BY Jennifer Fox & Maggie Morris

Montreal drag scene is known for its burlesque style and alternative club-kid vibes. But when the pandemic hit, drag and burlesque performers were forced to move from the clubs to online performances.

Performers like Heaven Genderfck have had to hustle in other ways and try to cope with being stuck inside without any gigs to get ready for—besides live shows on Zoom, pre-recorded performances and going live on Instagram.

“Isolation has been really hard for everybody. I found, at the beginning of quarantine, everyone was more motivated than now because we didn’t know if it was going to be for a long time,” Genderfck says.

“There were a lot of shows going on. I feel like the pandemic moved everyone to doing things online, which was really great for a while. As an artist I like to do many things, so I dived into this world of video editing and Zoom, all of that. For me, it’s just another way to show my drag in another form, which was amazing.”

A portrait of Genderfck

Performer Genderfck has been turning to virtual shows throughout the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Genderfck.

Genderfck explains how the enthusiasm had died down over time, how even the most tech savvy queens have struggled not being able to perform live and struggled with the loss of live gigs, and for some the income that came along with it.

“This is what is hard as a live performer, you can be at home having the time of your life but it’s just you and your screen most of the time you don’t see the people on the other side, it’s really shitty,” they say.

For many performers, adapting to the online world hasn’t been as natural. Montreal-based burlesque artist Tristan Ginger says it’s been an adjustment.

“It was a new experience for me. I did two music videos and I taught myself how to use Premier Pro; it was a lot about learning new skills,” they say. “As a burlesque drag artist you have to know how to do your makeup, how to do your own choreography, you have to do your own wardrobe, and on top of that go online, where you have to be your own light tech. It’s a whole new set of problems or skill sets you have to work on.”

A portrait of Tristan Ginger drag and burlesque performer

Burlesque performer Tristan Ginger says the pandemic has forced them to learn new skills. Photo courtesy of Tristan Ginger.

Ginger, like many performers, has found it difficult trying to stay in touch with other performers within the drag and burlesque scene. Despite the disconnect, they can still crack a joke and make light of the strange world we now all live in.

“Some of the shows are on Zoom but then we have a Facebook private group chat that we call the green room, so everything has really moved on to the digital side,” says Ginger. “I’ll have fun sometimes saying ‘My cab is almost there, hold on, five more minutes!’ Role playing that it’s still going to be in a live club or something. It’s an experience.”

The pandemic has taken an economic toll as well. Ginger relied heavy on booking gigs for their income as well as sex work.

“I’m broke,” they say light heartedly. “I relied on burlesque and I also did sex-work. I could travel the world doing that — I had to be careful but that’s what funded everything too. I would get paid from shows. Let’s say I was going through Europe I would maybe stay a couple weeks booking some private gigs and also seeing clients, it supplemented my income.”

A portrait of Ginger drag and burlesque performer

Performer Tristan Ginger poses outside Cabaret Lion D’Or, a popular venue among performers pre-pandemic. Photo by Jennifer Fox.

Ginger now has an Amazon wish list they made for fans who’d like to help, the list is made up of things that are related to shows and creating drag looks.

“Some people are really nice,” Ginger says. “Sometimes I’ll get people who are like hey I want to send you dinner tonight, Uber Eats or DoorDash. People send me books; people have sent me candelabrum! They realize it’s a tough time for performers. “It’s a shame, you can still have football, and there’s hockey but for some reason arts are just being put to the side. The arts should be on the same level.”

Ginger hopes that when things recover, it will be like the roaring twenties. “I hope to be booked out of my wazoo once things go back to normal, or whatever normal at least. I’m just trying to bunker down and work; I sometimes think about it like training for the Olympics but in a more artistic way. I’m ready and prepared for things to get better and open up to get those bookings, fingers crossed.”

Will venues open in the near future? An overview of some of the main spots for drag and burlesque performance in Montreal. Media by Jennifer Fox.

Younger performers like drag queen Lady Boom Boom are far from new to online life. Starting at the age of 15, Boom Boom would show her talents through lip sync videos she made with her brother.

Now performing all around the world, Boom Boom is forced to face her old reality of being limited to the screen. “It was very funny when I saw other queens starting to do virtual shows because it’s how I started. It was kind of funny but also emotional because I had to do what I did when I first started so I started filming myself around the house again.”

Like Lady Boom Boom, powerhouse Montreal drag queen Uma Gahd has been able to move online somewhat seamlessly and has been lucky enough to have consistent work with weekly shows.

The outside of cabaret Mado

Cabaret Mado was once a hot spot for drag and burlesque performances. Photo by Maggie Morris.

One of Gahd’s main messages is the importance of showing up to online performances and showing your support, even just following performers on social media just showing you care has immense power.

It might be a strange time, but Montreal drag performers aren’t going anywhere. Adapting to whatever comes their way, Montreal’s unique drag scene that combines cabaret with burlesque and everything in-between has strong and vital performers who are determined to not only make it through this time but thrive.

Main photo by Jennifer Fox.
Published April 26, 2021.