Brooke Lynn Hytes and the Canada’s Drag Race judges: ‘It’s lucky there’s three of us, because they can’t blame just you if they don’t like it’
Charisma. Uniqueness. Nerve. Talent. With each new iteration of Drag Race, the internet finds itseld awash with detailed critiques of the latest crop of contestants, measuring them against the four pillars of RuPaulism.
Things will be no different as Canada’s Drag Race makes its long-awaited debut. Only this time, the eye of the fandom will be trained on the judges just as much it will be the queens.
Brooke Lynn Hytes, Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman and Stacey McKenzie are taking the reins for the Canadian edition, the first English-language version of the competition not to be judged and hosted by RuPaul.
The mother of drag is on hand to deliver the season’s first RuMail, welcoming the queens to the maple leaf-themed Canada’s Drag Race werk room, but after that, the trio are on their own.
“It’s good that there’s three of us, because no one can blame just you if they don’t like it,” Brooke tells PinkNews, her fellow judges collapsing into laughter.
We’re talking (over Zoom) just a few days before fans get to see the fruits of their labour – but any nerves they might have are expertly tucked away.
In their place is a genuine excitement abut showing the world what Canadian drag is all about. The series has immediately been picked up by the BBC in the UK – a major coup, considering Michelle Visage has spoken about it taking five years to get Drag Race UK off the ground – and will be streamed around the world by WOW Presents Plus.
“Canada is this giant untapped market that no one really knows about,” Brooke says.
“We don’t have a huge pageant scene, we’re not highly competitive people, that’s the biggest difference with the US. But we have ever kind of scene imaginable. We have bearded queens, we have club kids, we have circus freaks, we have clowns, we have feminine queens – it’s all there. People just don’t realise it yet.”
Brooke Lynn Hytes ‘understands the pressures’ of Canada’s Drag Race more than most.
It’s not just talk. The Canada’s Drag Race cast certainly feel fresh and diverse. Among the immediate standouts are Jimbo, a queen with a background in clowning who’s more Pennywise than Bianca Del Rio; Ilona Verley, a two-spirit indigenous drag performer who’s an explosion of pastel; and Kyne, a polished, confident queen who seems certain to stir up conflama as the series goes on.
“I related to all these girls,” says Brooke. I understand the pressure. I know the other two judges felt that too.”
The world first met the Toronto native when she tore up Drag Race season 11 last year, clocking three wins and at least one unforgettable lip-sync, before finishing in second place to Yvie Oddly.
But anyone thinking that her new gig represents a sudden step up, know this: Brooke Lynn Hytes has been doing drag.
“Honey, I was doing drag before I knew what the f**k drag was,” she says. “I was looking at baby pictures and there I am in my mom’s heels and a blanket wrapped around my head as a wig. It’s something that’s always been with me and I just didn’t understand it.”
That confusion began to manifest into something more tangible when a young Brooke watched the 1956 biblical epic The 10 Commandments, which starred Anne Baxter as a glamorous (and as she points out, horribly whitewashed) Nefertiti.
She was such a b***h – I was like, ‘Oh, I relate to that’.
“She was just this glamorous vixen wearing these chiffon gowns with jewels, and people were fanning her with ostrich fans. It was all just so opulent and glamorous. And she was such a b***h – I was like, ‘Oh, I relate to that. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, but I want to be like her’.”
Jeffrey tells a similar story. A model and actor best known for the comedy UnREAL and the most recent American Horror Story, he’s a familiar face to Drag Race fans as a three-time (as of this week) guest judge.
“I was raised in a little farm town in the middle of Canada,” he explains. “I didn’t have any exposure to drag culture or queer culture growing up.”
As a child, Jeffrey discovered the film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, a sort of American Priscilla, Queen of the Desert starring Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze, and John Leguizamo as road-tripping drag queens. RuPaul makes a memorable cameo appearance in a Confederate flag dress, her drag alias Rachel Tensions.
As a young queer black boy, the scene changed Jeffrey’s world. Later, when he went to his first drag show in Vancouver, he had his eyes opened even further by a drag king.
“I was just so blown away by people f**king with the gender binary and having no reverence at all for the binary, for the male-female boxes that we’re put in.
“Seeing people blow those lines and have fun with it, it opened my consciousness to the spectrum of gender in a way that I’d never considered it before.”
Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman says gender ‘never existed’.
Although there are no drag kings in this series of Canada’s Drag Race, to Jeffrey drag – and the world – must be fully inclusive in order to survive.
“I think as the world goes on the lines of gender are being blurred more and more, which is what is necessary for us to evolve as a species,” he explains.
“The gender binary is a social construct. It’s not real. It’s never existed. It’s been a story that’s kind of been forced upon us.
“We’ve falsely believed it, but we’re starting to wake up and come out of that fog and realise that exploring and expressing the entire spectrum of gender is such a beautiful thing and leaving one aspect of it out is doing all of us disservice at the end of the day.”
Completing the trio of judges is former Canada’s Next Top Model host Stacey McKenzie. Though she is a newcomer to the franchise, her experience with drag stretches back over 30 years. While travelling the world as a model, she got to know the drag scenes of Paris, London and New York – where she’s been known to walk a ball or two.
“I came across drag when I was 16,” she explains. “I took to it because first of all they’re walking runways and I’m a runway freak. But what drew me to drag the most was how confident they were in their skin and how they embraced me for being different too.”
Growing up as a young model, the Jamaican-born Canadian stood out against a sea of white faces, and found it difficult “in terms of getting acceptance”.
“It was refreshing to meet people who told me ‘you’re really cool and really awesome’, who could walk the hell out of a runway and give great theatrics when performing.”
Canada’s Drag Race isn’t the American series – and that’s kind of the point.
Between them, Stacey, Jeffrey and Brooke certainly have the chops – if not to match RuPaul, then to carve out their own, uniquely northern lane.
The format of the show is mostly unchanged – in the opener, the queens recreate the iconic “gone with the wind” photoshoot challenge of season two, precariously fluttering eyelashes and all.
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Overall, it’s a solid opener with an interesting cast. Is the next Shea Coulée or Trixie Mattel among them? Probably not, but that isn’t really the point. It would be unfair to compare the queens to their American counterparts, many of whom enter the competition with a wardrobe of custom-made gowns and a massive drag ecosystem at their disposal.
Similarly, it’s not really fair to hold Canada’s Drag Race to the same standard as the US show, which has been running for 18 seasons (if you count the All Stars and Celebrity spin-offs). The Canadian version feels plucky, less laser-focused than what we’re (sometimes) used to, for sure, but full of charm and promise.
“It was like a play land for us, we were having so much fun,” says Brooke, adding that the most challenging part was sending one queen packing each week.
“I didn’t know I was gong to be so emotionally shook by it each week,” adds Jeffrey, Stacey nodding in the square next to him,
” But they’re all winners at the end of the day, I’m not worried about a single one of them.”
The first episode of Canada’s Drag Race is available to stream on BBC iPlayer now, with new episodes arriving on Fridays.