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Inside the dramatic world of Bratpack, the live reality drag show

Vancouver’s quintet of queens have a mythology that gets entire clubs gossiping before they even hit the stage

Someone hits pause and the Camilla Cabello track stops dead. Gia Metric, one fifth of Bratpack – Vancouver’s hottest drag girl-group – is freaking out at their usual rehearsal spot located in the city’s east-end. “My crystal! My crystal necklace just broke!”. This is like, a big deal. “I’m telling you guys, it’s Kendall’s energy right now,” says Metric.

“Is it selenite or clear quartz?” I ask. “Um, I think it’s clear quartz? It’s meant to help heal me,” says Gia Metric.

Metric recently suffered an onstage back injury and is trying everything she can to heal in time for the performance. “Honestly, I kind of feel like Gaga in Five Foot Two!” she exclaims. The girls just finished a show 48 hours ago at one of the city’s most popular venues opening and closing for “the Ru girls”, a term they use to refer to drag queens who have competed on VH1’s RuPaul’s Drag Race.  

The clock is ticking and the pressure is now on the girls to put together a last-minute opening number for their weekly show, Bratpack – a 34 week residency at The Junction, one of the city’s hottest queer clubs. Bratpack was once known in the city as a cult-IRL punk reality show performed once every week, on industry night at a mainstream gay club, with scripted episodes and seasons filled with staged relationships between cast members, publicity stunts and dirty chaos. Sometimes real life would seep in – Kendall Gender was battling a drug addiction for most of Season One, which was not part of the fable. After years of strategic PR stunts and marketing engineered by founding member Jane Smoker, the show has now gained enough mythology in the city to elevate itself to a polished, mainstream success  – it sells out the club every week.

I’m present at an episode rehearsal for the start of Season Four, and the drama is so extra that I can’t tell if it is real, or manufactured to feed the delusional and beautiful pop world they are all known to be co-creating with each other in real-time. Do these girls ever go off brand?

“I think it needs to be more relaxed.”

“Zealous is the word, babe.”

“Do a Synthia spin!”

“Can someone go get me some Gummy Bears?”

“Bitch I don’t care if you don’t own any camo. Go to fucking Forever 21 and get some camo by tomorrow night.”

“Make sure you learn the lyrics!”

“It’d be visually better if I was in the fucking middle.“

“It’s just drag”

“You can’t say that. It’s not just drag.”

"I'm literally just saying….”

The room goes silent.

The girls start grinding on each other. “You wanna fuck my pink hole?” “Oh yeah, fuck yeah”. Butt grabs all around. Air humping. Gia is downing Sour Skittles powder. With all this gay, fratboy locker room talk I am reminded of the cock-power they wield in society outside of drag as men.

Playtime is over. Rehearsal continues. Over the course of the night, the intense creative bond between Gia and Synthia Kiss emerges. Both members were born under a diva-studded Aries sun. They’ve choreographed most of the moves used during this rehearsal. “Throw! Snap! Top! Wiggle Wiggle! Stillness! Stop!” At one point, Synthia snaps at the rest of the girls, discouraged by their inability to keep up and their lack of motivation. Gia shares this frustration. “You guys need to listen to me,” she says repeatedly. “This is not working. This is not going to work. You are not all meeting me.”    

Kendall Gender, standing with arms folded, leans over to members Thanks Jem and Jane Smoker and suggests that the girls need to take a break. Jane announces it to the rest of the room. “We’re going to figure this out, it’s going to be fine, just take five.”

“I feel like I’m simultaneously watching and living in some HBO documentary about global pop stars from a different planet”

After the brief intermission, the girls go at it for another three hours doing the same routine to “Into it” by Camilla Cabello. The hard work taking place is a reminder that the “it girl” status that they’ve achieved in Vancouver is no accident. Sometimes when I’m around them I feel like I’m simultaneously watching and living in some HBO documentary about global pop stars from a different planet.

Then, in a magical moment, the girls figure it out. The energy in the room lightens, Kendall screams “I THINK WE GOT IT!”. Everyone is smiling and laughing, the girls are hugging and ring-around-a-roseying with each other. The girls rehearse the final number, one last time. Boom. It’s a wrap. “I bet you didn’t think hours and hours go into a three minute lip-synced performance you’ll see premiered this Thursday night henny.” Jem touches my arm and winks at me.

It’s showtime for the latest episode premiere and The Junction is packed with fans. Before the performance, the girls mingle around the club and melt in the attention. Fans snap pics of them at the bar. These are our unapproachable city popstars. A stranger looking over at Jane says to me, “Jane Smoker, God isn’t she glamorous? Looking at her is like seeing Paris Hilton at a Heatherette after party in 1999 or something. I fuck with her aesthetic so hard.”  

I sit by the bar and my friend points out two aspiring young drag queens who are having an Instagram photoshoot by the stage-mirrors. “Look, that’s @southyeastxoxo and @itsjustbrogue. So many attention seekers here tonight. It’s so so sad…”

I start to circle around the club obsessively applying a tube of Glossier’s Balm Dotcom and almost everyone in the room is gossiping before the girls hit the stage. “Is it true Kendall used to work at Medina? I hear she’s the reason the show is always late.” “Gia isn’t even from here. She’s a transplant from Ontario.” “I love when Synthia fucks up. I come to watch her fuck up.” “Apparently Jane was a Mormon. Ugh, she’s the Gemini.” “Is Jem really in her forties and from Vernon?”

“Jane Smoker, God isn’t she glamorous? Looking at her is like seeing Paris Hilton at a Heatherette afterparty in 1999 or something. I fuck with her aesthetic so hard”  

The rumours around the room are a reminder that the mythology behind the girls is a crucial reason why the audience comes to see the show. No different than those who binge-watch drag videos on YouTube, everyone here has shown up to escape into another world within our world. In a time where the hangover of Trump’s presidency is affecting everyone globally, being at a drag show feels like an act of rebellion, and a reminder of the people who really get it.

The club music stops and the show’s intro hits the screen, introducing each girl in the group as a cast member. Fans are running to their seats. Jane Smoker, Synthia Kiss and Gia Metric come onstage and do an opening number to Hilary Duff’s “Why Not”. “It’s our tribute to Forever 21 closing on Robson Street. Where the hell am I going to get all my clothes now?” Jane says. The girls are creating cartoon versions of themselves, and loving every second of it.

In between each other’s sets, the girls go back-and-forth from everything to hating Katy Perry, feeling like Princess Diana and how people who ghost on Grindr suck. Gia is more quiet, and tends to look at herself in the mirror while everyone else is talking. Jem constantly taunts the audience – “Are there any tops here tonight?” The men in the audience roar back. “Oh, I see there is a couple liars here tonight!”

Bratpack is known for an X-rated audience game called “show me your dick”, when the girls will bring a fan on stage and ask them to show a dick pic off their phone in exchange for drink tickets. Tonight it was a young British boy that the girls described as “huuuuge!” The episode goes on and Jem brings out a juice-cart and juices on stage to The Cranberries. Gia finds emotion in a Glee cut, Jane Smoker hair flips to Carrie Underwood and Synthia Kiss hits choreo to Lily Allen.

The seedy VMAs-worthy moment of the night, the one that will be the most posted on IG/Snap Stories and talked about the next day, is Kendall Gender’s X-rated performance of “The Hills” by The Weeknd, where she gyrates on a topless dancer on stage, makes out with him and simulates missionary sex – exerting a masculine control over her own sexuality. Women and men in the audience are all stunned, but loving it. Fans throw bills onstage. Kendall’s explicit number was a reminder that Bratpack’s power is in the magnetism behind the pop illusions they can paint in real-time and maintain for their audience all through the night. Everyone in the room feels united over the performance. “Did you all like watching me getting live fucked?”.

The girls come on stage dressed in matching camo to finish us off with a finale to Camilla Cabello’s “Into It”, full on 2001 MTV choreo and still that isn’t enough for the crowd. Everyone wants an encore. The fans decide on Destiny’s Child “Survivor”. 

Looking at the melted faces when the show is over – everyone on a bubblegum adrenaline high – you start to understand that Bratpack invokes something magickal in everyone there every Thursday night. Like nightlife witches, they cast out and give away this energy to their audience. Bratpack is not something you can experience on Instagram, you have to be there to feel it. There is something cathartic, something that brings people together when you are watching queer performers reclaim and release the ferocious feminine energy within, outside of the misogynistic society that persecutes them for their perceived femininity in everyday life.

After the show, as the girls are trying to leave the venue, fans stop them. A young man who drove up from Seattle after hearing about the show from friends, comes up to Synthia and touches her hand, with tears in his eyes. “It was so amazing,” he says. “Tonight was so empowering. You look SO beautiful!” Synthia holds his hand. “You’re welcome. Please don’t cry.”  

I look over at the screens by the bar, surveillance footage of everyone on the dancefloor grinding to Brooke Candy. I go to talk to Jane Smoker who is sucking on a cigarette outside the club, “What do you think of all the rumours about you guys and everyone talking about you?” I ask. “You know, it’s just popular girl syndrome. Everyone wants to be seen these days. Everyone is jealous. It’s pop, baby.”

“Everyone wants to be seen these days. Everyone is jealous. It’s pop, baby” – Jane Smoker

She’s right. It’s not 25 years ago – drag queens are not the fringe entertainers they once were. Today, drag culture is on everyone’s screens. Drag queens are mainstream superstars. Diplo made out with Pablo Vittar in her last music video. RuPaul won an Emmy, clips of Drag Race hit living rooms across North America. This shit is so hot right now.

Could it be that we all see ourselves in drag more than ever? Are we all bored of the limits of 2018? Are we all making a blood pact with pop?

If we are all living in a social media society that is constantly pressuring us to go on stage, perform and construct a version of our identity to create a brand that we can control that is polarising, creative, interesting and a sex symbol all at the same damn time. Could consuming drag be our current ‘fuck you’ to the capitalist Hollywood identity illusions we inundate ourselves with yet didn’t ask for, and all the confusion that comes with navigating this world?

Maybe drag is functioning as a cultural reminder that we can reclaim, remix and access the feminine and masculine feelings in ourselves, and not take our public identities or images so seriously because at the end of the day, no matter what we choose to express – it’s all temporary artifice. Maybe if we extend our inner impulses for attention, validation, drama, trickery and imagination, we can seize control over how the public views us.

If everyday life is dulling our senses, drag is heightening them. Maybe it’s time to shapeshift. Maybe in 2018, drag is a self-help hack that can teach you how to become yourself.