Toronto drag queen Priyanka’s interviews are as much a performance as her stage shows.
The day after snatching the crown on the inaugural season of Canada’s Drag Race, the Toronto-based performer raps for a full minute before I can even get the first question in. Her answers are full of pregnant pauses, she practically re-enacts her all her anecdotes and her sentences flow like a Twitter feed: full of all caps and exclamation points.
Priyanka became a drag queen three years ago and has already earned a rep as one of the Church-Wellesley Village’s hardest working performers. She’s racked up local drag competition titles and accolades, including the Best Drag Performer title in NOW Magazine’s 2019 Readers’ Choice poll. She appeared on the cover of that issue before it was announced she was among the 12 queens that would compete on the inaugural season of Canada’s Drag Race.
“I don’t know if there is a true title that you could slap on me,” Priyanka told us at the time. “I’m like a mashup of every kind of queen. And if that doesn’t suit you, it doesn’t suit you.”
At the time, RuPaul’s Drag Race had already turned drag into a viable career path, with alumni from the reality competition going on to tour the world, do stand-up and appear in movies.
A vocal advocate for queer spaces at risk of being absorbed into or erased by condo developments, Priyanka is opinionated, polished and had a day job as a kids’ television host on YTV (out of drag as Mark Suki). In other words, prime reality TV material.
Priyanka quickly established herself as the best commentator on the series – not surprising given her background in TV production. Though she was one of the strongest performing queens, her track record in the competitions was bumpy.
She won twice and landed in the bottom twice. She wasn’t the strongest at the design challenges and her imitation of infomercial psychic Miss Cleo in Snatch Game was a major fail. But her lip sync face-off against Montreal queen Kiara to Celine Dion’s I Drove All Night became a season highlight. Now the routine is part of her stage show, the moment is a reminder that to climb to the top in Drag Race you sometimes need to hit the bottom.
Through being on the show, Priyanka also came out to her father – as gay and as a drag queen. Her coming out story is now pinned to her Twitter page to serve as an inspiration for others, and a reminder that even the most visible people – in this case, gracing the cover of a magazine – can still be invisible to those closest to them.
For the finale episode, Priyanka and top three finalists Rita Baga and Scarlett BoBo had to write, record and perform a remix to RuPaul’s U Wear It Well. Judges Brooke Lynn Hytes, Stacey McKenzie, Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman and Traci Melchor heaped praise on all three but Priyanka’s red-and-white bridal lehenga – a nod to her West Indian background – stole the show.
After a lip sync battle to gay bar classic You’re A Superstar by 90s Toronto Eurodance group Love Inc., Priyanka earned the title of Canada’s First Drag Superstar – and a $100,000 prize.
Did you get much sleep last night? You have a lot of energy.
I actually slept for two hours but I feel like an icon today! I’ll nap after. Whatever!
You were on stage at the Phoenix in Toronto for the finale. Tell me about the moment you found out you won.
The room was so full of people that love me so much. You truly can’t be as successful as I am if you don’t have that kind of support. You have all these people that believe in you, want you to do so good and they root for you. All of a sudden I win the most coveted title in all of gay culture and they’re all just like, “That’s our girl! We knew it!” Everyone was just so excited. So many tears last night. I feel honoured to be me.
Last year when we did the interview for the NOW Readers’ Choice issue, you weren’t totally out. What’s it like now to not have to live a double life and be out in every way possible?
I love it so much! Now I got all the cute boys reaching out to me. Trade of the season! But living a double life takes a toll on you. It makes for a great story – I’m happy to be the Hannah Montana of Canada. But let me tell you something, there are some demons that got built up during that time; some dark moments. And I think that it’s important for anybody who is – and there are a lot of people out there living a double life – to check in with yourself and make sure you’re okay. There was a time when I was not okay. I would sit on my couch and stare at the wall and then have to go to work. And that’s not okay. Now that I feel fully realized, I just feel so much more confident and happier. I sleep better at night.
You alluded to this double life on Instagram after your win by posting a photo of Priyanka holding hands with “Boyanka.”
They’re together forever. That’s my soul – Priyanka is Priyanka and Mark is Mark but we are the same person. That’s what this whole journey for me being on Canada’s Drag Race was all about.
Shea Couleé tweeted last night that this year is the “Melanin Dynasty” for Drag Race since she won All Stars 5 and Jaida Essence Hall won season 12.
Gurl. Shea Couleé FaceTimed me last night! How’d she get my number? I was dead. I picked up the phone like “Hello?” because it was a random number and she was like, “You did it, bitch!” I just shared this moment with her. It’s so cool to have somebody you look up to just believe in you so much. What’s crazy is the confidence they have in me. They’re like, “You got it girl. Bye.” I’m like, “Oh, I do?”
I feel like years from now, people will refer to this period of Drag Race as the Melanin Dynasty.— Shea Couleé (@SheaCoulee) September 4, 2020
Do you not feel that confidence? You come across as an extremely confident, hard worker.
I think the confidence is in the hard work. I’ve worked so hard to get myself here so that’s why I’m allowed to call myself an icon. If it was all handed to me we’d have a different story.
What did you think of Traci Melchor’s comment during the judging that your work ethic comes from your West Indian background?
I love that she said that. That is such a thing – that POCs have to work a little bit harder, and even if they don’t have to they still do. Because they want to get ahead in life, they want to make ends meet. My mom, when she was 11, came to Canada to sponsor her family to get them to come to Canada. Eleven years old. By herself. Ain’t no white person gotta do that.
Was your family at the show last night?
My entire family. But my dad couldn’t be there, which sucked. He had to work. I was like, “Are you making excuses dad?” He was like, “Honestly I would be there but I just can’t.” My mom and my three brothers came and they were just beaming. My mom was over the moon so excited. She couldn’t even believe it. I have a video reaction of her that I got the camera guy to shoot. I’m gonna post it tonight on Instagram.
You’re a television host and producer. You’ve gone to broadcast school. What was it like as a TV producer being on Canada’s Drag Race?
[laughs] It felt like a vacation. I didn’t have to write the script, I didn’t have to host… I just had to show up and the cameras were rollin’ baby. It was the best. It obviously helps – I was called the narrator of the season. It’s just so natural for me to talk on camera. There was never a moment where I didn’t trust the producers either.
As someone who has entertained children, what are the commonalities between drag and children?
Whenever you entertain children, you have to make a fool of yourself. And drag is just that. You have to be able to make fun of yourself. You have to be able to point out your mistakes. Being in this right now takes a lot of courage. Being a kids’ TV host, you have to have a lot of nerve. It transfers over to drag. Look at me now!
How does doing drag on television compare with doing it on stage?
Whenever you hit the stage you’re just doing the lip sync for your life. You’re not doing the acting challenge, you’re doing the improv challenge. You’re not doing a design challenge. To do it on Drag Race, it’s an uncomfortable feeling because you’re not used to this kind of thing. I did acting before but it was out of drag. I did improv but it was out of drag. Something about being in drag while doing it is like the ultimate challenge, because it messes with your brain. Especially for me who’s not used to being in drag doing those kind of things. That’s probably why I bombed Snatch Game and bombed those other things too.
Did Tynomi Banks actually warn you not to do Miss Cleo in Snatch Game?
She said, “Don’t you dare do it” before she left. I was like, I guess I’ll just do it? Who else could I have done? Maybe I was just meant to bomb it because you wouldn’t have got I Drove All Night.
Tell me about the final runway and your look.
The look. The $100,000 look. What a gorgeous finale eleganza extravaganza. I felt so beautiful. I knew that it was great, obviously. But I didn’t know know it was great until the judges were like, “Oh. So she is that bitch.” It’s that reassurance that you want. To be in this beautiful bridal lehenga and have the judges be like, “You look the most beautiful tonight.” Winner. Winner. Chicken Dinner. People keep saying that to me. I could use a piece of chicken. I’m hungry.
Where did you get it from?
There’s a shop in Toronto named Chandan Fashion on Gerrard and they are so accepting. I was shocked because I wasn’t sure if they’d be okay with the drag stuff. They’re all from India and I don’t know what the deal is over there. But I come in and they just throw fabrics at me. They’re so excited because they think it’s so cool that we take the Bollywood fabric and cut it up and make other things out of it. It excites them. We bought two bridal saris and cut them up and Frankensteined it into a gown. We had to buy a white one and a red one because I wanted a Canadian gown.
I mean, I want to know what you would do with it.
I would probably save it or invest it at this point.
A risk taker. You like to take RISKS!
Are you going to reinvest it into your drag career?
I don’t know. I think no. Should I buy something? I think I’m just gonna take it and let it sit there and stare at it. You know what I’ll do? I’ll get it in American ones because that’s just fun. Then I’ll get a Hilton hotel room because I also won unlimited stays for a year and just [starts party posing]. What’s that movie with J-Lo? The stripper one?
Hustlers. Just make it rain on yourself.
Because if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else? Can I get an amen?
Has Drag Race created a need for you to have tricks and ru-veals when you perform?
Drag Race has made it easier for me to perform because all anyone cares about is the wedding dress. All you gotta wear is the wedding dress every single time – the wedding dress from the Celine runway. I do My Heart Will Go On and then I ru-veal into I Drove All Night and everyone is like GO OFF!
Do you want to branch out?
My heart is in live entertainment. I love putting on shows for people. I got to put on this full concert with a curtain, dry ice, confetti and screens. That’s what I want to keep doing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.