Montreal Drag Queens Challenge Gender Norms
Mado Lamotte, Crystal Nebula, Lizzy Strange and Will Charmer Share Their Stories
The world of drag and genderfuck has long been a subculture of the LGBTQ+ community, beginning with pantomime dames in the 1800s and drag men in 1920s speakeasy bars.
Traditionally, drag queens are men who dress up as exaggerated versions of women, but there are also drag kings, women who dress up as exaggerated versions of men. People of all gender identities and sexualities participate in the performance art. There are hyperqueens, women who dress up as caricatured women, and hyperkings, men who dress as exaggerated versions of men.
Whatever goes, drag performers work on challenging our preconceived ideas of gender.
Having faced discrimination from police during raids, drag performers along with trans folk were at the heart of protests like the Cooper Donuts Riot in Los Angeles in 1959, and the pivotal Stonewall riots ten years later in 1969.
In the 1980s, drag became a mainstream cultural phenomenon, and drag performers started featuring in movies and on television.
Today, Montreal’s drag scene is alive and thriving, with performers like Mado, Crystal Nebula, Lizzy Strange, and Will Charmer exploring their craft and changing the game.
You may know Mado Lamotte as the most famous drag queen in Montreal and the owner of the only drag cabaret in the city, which is named after her. A Montreal icon, she even has a life-sized statue of herself at Montreal’s wax museum.
However, Luc Provost never imagined that he would ever enter the world of drag.
“[I started drag] by accident,” he said. “I started out in theatre without knowing that I would become a drag queen.”
Provost started doing drag when he was exploring the gay nightlife scene in the ‘80s. Sometimes bars would have theme nights when they went out. The first time he ever put on a dress was for one of those nights.
He reminisces about that night in July years ago. He and his best friend went out to a “business woman” themed night. His friend was dressed as the business woman and Provost as his secretary.
“I was following him around the club, ordering drinks for him and saying ‘my boss wants this, my boss wants that,’” he said laughing. “It was very funny.”
After that, the owner of the bar had asked them if they wanted to do a show because he found them so funny and they accepted. That propelled Provost into the world of drag and so Mado Lamotte was born.
Their drag was inspired by New York drag, and is more of a parody performance rather than a cabaret or fashion performance.
When Mado first emerged, she was the “nice aunty who makes dirty jokes at Christmas parties.” Now, Mado has evolved into a very eccentric model in haute couture. She describes her style as “diva extravaganza.”
“She went from a Verdun woman to an Outremont woman,” Provost said jokingly. “She’s bigger than life andthis way people understand that she’s not a real person. They see a character.”
In 2002, Cabaret Mado opened. There was an empty space in the Gay Village which was meant to be a drag cabaret. Mado was approached to own it and have it be named after her as she had become a drag icon in the city.
“I was like, ‘Oh my god, my own theatre!’” said Provost. “It’s very tempting to have my own space to do what I want and not have to keep proving myself after 15 years of doing drag.”
“I don’t work to be the biggest name, but to be recognized is a good feeling after struggling all those years,” Mado said.
The cabaret has been running for almost 16 years now and has even hosted RuPaul’s Drag Race star Courtney Act. However, with the rise of the show, selling tickets has become harder as people want to see drag acts for free.
He admits that there are advantages to the show as people are understanding more and more that drag queens are performers.
When people come to the shows, Provost knows that they’re in for a treat.
“You had a bad day or a bad week, you go see a drag show and you forget about everything,” he said. “You laugh and you see that these [people] don’t take themselves seriously. It’s a relief to see that we can still have fun without respecting the codes of society.”
He explained that drag is about performance and that it takes talent to be onstage.
“For us it’s a show we’re putting on,” he said. “It just so happens that women singers are more eccentric, it’s more fun to perform as a woman. It’s also fun to see a bunch of girls dressing up as the Backstreet Boys and having fun with it.”
“A lot of people still think that drag queens are men making fun of women, but why would you want to do that?”
Despite the growing acceptance of drag performers, Provost says that the queens are still stigmatized.There are also a lot of people in the LGBTQ+ community who hate drag queens, he says.
“They see drag queens as the reason straight people see gay people as feminine [or as a negative part] of the community,” he said. “I feel sad because they don’t know the history behind it. I understand if you don’t like drag, but you don’t have to bash it.”
He wants people to realize that the Stonewall riots, started by drag queens and trans folk, are the main reason the gay movement is where it’s at right now.
“That’s why they’ve been part of the community for so long and have been spokespeople for the community,” he said. “We’re always judging what’s different from us. Less and less, but hopefully one day we won’t have to explain ourselves.”
Student Christos Darlasis studies set and costume design at the National Theatre School of Canada, where he gets to design small plays and help designers. But in his spare time he’s Crystal Nebula.
As an emerging drag queen, the highlight of his drag career so far has been opening for singer Allie X.
“It was super cool and I got to do something that was just me for once,” he said. “She wanted us to be creative and portray our character how we wanted.”
Lots of drag shows have themes, and the queens have to morph themselves to their specific audience.
For this show, Darlasis wanted to pay homage to his Greek heritage. So he dressed as an ancient Greek goddess.
“I was thinking, ‘I’m just gonna go wild. I’m gonna rip off my dress and be in my underwear. I’m gonna feel like Lady Gaga.’ It was super cool,” he said.
While he was growing up in Greece, seeing men dressed as women was taboo. When it was shown on television, his grandparents would change the channel or cover his eyes. When he came to Canada, he discovered his sexuality and started exploring the local scene. He also started watching RuPaul’s Drag Race.
“I was so inspired! It’s such a beautiful subculture,” he said. “There’s people like this that exist and they are normal, kind, and they express themselves in such a different way. I thought if they can do it, I can do it.”
Darlasis said that his icons, idols, and the family that raised him were all women.
“With my sexuality, it’s like a metaphor for [my being] a man who’s attracted to men and deemed a little more feminine, [which] is so taboo in our society,” he said. “I looked up to these women who stood up to men in that way.”
He loves to showcase his love for women through drag, and says he never uses negative stereotypes that degrade women in his acts.
“I always do it with utter respect, I never make caricatures of women or speak against them,” Darlasis said. “For me drag is my way of embodying these women in my life that I love so much.”
Darlasis is happy drag is becoming more mainstream, because people are able to learn what drag really is. He wants people to realize that it’s not a joke, it’s not just a man in a dress making fun of a woman. It touches different facets. There’s art, comedy, fashion, and theatre. People do it for many reasons. Sometimes it’s not even for entertainment. It’s an artistic form of expression that plays with gender.
“Representation is so important,” he said. “Gender is a social construct. It doesn’t exist, and drag challenges that. It challenges the preconceived ideas of what a man or a woman should be and makes fun of that, not the person or the identity of a woman or man.”
Dressing up takes Darlasis a minimum of four hours.
“I love playing with historical silhouettes from the 16th century to the modern era,” he said. “I love mixing and matching things. That’s why I do costume design. I love art, theatre, fashion, and garment history. Being a drag queen also helps with that.”
“Gender is a social construct. It doesn’t exist, and drag challenges that.” -Christos Darlasis a.k.a. Crystal Nebula
A painted woman is on stage. She’s in full drag; hip pads, wig and all. Alessia Cara’s “Starving” starts to play, and a pizza boy comes onstage to bring her what she’s ordered. As the song plays, she eats the whole pizza.
Lizzy Strange definitely lives up to her name. She dresses like a pop-princess but her style is also very campy and audacious. She doesn’t take herself seriously, although at first glance you’d think she would.
Her performances are rooted in theatre, and put a spin on pop that most won’t catch right away.
Lizzy is a character portrayed by Lisa Morrison, a hyperqueen. Being a cis woman who does femme-presenting drag, Morrison says she had a hard time getting the people around her to take her art form seriously.
“I would hear lots of whispers behind my back saying that my drag wasn’t really drag,” she said. “It was really hurtful because I tried to make it to the best of my ability.”
“Sometimes it’s hard because you don’t have the money, drag is expensive, but I’ve come to the point where I have all the things you need to check off the list to be a drag queen except for duct tape between my legs.”
Morrison feels that entering the world of drag has helped her accept her femininity.
“I feel a lot more comfortable with myself in the last two years than I ever have,” she said, beaming. “When I first started drag I remember going to a show and I remembered thinking that this is where I belong, this is my corner of my queer world and it’s where I fit in.”
Morrison has always been in the world of theatre, dancing, and singing. So when she found drag, which combines all of these things together with queerness, it was a perfect fit.
“It’s what I need to do and it’s helped me become more comfortable and grow as a performer, and as a person and gave me a lot of opportunities,” she said.
Lizzy Strange is a hyper-feminized version of a female. Morrison pulls a lot of Strange’s performances out of her personal life. She also likes to subvert gender norms by pulling everyday things, like being catcalled or told how to look, and mimicking those experiences in her own performances,
Morrison hopes that the more she does this, the more people will begin to realize how ridiculous these experiences are.
“Drag for me is an expression of gender and an opportunity for people to really dissect gender in their own way,” she said. “It’s a tool for people, queer or just allies, to take gender in their own hands and really think of what it means and then present that on stage.”
Morrison moved to Montreal from Halifax because of the city’s reputation as a hub for creative arts. The drag community here is very vibrant and accepting, she said.
But even here, Morrison admits that the drag community faces a lot of stigma. Morrison has witnessed people trying to push her peer’s limits and boundaries, as they aren’t taken seriously. People tend to think that all drag queens are alcoholics and drug addicts, which is untrue, she said.
Lots of people also have a hard time understanding the differences between drag and gender identity.
“Anyone can do drag no matter their gender identity, how they present, or what kind of drag performances they chose to do,” she said, adding that gender identity and performance aren’t always linked.
Although Morrison’s career is only beginning to blossom, this queen has big plans. She hopes to someday start a theatre troupe composed solely of drag performers.
“I don’t think it’s gonna happen for a few years but it’s something that’s always in the back of my mind,” she said.
For now, she’s focusing on her smaller goals like participating in Mado’s Drag Moi event, a contest show where novice drag performers compete while learning the fundamentals of drag.
“I want to show [the community] more of what I got,” she said. “I think that by doing that I’ll get to do my drag in this city.”
Will Charmer is that guy that your parents love but your friends all know is a freak. He seems like a good boy. He charms all the teachers and everyone around him, but he’ll also throw the biggest party of the year and flirt with everyone. He is the best bad influence you’ll ever have.
Offstage, Kelly Holzmuller is a lot more more shy and adorable. Holtzmuller is a drag king and currently a part of the Drag Moi competition.
They discovered drag as a part of the exploration of their gender identity. After going through a bad breakup, they realized they had the chance to be who they wanted to be, but had no idea who that was yet.
“[I had] a dysphoric sense of not being in my body,” said Holzmuller.
They wanted to cut their hair and start wearing baggier clothes, and would even sometimes dream of the body they wanted, only to wake up and be startled by their appearance the next morning.
Holzmuller started doing some research about being trans, transitioning, and how people came to realize their identities. When they started binding their chest, they learned about binding with duct tape, which is a method specific to drag kings.
Being a theatre kid, they loved the idea of these performances. Holzmuller decided to explore that side of themselves through drag, and started to come to high-school dressed as a guy named Calvin.
They came to realize that they didn’t want to transition but that they wanted to project as a more androgynous and masculine person.
“I got into drag because I thought I wanted to transition. It was the best way for me to dive into that world and express certain things and see where I wanted to go without actually getting into the medical side of it,” said Holzmuller. “Having this output in drag I’m even happier because I can express this side of me.”
Drag helped them become comfortable with their identity as a gender-fluid person, and helped them accept their physical appearance as well. Holzmuller can sometimes be feminine and other times very masculine, constantly flowing between one and the other and never being in a set place.
Will Charmer’s audition for Drag Moi was his first time leaving the house. It was the first time Holzmuller performed in drag in front of anyone. Actually getting into the competition was turning point for them.
Drag Moi has different themes or challenges every week which pushes the performers’ creativity and resources.
“It’s a lot of effort, more than I had imagined,” said Holzmuller, laughing. “I love that. It’s not a competition first and foremost, it’s a learning experience.”
Holzmuller brings their theatre background into each performance, making Will a versatile character. For one performance, he dressed up as Quasimodo with a very big face and built himself a hump. For his audition, Will performed Link Larkin’s “Ladies’ Choice” from Hairspray, and ran from one side of the stage to the other, ripped his shirt open, and did a typical drag show.
Will doesn’t have a trademark style, so he gets to play around a lot more. Holzmuller’s favourite performance was dancing dressed as a bellboy with a dress propped onto a suitcase. They like to push boundaries and think outside the box.
“Sometimes going way out of your comfort zone is the best,” said Holzmuller.
To Holzmuller, drag is more of an artform.
“[Drag] is like painting. Anyone can paint. Anyone can paint on a face, create a costume, and wear it,” they said. “It’s the art of performing this specific kind of over-exaggerated gender expression. If you can pull that off, you can do drag.”
Drag plays up the extremities of gender. Holzmuller’s mentality is that if they’re going to be a guy, they want to be the most flirtatious, most sexual-energy-driven guy as they can be. It’s a caricature.
“You don’t have to look super believable, but the attitude that you hold changes everything,” they said. “The energy that you present on stage will mask any kind of makeup flaw that you have. It’s not about the aesthetic, there’s a lot more than that.”
In a caricature, everything is disproportionate, as if Tim Burton got ahold of your face. They take everything that is truly you and exaggerate it tenfold. Drag does the same.
“A girl can be this masculine, a guy can be this feminine and still be themselves,” said Holzmuller. “The goal of a performance is to make people think. For gender, my goal is to get somebody to think of what masculinity really means.”