If you’ve ever seen me in drag at Montreal’s Jello Martini Lounge, or parading in the French Quarter during Southern Decadence in New Orleans, you know I’m not exactly the prettiest gal around, despite my fabulous lips, curvaceous ass and batting eyelashes.
Well, ain’t you Richard Simmons?” Mr. Muscles asked me at Jello one night as I sashayed out of the men’s room.
“No!” I snapped. “I’m Richard Burnett!”
I have always worshipped glamorous drag queens and two of my all-time faves are Montreal drag legends Jacklyn Jet and Sheena Hershey. Then last summer on her Facebook page, Sheena – a.k.a. Brian Charbonneau – wrote she was sick and tired of folks always asking when Sheena was going to perform again.
Jacklyn Jet – a.k.a. Montreal painter Jacques Besner – knew exactly what Sheena was going through, having trod down that retirement road before.
So Montreal artist Kat Coric proposed a photo shoot starring Sheena and Jaclyn, and I said I’d document it in this column, a fitting tribute to two of the fiercest drag divas to ever come out of Montreal’s famed drag scene.
“Drag was a big part of my early adult development. I began dressing up at 17 and continued professionally until I was 25,” explains Jacques. “I began going out to gay clubs in the spring of ’93. I remember going out to KOX and seeing all these really glamorous women, only to find out later that they were drag queens. During [my] club kid phase and the early raves, I started experimenting with makeup and androgynous looks. My mother suggested I do total drag – she didn’t like the half and half side of androgyny – and she actually bought me my first pair of heels and first makeup set.”
Says Brian, “I owe drag my life. I never understood why [when] very young I was ridiculed and ostracized. Drag gave a 16-year-old, 400-pound black gay kid armour to fend off the great Cuntessas of the Village. I was 15 when I first hit the scene with my Beaver Sisters. I had a $10-a-week allowance. So when I heard that every drag queen that competed in [Montreal’s] Wigstock competition got free access and a $5 drink ticket, I got a great return on investment from that 1984 prom dress [I bought] at Village des Valeurs for $4.99! [Then] I lost 120 pounds and learned to do the hardest thing one has to do in life: I learned to love myself.”
Jet and Hershey became high-profile and in-demand overnight. Jet was a member of Montreal’s House of Pride, which won Divers/Cité’s World Ball for Unity year after year in the 1990s, before the troupe’s House Opera scandalized two generations of Westmount wives at the Saidye Bronfman Centre (today Montreal’s fab Segal Centre). Hershey, meanwhile, peaked with her starring role in director Ziad Touma’s 2003 club-kid film Saved by the Belles.
But both have mixed feelings about Montreal’s drag and gay scenes today.
“Back in the day, clubs would always allocate budgets for performance entertainers,” Brian explains. “Having local talent entertain the crowds is one of the reasons why our nightlife spins on the world stage today. I came on the scene in 1997 and this was our Studio 54 era. [But now] sycophants are running clubs and major events. As for today’s drag scene, my heart bleeds for the performing queens and newcomers but not for the leaders of the pack. You wouldn’t believe how underappreciated and underpaid these queens are. Can $100 for four shows sustain an artist’s production fees?”
Jacques agrees. “The ’90s were such an inspiring time to party. Everyone was so free and people weren’t afraid to expose other sides of themselves. Now it’s all about labels and age and body type. It’s like the Village has become Crescent Street. And if you want a drag show your only real option is Mado’s.”
As Mado herself once told me, “To survive professionally in this city you really need three regular nights [per week] minimum, and that’s a humble living. If you do more than just performance, if you’re also a shooter girl, then you also earn tips. There are really just two nightclubs where drag queens perform regularly, Cleo’s [above the Cleopatra strip joint on The Main] and Cabaret Mado. I have five nights with about four performers each, so for Montreal’s 20 professional drag queens, that works out for about five or six of them – like Madame Simone, Dream and Popeline. Most of the others work day jobs as well.”
It’s the same scenario in other big drag cities like New York and Sydney. “I’d estimate about a quarter of the drag queen population make a living performing drag,” Mado says.
Jacques sighs. “When I think of all the fierce queens who have moved on to bigger and better who performed and enriched our club scene: Blane [a.k.a. Mochasheena, now in NYC], Girlina, Titi Galore, etc., it feels like the queens are completely ghettoized now. The only crossover into the straight scene is Plastik Patrik and he’s always been more club kid than drag queen anyway.”
Which is why Kat and I decided to pay tribute to Jacklyn and Sheena. It’s an homage to a bygone era.
“I have a lot of respect for these two icons of the underground, and did you notice they give good face?” says Kat, who art directed the photo shoot. “I chose emerging photographer Steben Alexander to bridge the generation gap since Steben was just a toddler when Jett and Hershey were ripping up the stage.”
“I wanted to capture their beauty, immortalize them,” twinkie Steben adds. “I also thought it was important to pay tribute to Jett and Hershey because they helped pave the way for the newer generations of drag performers in Montreal.”
Still, neither Brian nor Jacques really miss drag. But, as Jacques says, “The one thing that I will always love about drag were the compliments. Never since have I ever been made to feel so beautiful.”