Calgary is not a likely birthplace for a drag “icon”, but perhaps the better way to describe Justine Tyme and Terri Stevens is “trend-setter”. Before leaving Calgary 13 years ago – Tyme to Vancouver and Stevens to Toronto - both had established themselves as premier female impersonators in Calgary. Now, having earned fame across Canada, the two have returned home; the timing of their return eerily close, but completely coincidental.
“It was the job at Zsa Zsa’s Supper Club. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” said Stevens, who hosts a show every Sunday night at 8pm at the club featuring a blend of live act, lip-synching and celebrity impersonations. “I have been in Ontario for over 13 years, I am a Sagittarius and we are always looking for change. It was a chance to move home and be home.”
On the other hand, Justine (or Todd, as a boy) returned to Calgary in order to make a career change.
“I was under the impression that The Odyssey in its current state was ending. I had been doing the same thing for thirteen years and wanted to finish my education. I want to make a career and teach drama to kids. My drama teachers were my coolest teachers. I want to be the teacher that I remember being taught by. The cost of doing so out there was unreal and the opportunity was available to come home and live with my Dad and concentrate on my school,” he said, adding that he had other personal reasons as well.
“I have a brother who has children so I am an Uncle (or Auntie depending on how you look at it) and they don’t know their Uncle. So I weighed the pros and cons. The moving outweighed the staying. I had reached the top of what I did in Vancouver quite early on and I didn’t feel there was anymore of a challenge there. So it was time for a change. Whenever you get up to do your work, you want to be able to say ‘I love this job and can’t wait.’ I had said that for 12 years and then it turned into not wanting to do it anymore. It was a matter of quitting while I was on top. “
Both performers credit their foremothers in establishing a drag community in the city, and shared the history of their early days.
“I was in my first year at the dramatic arts department at MRC and the second years were having a Halloween party,” recalled Justine. “You want to make an impression as a first year, so I wanted to do something that would blow them away. I got Chris Collins to do me up the very first time and I went to the party, and nobody knew who I was. I was the last one that they couldn’t figure it out, they did so by eliminating everybody. People thought I was just crashing the party. That right there made me think I could do it and be good at it. The first show I did was with Betty Crocker and Danielle Dubois, at Patsy’s. I then worked at Dicks, before it was Detour. Sandy St. Peters saw me and suggested some characters. Then the court saw me and felt I was new and fresh and asked if I would be interested in being Princess to David and Natalie. I did most of the hosting of the shows as princess and gained a huge amount of popularity from being so good. I became Empress the next year, and after that started doing shows professionally – I used those two years to build my craft. So university was put on hold because I was performing and a hot commodity at the time.”
Terri Stevens also credits the late Sandy St. Peters as a major influence, as well as her own drama background.
“Sandy was a very dear friend. She was what I would consider a drag Mom, her and Flo Del Rocko. When I started drag, I thought I was the shit but I was put in my place several times by the older generation, I learned that I had a big mouth and how to shut it. Now I look at some of these kids and they have no idea what they are doing, they don’t have a clue,” she said. “I started doing [impressions] a little before drag, in school during theatre. I started doing drag and impersonations 28 years ago in Vancouver and Victoria. When I started I just did it, and would hear voices and try and imitate them and have come a long way since then.”
Both Tyme and Stevens are recognizable not only from their stage performances, but their many TV and film appearances.
”I’ve done movies, television, commercials; I have pretty much done it all. I was on extra in 54, Prisoner of Love, and Execution of Justice. I’ve done MuchMusic commercials, spent three years on Queer as Folk and five on SoGay TV,” Stevens said, marveling in the number of famous people that her career has lead her to. “I have met tons of famous people. I Go-Go Danced for Cher’s concerts. I met Joan Rivers in person, while in drag impersonating her, and she said I looked amazing and that she loved my outfit.”
“Most people know my appearance in the movie Connie and Carla the most,” says Tyme. “I did 13 days on that set and would sometimes play three different queens in a day. I did numerous episodes of The L Word and an episode of Godivas, and was on the film Double Jeopardy with Tommy Lee Jones and Ashley Judd as well as a lot of background work,” he adds, stating that the Hollywood opportunity may not come to just anybody.
“Canada and Alberta have such a great reputation for films. When you put down your skills, whether it’s a drag performer or an illusionist, when they need someone in that category they call you. The list of people who get those calls is quite a small list across Canada. There are a lot of Queens, but not a lot that can do TV and film work and have the resume to back it up.”
Tyme and Stevens’ performances recapture the lost art of drag. They bring real life icons to the stage like Cher, Bette Midler, and Barbara Streisand, just to name a few. Comparing it to the current trend of so-called “Tranny-Drag” is like comparing night and day.
“There is not as much of the traditional feel of impersonators around anymore,” stated Stevens. “There used to be a lot thirteen years ago. Now you have Justine, Devon Mills, a few others and myself. I am finding a lot of them are pulling Tranny-Drag, they just want to look pretty and real and go up on stage and perform. I am not knocking the performances, some of them are absolutely fabulous but that is the turn that female impersonation has taken these days. In gay society, we have been watching drag queens for sixty years. Some people don’t have to get dressed up like Cher to walk into a bar to perform. I take my craft to many more levels. Sandy St. Peters helped me learn to understand the shape of my face and how to apply the makeup to it in order to make myself appear different without having to have cosmetic surgery like a lot of other transgendered entertainers have been doing. Craig Russel even taught me that if you’ve got the face, and you can distort it and change shape to make your face look like somebody else, work it. That is what I do.”
“I get frustrated with some of the new girls because they think they are all that because they can put on a wig and a pair of pantyhose and lip-synch one number so they are this big celebrity,” says Tyme. “I was always taught to respect where we came from. When I first stepped up as Empress 13, Stephanie St. Asia was the 7th Empress. She said to me, ‘If it wasn’t for me you wouldn’t be Empress 13’ and I thought that was awfully lofty isn’t it? But she continued to say ‘If it wasn’t for Flo, I wouldn’t be, and if it wasn’t for Veronica, Flo wouldn’t be. You always remember your past because your past is what brought you here, what you will always remember, and will always support you’ and I have never forgot that. I think a lot of the new girls don’t realize that you have to pay your dues, you can’t just be up there for one month and be a headliner. There is a lot of free stuff before you earn a paycheque, there is a lot of backup work you do before you become a lead. If you take every step at a time you will make it to the top safe and sound. If you start jumping steps, sometimes you are going to slip and fall right back down those stairs.”
Tyme also credits current society with some of the changes in drag performance.
“In some ways there is a different way of thinking, but that is in part of media and what happens in the world. When I broke in it was the era of Cher and Madonna, Liza and Bette and Barbara. Now that they have stepped into the background and become legends, the new queens have the MTV generation to look at, the Miley Cyrus, Lindsay Lohan, Hillary Duff, which although have a certain look, all sort of blends together, and I find that happens in drag too. I don’t mind Tranny Drag, I just want to see something good. Just be true to yourself, do what you want to do and if Tranny is the way you want to go, go for it. But know that every time you do it you should improve on yourself. I still, after 20 years, improve on myself, which is something I feel is a challenge that keeps it fresh and fun.”
Stevens was quick to point out that in her opinion the craft is not fading away, but evolving.
“It is still there, it just stays at one level. There are different levels – Tranny Drag, Cross-Dressers, Impersonators are all different levels of entertainment in the drag industry. [Traditional drag] just is not as popular as it was 15 – 20 years ago. The rapport for Drag Queens, Impersonators and entertainers period in the gay scene, they have been seen so often that people don’t care anymore. Dealing with the straight community, which is what I do mostly now, it is a different crowd every night and they are way more appreciative of it. I still have a fan base of people in the city that know I am one of the top performers in Canada. The ones that sort of know me would be the ones that cat-call, and the ones that don’t know me would just walk on by.”
Although they have each been away for over a decade, both artists have come home on occasion for guest performances and special events. Both are ecstatic to be home, and say that although Calgary has grown and changed – some old haunts gone, some new hangouts sprung up, and a lot of new faces emerged - things remain the same.
“I am older now, so it has changed quite a lot,” said Stevens. “A lot of my peers, the people I hung around and partied with have changed and don’t go out anymore. That is life, as you get older you just don’t party as much anymore. Coming back, there are plenty of new faces, but I always tried to keep in touch with Calgary by coming out and performing and keeping tabs on the local gay scene through my friends. In some aspects it has changed a lot, in others no.”
“Coming back, it feels like the old days, I am running into people that I haven’t seen in ten years and it is like nothing has changed,” added Tyme. “Same with Edmonton, everything has changed but nothing has changed at the same time.”