The coronation of the second Empress of Vancouver in 1972, at Burnaby’s tawdry Flame Supper Club, was a memorable event. When you put that many drag divas, high on glitter dust, in one room together for an evening, memorable things are bound to happen. But the Potato Salad Brawl was in a class of its own!
Our annual Empress Ball is really as much, if not more, about the outgoing Empress and her “step down” than about the inauguration of the new reign. So the Potato Salad Brawl will be remembered by most as Empress I Charity’s last hurrah. But I, for one, consider Empress II Mona Regina Alexandria Lee our Potato Salad Empress!
In true royal-court fashion, various factions and intrigues had formed around the candidates for Empress, and when Charity’s favoured candidate, Tracey Stevens, lost to Empress of Canada ted northe’s choice, Reg Manning (stage name Mona Lee), Stevens’s supporters didn’t take it well.
In a truly bizarre turn of events, heckling and insults turned to cross-table assaults with the nearest food item to hand — the potato salad!
It was a mess. Your reporter cowered in the washroom for a bit and then hightailed it back downtown, confirmed in the belief that nothing good could ever come of travelling east of Commercial Drive.
Somehow the dust, and the mayonnaise, finally settled and Mona began one of the most productive and engaging reigns of any of our 40-plus empresses.
My fondest Mona moment took place in a seedy Legion Hall in Victoria. A group of us had travelled to Victoria to attend the coronation of that city’s Empress Tim. Someone had jerry-rigged a wheeled platform that could be pulled along with ropes; the idea was that Empress Mona would make her grand entrance by being pulled through the front doors and down the centre aisle by two strapping and skimpily clad lads. I think there may have been a Roman theme going on.
Long story short, the damn wheels wobbled and wanked, and the pullers couldn’t make it move in a straight line. So guess who, as the next “visiting dignitary” in the procession, got to squat down and shuffle and push the magnificently gowned Empress down the aisle? Yup, that would be me. It was a pretty undignified entrance, trying to look gracious and wave to her adoring fans while balancing on a teetering plywood board, with me huffing and pushing and groaning along behind her.
Reg has enjoyed a multifaceted career trajectory that spanned his years as a “flaming-red-haired nelly-as-hell” hairdresser to a decade as a recreational therapist in the mental-health field. The latter was work that brought Reg great satisfaction and, truth be told, a lot of fun.
“My colleagues once asked me how it was that the clients were so accepting of me, not as a therapist, but as a friend, and how I was so able to relate to them.
“‘Well,’ I said, ‘I guess they recognize the crazy in me! After all, how many of you guys spend your weekends frequenting nightclubs in gowns and tiaras?’”
Today, at the tender age of 70, Reg continues to be active with the Surrey court and entertains onstage frequently, often at events in New Westminster and Surrey. And he continues to be a friend, mentor and thorn in the side to many.
His Facebook musings, including his “I Remember Them Well” chronicle of our early empresses, are giving this space a run for its money.
In one recent post, during the breast-beating that went on during Pride season over who was feeling “excluded” from the festivities and why, Reg wrote, “After all these years I finally know who I am. Now I’m wondering what I am!”
The old vocabulary of “queer” and “homo” and “gay” has morphed into many different meanings, which some might argue now render them meaningless. So how is a 70-year-old man who finds his heart’s delight as a drag artist but doesn’t identify as cross or trans anything define himself in this age of hair-splitting gender identity?
It’s an interesting question and one that will require another column to explore. Next month, taking Reg’s question “What am I?” as a starting point, I’ll share some of his views and those of others who are feeling a bit caught in the gender-identity crossfire.
In the meantime, Reg is still getting the most out of the life he’s made for himself, and maybe that’s all anyone needs to know about “what” they are.