With files from Craig Takeuchi
The premiere of Canada's Drag Race could not be better timed. As the coronavirus lockdown continues and the Black Lives Matter movement marches on, Canada's diverse cast of queens is the ideal burst of joy many of us have been craving.
While much of the formula and many of the challenges will be familiar to viewers of RuPaul's Drag Race, we're hoping the Canadian version of the popular reality franchise will create a new platform for our endless array of top-of-her-game performers.
Seven of the 12 queens hail from Toronto: Anastarzia Anaquway, BOA, Scarlett Bobo, Juice Boxx, Lemon, Tynomi Banks, and former NOW cover star Priyanka are among the dozen performers vying for the crown of Canada's next drag superstar.
From British Columbia, there's Vancouver's Ilona Verley, a two-spirit indigenous artist who grew up Nlaka'pamux, and Victoria's Jimbo, a cabaret performer who has a background in clowning.
In lieu of RuPaul, the show will be captained and judged by three familiar faces: supermodel and former Canada's Next Top Model judge Stacey McKenzie, UnREAL actor Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, and Brooke Lynn Hytes, who was the RuPaul's Drag Race season 11 runner-up and Drag Race's first Canadian competitor.
In addition, eTalk's Traci Melchor will jump in on hosting duties as Canada's first "Squirrel Friend," and celebrity guests include BIDDELL, Amanda Brugel, Deborah Cox, and Michelle Visage, to name a few.
Still, the chemistry between McKenzie, Bowyer-Chapman and Hytes was apparent during a phone interview ahead of the show's July 2 premiere on streaming platform Crave. I chatted with the self-described throuple about all things Drag Race and what we can expect from season one.
This is a landmark series for Canada. The franchise already means a lot to so many viewers. What does it mean for each of you?
Brooke Lynn: It had been a fantasy of mine forever for there to be a Canada’s Drag Race, because we don’t really have anything here that gives drag queens this kind of platform. Once you get jobs at the local bars and have your local shows, there’s not really a step you can take after. And being on RuPaul’s Drag Race, it was a pipe dream of mine to be a part of Canada’s version one day. Little did I know I’d be asked to be a judge, so it was very much a no-brainer for me.
Jeffrey: I couldn’t put it any better. It was a dream come true from childhood, not having had any cultural points of reference when I turned on my own television and didn’t see people like me, queer people of colour, being portrayed in a positive light. Drag Race is a celebration of otherness and queerness, for queer people by queer people; there isn’t much else out there in the world like it. From the moment I first stepped foot on Drag Race as a guest judge back in season 9, I felt at home and felt like I could be used for a purpose greater than myself. I could be myself, celebrate my own queerness and my own Blackness, and encourage others to celebrate themselves.
Stacey: Whatever opportunities that I take are to help inspire people to live and own who they are. And this show is a replica of that, so there has been no hesitation – only excitement.
Brooke Lynn, as a former contestant, can we expect you to be extra critical or extra supportive?
Brooke Lynn: Both! I was definitely very critical, but always with a point. I was not there to make anybody feel bad or to put anybody down. It was all constructive and I was just very honest with the girls. The thing is, there's always a positive that you can find. You can say, "This was wrong, that was wrong, I didn't like this," but then you have to counteract that with something that was good, especially in such an intense environment as the show, you have to uplift. I know from personal experience that you can get down on yourself real quick when you're filming Drag Race. It is very hard and takes a toll on you emotionally, so we were all there to help guide these queens, to encourage them to see the best of themselves.
Is there a good cop/bad cop/neutral cop between the three of you?
Brooke Lynn: Oh, we've established that Jeffrey is Michelle Visage.
Stacey: Apparently I'm Paula Abdul?
Brooke Lynn: Yeah, you're Paula Abdul. Who am I though, you guys? Am I like Randy Jackson, Simon Cowell... what's happening?
As long as you're not the Ryan Seacrest.
Brooke Lynn: Oh my god, no. I don't really know who I am. Tyra? Tyra Banks? I mean, I will say, we had really great chemistry and hit it off right off the bat. Me and Jeffrey had met once before we actually started filming, at the Emmys. And we’d never met Stacey. The day we started filming, we were all together for the first time and it was instant chemistry. That does not happen a lot.
Chemistry is a great sign, but we’ve seen Canadianized versions of reality series before, and a lot of them have struggled to find the acclaim of their predecessors. Are you worried that Canada’s Drag Race will struggle to get out from under the shadow of Ru?
Jeffrey: I don't think that we’re in Ru's shadow at all. Ru is a trailblazer and did what no one had done before him. He created pathways and opened doors for queer people, queer people of colour, drag queens and trans performers to be celebrated for the brilliance of their artistry. And he hand-picked myself, Brooke Lynn and Stacey because he knew that each of us represented a core part of him that makes the show so special. Having been given the gift of this platform as a trifecta, we've been given the blessing of continuing on Ru's mission. Our job is the same: to create a safe space and a platform for those who will come after us to continue this revolution because it's an ongoing process. The minute that we step back and stop educating ourselves and supporting each other, based on our history as queer people, that's when we regress.
And how is the show going to illustrate what's special and different about the Canadian drag scene for the audience and for queens who are participating or watching? There’s a lot to represent.
Jeffrey: I think Brooke Lynn has a very interesting perspective because she is a Canadian drag queen, somebody who cut her teeth in the Toronto scene and blazed through all of the pageants that were to be won and had to find the next thing. In Canada, we didn’t really have that platform, but now showing that there is something to aspire to is going to inspire Canadian drag artists to get that much better and to become the best performers they can possibly be. I think that drag artistry isn't something that's really been noted or paid attention to on an international scale.
To have the opportunity for an international audience to get to know these queens as human beings and to show the triumphs, struggles and journeys that each of them has gone on and are so courageously sharing with the world is special. We may be divided by borders and our lived experiences, but we all have so much more in common than what separates us. And the courage of these queens to expose the depths of who they are while slaying it on the runway and in their challenges every single day is edutainment, so heartfelt and unapologetically Canadian.
The queens are true to Canada as a diverse mix, and the show is also debuting just after Pride Month; many Canadians are still in lockdown due to the pandemic, and there are protests on the streets. It feels like a burst of joy that’s coming just at the right time.
Brooke Lynn: I am so grateful that we were able to film and get the show done before the pandemic started and just in time for Pride Month. I think it's going to give so many people something to look forward to this summer. It's giving the queens something to be excited about – it's giving me something to be excited about. These queens were just so courageous, fun and fabulous, so I'm excited for them to brighten up people's lives.
Stacey: For the show to come out during these times is going to be really impactful because it's going to help to bring people closer together, to show love and respect for each other... There is so much hate going on right now and when people see how vulnerable the queens are in showing who they are, they’re going to try to give each other a chance to be themselves.
Any new instalment of a beloved series always gets an extra-critical eye from fans. So what do you say to those detractors, some of whom are offering their critiques before the show’s even started?
Brooke Lynn: Fuck ‘em.
Jeffrey & Stacey: Yes, Brooke Lynn, yes!
Brooke Lynn: Obviously we're going to get critiques—obviously we need the critiques—but the positives are going to outweigh them and this is a brand new show, everything is not going to be perfect. We did an incredible job, but there's going to be mistakes and differences from the original show. They've been filming it for over a decade with largely the same people working on it every season. And we got thrown together and put this production together with all new people. So I’m not interested in anybody's negative critiques, I'm honestly just not going to read comments. I'm going to stay in a positive, happy place and be proud of myself, my fellow judges, the production team and the queens who worked so hard to make this amazing show happen.
Jeffrey: You better speak on it, Brooke Lynn Hytes! I couldn't have said it better myself. I think that drag is shady, but it's cute to be kind. So if you don't have anything nice to say, then shut the F up.