‘There’s kind of been an explosion in popularity’ of drag culture in Calgary

Pride Week celebrations in Calgary look a lot differently this year because of COVID-19 but despite the pandemic, drag performers say business has been booming like never before.

From pop-up backyard concerts to singing drag telegrams, there was no shortage of physically distanced performances this summer.

“This is now my busiest Pride I’ve ever had. And I’ve been doing drag for just over seven years. So it’s been really busy,” Erik Mikkelsen said.

Read more: Drag queens dance in Calgary park to drum up Stampede spirit

Mikkelsen, who goes by Nada Nuff, said he’s noticing an emergence of drag culture in Calgary and said drag is becoming more mainstream.

It’s evidenced by the record number of drag performances put on throughout the summer, Mikkelsen said.

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“We’re breaking down that barrier… We’re not scary people… We are fun and we’re full of love.

“We want to share our art and we want to dance with a smile and we want to laugh.”

“When I started drag, I used to get into drag and then put on a baseball cap in my boy clothes to go out to the bar that I would perform at and then change there because I didn’t feel really comfortable being out in public in drag,” Mikkelsen said.

“Now, I mean, I’m performing on people’s front lawns in neighbourhoods all over the city.

“The culture has really changed.”

Other drag performers like Felicia Bonée echoed those thoughts — remembering a society that wasn’t always as accepting.

Read more: Calgary drag kings vying for place in spotlight: ‘It’s a man’s world’

“Drag wasn’t like, cool. When I started, it wasn’t something people aspired to be as much as they do,” Bonée said. “We have people that have never heard of drag queens or drag kings or any of that world. It’s in their purview now.”

Mount Royal University gender studies professor D.A. Dirks said although drag has been around since the 18th Century, there’s been a shift in popularity lately. Dirks gives credit, in part, to the popular reality show Ru Paul’s Drag Race.

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“There’s kind of been an explosion in popularity more recently… with Ru Paul’s visibility and popularity, (it) has really sort of raised the visibility.”

“Drag culture and drag performance has existed, we think, historically, since at least the 18th Century, but you know, there’s been evidence of drag as a word going back to the 14th Century.

“So we know that historically, for example, in Shakespeare’s time, that women were not allowed to perform on stage, it was perceived to be inappropriate, and so men would dress as women and perform those roles,” Dirks said.

“I think that’s just because of the varieties of media that we have now, right? So we don’t just simply have like three TV channels anymore. We’ve got Tik Tok, we’ve got YouTube, we’ve got Instagram, we’ve got all the streaming platforms.

“There’s much more visibility and ability for performers to be seen on a broader platform than we’ve ever had before.”

But despite the increase in popularity, there are still challenges for performers.

For Mikkelsen, there`s the issue of having a safe space to perform. For Bonée, there’s often the issue of race.

“I’ve definitely been tokenized where that is like, I’m basically told that, ‘Oh, you’re a Black person, we need a Black person. Can you come be in our show?’”

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“There’s not a ton of safe places that we can perform all the time. We only have a few safe places here in Calgary and even within those, there’s infighting within the community.”

But despite these problems, these drag queens said they’ll continue to work at it behind the scenes, while working their fabulous moves front and centre.

“It’s definitely one of those things that we’re still working on,” Bonée said.

“I just hope that there’s equal opportunity for everyone to be able to perform,” Mikkelsen said.

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