During our last conversation, Jolene (a.k.a. Prianshu) was in the Yukon, poised for her move to Surrey, with the formidable goal of bringing drag to South Asian communities.
Now, six challenging months later, this Punjabi drag queen has captivated Vancouver’s drag shows with her unique Desi flair—and she’s only just begun.
In addition to bringing gidda and Bollywood dance to an audience who is fervently accustomed to Britney and Gaga, (an impressive feat in itself), Jolene’s arrival has marked an increase in brown culture at queer establishments.
“It was so worth it, because I can finally see what I was fighting for,” said Prianshu in an interview with 5XPress.
These moments are what kept him going—seeing sardars lining up outside her shows, a group of brown men decked out in pearls at Numbers, a Cabaret bar in Vancouver, with a South Asian audience singing along to her music, joyful and uninhibited.
“Until then, I was only used to interacting with fans through social media, and performing alone on camera,” he said.
“When I saw three tables filled with South Asian followers I knew online, I was shocked. They really showed up for me?”
Many of these supporters, Prianshu observed, are often newly immigrated Punjabis, or folks residing in the mainland, who felt a disconnect in white, queer spaces.
“I have been told that [these audiences] feel more comfortable at my shows, knowing that I’m a Punjabi drag queen,” he said.
“I’m not the first Indo-Canadian drag artist in Canada, but I am the first drag queen here from Punjab, and that makes a difference.”
Growing up queer in a small Punjabi town was a distinct experience for Prianshu. For the longest time, he lacked the particular expression to define his experiences—a fundamental luxury that was more accessible to his peers in urban centres or liberal Western societies.
“Being born in Canada is different from being born and raised in Punjab. Growing up as a queer person in Canada offers a lot more privilege,” he said.
“It’s not the same as what I or new queer immigrants have experienced. We didn’t have the ballrooms, the gay clubs, the shows. I come from a really, really small town. I knew nothing about ‘queer culture.’”
Despite his lack of exposure to conventional queer communities, he embraced his identity with a fierce authenticity, finding solace in gidda and the powerful voice of Surinder Kaur.
“Back in Punjab, I was the ‘crossdresser who performed like girls’. They saw me as a joke. But the fact that it was making me popular? I was like, fuck it.”
Even with the somewhat reluctant tolerance of his immediate community in his hometown of Goniana, Prianshu experienced a lot of pain and trauma throughout his journey.
Moving to Canada felt like “sitting in a time machine and travelling ten years [into the future]” for him. Although it was refreshing, finally having access to safer spaces, he couldn’t help but wonder how much growth he had missed out on.
As he transitioned into Vancouver’s drag scene, he never expected to be welcomed. With the support of drag veterans like Xanax, Jerri Lynn Spears, and Alma Bitches, he was able to find his bearings as Jolene Queen Sloan.
Yet, it would be naive to think that queer spaces are devoid of racism. From hecklers to confused crowds, Jolene’s seen it all—but has refused to trade in her authenticity along the way.
“My white audience doesn’t understand my music, but they’re there for my energy, and most importantly, the masala.”
But beneath the elaborate costumes and wigs, drag isn’t always glamorous. Prianshu works a day job throughout the week, and moonlights as a drag artist, commuting from Surrey to Davie Village. There were nights he barely made $5 in tips, and often navigated antagonism without a support network to fall back on.
Out of curiosity, I asked him if he ever felt homesick, or wanted to return to Punjab. His reply was brief, but painful.
“I had to ask myself why I left the country in the first place.”
Despite India’s rich heritage of gender fluidity in the performance arts, it remains a violent, hostile environment for queer folk. Queerness is conveniently discarded as a by-product of ‘Western influences’—far-removed from the subcontinent’s history. By marrying her Indian culture to her queer identity onstage, Jolene reminds us that the two are inextricable. By doing so in Western spaces, she reminds us that queerness exists beyond the bounds of white aesthetics.
Through her ups and downs, Jolene continues to perform, online and offline, with her signature pizzazz.
Having frequented the clubs in Davie Village, she now plans on bringing her performances to Punjabi weddings and establishments in Surrey.
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