Chelazon Leroux talks RuPaul, Kent Monkman and drag’s double standard

Profile | Gregory Beatty

When I spoke with Saskatoon drag artist Chelazon Leroux on May 19, she’d just returned from Los Angeles where she’d experienced a true full-circle moment. The circle starts on the Buffalo River Dene Nation in northern Saskatchewan in the late 2000s, when Chelazon saw a school show tied to Mental Health Awareness Week called “Mr. Beautiful and Mrs. Handsome” where boys dressed as girls and vice versa.

“I wouldn’t say it started my drag career, but it did open my mind to the idea it was a thing,” says Chelazon. “I was around 11 and wasn’t very confident or outspoken. But growing up in a small community, and knowing I was different, and being told I was different, I had to find some way to see myself in other people.”

Enter RuPaul’s Drag Race, which ultimately completes the circle.

“I first saw RuPaul’s Drag Race when I was 13,” says Chelazon. “I was so intrigued, and something just clicked. ‘Ah, there are others out there. I’m not the only one.’ I became very quickly obsessed and watched all the seasons.”

While in high school, Chelazon participated in student theatre, where she “played around” with wigs and make-up, and developed her performance chops. From there, she moved to Edmonton, and once she was old enough to go to bars, she started performing on stage.

In her short career (Chelazon is 23), she has made her mark in the drag world. She has an active social media presence, with over 500,000 followers on TikTok, and in 2022 she was a contestant on season three of Canada’s Drag Race.

Reflecting on how she got her start in drag, Chelazon finds it ironic. “My first exposure to drag was from a non-queer perspective. It was straight people doing it. That’s probably true for a lot of people, when you look at things like Mrs. Doubtfire — or name any male comedian who’s cross-dressed for a joke.”

The irony lies in the disconnect in our society between drag when it’s done in a straight context, and when it’s done by a drag artist like herself.

“If I was born a woman, and I was to put on these costumes and perform on stage, would I be treated any different than any other pop artist? And if a man does it, it’s comedic. That shows me the issue is not costumes, or sexuality, or what can be perceived as sexual. The discussion around drag now; it’s targeted only because it’s queer people,” she says.

By “discussion” Chelazon is referring to the blitzkrieg of anti-2SLGBTQIAP+ bills that state legislatures across MAGA America have unleashed in the last 18 months. As she notes, the drag community has been specifically targeted. Laws have been passed restricting public performance, mobs of crazed MAGA disciples have descended on performances and appearances that have been held, and hosting institutions including libraries, bars and theatres have been subjected to vicious online attack.

That’s part of the full circle moment too. But we’ll get to that later.

Unapologetically Indigenous

In a 2022 profile for Canada’s Drag Race, Chelazon described her drag persona as “unapologetically Indigenous”. It starts with her jewellery and costumes, where Indigenous designs from beaded earrings to full-on regalia figure prominently.

Chelazon also does a well-known side character called “Auntie”.

“In our cultures and communities, an auntie is an Indigenous woman who took part in raising you, whether that was spending time visiting, or teaching you some vital life lesson,” she says. “‘Auntie’ is my love letter to Indigenous women, because they were the ones, when I was growing up, who never ostracized me, or treated me any different from the others. They loved me for who I was.”

Chelazon doesn’t shy away from addressing contentious social justice issues in her act either, or doing something like making moose stew as Auntie in a TikTok to rep her Indigenous heritage. Underpinning all of that is her identity as a two-spirit person.

“Two-spirit is an English word that was created at an Indigenous gay and lesbian conference in Winnipeg in 1995. It describes an historical Indigenous identity that’s existed across Turtle Island,” she says.

“I find it best described as a person born with both the masculine and feminine spirit. Because we had that perspective of being able to see through both worlds, we were highly valued and respected, and had responsibilities in leadership, education and caregiving,” she says.

“It sounds so sacred you imagine a pan flute and an eagle flying by. But it’s just the gift we’re born with.”

Chelazon cites Cree artist Kent Monkman as an influence in developing her two-spirit identity. Monkman is best known for his saucy recreations of iconic West European and American art works (most dating from the colonization era) which often feature his alter ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle.

“I was made aware of him two or three years ago. I remember seeing the art, and it just spoke so specifically to not only being Indigenous, but a two-spirit person. There’s humour to his art, a respect to Indigeneity, to queer identity,” says Chelazon.

“Some people might view it as crude, but for two-spirit people, we’ve had so much to face, and a lot of hardship, no matter where you grow up actually, on reserve or off,” she says. “I think he took all that hardship and bullshit, and maybe a commentary on toxic masculinity, and celebrated not only the pain but the humour of it all. I have such respect for him.”

DragCon Slays

The day before we spoke, Chelazon arrived home from a six-day stay in L.A. where she was a feature artist at RuPaul’s DragCon 3.

“It was a full circle moment!” she says. “As as teenager, I watched and admired the show. Now I got to be a part of it as one of the queens.”

The two-day gathering attracted drag artists and fans from across the United States, and gave Chelazon a special insight into the war being waged against the drag community in MAGA states.

But it didn’t dominate the DragCon, she says.

“Sure, there was some talk about it. And there was a booth doing fundraising for advocacy and fighting for rights. But we wanted to focus on the celebration of love, artistry and stories that were being told by diverse backgrounds from all over the world,” she says.

“That joy, I think, is such a threat to ignorance. We realize we have to fight everyday to exist, and it does get exhausting. But we should be allowed to be happy as well. And share that love and sense of community with everyone who came to L.A. to experience DragCon. It was exhausting. Long hours, but very beautiful,” she says.

When the queens did talk about the war being waged, they expressed a defiant spirit, says Chelazon.

“The laws are very much real, but the confidence and courage is still there. It’s not like they’re giving up or backing down,” she says.

“It wasn’t too long ago that all of it was illegal. People are still alive from that time. Performers tell me their stories. One in Edmonton, she’s named Twiggy, did drag in a time when you had to have three articles of male clothing on your body or you could be arrested,” says Chelazon.

“Twiggy still does it, as a reminder of those times,” she says. “It’s not the first time we’ve experienced hatred, backlash and ignorance. I think there’s the attitude: ‘Know what, bring it on. Try to stop us’.” ■