Pride 2011: Donnarama and Why Gender-Busting Doesn't Have to be a Drag
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Pride 2011: Donnarama and Why Gender-Busting Doesn’t Have to be a Drag

I was tentatively pencilled in to hang out with Vince Pincente last Thursday, right on the eve of Pride weekend. Then at 4:11 a.m. Thursday morning, I get an email about how he has to push it to Saturday because there’s some big kerfuffle involving a giant Lady Gaga egg he can’t fit into a venue. I’m no expert on the logistics of giant eggs or anything, but it seems that only two kinds of people on this earth have to worry about their huge Lady Gaga egg not being able to fit through a door: Lady Gaga, and drag queens.

If you don’t know Vince Pincente, that’s because he’s just another shy-seeming, sardonic thirty-aught with a hard-on for ‘80s horror movies. But give him some moulded hot glue, a makeup kit, and a frayed wig, and Vince becomes Donnarama.
I don’t know enough about Toronto’s drag scene to be able to situate Donnarama in any meaningful way (as, say, “Toronto’s craziest drag queen” or “Toronto’s most outrageous drag queen”). But for someone who has come to understand drag largely through movies—as either a hyper-glamorous caricature of femininity (To Die Like a Man, Rocky Horror Picture Show, To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar) or, even more commonly, an act of utilitarian cross-gender costuming (Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, Ladybugs)—I found something pretty paradigm-busting about Vince’s drag persona. Which is something, considering that the very performative act of doing drag is pretty much predicated, in definition as in practice, on being gender-bending, non-normative, and otherwise paradigm-busting.
“I entered a contest and it went very well,” Vince says, recalling his first on-stage drag performance in 1997. “I did Courtney Love, and it was very different from everyone else. And I won. And then I got a booking almost immediately. They said come back next week. And I said, ‘Sure.’ I had never been to the Village before and then all of a sudden, I was in it.”

A 9-11 bikini may seem tasteless, but… well, yeah okay, it’s tasteless.

It’s hard to gauge how “in” Vince really is. Later that night, at Buddies in Bad Times, he schmoozes pretty comfortably with the staff, friends, and other performers. But his demeanour, and his bedroom—tiny, in an old house near Dundas and McCaul, crammed with VHS tapes and horror-film paraphernalia (his prized possession: a vinyl copy of the Prom Night soundtrack, which he scored for $300 on eBay)—strongly suggests the stereotypical image of the artsy loner. Indeed, Vince was such a misfit that he dropped out of Etobicoke School for the Arts after grade nine. As he puts it, “It’s been art and entertainment ever since.”
But Donnarama is for sure in. As Donnarama, Vince averages three or four shows a week, including regular gigs on Saturdays (at Buddies) and Sundays (at Woody’s). Drawing influence as much from Madonna as Divine (John Waters’ trashy drag sensation, who famously downed a piece of dog shit in Pink Flamingos) and splatter-movie makeup artist Tom Savini, Vince seems to conceive of his alter-ego in extremes. Some nights will see routines cobbled from classic drag personas (Barbara Streisand, Madonna, and now, of course, Lady Gaga) while others have him donning Frida Kahlo-inspired costumes, a feminized–xenomorph alien head (as in the Alien movies), or sporting a 9-11-themed get-up (two model airplanes crashing into a stars and stripes bikini), worn the day after Osama Bin Laden was caught and ceremonially executed. “I have a sick sense of humour,” Vince laughs. “Nothing serious. Ever.”
“The glam drag, to me, is boring,” says Vince. “Because to my eyes, it’s like just get a real woman, ‘cos she won’t be growing a beard in three hours. If you’re going to go out of your way to put drag on, you should make it exaggerated and nuts. Like, fucking crazy. You can either be Barbie, or you can be Jem.” The dichotomy here, between femininity’s notoriously outlandish poster-doll and the star of mid-80s acid-glam cartoon show, is apt. But it doesn’t quite do Donnarama justice. Because Donnarama’s like Jem if Jem was Frankensteined together with scraps of campy sci-fi, cheeseball horror, and dog-eared back issues of Mad magazine. Like, fucking crazy.
I find Vince cool because I like horror movies and sci-fi and all that. We can geek out over his VHS copy of the Blaxploitation Exorcist rip-off Abby, and I’d find anyone who made their own xenomorph alien head cool (probably). But here’s why I find Donnarama interesting, politically: Donnarama takes drag, an act that at one time, way before I was born, was probably defiant and radical, but has since been normalized and neutered (See: hordes of normy-norms lining up to see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert—The Musical at the Princess of Wales), and makes it seem defiant and radical again.

While getting ready, Vince frequently lapsed into singing the word “transgendered” to the beat of the Transformers TV show theme, either for our amusement or his.

Take Saturday night, at Buddies. Vince spends about 45 minutes getting ready. In this case, that means applying skull-like, Día de los Muertos–inspired face paint, which he describes with characteristic humour and pop-culture literacy as “Skeletor’s face on She-Ra’s body.” This is a pretty intensive process, and Vince attends to it with zoned-in deliberateness, pausing only to go to the bathroom, cut out for a smoke, gamely field questions, or hum the Indiana Jones theme song.
After makeup, Vince shimmies into a unitard laced with exposed rib and sternum bones, which, like much of his homemade props, he fashioned by layering gobs of hardened hot glue on top of each other, a process as novel as it is time-consuming. But exhausting though it is, it seems to be the kind of thing he cares about most, maybe even more than his upcoming dance number (set to a mash-up of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” and the Eurthymics’ “Sweet Dreams,” which he and his friend Olga put together). There’s also some mix of artistry and performance in drag. But Donnarama foregrounds the former, as if the drag show is just a pretence for complicated, homespun prop-making (he refers to his veritable tickle trunk of onstage accoutrement, with a bit of Parisian flair, as “proppage”).
It’s this aura of effort, and the out-and-out weirdness of Donnarama’s act, that whips her fans into a frenzy. Around 1 a.m., Donnarama finally takes the stage at Buddies. Half-way through the number, she runs into the wing, whips off the blonde wig, and grabs an oversized skeletal headpiece which I’ve been dutifully holding and trying not to drop. Donnarama returns to the stage, decked out in this lavish, papier-mâché adornment. And the crowd loses it.

The guy in the front row with mouth open, howling, pretty much nails the whole experience.

A few minutes later, Donnarama’s done and the sweaty, shirtless half-rave continues, like nothing even happened. Donnarama recedes and it’s just Vince in makeup again. He checks with Olga to make sure the lighting cues were right (they were) and accepts his well-earned wad of bills from Buddies’ promoter. That Donnarama’s number was wild, manically-choreographed, and way-out there is precisely what makes her a hot commodity in Toronto. But backstage, where it’s all very business-as-usual, where different strata of glamour and transgression and theatrical excesses are layered up and washed off like layers of pan stick foundation and eyeliner. Sure, being Donnarama seems fun and expressive. But it’s a lot of work, with small stresses over the lighting or the size of your Lady Gaga egg. Like anything else, it’s a living.
Photos by Corbin Smith/Torontoist.