Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Willyssa Thunderpuss: fresh air for Ottawa’s drag community

Manitoba transplant is a diva by design

DIVA BY DESIGN. After stints in Winnipeg and Toronto, Willyssa Thunderpuss landed in Ottawa a year ago. Now the friendly, upbeat queen is winning hearts across the nation's capital. Credit: Paul Galipeau

Hailing from Manitoba, drag diva Willyssa Thunderpuss has been carving out her niche in our capital region since landing in Ottawa last summer. Possessing a fabulously trashy wardrobe and fierce heels, at first glance Willyssa could be mistaken for just another drag queen vying for the capital spotlight. Don’t be fooled.

She grew up in a traditional First Nations community, where day-to-day activities included fishing, hunting, skinning and — in her words — “living in the bush.” But stereotypes about small towns aside, they were remarkably accepting of Willyssa’s burgeoning gay and trans identity during her youth.

“In my family, growing up gay, bi or transgendered wasn’t a big issue,” she says. “When I was young, I was a little boy. But when I hit my puberty and my teenage years, I became more feminine and I lived my life as a female. I’ve always kind of lived a two-spirited life.”

It might seem surprising — even naive — but Willyssa didn’t realize quite how unique her community’s acceptance was at the time.

“I didn’t know what homophobia was until I left the reserve,” she says.

She credits this good fortune to the small size of the reserve and the close bonds that hold the community together.

“I still go back home, and walk around being who I am. Nobody has anything negative to say.”

In the hope of transitioning to a woman, Willyssa moved to Winnipeg at 15. Her plans took a detour when she met her husband, with whom she lived for 11 years before he passed away.

“I thought I was going to be going through a full transition, but when I met my partner I realized I didn’t need to go through that,” she says. “I guess in a way I was experimenting and finding myself.”

During that time, Willyssa also suffered the loss of her grandparents (who acted as her parents) and her best friend. It was through these huge losses that Willyssa began to revisit her transgendered identity, something that had been evading her during her marriage.

“Those losses forced me to grow up quickly and I just kind of found myself going through all that pain. It forced me to take control of my life and realize who I was.” Willyssa was reborn.

Willyssa says it was her friends in Winnipeg who egged her on to perform, probably as a way to heal.

Creating a drag persona “was something new, that I had never done before,” she says. “I had to beat my own shyness. I had to come out of that shell to form a very public persona.”

And that persona needed a stage name.

“All through my teenage years, my nickname was either Wilma or Willyssa. Literally, before taking off to the bar to perform for the first time at Winnipeg Pride, I was like, ‘Oh my god I still don’t have a stage name!’ Then my friend in the car who was browsing through CDs came across the DJ Thunderpuss. It naturally fit me. My traditional name in English translated is 2 Thunderbirds. It encompasses my love of the wild.”

Thunderpuss quickly garnered a following in Winnipeg, with a reputation for acts she likes to refer to as “vicious”. After a brief stint in Toronto, where her Thunderpuss persona was set aside, Willyssa made her way to Ottawa. She lives with fellow drag queen Giselle Gotti, who helped Willyssa make a home in the Ottawa drag scene. She was even able to fly her wardrobe into town, thanks to her penchant for the racy.

“My outfits are quite small,” she says, laughing demurely. “I just have to bring the big feathers.”

Feathers and sequins? Check. But as every queen knows, beauty must go hand-in-hand with brains, ambition — and a goal.

“I would love to go across Canada and the States and promote two-spirit [identities] to Aboriginal communities. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough sponsors for this to happen just yet. That’s something I want to do, and hopefully someday it will happen.”