I saw a drag queen over the holidays. No, that doesn’t sound right. I saw a drag queen over the holidays on a bus in the afternoon.
She was cast in a classic ’80s mould: hair teased so high it obscured the sun and makeup so thick her skin never saw the light of day, leopard print mini skirt and matching top, wide black leather belt with honking huge gold clasp big as a boat anchor, hooker heels and white fake fur coat.
She was loud, she was arch and she was hung over.
As I watched her fall out of the bus (after first threatening to flash the driver) I reflected that perhaps drag’s heyday in this city was well and truly over.
Twenty, 30 years ago, the Dogwood Monarchist Society could easily fill the Commodore Ballroom for its Coronation Ball; there was a core group of about 200 men who would turn out in drag for special events; and Vancouver could support a local circuit of about 20 drag performers.
On top of that, drag was mainstreaming: Tootsie had come out in 1982, and La Cage aux Folles I, II and III in 1978, 1980 and 1984 respectively.
One person who remembers those days is Dogwood Monarchist Society Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Madame André (André Poitras).
Madame André’s home —a small antique apartment in the West End —looks like one of his frocks: every square inch glitters, shines, sparkles and glows. Things swag, drape and plume. And everywhere are his elaborate headpieces and gowns.
André’s drag esthetic is based on glamour, referencing Erté and Sunset Blvd.
André sat me down on an overstuffed divan in his living room and began telling me about one of the more unusual drag events of the ’80s: The Alternate Beauty Pageant.
In early 1984, André came across an advertisement by Periscope Productions, a major entertainment producer at the time, seeking female impersonators to take part in a beauty pageant to be held the following June at the Orpheum Theatre.
There were three mandatory costume changes and contestants would have to impersonate a celebrity during the talent segment of the contest. The winning contestant would receive $2,500 in prize money.
André and 19 other men applied. After meeting with the producers, 12 were chosen, including André.
Despite an early interest in drag —his mother made him his first dress for Halloween when he was 19, a silver lamé Yves St Laurent model —André was to all intents and purposes an amateur. But the prize money was tempting and he saw it as personal challenge to perform in public. He chose Marlene Dietrich for the talent segment of the contest and got to work making his gown and practicing his lip-synching.
André’s Dietrich outfit, based on a flesh tone gown with swan-down pelisse used in her cabaret act, cost him about $1,500 —money which he had to borrow-and untold hours of his own labour.
It had at its core a dress made by local couturier Benoit Richard, to which André then painstakingly applied sequins and rhinestones, sewing each of them on by hand. The pelisse consisted of four boas cunningly assembled; then there was the wig, a platinum blonde number that had to be restyled. Dietrich movies were scrutinized to determine a makeup scheme.
On the day of the pageant, the Orpheum was sold out. The crowd was about two-thirds gay, with lots of drag queens like Venus de Mylar (“I’m just here being a vision”) in attendance.
It was a long night for contestants and audience alike, starting at 7 pm and ending at midnight. At the end, the judges (which included Hugh Pickett, a friend of Dietrich’s) awarded first prize to Christopher who would go on to become a professional drag performer. Billy Jean, who would win the following year, was runner-up.
As for André, well he was happy with the experience, which he summed up this way: “I need a drink.”
A video of the talent segment of the pageant shows him to be a shimmering Marlene, singing “Honeysuckle Rose” while striking a compromise between Dietrich’s notorious totem-like stillness in performance and his need to work the vast Orpheum stage.
Frou frou aside, the interest of this event resides in the extensive and friendly coverage it received from mainstream media. Here was a big event, billed as the first of its kind in North America, with serious money behind it. It presented the non-threatening spectacle of (presumably gay) men in frocks parading onstage in the home of the Vancouver Symphony.
It was the kind of soft news that even the straightest news outlet could have fun with (“Gentlemen, be careful, these ‘ladies’ are no ladies.”).
It was also the last time that Vancouver’s drag community would occupy the spotlight to such a degree, as other stories would soon overtake it.