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9 min

Life is a cabaret

A tribute to Joan-E and Vancouver's drag veterans

MARCH OF THE SEQUINS: Author Cameron Herdman spent several months earlier this year following Joan-E around, getting a taste of her life as a drag diva in and out of the spotlight. Credit: Nicholas Jang photo

Joan-E is trying not to think about her sprained ankle.

She’s thinking about the menus in her hands and the guests she’s greeting at the Oasis bar. She’s thinking about her tropical flower print dress, her coiffed auburn wig that brings out her tan, her choice of black pumps and whether or not her makeup has justly created the illusion of femininity.

She’s thinking about the state of her foam breasts and her tight corset that gives her buxom figure a voluptuous appeal. She’s thinking about the guy sitting comfortably next to her on his barstool asking her questions as she keeps her weight off the sprained ankle that she’s trying to push out of her mind.

She’s thinking about whatever it takes to keep her hostess smile from slipping into an agonized wince for the next six hours of her shift.

It’s another night in the life of one of Vancouver’s most popular drag queens.

Greeting customers at the entrance and passing them off to others to seat so she doesn’t have to hobble around the bar all night, its clear Joan-E is a local star. Some patrons’ faces light up when they see her; many walk right up to her and give her a kiss on the cheek.

Joan-E always returns the greeting, whether she knows the person or not.

“I do quite well as drag queens go,” she tells me. “I’m a manager here right now but for many years I made my living just doing drag.”

Like many starry-eyed entertainers, Joan-E’s career started with a dream. “I wanted to be a drag queen and be pretty and popular like the other girls,” she says. “I wanted to get into bars for free and have people clap when I was fabulous.”

At eighteen, awkward gay Calgarian Robert Kaiser attempted drag for the first time on Halloween. “I was awful in the beginning. I went through years of never getting more than pity applause. I was the ‘go to the bathroom when she’s on’ girl. And then I found a personality.”

For the next two years, Kaiser slowly became part of the drag community. With the help of his drag mother, he developed his onstage character into the glamorous Joan-E with a dry sense of humour.

In 1990, Joan-E moved from Calgary to Vancouver where she kept pursuing her drag dream. Seventeen years later, she has a weekly show at the Odyssey nightclub, hosts Bingo for Life every Wednesday to help raise money for the Friends for Life Society, manages a local gay lounge and is paid to appear at many corporate and community events. She has also tackled film and television roles.

Not bad for a guy whose first encounter with women’s apparel was putting on a slip in Kindergarten and pretending to be Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8.

As more guests walk through the door, more embraces are exchanged. Joan-E tells me about the time Debbie Reynolds attended her drag show when they were shooting Connie and Carla together. She tells me about the expensive perfume she was given by a long-time fan and faithful Oasis customer. Her dream seems to have been fulfilled.

A few days later, Joan-E is making the rounds at the Odyssey nightclub before the Sunday night Feather Boa show.

It’s much harder to attract a crowd to the Sunday night show in the winter than in the summer. Tonight there is snow on the ground yet the frigid weather doesn’t deter the crowd from filling the house at 11 pm.

She usually co-hosts the show with her long-time friend and fellow Calgarian, Justine Tyme but Justine is sick this week so Joan-E has recruited two other drag queens to fill the available spots: Jaylene and Mandy Kamp.

Backstage is wall-to-wall dresses and wigs. Instead of a door, a black curtain separates this changing area from the dance floor where inebriated clubbers are dancing to heavy techno music.

As the three queens mill about the area, they shed their pre-show socializing gowns and prepare to adorn their performance costumes. Joan-E steps out of her heels and breathes a sigh of relief as her ankle gets a brief break. She slinks out of her black leather dress and reveals a black corset with foam breasts peeking out of the top.

Jaylene, perfecting her image of Cher in a long black wig, sports black pants and a black silk blouse with a colourful collar. She checks her makeup in the mirror and pushes her breasts around to make sure they look even.

Mandy Kamp takes off her blond wig to reveal a bald head speckled with short grey hairs around the back. She lifts another blond wig off of a Styrofoam head and dowses it with hairspray.

Joan-E lights a cigarette and lets it smoulder in an ashtray. After checking the evenness of her rouged cheek bones she sips her vodka tonic through a straw so as not to ruin her lipstick.

The pre-show jitters are kicking in as the conversation turns to what makes a good drag queen.

“I think there’s competition in everything.” Jaylene begins. “It just helps people reach another level.”

“We’re all sisters the way I look at it,” Kamp says. “If there’s rivalry, it’s not a bitter rivalry.”

“For me it’s the preparation I hate,” says Joan-E. “But once I’m in character, I’m fine. Then I get totally excited.”

Joan-E organizes the playlist and collects the music to give to the DJ. It’s just about showtime. Soon these three veterans of drag will be onstage performing for the crowd who braved the elements. Their performance has to make the trip worthwhile.

“I don’t think you can perform onstage if you’re not nervous,” says Joan-E. “If you’re not nervous, you shouldn’t be performing. That’s when its time to quit.”

With that, Joan-E steps into a purple sequined dress and pulls it up over her broad shoulders. She takes off her black bob wig to reveal her natural brown curls peeking out under a black nylon skullcap. She pulls out her auburn wig and places it on her head, smoothes out some stray hairs and douses it with hairspray.

With her ensemble in place, Joan-E goes back to scrutinizing her makeup. Her cheekbones aren’t highlighted enough. She digs through her purse looking for blush.

Kamp and Jaylene discuss big gay icons like Bette Midler and Liza Minelli, the quintessential figures that every drag queen has impersonated at some point in her career. Each of these women represents a source of inspiration.

When I question Liza Minelli as a source of inspiration, particularly after her drug addiction and farcical marriage to David Guest that made her a tabloid target, I’m quickly put in my place.

“When people thought that she was down and out and gonna die, she came right back in.” Kamp retorts.

“What makes them icons,” adds Joan-E as she fidgets with her purse, “is the fact that they are women who succeeded despite themselves. People who struggled through adversity. Strong-willed women.”

“People say I look like David Guest out of drag,” Jaylene says pulling back her hair to frame her David Guest-like facial features.

“He was never that pretty,” says Kamp.

Joan-E is now digging furiously through her purse as she furrows her brow. “No, you do not look like David Guest!” She turns her purse inside out madly looking for more makeup. “I think I lost my blush.”

Too late. The club music dies down and the familiar intro music to the Feather Boa show starts up. Joan-E abandons her search for blush and steps right back into her heels, walking out to the stage without so much as a limp.

Between numbers, Joan-E banters with the crowd. She spots a very muscular man with no shirt on sporting an intricate image of a lion on his chiselled chest.

“This is lovely! Who did this to you?” Joan-E saunters over to the side of the stage and admires the handiwork.

He tells her he got it done at the Sexpo exhibition at Canada Place. “Sexpo? I’m having a Sexpo right now. Can I touch?”

She runs her hand over the smooth pecs and cops a feel from the smiling Adonis.

“Oh my fucking God did you see that?” The crowd laughs as she composes herself with a shot of tequila.

The laughter hits her like a drug. It flows through her like electricity. It energizes and invigorates her sense of purpose. She savours it for a moment before going back for more. She has them hooked; now it’s just a matter of keeping the funny coming.

The climax of her act comes when she chugs a bottle of Coors Light, her trademark gimmick for the 12 years she has been doing this show. The crowd is silent with awe at her lack of gag reflex as they watch this diva in a full-length gown chug beer like a frat boy.

A young woman in the crowd breaks the silence with a high-pitched screech of laughter. When Joan-E finishes she turns her attention to the woman. “I bet you make that sound when you get fucked, don’t you?”

With the beer trick over, she goes on to introduce her fellow performers and lead into the number that will close the show. She introduces Mandy Kamp with, “She’s a good time at a party. She owns several nice dresses. She has some attitude but she gets real fun after five drinks.”

Then she moves on to Jaylene. “Every time she comes out for a show she’s always so organized. I’m like the girl puking in a bucket at the end of a party compared to her.” The crowd laughs at Joan-E’s version of a cordial introduction and the three queens take to the stage to bring the show home.

Two months later, Joan-E, her long-time friend Judy Jive and I are stepping out of a cab in front of the Renaissance hotel.

Joan-E drapes a white fur wrap across the back of her sparkling gold dress. Jive smoothes out her silver sequined dress studded with rhinestones. The pair of them look like they’ve been plucked out of an old Hollywood Oscar party.

Instead of smiling for the flashes of a million cameras, they’re met with the gaping jaws of unsuspecting hotel guests outside the boundaries of our gay village. Eyes follow us as we walk through the automatic doors to the lobby.

We follow the signs marked “DMS Coronation, Main Ballroom” and head up the stairs to join the party already in progress.

Jive goes first, shedding tiny rhinestones from her dress all the way, leaving Joan-E to tread on a path of diamonds. It truly is an entrance fit for a queen.

Tonight is Vancouver’s biggest drag event: Coronation. Every year an emperor and an empress are elected to represent Vancouver to an international club known as the Dogwood Monarchist Society.

Joan-E and Jive both sport tiaras, having each held the title of empress. Tonight they honour the end of Jaylene’s reign as empress and the coronation of a new one. They’re also here to drink and party with drag queens and kings from all over North America.

The crowd in front of the ballroom is an eclectic mix of smartly dressed kings and queens mixed with leather daddies, muscular young men with their shirts off and punk rock drag queens. It’s like Moulin Rouge got bitch-slapped by Dynasty.

After a brief stop off in the change room for a final appearance check, we make our way to the bar. “This is probably going to be more fun for me that it will be for you,” Joan-E tells me. “I know most of these people from when I was empress and will probably spend most of my time catching up with them.”

The room is full of glittering tiaras as past and present empresses from all over mingle in this surreal world. It’s not long before we’re approached by a stunning Bette Midler clone.

“I was just talking about you and the fun we had last time I was up here,” she says. Her name is Marcy Craft and she hails from Seattle, when she’s not in Las Vegas doing her famous Bette Midler impersonation cabaret.

“Majesty!” exclaims Joan-E. Everyone tonight is referred to as Majesty.

They remember the time, years ago, when Joan-E took Craft to a bar in Kitsilano while they were in full drag and proceeded to get smashed.

As Joan-E relives the good old days, I sneak away to the ballroom. At the front is a stage where Jaylene and her emperor Steve sit. Drag queens and kings perform their trademark numbers for the reigning monarchs, bowing and curtsying before and after each song.

I’m in time to watch Mandy Kamp perform Britney Spears’ “Lucky.”

As the song progresses, Kamp pulls out hair clippers and suggestively runs her fingers through her long blond wig. The performance ends with a bald Kamp dressed in jeans and a maroon tank top like Britney Spears on the cover of US Weekly, which she holds up to the crowd with the headline “Britney’s lost it” displayed for all to see.

When the moment arrives for coronation, Vancouver’s college of monarchs is called to the stage. Thirty-five years worth of emperors and empresses are called individually for the crowning of Empress XXXVI Imelda Mae Santos and Emperor Glenn.

When Joan-E is called as Empress XXVIII, she takes her place on stage next to her imperial brethren. The stage is a family portrait of Vancouver’s drag history.

Everyone gathers around Jaylene and Steve as they place crowns on the heads of Santos and Glenn. The crowd in the ballroom clap for this exceptional group of gifted performers.

Joan-E stands firmly on both feet next to her peers, beaming with pride. She has forgotten all about her sprained ankle.