Ilona Verley
Credit: Courtesy of Bell Media
Canada’s Drag Race
11 min

After the Sashay: Ilona Verley talks Indigenous representation on ‘Canada’s Drag Race’

How the competition helped the Two-Spirit artist find her true self

Ilona Verley emerges as one of Canada’s Drag Race Season 1’s lip sync assassins. But, in a lip sync showdown with Priyanka, the Vancouver queen gets the boot and ends as sixth placer on the marathon of drag.

Ilona joins us from Calgary to talk about the thing that makes her cringe watching the show, fighting for her spot in the competition and Indigenous representation on Drag Race.

What did you learn from your time on Canada’s Drag Race?

So much! I mean I obviously went to Drag Race and you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into until you’re there. I honestly felt like I was in therapy boot camp. I learned so much about myself, about who I am, about how I handle a situation, how to interact with other people. I feel like I came out a new person.

How do you think your presence on the show impacted Indigenous representation?

I knew it was a big deal for me to be on the show. So going in, I was super conscious of it. But receiving all the messages and all the words from other Indigenous kids, around the world, not even just Canada, has been so incredible and mind-boggling. It just touches my heart every single time.

Why was talking about your culture important?

Growing up, I didn’t know if I should be proud of being Indigenous or not. I got bullied so much for being Native, you know just watching the things that my family had to go through my grandma, my cousins, my mom.

My mom is visibly First Nations, my grandma is visibly First Nations. I’m white-passing so I walk down the street and do not get harassed for being Indigenous, whereas, my mom and my grandma, they would come home and tell me stories like that and it just breaks my heart that Indigenous people are continuing to get treated this way. And so my hope is in being on the show, being super aggressive about being proud of being Indigenous and just open your eyes, to know that Indigenous people have been here forever and we’re not going anywhere and it’s about time that we get the respect that we deserve.

How has the show influenced you as a Two-Spirit person?

That’s a really good question. Going into Drag Race, I obviously was very aware that I am Two- Spirit. However, at the time of filming, I was identifying as non-binary, which for me at that point in my life was the best way to describe how I viewed myself. But after coming on this experience and doing a lot of reflection, I can finally confidently and comfortably say that I do see myself as transgender, and for me to express that is still a very important part of being Two-Spirit because there are Two-Spirit people who are trans or cis who are non-binary. It doesn’t look like any certain thing. Being Two-Spirit isn’t a gender marker and I think that’s a lot of confusion for people who don’t understand what being Two-Spirit means.

It’s who you are, it’s how you handle your masculine your feminine and how you’re in touch with yourself. So for me, learning more about myself. It’s just been such a journey of self-discovery, and I was really happy and finally, in a place my life where I can express myself and not have little pieces of me in the back of my mind that I’m trying to push away and be like, “I’ll deal with this later.” I definitely say that the show has opened my eyes to a lot of things about myself that I was trying to just close my eyes to.

What was it like meeting Allie X, considering you have Allie’s lyrics tattooed on your body?

That was so cool for me. Her music has gotten me through some really dark times, like when my partner passed away, I listened to “Old Habits Die Hard” on repeat that was my song. Her music means a lot to me and just being able to actually get to meet her, get to be in the same room as her, was so so cool. I don’t even know how to describe how I felt. I was so overwhelmed and shocked and even watching it back and it still didn’t feel real.

What went through your mind when you sent strong queens home after the lip sync?

You know, I didn’t expect to be one of the lip sync assassins in the season. Going into it, in my fantasy, I was never gonna lip sync. I was like, “Oh yeah I’ll just Sasha Velour to the end. But, much to my dismay, I am not a good actor. I think the lip sync is definitely one of the most memorable memories. When you are in that situation that’s so unique to being on Drag Race. It really just creates this immense bond and connection. And at the end of the day, we’re all friends, so we’re happy for who gets to stay but we’re also sad when someone has to leave so it’s just such a weird thing that most of you will never have to go through.

Looking back at your Drag Race journey, would you do something differently?

Absolutely, as soon as I walked in the workroom, I put on a front. I was very like my Instagram voice and watching my confessionals makes me literally cringe, that’s not how I am. I kind of treated the runways like Instagram posts, and then treated the confessionals like Instagram stories, and I wish I didn’t do that. I wish I would have just gone and been myself.

If it can’t be you, which queen would you like to see win it all?

I really don’t think I could pick a front runner, per se. Obviously I have my picks, but I think all the girls that are left, have been killing it so hard and are all so deserving of winning the count in their own ways.

What’s next for you?

I have just been taking everything one day at a time. I have been so busy since the show started, I haven’t even fully moved into my apartment, yet. I just set up my bed four days ago, and I have my apartment for a month and a half now.

In all seriousness though, I’m working with a really iconic Canadian makeup brand. So that will be something that’s coming soon. And then I also have all the video content coming as well because as you know a lot of drag shows are now online. Then just continuing to create art and have fun and just try to get through this pandemic in one piece.

One word to describe your time in Drag Race.

Iconic.