You would be forgiven if you think it took her all day to become Jocelyn Towers. The size H breast plate with fake rubber skin around the edges; a contoured face decorated with new cheeks, higher brows, bigger lips. A body that’s padded, rounded out and tucked in with layers and layers of pantyhose. Heels so high they must be magic. As drag queens often say, she’s feeling the illusion. Jocelyn Towers is inviting you to, too.

But of course it’s raining tonight. Coat check is filled with dripping jackets, and the dry space under the outside awning is packed tight with smokers. A crowd of slightly more than two dozen sit around the stage, sipping seltzers. The crowd is anyone and everyone, young and old, teetotalers and drunks, but the night’s not about the audience. Tonight is about them, the drag queens, Haus of Towers and Haus of Jeckyll. The crowd has anticipated a good show, and Jocelyn Towers, tonight’s hostess, 6’10” in heels, sashays onto the stage to fulfill that promise. It’s time for all to join in her fantasy.

Balancing a seltzer and phone in one hand, laughing into the mic held by the other, Jocelyn searches for the first song of the performance. She used to feel nervous at this moment, the usual kind of stage fright that many fresh-faced performers get, but under different circumstances. Her first time onstage in full drag, performing in someone else’s show, she wasn’t fully committed. She wasn’t yet calling herself Jocelyn Towers. She wasn’t in her own padding, didn’t do her own makeup – and still felt like a man.

She created the character of Jocelyn Towers while in motion, on legs that felt like a baby deer’s, lip-syncing to Bad Bitch by Bebe Rexha (for the verse sung by a man, Jocelyn brought out a wacky, inflatable, arm-flailing tube man). Onstage is where you can lose yourself to the character, learning about them while becoming them, like reading a memoir you forgot you wrote.

Many colours of wigs.
caption Drag queens Jocelyn Towers and Sara Tonin’s collection of wigs in their house.
Amy Fiske

A drag queen can be many different things. Comedy Queen, Pageant Queen, Runway Queen, Shady Queen, Body Queen – or all at once. Anita P wows the crowd with cartwheels and handstands, Miranda Wrights performs a number wearing an udder, Heckella Jeckyll has a beard. Some queens are solo, while some belong to a drag house, a found family who support and train each other. Drag is theatre mixed with glamour. It is gender exaggeration, exploration, and expression. It is a ridiculously expensive art to get into, and the people who perform it learn many ways to save a buck (spray paint works as nail polish and breast plates can be hand-me-downs).  It is community and camaraderie and competition. It’s trashy and silly and elegant all at once. It might completely take out your ankles or back.

But most of all, for Jocelyn Towers, drag is love. She is a drag mother, taking other queens and kings under her wing and teaching them the tricks of the trade. It is hard work, but worth it. It rightly should be, says Jocelyn, with the amount of makeup and cinching and Gorilla Super Glue involved. Drag is a persona you use to find out more about you. The cash tips don’t hurt either. So tonight, in this small, dark club in front of a small, tipsy audience, Jocelyn Towers will show them what she’s learned about herself. Boss Bitch by Doja Cat begins, and Jocelyn lip-syncs her way into the audience, following the direction of the waving five-dollar bills.

The old couch

Coming back from intermission (fifteen minutes, long enough for a bathroom and smoke break) is always a bit stressful. Have many people left? Are people too drunk or high to watch the rest of the show? They certainly can’t be bored. Thankfully, it doesn’t seem like anyone has ditched tonight for another bar. After the fourth round of successful lip-syncs, paper cash consensually shoved in thongs and tits and waistbands, the show is over. The queens stick around to take pictures with the crowd while the after-hours deejay sets up. Jocelyn laps up the attention. One attendee, a college-aged woman, compliments Jocelyn’s simulated breasts.

“Thank you! They’re all natural. And ordered from Amazon. Not the ass padding, though. It used to be an old couch.”

When post-show duties with the audience end, Jocelyn and the queens make their way backstage. Six years of performing has rid Jocelyn of her baby deer steps, and she’s increasingly bolder with the height of her heels. Jocelyn Towers stuffs crumpled bills into her suitcase, at least a hundred dollars worth. More bills free themselves as she gets halfway out of drag.

The first thing to go are the heels: pink thigh high boots, her ankle dangling eight inches off the ground. The boot has an illusion heel, and it’s a wonder anyone can walk balanced only on their toes, standing on three inches of platform like devilish hooves. Next off comes the wig, which is treated much more delicately, lovingly placed into a protective plastic bag. When Jocelyn gets home, she’ll take it out and brush it free of tangles, then place it on a mannequin head next to two dozen other heads adorned with colourful hair. They’re facing the wall, thank goodness. Otherwise it would look like a wall of heads on spikes; most of them have painted faces, painted eyes, dazed pupils.

caption Drag queens Jocelyn Towers, in black, and Sara Tonin fully made up prior to a performance.
Amy Fiske

The queens backstage take off some padding, but not all. The wigs go, but the lashes don’t. Some tits are removed, some ass too, and all the queens swap heels for Crocs. Jocelyn has broken at least three nails, and a fourth is in danger. But this group of six queens isn’t going home right yet – it’s almost two a.m., which means it’s time for McDonald’s. This is the usual nighttime routine after a show. The queens leave in jogging pants and hoodies, dragging their suitcases full of fantasy and cash, thanking the club staff and security.

Jocelyn Towers is delighted with her decision to go ahead with the show, despite the torrential rain. Right now, she’s sucking back a lipstick-stained cigarette while waiting for the Uber, makeup holding on for dear life in the rain. She is hardly caring that she may have fallen once or twice during the show. It’s all par for the course; rawness has forever been a part of drag. In the context of the fantasy the queens and audience conjure, it is all part of the show.

Playing with fire

Out of drag, Jocelyn Towers becomes Josh MacDonald, a tradesman working in fire safety inspection. He’s covered in tattoos and piercings. All day, in a black hoodie and dusty jeans, he handles expired fire extinguishers and fixes old wires in dank basements and electrical closets. He looks like he’s stepped out for a smoke at a metal show: tattoos covering his hands and neck, thick plugs in both ears, facial piercings on his cheeks and nose bridge. Ironically, he wears less clothing than Jocelyn Towers (but she shows more skin).

Josh is exceptionally good with his hands; he’s an engineer, and techniques learned on the job have come in handy with drag, from constructing outfits and props to the intricacy of makeup. When onstage at his next show, he will tease his mother, Michelle, a perpetual attendee of all his drag performances, saying, “My mom is so lucky. She has a straight son and a gay son all in one. Who else has a son who can fix an electrical panel and apply her eyelashes?”

Josh has lived with his boyfriend, Robbie (also known as Sara Tonin), for eight of the nine years they’ve been together. There is art all over their house, art made specifically for Josh and Robbie by talented friends. A mural featuring men in risqué poses and outfits; a metal rose wrapped with the preserved skin of their sorely missed first pet, a snake named Vera; a small wooden monkey draped in Mardi Gras beads.

One room in the house Josh and Robbie started putting together only six years ago. Before the couple got into performing drag, it was a guest bedroom. Now it is a drag room, complete with wig wall and vanity, dressers with drawers full of accessories and cosmetics. A stripper pole is in the middle of the room, bald mannequin heads are stashed haphazardly, a wall of spiky heels and boots that reach the thigh. It can easily look like chaos, but to Josh and Robbie it is relaxing.

Heartbreaker by MSTRKRFT plays on the speakers like a whisper while Robbie and Josh silently focus on their technically difficult makeup. They started painting their faces at eight A.M., and it is now just after 11. A show that a snowstorm wiped out was rescheduled and is set to start in just two hours. Josh begins the ritual by gluing down his eyebrows and putting in electric red contacts, hiding the icy blue of his real eye colour. After his eyes stop watering, he applies thick layers of foundation and contour, drawing on new brows and cheeks and redefining the lines of his jaw to appear softer. He lets all that rest a little before starting on his eye make-up, opting for an angled blue cat’s eye for today’s drag performance. He and Robbie set their make-up with hairspray, extra hold, spraying it directly into their faces like champs.

The quiet of the room on this particular morning could be attributed to stress. After the snowstorm cancellation, refund requests from people who couldn’t make the new date came pouring in, and the guest list was reduced to around a dozen confirmed attendees. Another detail, which wasn’t as alarming then as it is now, is that this drag performance is taking place during the afternoon. Beginning at 1 p.m. in a club that functions as a restaurant during the day, with windows five feet tall, there will be nowhere to hide. Everyone will see each other’s faces; and the audience, the bartender, and the server will all see little details in the drag queens’ looks that the cover of darkness would promise to hide. Drag in the daytime comes with different risks in different places, but thankfully, here in Halifax on the corner of Prince and Market, Josh is only concerned with getting his costume’s angel wings on the right way and drinking the day’s first shot of tequila. Most frustratingly, of course, is the big question: today will there even be an audience for Jocelyn Towers?

Buck Ugly’s drag brunch

On the steps of Buck Ugly’s, Jocelyn Towers comes to life. Before she is even inside the club, she is waving at passersby, boisterously calling out hello. “They’re going to stare anyway. Why not say hi?,” she says to her mom.

It is hard not to. Though everything is covered in snow, the day is warm, and Jocelyn is already sweating with the weight of her makeup and breasts. She doesn’t wear a jacket; she wears only a skimpy bodysuit. Tits and tattoos are fully on display.

Jocelyn is naturally charismatic. She takes the lead with ease, planning where to set up the speakers, chatting to the bartender and server, her deep laugh warm and booming, echoing around the empty dance floor. She can’t help but crack jokes at the lacklustre number of pre-sold tickets. She puts the guest list by the door but won’t need it; everyone who is attending has shown up early, eager to see the show. Jocelyn makes small talk with them while setting up a large wheel, crafted at home. Audience members will spin it to decide which performer will lip-sync which song. By the end, only Jocelyn will be lucky enough to land on her favourite song, Thriller.

The show is starting. Backstage, Jocelyn had expressed disappointment in the turnout. Ten attendees in total, one of whom is her mom. Onstage, with tequila shots and lights and an attentive crowd, she starts feeling more confident. She is the ringleader of this circus.

“Give it up for us!”

The meagre crowd claps and hollers. They appear eager to return the queens’ energy. An audience member spins the wheel and Anita P gets Misery Business by Paramore. She begins on her hands and knees, crawling across the bar top. She cartwheels in between tables. Her wig falls off, and she puts it between her legs. It’s all a part of the show, she winks. It’s not, but turning accidents into comedy means the audience is still captivated.

The intermission comes. A quick fifteen minutes, the smoke break, the server refilling drinks and taking brunch orders. Jocelyn smokes outside with her mom and Sara. “I’m having fun,” she says. “I didn’t think I would.”

It’s nerve-wracking going back inside to see how many people remain. A weight lifts off Jocelyn’s shoulders when she realizes no one has left. No matter the turnout, no matter the bright light of daytime, no matter all the seams and holes and stumbles, people are genuinely enjoying the fantasy. Cheeks hurt from laughter, glasses are emptied and refilled, more shots are poured.

caption Drag queens Jocelyn Towers and Sara Tonin prior to a performance in Halifax.
Amy Fiske

Anita P has come out for her final number, Britney’s Toxic. She has on thigh high black glitter heels, a pink thong, a pink mesh top that covers only her shoulders, and a head-to-toe reptile bodysuit. Long spindly tentacles come out of her head, and she uses them to playfully whack people. She’s up on the bar top, soaking in attention like a lizard soaking in sunlight.

Sara Tonin comes out looking stunning, in all white and sparkles, performing the song she hates the most, Taylor Swift’s We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. She doesn’t know the lyrics, but that doesn’t stop her from flirting and laughing, letting the audience in on it. When the chorus comes back in, she yawns and rolls her eyes.

Thriller is Jocelyn’s last song. It’s time to bring out the big guns. Going into full stripper mode, feeling campy and sexy all at once, she does her signature bunny hops, tiny little jumps to make her tits bounce. She teases pulling her top down to the coos of the audience, and then bares all, size H silicone mounds with both nipples pierced.

“No pictures! Don’t record this!,” she jokes with the audience.

One table is two young women; this is their first drag show. They look stunned and happy. Jocelyn zeroes in on them. “If you loved us, we’re Haus of Towers. If not, we’re Haus of Jeckyll!”

Backstage, the queens are feeling proud, despite the terribly tiny audience. No one made more than thirty bucks, but it was enough for a stop at McDonald’s on the way home. In what feels like a snap of the fingers, their messy backstage area is packed tightly into suitcases, wigs removed and Crocs slipped on.

Jocelyn Towers (Josh MacDonald out of drag) hugs the last remaining audience members before heading out to the SUV. Drag has always been a safe space, a place of love, all about the queens and the party and the work. Even when it sucks, like it sort of did today, it’s still worthwhile. And, on the bright side, Jocelyn this time only broke two nails.

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Amy Fiske

Amy Fiske in May 2024 will graduate with a King's Bachelor of Journalism degree.

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