The cheerful drag queen on the cover this month is none other than Edmonton’s current reigning Empress, Marni Gras – and wow can she jump! During her cover shoot on Foote Field, college soccer practice let out and she ironically received a number of wolf-whistles from the sweaty guys that saw her from a distance.
The Cheerleading costume has to do with her “Cheer Up!” campaign to raise money to benefit the Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation (particularly the NICU program) and the AIDS Research Centre at the University of Alberta.
“It’s actually overwhelming – the response has been great from corporate sponsors to the news,” Marcel Panas (aka. Marni Gras) told us, when we later conducted a phone interview. “The donations have exceeded my expectations and it has been a very positive experience. The support has been incredible, not only from the local GLBT community but from the healthcare community, families, and the general public.”
When you see Marni out at ISCWR function, you can buy a pair of pompoms for only $5 and be automatically entered to win one of two “Gift of Flight” tickets, generously donated by Westjet.
“My goal was to raise $3000 by August 17th, and if I did that I would run the marathon in Edmonton in my Cheerleader uniform. Well I reached that goal a few weeks ago already and we’re now over $4000. …And our draw of the Westjet tickets isn’t until December 13th – this is only one phase of my fundraising activity for the Cheer-Up campaign. …Of course Westjet and the Cheerleading company have been major sponsors of this initiative.”
Panas’ “drag-mother” Leah Way also made a similar offer, but with a purposely lofty goal. “I believe that if it was $6000 that Leah Way would run the marathon too,” Panas chuckles, “but that’s not going to happen, she’s not going to be here.”
The surprising thing that people may not know about Panas is that he identifies as straight, with a wife and a child.
“My wife is very supportive, and I wouldn’t be involved with the court and I certainly wouldn’t be empress if I didn’t have the full support of my family, and my friends, and in particular my wife. And I think they all feel really good about it, especially with the charities that I’ve chosen. I think there’s definitely a personal connection to both, so that really makes it easy for me to participate and for people to accept.”
Panas told us a little bit about how he first became involved with the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Wild Rose (ISCWR).
“I was at the Roost one day and Gary, our opener, was there doing a production of the Lion King, and they approached me to participate in the Show. I was in the back row in the Chorus and Leah Way comes along and points me out … so she and Gary literally brought me out of the back row and into the spotlight of that show and since then I’ve never looked back. That was three years ago, and our Edmonton Ball came a couple months later, and Leah Way asked me to be a candidate for her Prince so I came in and ran with that.”
The charities of choice this year have a very real significance to Panas. Indeed it was a very emotional moment for everyone at this past May’s Coronation, when he brought his one year old son Alex on stage with him.
“In particular [we chose] the NICU program because we had two boys, Alexander and Andrew that were born in November of 2006. They were born very early and very small, and they spent four months in the hospital at the Royal Alex and at the Stollery. Andrew passed away in April of last year, after three months, and Alex came home a couple days later and is with us now doing great. But we found the value of the health care system and what it meant for us. With the money that we’re raising, we’re going to buy special chairs that allow you to hold the sickest and most premature babies, because they value the touch of the parent. In Alex’s case, it saved his life – in Andrew’s case he was able to fall asleep in his mom’s arms. …We hope that more babies are held sooner, for longer, and more often, so that more babies can go home with their families.”
In addition, the University of Alberta’s AIDS Research Centre was chosen in memory of Sticky Vicky.
“She worked so hard at the Roost for that AIDS benefit. I wanted to continue that on as a legacy. At the end of the day my feeling is that, knowing what I know now, we can say that AIDS isn’t exclusive to the GLBT community, nor is having sick children exclusive to the straight community. Being a straight person I can probably bring just as much to a gay organization, as far as positive awareness and acceptance, as anybody.”
We asked Panas about how the GLBT community has reacted to the idea of someone who identifies as straight, taking on such a major responsibility in a traditionally gay organization.
“I think my actions speak for myself more than I could in words. Certainly since my princess year, I know some people were challenged with my being identified as straight and going into these types of roles. But I think the effort that I put to give back to the community has really spoken well, and as I’ve stepped up as empress I haven’t felt any negativity whatsoever. The support has been overwhelmingly positive from all members of the community.”
There are still many more ISCWR fundraiser to come this year.
“We have other events, of course other shows leading up to December 13th… I’ll be doing the Cheer Up but that isn’t going to be my fundraiser for the entire year. I’m going to still be selling pompoms wherever I go, but if people buy by December 13th then they’ll automatically go into that draw for the Westjet tickets. I might have something else after that – I’ll have to think of another draw after that.”
Join Marni and the ISCWR on August 9th for Marni’s Birthday Bash, and for their Fun Night at Prism on August 23rd. For more information, visit the ISCWR website
“Cheer Up!” Campaign
Empress 32 of Edmonton, Marni Gras
Running until December 13th, 2008
Direct donations can be made through the Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation’s website at www.royalalex.org.