So how did a small-town boy from Goniana in Punjab’s Bathinda District become the most-followed drag queen in Vancouver?
Well, it’s complicated. Very complicated. And it’s a story that Jolene Queen Sloan, a character created by a gay male who prefers his name to remain anonymous, is more than eager to share with the Georgia Straight in advance of her June 17 show at the South Asian–oriented 5X Festival’s Pride event at Beaumont Studios.
For this story, Jolene did all the talking. “Everything that I do on-stage is not in English; it’s in either Punjabi or Hindi,” she says. “I represent a lot of Bollywood and Punjabi culture here because that’s what I listened to and I watched growing up around me.”
The man who plays Jolene Queen Sloan moved to Toronto six years ago before heading to the Yukon for three years. It had no drag community so he resorted to performing virtually over TikTok, attracting a following in Canada and India through the @jolenequeensloan account. Last August, he settled in the Vancouver area, where no drag queens were doing Bollywood performers.
Jolene does Bollywood big-time, summoning some of its best-known divas, including Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Deepika Padukone, Madhuri Dixit, and the 1970s-through-’90s legend Rekha. Hindi cinema stars are routinely referred to by their first names in India—and Aishwarya is easily one of the most famous.
Jolene loves energizing her audiences with performances of Aishwarya’s most memorable dance—to the song “Kajra Re” from the 2005 hit film Bunty aur Babli.
“If you’re doing that song on the stage, you wear the same sort of outfit that she’s wearing with the same kind of hair and embody her character from the movie,” Jolene says.
She adds that most people from South Asia know the lyrics and start singing the song with her. Some in the audience even replicate Jolene’s dance moves.
Aishwarya acted in Devdas, which was helmed by Jolene’s favourite Bollywood director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali. But it was a performance by one of Aishwarya’s costars, Madhuri, to the song “Maar Daala”, that Jolene includes in her shows.
In fact, one of Jolene’s dreams is to be cast in one of Bhansali’s lush period pieces as a supporting character alongside Deepika, who starred in Bhansali’s Ram-leela, Bajirao Mastani, and Padmaavat.
Rekha, who’s been unlucky in love, holds a special place in Jolene’s world, as does Aishwarya, who had a difficult relationship with Bollywood heartthrob Salman Khan. The man who plays Jolene could relate to their heartaches after his long-term relationship with a boyfriend ended. Jolene attributed it to homophobia within the ex’s family.
When rumours surfaced that the ex was going to marry a woman, this sent the creator of Jolene into a very bad mental state, to the point where he was hospitalized.
To ease his sorrow, he began listening to western singers like Britney Spears and Whitney Houston for the first time in his life. Then he stumbled across the timeless Dolly Parton classic “Jolene”, and that inspired the name of his drag character.
Like many artists, Jolene was mentored by a “drag mother”. But unlike most, this wasn’t an older drag queen, because they didn’t exist in the Yukon. Rather, it was Yukon theatre legend Mary Sloan who decided to help her out.
To honour her, Jolene incorporated Sloan’s surname—hence, the name Jolene Queen Sloan.
“On social media, I am very well known,” Jolene declares with pride.
As an example, she says that even when she was out of drag and went to a local Tim Hortons, the woman who took the order recognized her.
“I do a lot of weddings,” Jolene reveals. “In weddings, I perform for straight people. A boy and girl are getting married and they want a queer performer such as me performing something cultural for them. It’s beautiful for me. I love the support I’m getting.”
Jolene is not one to complain, but if she has one beef with Bollywood, it’s in its habit of casting straight actors in queer roles. She cites the 2021 hit Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui as one example, in which a woman played a transwoman.
“That doesn’t make sense,” Jolene declares.
She mischievously states that if Bollywood director and producer Karan Johar ever saw her perform in a Vancouver gay bar, he would be impressed—to the point of casting her.
Then, Jolene turns serious as she moves the conversation toward India’s “very, very rich history in queer performing arts”. She points out that when the British colonizers arrived, they outlawed homosexuality, which was only reversed in 2017. Yet queer culture has thrived for decades in big cities like Mumbai and Delhi.
“We have a book called Kama Sutra, which explains the art of sex," Jolene says. "We are not the conservative people that the world sees us as. We are way better than that.”
Then she returns to her mirthful ways, noting how she’s trying to practise a form of reverse colonization with white people in her audiences.
“I am colonizing them into being brown!” Jolene states with glee.