Toronto
3 min

Drag recession

Is Toronto's pageant scene past its prime?

MORE GLITZ. Stephanie Stevens wants to put the shine on Toronto's struggling diva competitions. Credit: Jan Becker

On being the only candidate for Empress XV of The Imperial Court Of Toronto (TICOT), Bitch Diva quips, “My story is that no one wanted to run against me because I’d whip their ass.”



But in the run-up to the Thu, Sep 27 election – which is a yes or no vote for Bitch Diva, as well as a yes or no vote for Emperor XV candidate Tom Ivison – her feelings about pageant titles run deeper.



In her mind, many queens in the community have become complacent when it comes to running for Empress or other pageant titles. At the same time, younger drag queens are being attracted to bar titles, considered by many to be more fun and profitable.



“Most of the queens – and through no fault of their own – go and do their own shows, get their money and go home. The queens don’t go out and do all the pageants. A lot of them don’t feel they want to be representatives,” says Diva.



Diva’s goal will be to the raise the level of TICOT’s charity fundraising, regal glamour and fun.



“I like to see that theme brought back to the court, where people will just get involved where there don’t bitch and complain,” says Diva. “The bottom line is that you’re doing something for the betterment of your community.”



Sophie Dee Lee, Empress V of Toronto and organizing member of the coronation gala, admits the court system in Toronto has had its fair share of problems and setbacks: Empresses not raising money for charity, Empresses resigning, changing venues and in-fighting.



Last year Empress XIV Maria Del Monte resigned a few months after winning the title. She says that fundraising expectations were high and that she didn’t get enough support from the TICOT board.



“I felt people were waiting for me to screw up,” Del Monte told Xtra shortly after her resignation in the spring. “I had people like vultures just waiting to jump on me. Everybody says, ‘That’s the way it is,’ but nobody does anything to change it.”



Dee Lee says the days of fierce competition are long gone.



“For a while we became inundated with drag, and its quality suffered. Cheap little bar shows at every corner, and therefore the quality of drag performance suffered and the pageants and coronation suffered with it.”



Aside from TICOT – which is a large organization with courts all over North America – two other pageants have stood the test of time: Miss Gay Universe Pageant and the Miss Gay Toronto Pageant. Like TICOT, they also have sister pageants in other cities, but don’t have the history or the strong ties to the community.



Each pageant offers a $300 cash reward, crown and title sash and other small prizes. The titleholders are expected to fundraise during their reign and participate in community events.



In the early years the Miss Gay Universe pageant and the Miss Gay Toronto pageant were regarded as premier pageant events. Today the events are held in a more subdued environment of a local bar, though they’re still considered serious footnotes to a career in drag.



Stephanie Stevens has tried to reinvigorate the scene with the newly-created Miss International Female Impersonator pageant.



“We’ve lost a lot of the glitz and the glamour, the stages, the money, all of that,” says Stevens. “There seems there’s a recession in drag. People just don’t care anymore.”



Amanda Roberts, drag queen and also a pageant producer of the Miss Canada Continental and the Miss Canada Continental Plus – a pageant for big girls over 225lbs debuting this fall – agrees that Toronto needs to invest more in its drag scene.



“I love the pageant system,” says Roberts. “I love the drag community and I want to give something back to them and give the entertainers here a chance to be a part of this.”



But there’s a catch-22 to attracting entrants. Some new drag queens are too nervous to enter, having had limited opportunities to practice. And some established queens don’t want to enter unless they’re confident they’ll take the title – they don’t want to lose to somebody new. Entry fees are usually more than $100; Roberts and Stevens say their pageants cost more than $20,000 to put on.



Some girls are turning to more accessible bar titles. In its five-year history, the Miss Baileys held at Woody’s has gained a reputation as a top event. Judged like a pageant with a question, talent and evening gown competition, there is no entry fee and the winner receives a one-year modeling contract – a profitable title, though it may not have the history or the glamour of Empress.



In the past years, Roberts says “people would win and really didn’t get anything out of it.”



It seems that it will take more than just a high profile title and the opportunity to fundraise to keep Toronto’s drag scene vital.



Despite problems, Dee Lee says TICOT and the coronation gala will be around for many years to come.



“Because we play this game of emperors and empresses and dukes and duchesses for the elite, we’re not going to get rid of that element and if you can do a lot of good with it, do it,” says Lee.



The Imperial Court Of Toronto’s annual Coronation Gala is Sat, Oct 6; call 416-829-8705 for details and tickets.