One queen officially brings drag to Niagara…
By Loren Christie
Photos Connor Remus
Family is important. So when I heard that Josh, my cousin’s partner, was the opening act for the first-ever drag show in Niagara, there was no question we would attend and support him. It was also going to be a big night for Josh personally: a newcomer to the drag scene, it was his first paid gig.
I met Josh five years ago when he was studying to become a sommelier, which at the time of achieving the designation earned him the distinction of being one of the youngest sommeliers in Canada. He was a high-achieving, mild-mannered guy who was becoming a fixture in our extended family. Shortly after that, he moved to the Niagara region and enrolled in the wine-making program at Niagara College. The program included a work co-op placement at Stratus winery and eventually provided Josh with a full-time job at the Creekside Estate Winery in Jordan.
It was during that time that he got hooked on the popular TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race. What started as a TV obsession became an all-out fascination with drag culture. After a year as part of the Creekside team (affectionately referred to as the “Creekside Cru”), a new job lured him back to Toronto, where he took the opportunity to immerse himself in the local drag scene.
“When you get to meet and talk to the local drag queens, they are all super lovely and accepting. I slowly started getting involved in the community,” Josh explains. “Then I met my drag mom, Penelope Strange. We connected on Instagram, then met at a few events. She was the first one who convinced me to do drag.”
And so Nala Strange was born. Proud drag mother Penelope describes Nala as a Pop Princess, vibrant and colourful. Quite different from the low-key Josh that I know.
“Drag is an extension of self,” says Penelope. “I think Josh needs Nala. She’s created an artistic outlet and a new way of expressing his emotions. It’s freeing.”
Queer culture in general tends to be close-knit, but I learned that a drag family is on a whole other level. In drag culture, all queens try to support each other, and if you are part of a drag family you get the added benefit of having a house mother: a matriarchal figure who shares her experience and knowledge.
“Penelope knows how to glue a wig to your head so that when you are hair flipping it won’t fly across the stage,” says Nala. “She knows how to pad. She is the dictionary of the family. I instinctively took Strange as Nala’s last name. When your drag mother has a name…you adopt it.”
Nala’s winery debut was this past June 8, as the opening act for renowned Toronto-based queens Katinka Kature and Carlotta Carlisle. It was a popular date in Niagara; wineries across the region were toasting the deliciously dreamt-up holiday, Rosé Day, and well-known performers like the Jim Cuddy Band and the Sam Roberts Band were performing at the Tawse and Jackson-Triggs wineries respectively. Yet tickets to Creekside Estate Winery’s Drag in The Vineyard were in high demand.
Britnie Bazylewski, marketing and special events manager for Creekside, was not surprised. “There is nothing like this in the industry. You might think the area is conservative and narrow-minded, but we sold out tickets in less than a week.”
Wine bloggers and part-time Niagara-On-The-Lake residents the Sparkling Winos (also known as Jeff Graham and Mike Matyjewicz) were not surprised either. “People here are quite open and welcoming. We are so close to Toronto, a city with a huge gay population. Creekside is doing something unique and fun…bringing a different type of experience with an LGBTQ focus. It’s really cool what they did.”
Getting the full experience
The original idea of bringing a drag show to Niagara was the brainchild of Niagara-on-the-Lake bed & breakfast owners Brendan Bakaluk and Rob Pividor. They have seen a new generation of wine makers take over the family-run wineries around them: a generation that is more open and eager to new experiences. So when their friends, Katinka and Carlotta, offered to come perform drag in the region, they approached Creekside about a partnership to make it happen.
Britnie was enthusiastic about the idea immediately. However, when she learned that former “Creekside Cru” event manager and assistant wine maker Josh was now doing drag as Nala Strange, it could not have been a more perfect scenario for her. Josh would always be part of the Creekside family, making Nala the perfect opening act for these two headliners.
“This is the best thing that happened to Creekside since Syrah,” Britnie enthused to the crowd as she introduced the show that night. “Nala Strange was a 2016 recruit on the Creekside Cru and to have her come back and have her coming-out party at Creekside…we couldn’t be more ecstatic.”
When we arrived at Creekside, we hadn’t seen Josh all day. He had been busy transforming himself into Nala, which can take him up to five hours. He acknowledges that his process is lengthier than most queens. “Makeup, wig, clothes…my look is still evolving. I do now have a signature lip that I do.”
For Nala, no drinking is ever involved – even on this night, performing at a winery. A recent fall in six-inch heels that resulted in a sprained ankle and two days off work led to the creation of her “no drinks before a performance” rule. Some lessons your drag mother can’t teach you; you just learn on your own.
A night to remember
As the oenophiles and drag neophytes arrived, you could feel the anticipation in the air. It was a perfect evening, warm and sunny. The outside patio had been set up with a stage for the performers and the entire area was festooned with pink balloons, streamers and boas. I have been to many drag shows, but to be sipping rosé overlooking the greenery of the vineyard was lovely.
Collectively, the assembled crowd of more than a hundred people seemed mostly just curious. Many did not know what to expect, having never seen a drag show. Josie Tremonte and her daughter Isabella fell in that category, but appreciated that it was time to bring something new to Niagara, with Isabella commenting that “it was a step in the right direction.”
Britnie introduced the evening ($5 for every ticket purchased was going to help two amazing causes, the Coast to Coast Against Cancer Foundation and the Foundation for Prader-Willi Research Canada), and thanked everyone for coming out to spread the love. Now it was time for Nala.
As the music started, I was deeply touched by how brave I felt she must be, performing in front of a crowd of newbies in seven-inch heels. She even escalated her heel height, despite her earlier fall. But bravery wasn’t even an issue. Nala thinks of the Creekside Cru and patrons as her extended family, and said, “It is just as comforting to perform at the Creekside Winery as it would be to perform in my living room.”
She flew off the stage to the pumping mix of Demi Lovato and Britney Spears, strutting around the tables, flinging her hair and gyrating to the music in the faces of the gobsmacked guests. There was a small stumble as she got off the stage at one point, but the recovery was seamless. And she had done it. She had officially brought drag to Niagara.
After performing to two songs, Nala introduced the two more experienced queens with the appropriate filial deference. With 11 years of experience, these two quickly picked up on the spark ignited by Nala’s performance and with some razor-sharp comedy, fabulous outfits and electric music turned the initially reserved crowd into the biggest party Creekside Winery had ever seen.
By the end of the second round of acts from all three queens, the crowd was on their feet dancing. Enthusiastically joining in on the fun were a few rosé-infused patrons who passed $5 tips to the queens with their tongues. Matt Orton, another former assistant wine maker at Creekside, was egged on enthusiastically by his girlfriend to go for a tip-to-lip-to-lip exchange with Carlotta. And he did.
Sitting to the right of the stage, Shelley Newman was frequently in the line of fire for the queens’ comedy, with Katinka threatening to FaceTime her husband, who was at home watching TV. Shelley didn’t mind.
“I had no idea it would be funny. It was hilarious and they are so beautiful. I can’t believe how beautiful they are!”
Before her performance, Nala mused that drag is about fun and acceptance. Based on that criteria, the night was undoubtedly a wild success for Niagara. She also said she wasn’t nervous about going out on stage because “when you are in a family, the biggest thing is supporting each other, and that’s what it boils down to.” Whether Nala meant that in reference to her drag family, her Creekside family or us, her extended family, I’m not sure. And it doesn’t matter. We were all there to support her.
LOREN CHRISTIE is a part-time travel writer and on-air travel contributor for CTV. He lives in Toronto with his husband.