By Thomas Publow
Rob* centres his phone for a Zoom call and smiles. He is not looking into the phone’s camera, but rather eyeing his reflection in a vanity mirror that is illuminating his face and bare torso in bright, fluorescent light. He sits in a room filled with makeup, a rack of extravagant outfits, mannequin heads decorated in wigs of different styles and colours, and two empty cans of Diet Coke. Snapping on a beige wig cap and applying double-sided tape to help keep a blond wig secured for a performance later that day, Rob begins the process of undergoing an aesthetic transformation from which will emerge Adrianna Exposée.
At 22, Exposée is one of Ottawa’s premier drag performers. Drag offers a route of liberation, a persona for her to enter and leave as she pleases. Rob’s days are taken up by studies and part-time work in the government, but Exposée’s nights allow for an avenue of escape. Her career offers a glimpse at what success through passion can render.
A drag career is not something an outsider would expect from someone who grew up in Exposée’s household. She was raised in Oakville by parents who immigrated from the former Soviet Union regime, a place not known for its lively queer scene. Nonetheless, her sexuality shone through. “There’s only one choice,” says Exposée’s loving and supportive mother Julia. “Either you lose your child, or you accept them as is.”
Exposée’s vibrant personality lends itself well to drag. She recalls buying her first wig early on in high school. “Super ugly,” brunette and straight-cut, it was intended to be nothing more than the final touch of a Halloween costume. That synthetic wig, too cheap to style, introduced her to the fun of experimenting with gender and identity, igniting a love for an art form she wasn’t previously aware she would enjoy. She recalls putting it on and lip-synching to Britney Spears, who became a staple of Exposée’s at-home audience-free performances.
She left Oakville wanting to do more than simply study translation at the University of Ottawa. Equipped with minimal performing experience and a need for some makeup refinement, Exposée set off, wanting to pursue drag professionally in Ottawa.
She strutted onto the city’s drag scene and by early 2018 had secured monthly gigs. As the year passed, she gradually increased her number of shows, performing weekly in bars like the Mercury Lounge and the Lookout Bar in Ottawa’s ByWard Market.
Exposée remembers 2019 as the year where she officially cemented her status in the city. By August, with Capital Pride celebrations afoot, she performed upward of four times a week. Capital Pride 2019 served as an eye-opening week for the queer community in Ottawa — and a career-affirming one for Exposée.
She kicks it off with a drag queen storytelling gathering. Sitting in a white-walled room, lit by harsh fluorescents, she reads stories to a crowd of families. She asks whether they have any questions and a man raises his hand, asking bluntly, “What are you going to do when you have to answer for your sins?” Taken aback, Exposée recalls laughing out of pure shock.
With video cameras prepped, protesters start lobbing homophobic comments, directing them to a room full of same-sex couples and their young children. “Imagine hearing your mom is going to be thrown into a lake of fire. That was the point that really made me angry,” says Exposée. The room descends into chaos, parents holding their children in their arms, comforting them while screaming at the protesters.
A video posted by the YouTube channel “Truth Syrup” shows one man’s disagreement in particular. Exposée, wearing an orange sequin-fringed outfit with white knee-high boots and a brunette wig, interrupts him. “If you have a problem with me, you can take that up with me, but do not bring it on these people,” she says, pointing at him. “You brought it on these people,” the man yells back in a scathing tone. “I did not bring it on these people, I absolutely did not,” Exposée responds, continuing while clapping on every word. “We are here to celebrate love, we are here to celebrate pride, we are here to celebrate inclusion.”
This night is later immortalized in the news, binding the Ottawa LGBTQ+ community together in solidarity. “Why do we need Pride?” asks Exposée rhetorically. “Things like this bring you back to the reason why we need visibility.”
Five days later, Exposée participates in the Miss Capital Pride pageant for the second time. She is met with a standing ovation as she walks on stage.
Derek Hille, a photographer who collaborates frequently with Exposée, says her heroic actions at the storytelling event were mentioned. “It reinforced how amazing Adrianna is. We were all so proud of her at that moment.”
When it comes time to crown the winner, “It felt like Adrianna was the only winner. It felt right to have her crowned. She stood up for herself and the community,” recalls Hille. Exposée’s name is read and the crown is placed atop her wig. “A lot of people in the community were touched by that story. It didn’t solve what happened, but it definitely needed to happen,” she says. “To have won, that year, was a cathartic moment.”
Almost two years later, Exposée is not performing nearly as much. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, she has cut back her time in drag significantly, allowing her to better enjoy the moments when her alter ego does emerge. On this night in February, she is performing for the first time since the reopening of bars in Ontario, making her return to the stage at the Lookout Bar.
Exposée poses before saying goodbye and ending the Zoom call. Her eyebrows have disappeared behind makeup, her eyes are adorned in blue-tinted contact lenses and her chest is covered in contour, helping give the illusion of breasts. All of these features will serve only as small details of her final transformation. Tonight she wears a sparkly, silver two-piece outfit with fish-net stockings and a pair of black ankle booties. Britney Spears makes another guest appearance as Exposée lip-synchs to “Breathe On Me.”
As she swings her blond wig around, it’s clear: the Queen of the Capital has made her regal return, reigning over her royal court once again.
*Rob is a pseudonym for Exposée’s legal name out of drag.