases, got on a plane and stayed with my cousin in L.A.
Then I did the audition for Canada’s Drag Race and around the last week of the process I decided to move back to Canada and trust that everything would work out—manifest destiny and all that. A few days after being back in Canada I got the call that I was on and everything was lining up perfectly.
What does it mean to you to be on the show?
I’m really happy I didn’t get on the American show because being on the Canadian show I was more able to visibly represent Indigenous people. In Canada, Indigenous people are a huge part of what this country is today. Without Indigenous people there’d be no Canada and all that—genocide, whatever, fuck white people. No, I’m kidding—but kind of not [laughs]. So being able to tell my story to an audience that’s gonna understand it was really meaningful for me. I met so many people living in L.A. that were like, “What’s Indigenous? What’s a native person?” I really feel like Canada’s Drag Race was the right fit for me.
Was your Indigenous or two-spirit identity part of your drag from the beginning? I’ve read that you learned more about being two spirit after getting into the drag community.
Absolutely. When I started I was just doing this fun, new hobby. I didn’t realize how much doing drag was me expressing my true gender identity and my true self. I had a pretty good idea subconsciously of what drag has meant to me, but it wasn’t until I got home from filming Drag Race that I was able to sit down and say that doing drag is so much more than a hobby or an art. It’s a physical manifestation of how I see myself. This is who I am as a two-spirit trans person. It’s been really great for me to finally make this distinction. I felt like I was pushing away and telling myself I’d deal with it later.
As far as being two spirit, I had never heard the term until I met my drag aunt Jaylene McRae and my drag mom Quanah Style, who are both amazing transgender two-spirit women. They’ve taught me so much about what it means to be Indigenous as well as being two spirit. Seeing them living their lives as two-spirit people, I was seeing so much of myself in that. It was this beautiful eye-opening experience for me.
What’s the reaction been like to being on the show from Indigenous kids and people in your hometown?
I knew that this was going to be impactful but I didn’t know how fast. All my cousins back on my reserve, Skuppah, are watching the show. They’re always sending me the cutest messages. Hearing from other communities and other kids how special and important it’s been for them to see me on TV has lit me up and made me more passionate to continue speaking on these important conversations. In today’s world, there’s not enough talk about Indigenous people. Very often we get swept under the rug. I’m very happy that I’m in this position now and will talk about this, be proud of being Indigenous and inspire other kids.
How different was your Drag Race experience being nonbinary trans compared with what the other contestants went through?
Obviously I signed up to be on a show, get critiqued and get judged. But I didn’t realize how much I was going to take those critiques to heart because drag isn’t just my hobby—it’s a piece of me, a piece of my soul. Getting critiqued on something so personal is hard for me. Every other competition I’ve done I’ve been a sore-ass loser about it. For this one, I was like, I’m going to slap a smile on my face and deal with it. Because my drag is such a part of my gender identity, it made it harder for me to get out of my head.
Every time they said, “Gentleman, start your engines!” I felt my eyes roll back into my head. In 2020, I think it’s time we stop using gendered language like that. I understand that’s a huge part of the show. I obviously love the show and the iconic catchphrases, but the world’s changing. Updating some language here and there is going to make huge differences for so many people and make them feel more comfortable watching the show or being part of the show. I think it’s very important to have a little more neutrality in gender language.
People are talking a lot about the harsh judging, but it seemed like there was a point on the show where you were able to just take it and move on.
I have a very big reputation in Vancouver for being a sore loser, which, fair enough. I was a diva little bitch when I was coming up and I’ve grown and learned so much from those experiences. In those moments, instead of snapping back I just sat there and smiled and said “thank you.” At the end of the day, it’s just words. I’m a nice girl. I’ll smile about it and go home and cry later.
One of the critiques that went a bit viral was the judges saying you needed to put full-coverage foundation on your ass. How would you even self-apply full-coverage foundation on your own ass?
Just stand in front of the mirror, turn and go for it. Just spread it on there. I would probably rub it on a beauty blender and dab the beauty blender over my butt.
As someone who’s worked in the film industry and gone to makeup school, it’s a valid critique that, in film, you’re supposed to use foundation and even everything out when there is skin showing. Especially in adult films, it’s typical. Obviously in the stress and high pressure of Drag Race, I didn’t think of that. All my makeup school knowledge went out the window. So when they said that, I was definitely like “fair.”
Seeing the reaction afterwards really opened my eyes to the importance of that conversation that does need to be had that when there are young, impressionable kids watching the show. They’re not going to know how the film industry works. They’re just seeing this being said and thinking, do I have to foundation my ass? I definitely appreciate everyone being so passionate about the discussion and sending me so much love afterwards. In the moment, it wasn’t a big deal but seeing the reaction it made me feel a lot of feelings that maybe I didn’t necessarily want to deal with. I’m glad we had the moment and I was able to make some t-shirts and make some money and that was fierce.
Making money is always the best revenge.
There it is!
Tell me about lip-syncing against Tynomi Banks to the Avril Lavigne song. You had a bit of a moment but then really turned it out and sent home one of Toronto’s top drag performers.
Going into it, Tynomi was my pick to win. I’m so grateful that her and I were able to get so close. I know it was only four episodes, but we created such a bond with each other and I love her so much. On screen, people are saying my meltdown came off as super fake. But that’s the way I am: I’m really over-the-top and super melodramatic.
In my head, I was thinking I’m just going to walk right off stage as soon as the song starts. No one’s ever done that: I’m just gonna leave! When she came over and hugged me, she whispered in my ear: “If you don’t do this lip sync, you’re disrespecting me. Let’s just do it. Let’s have fun.” I was like fuck, you’re right. Let’s have fun and if you watch the lip sync you can see we’re not performing for the cameras, we’re not performing for the judges, we’re performing for each other. It felt like we were on stage at the club.
When the lip sync ended and they called my name, I was like “Okay it’s going to be a double-stay.” I looked over at her, and they were like “go home Tynomi” and that fuckin’ sent me off the deep end. That was still one of the hardest things for me to live through and even re-watching anything or seeing memes brings a tear to my eye. It was a heavily emotional experience for both of us. At the end of the day, it made us so much closer and I just love her so much. She’s always the first person to check on me when I’m having a meltdown. I know I have a sister for life in her.
Speaking of meltdowns, there were a lot of them on last night’s episode. What are those moments like to film and then watch again?
Me and Scarlett [BoBo], we’re like sister-sisters and we fight so much but we love each other so deeply. Those moments just make us so much closer. I was watching last night and laughing my ass off. That’s just us being us and if people want to take that seriously, take it seriously. We hang out all the time. I know I’m friends with her. I don’t need to justify that.
How do you feel about how you were portrayed and your time on the show?
I definitely know I’m the anti-hero. That’s been my life story. I have that word tattooed on my face. I knew I was going to get that edit because I’m self-aware. I hate how annoying I came off. I was so in my head and putting up a persona. I was giving the full Instagram story fantasy for all my confessionals. I wish I didn’t pull that bullshit, just been myself and not put up the walls. I was so freaked out at how I was going to be perceived I did that as a defence mechanism and it didn’t work out in my favour.
Tell me about the Quebecky With The Good Hair runway look. That was a high point for you in the series.
It was the epitome of my drag: a powder-blue poodle. [At the viewing party], everyone was screaming in the club when I came around the corner. I was almost like, shut up I’m trying to hear my voice-over! I’m so thankful that was the runway before the dance challenge because I knew I’m probably going home on the dance challenge. So to have that look save my ass like that was a godsend. The poodle look was my moment.