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Freida Whales' weekend Slackwater drag shows a sign of the times

In the heady pre-COVID days of spring 2019, Princess Margaret Secondary student Husain Sattar and other kids in his school's Youth Advisory Council organized a drag show.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

They called it "Fierce and Feminine" and scheduled it for cozy Orchard Park Theatre. It would benefit Penticton's YES (Youth Engagement Strategy) Project.

At the time, Sattar said he wanted to "shake the city" with what would amount to one of the city's only drag happenings ever outside the liberal confines of the Penticton Art Gallery, where curator Paul Crawford had scheduled several drag performances over the years as part of his programming.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

And when the event's eager sold-right-out crowd went absolutely bananas over the bill, where tentative first-time student queens shared the stage with noted Kelowna-based drag artist Jenna Telz, a chunk of the city really did feel appropriately shaken.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

Later that year, executive director of South Okanagan Acute Hospitals Carl Meadows and other members of Penticton's Snakebite Film Festival committee organized another drag extravaganza at Bad Tattoo Brewing. It would again feature Jenna Telz (and Meadows himself) and again benefit a cause -- this time the diversity-centric Snakebite Festival.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

And when that show -- held in the venue's brewery room -- also unfolded to a big, loud and thoroughly involved crowd (Bad Tattoo partner Marley Gravely called it her "favourite event of the year"), it seemed Penticton was finally on board the train to drag town.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

Buoyed by internationally prominent TV programs like RuPaul's Drag Race and its spin-offs and a slightly less conservative society in general, the business and the popularity of drag -- not to mention the skill level of its practitioners -- had really taken off over the course of the 2010s. And now even little old Penticton was getting in on the fun.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

Then along came the pandemic, and drag and everything else shut down.

But today, nearly two years later, even with COVID still lurking around, the Penticton drag scene seems to be picking up where it left off. And that's good news, not just for diversity and inclusion in general, but of course for the performing queens and for a public weary of isolation and apparently more interested than ever in watching dragsters do their thing.

The Penticton reboot got its official kick start this past Halloween at a Brit-themed downtown nightspot known for its late-night revelry. In fact, the fright night show went over so well that a follow-up was booked for Dec. 16. And it did huge business too.

<who>Photo Credit: Jenny Popoff<who> Scenes from Brexit Pub

"My bartender Heidi has always said to me, 'You have to do drag shows,'" explained Brexit Pub boss Martyn Lewis. "And that was it. When a couple of patrons came up and said they wanted to do a drag show, I said 'yes.' It's that simple."

According to Lewis, who laughs when he calls TV's Drag Race "interesting" and "intriguing," the place was "packed."

<who>Photo Credit: Jenny Popoff<who> Scenes from Brexit Pub

"The Halloween show was packed to capacity and we sold every seat for our show in December," he said. "It was post-Delta and pre-Omicron, so there were still restrictions, but at the time you could at least socialize between tables."

Thrilled with the experience, Lewis has set up another drag night for Feb. 17 and wants to go monthly with it thereafter. Yep, monthly.

<who>Photo Credit: Jenny Popoff<who> Scenes from Brexit Pub

"My own values are inclusive," he said, "though I'm not going to pretend I know a lot about drag. But I'm along for the ride. I want a party with all good people. Everyone included."

Penticton's spicy drag affair continued big-time this past weekend with dual shows -- Saturday afternoon and evening -- at Slackwater Brewing.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia<who> Freida Whales at Slackwater

This time it was another Kelowna queen, Freida Whales, at the helm. A strong queen and MC who can dole out the humour as well as she lip-syncs, Whales brought along an entire crew (she calls them her "whale pod") to keep attendees engaged.

There was Viola Roquette belting out a convincing version of Radiohead's Creep. There was Whales' real-life cousin and drag sister Valerie Rose carving up the stage with duckwalks and moves normally reserved for dance competitions.

Her death-defying flip off the stage was one of the evening's OMG highlights.

<Photo Credit: NowMedia<who> Valerie Rose at Slackwater Brewing

And there was the Okanagan's oldest performing drag queen. She calls herself Sophonda Dick. She's 70 years of age and coincidentally has been performing drag since the 70s.

"She made it possible for all the drag queens in the valley to be drag queens," said Whales.

"Way back when, she was running from mobs of people trying to kill her. Her dad outed her and tried to electro-shock therapy the gay out of her. She's literally the inspiration for all the local drag queens."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia<who> Scene at Slackwater Brewing

Whales, who says she prefers "classic" comedic drag and lists Drag Race alumni such as Bianca Del Rio and Trixie Mattel as her personal faves, calls her setup a "variety act."

"Who wants to sit and watch drag queens all night long?" she laughed. "I'd rather see some dancing queens, some comedians, jugglers, and everything in between."

The formula worked mightily Saturday evening. When the sold-out audience wasn't applauding like mad, they were oohing and ahhing and screaming sentiments like "Yes, mama."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia<who> Scene at Slackwater Brewing

Pentictonite Amanda King was perched at one of the loudest tables. Loud enough that we could barely hear her speak.

"We're having so much fun," she shouted above the din. "We're so stoked that there's representation in Penticton that we don’t see all the time.

"This is the most professional drag performance I've ever been to. We're going crazy. They look awesome, they sound awesome. It's so much fun."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia<who> Scene at Slackwater Brewing

Across the room was another quintet, celebrating the 30th birthday of one of their own.

"It's really important to support a show like this in a small community," said one interviewee, whose name we sadly lost in the cacophony. "We want to see more inclusion and we want more shows like this, so it's important that it's sold out and that the crowd is crazy."

All five said they're fully on board for another drag outing.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia<who> Paige Prosser strikes a pose

Slackwater taproom manager Paige Prosser, a devoted fan of Drag Race who says she's seen every season and points to Katya (Zamolodchikova) as her top queen, was straight-up ecstatic.

"It's the first drag show for Slackwater," she said once we'd escaped to the quiet outside. "But the staff, the Slackwater community, we love going to drag shows. So we wanted to bring it to Penticton so others can experience it."

We asked Prosser what she feels lies at the heart of drag's appeal. And she was quick to respond.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia<who> Paige Prosser strikes a pose

"RuPaul says we're all born naked and the rest is drag," she smiled. "And people love seeing people express themselves. It's something that in daily life you're self-conscious about.

"So there's something about being in a space watching people express themselves. It makes you feel more confident as a person. It's super empowering."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia<who> Scene at Slackwater Brewing

Like Brexit, Slackwater isn't waiting long for more shows. The next, again a double-bill featuring Whales and her pod, happens Feb 19. And according to both Freida and Slackwater boss Liam Peyton, there'll be plenty more drag at the venue in 2022.

Indeed, said Whales, who counts a performance several years ago at the Penticton Art Gallery as one of her very first, "There's a lot of demand for drag queens in Penticton right now. And there's not a lot of queens down there, so it's a good space to jump into.

"I'll be back at Slackwater a lot. We'll be everywhere in 2022. You can’t hide from us."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia<who> Freida Whales at Slackwater Brewing

Like a lot of other modern queens, Whales' dalliance with drag was triggered by Drag Race.

"There's not a lot of drag in the Okanagan," she said, "so I didn’t see any local queens before I started. I'm a Drag Race baby like most people.

"I started watching it and was like, 'Hey, I could probably try that.' So I started buying some women's clothing and tried it out."

<Photo Credit: NowMedia<who> Valerie Rose at Slackwater Brewing

As for the distinctive name, Whales, who's now sponsored by Staycation in the Nation, explained it came from makeup experimentation.

"I was playing around with makeup about six years ago and I drew a big eyebrow across my forehead," she laughed, "and I looked across the room at my then boyfriend and said, 'I am Freida.' And he said, 'You should be Freida Whales.'

"It was probably a fat joke, but that was it."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia<who> Viola Roquette at Slackwater

According to Whales, a seemingly upbeat person who cracks a lot of jokes during conversation, growing up gay in what she calls a "very heterosexual household" was an…interesting experience.

"My mom and dad were pipeliners and my brother's a mechanic. And then there's me -- a cross-dresser," she said.

"We grew up on a farm in east Kelowna. I worked on an orchard and had chickens and goats. I didn’t come out 'til I was 19. So I was quite a late bloomer."

When she did come out as gay, Whales said her mom was "caught off guard."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia<who> Scenes from Slackwater Brewing

"And I don’t see why," she added, laughing again. "She got me hooked on Titanic (the movie has a large gay fanbase) when I was seven years old. She bought me the soundtrack for Christmas."

"But my parents were more shocked than anything. And then when I came out as a cross-dresser, they were like, 'Hmm…whatever.'"

Today, Whales' parents are "fine with it" but don't attend her shows.

"As my star rises, they get more into it," she said, giggling again. "My mom's more interested when I tell her how much money I make."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia<who> Valerie Rose at Slackwater

Along the way, Whales has willingly and unwillingly become a newsmaker.

In 2019, she was a big part of the Kelowna library's "Drag Queen Story Time" program, where queens would read stories to kids. Though hugely popular, it predictably also managed to stir up controversy.

In the end, the queens, the program and the kids emerged triumphant. You can read more about it here.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia<who> Scene at Slackwater Brewing

Then during the pandemic, she interviewed a variety of international drag celebs, such as Drag Race veteran Cynthia Lee Fontaine and Canada's Drag Race vet Jimbo for her YouTube channel, a place where you'll find other interviews too, more stories for kids, music vids, and more.

Speaking of Canada's Drag Race, a north-of-the-border RuPaul spin-off where the winner sashays away with $100,000, Whales is already a three-time applicant.

"I figure the fourth time will be the charm," she said. "But there's a lot of good queens in Canada, so it's a real competition."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia<who> Viola Roquette at Slackwater

Ultimately, Freida Whales, like her Kelowna compatriot Jenna Telz and all the other queens out there, is riding the crest of a drag tidal wave. Drag has been there for a century or more, but never has it been as accepted, as prolific and as competitive as it is right now.

And barring another COVID setback, Penticton in 2022 looks to be a hotbed of drag realness. Yes, mama.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia<who> Freida Whales at Slackwater Brewing

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