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Ilona Verley: Drag Race's Two-Spirit Queen Says 'F*ck Gender'

Ilona verley interview

Ilona Verley, one of the breakout stars of Canada's Drag Race, had just graduated high school and begun training to be a makeup artist when she met Jaylene Tyme, a celebrated two-spirit drag artist in Vancouver. Verley learned what it meant to be two-spirit and, in that moment, everything clicked.

"I was like, 'OK, this is that missing thing that I felt when I was coming out. This is who I am, I'm two-spirit,'" she says. "Part of being two-spirit for me is understanding that I have to accept both of these male and female parts of me and that maybe, for me, my happiness isn't in picking one end of the spectrum."

Growing up, two-spirit people on TV or in films were almost nonexistent. "The first time I ever saw anyone indigenous in a movie that was popular was Twilight, the werewolves. And I'm not running around trying to identify as a werewolf." Verley knew she had an opportunity to amplify visibility for the two-spirit community when she was cast on the inaugural season of Canada's Drag Race, so she made the decision "to really not shut up about being proud of being indigenous." 

In the process, she won viewers over with her talent, charisma, and "head-to-toe monochromatic, pastel perfection."

On this week's episode of LGBTQ&A, she spoke about the fluidity she's experiencing with her gender right now, why the "nonbinary" label feels most comfortable in this moment, and why drag queens in the U.S. should be worried: "I do have my American citizenship, so look out bitches. As soon as that border is open, I'm coming. I'm taking all your gigs.”

Listen to the full interview on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or Stitcher.

Jeffrey Masters: Is two-spirit an identity you grew up around? 
Ilona Verley: No, I didn't actually. I did grow up around my culture, but for me, it wasn't until just after high school when I went to makeup school at Blanche Macdonald here in Vancouver. I met Jaylene Tyme, who's now my drag aunt, but she is an amazing indigenous, trans, two-spirit drag artist. She was the first person that I ever met who was two-spirit. That was my first time actually hearing that term.

I was like, "This is something that resides with me so deeply." I was like, "OK, this is that missing thing that I felt when I was coming out. This is who I am, I'm two-spirit." It just clicked a million things in my mind.

JM: I hadn't realized how new that label is, that it was created in our lifetime. 
IV: That term was the only brought around in the '90s, right? So every indigenous group has had their own words or their own terms for what two-spirit people were in their communities. Two-spirit people have many different backgrounds from giving names to the children, hunting, beading, gathering, collecting, there's so many different positions for two-spirit people because we, as two-spirit people, flow between the masculine and the feminine.

For as long as the stories can tell, have been inbetween and woven throughout every aspect and every part of our communities.

I'm really happy that in today's world, we're seeing a resurgence of people claiming their identity as two-spirit people and being proud of who they are. They're spreading education and getting their communities involved with reaccepting two-spirit people. That's something that makes me very, very happy.

JM: Growing up, where there any two-spirit or indigenous people who were queer in the media you were consuming? 
IV: I think the first time I ever saw anyone indigenous in a movie that was popular was Twilight, the werewolves. And that was the closest thing. And I'm not running around trying to identify as a werewolf.

That was early high school. I grew up years never seeing anyone like myself on TV or in film or in media. That's what was really important to me, when I got this opportunity to be on Drag Race, to really not shut up about being proud of being indigenous. It's really important to have that visibility. I went through years of thinking that I had to be white-passing to fit in and to make it in media. And that's not true. You can make it in media just being yourself and being proud of who you are.

JM: We have this rallying cry in the community right now that says, "Gender is a construct." And two-spirit people underline that. Gender is a construct, one that was brought here when the continent was colonized. 
IV: Exactly. Even for me, I've been going back and forth with my own gender identity per se in the last year, last couple of months. Really going through it. I obviously identify with being two-spirit. That's something that speaks to my soul, but as far as my presentation that society sees and how I walk out the house, I've been going real back and forth. And I think in the last month, I've really come to peace with the fact that at the end of the day, I go to bed and I'm happy because I'm myself.

Part of being two-spirit for me is understanding that I have to accept both of these male and female parts of me and that maybe, for me, my happiness isn't in picking one end of the spectrum. That's something I've been struggling. Why do I have to just be this or just be that? I have this fluidity inside myself and it can express itself anyway it wants.

JM: Recently you tweeted about your gender fluidity. You had previously come out as a trans woman. Can you talk about why that label didn't feel right to you?
IV: When I picture myself doing something, I picture myself female-presenting. When I think about myself, I think about myself female-presenting. My thought process is very female. I feel female.

But for me, I have so many friends that are in the middle of transitioning right now and hearing their stories and hearing what they're going through, those things don't reside with me. I'm fine with my body. I don't have necessarily body dysmorphia as far as my body. My face, that's another story. But as far as my body, I'm fine with my natural body.

I'm at a place where I am going back and forth with my gender identity. And I know that it's not the right time for me to be making serious choices for myself like that. I definitely don't identify with being male. I know that even though I'm the most happiest female-presenting, I can still be happy in my natural born state. It's a journey and it's an experience and I'm not going to try to act like I have it all figured out.

JM: We've seen these public updates, but privately, have you been having discussions similar discussions with family and friends?
IV: Honestly, not really. I very much live my life with the mindset that I don't owe anyone anything. For me having to constantly revisit these conversations that are hard for me to talk about is hurtful to me more than it's helpful. And so I know who I am. I know how I feel and I might not have all the words to explain it, but I think for me right now, the best way to describe who I am right now in this moment is nonbinary and gender fluid.

I'm experiencing this very crazy fluidity right now where my mind and my body aren't connecting. And so I don't want to put my foot down too much with any label right now because who knows a few months from now when I'm in a better mindset how I'm going to be feeling and who I'm going to be? We're always changing. We're always growing as people. And for me right now, I'm definitely in a growing stage.

JM: A minute ago, you said that you don't have a problem with your body except your face, what did you mean by that?
IV: For me, my dysmorphia comes with my face. I don't see the person I am in my face, if that makes sense. I have a disconnect with that because, for me, if I had a more feminine face, I think I would be very comfortable with maybe accepting myself as a trans woman. And I think that's a battle I'm fighting.

Sorry, this is so weird and hard to talk about for me. My dysmorphia is in my face and I think maybe that's part of why I'm going back and forth right now because I'm fine with my face, but it's not who I am, who I feel like I am.

That's why right now, I'm just like, honestly, fuck gender. I just want to be myself. And at the end of the day, I have to just be happy with myself and then the labels can come at a later date.

JM: Where along the way do you start doing drag?
IV: I mean when I was in high school, I started dabbling with makeup. And then as soon as I graduated, I went right into makeup school because I knew I wanted to pursue this and I wanted to get good at makeup.

And I wanted to be a drag queen. I just knew it, that that's was my passion and I've always loved creativity and the art of transforming. And the last couple of years of doing drag is something that's really connected me to my femininity. It was always there. I feel like I just didn't know how to accept it or embrace it. Drag was the one thing that brought me this confidence. And I know when you talk to a lot of drag artists, they say that their drag brings them confidence, but for me it was on this different level because it was connecting me to my female energy. Sorry. I'm emotional. I'm starting to cry.

Fernando Cysneiros Ilona Verley
 Photo by Fernando Cysneiros

JM: For you, it wasn't a performance or just for fun. 
IV: I've never said this, but I think where my hardship is, is that when I'm in drag, that's who I am. And I'm so confident as that person. My disconnect with claiming my identity as a trans woman is that I'll never get to be that person all the time. Because there's so many aspects of that part of doing drag that can't come into being a female in a day-to-day world. The blue contacts, the slightly raised brows, the overdrawn lips. It's not practical. I can't wake up as that person. I have to become that person.

I feel like my most authentic self, honestly, is someone who exists in this fantasy, just outside reality. And it's hard to get that into reality all the time. I don't know. I just feel like maybe I'll never get to be that person all the time, but I feel like I'll get closer.

JM: Given all that, what has it been like during all this when you've been performing less than you ever have? 
IV: Yeah. I used to be in drag almost every day and that's when I was the most happiest. I feel like there's a disconnect now that's grown between me and myself, which is really strange and something a lot of average people will probably never go through. But I haven't been really doing photo shoots or things like that because I've just been so uninspired and at this weird driedup place in my life. I used to do photo shoots three to four times a week and now I'm like, "Oh, maybe I'll post once a month." 

JM: How many years of doing drag did it take for you to be able to say, "Oh, I'm really good at this"?
IV: About 2019 was probably the first time that I had an ego. I started drag in 2015 and by about 2017, I knew I was pretty fierce. But I think 2019, end of 2018, I was like, "OK, yeah, I'm polished.

JM: And as soon as you thought that, you got on Canada's Drag Race.
IV: Yeah. It was really crazy. I auditioned for a Season 12 of the American series. I have dual citizenship, so I was able to audition for that. I lied and said that I was living in L.A. when I wasn't. So after I sent my tape in, I had this whole crazy experience where I couldn't pay my rent because I spent all my money on my audition tape.

I found out I didn't make it for Season 12 and I was pretty heartbroken, but within two months of finding that out, I saw Canada's Drag Race announced. And I was like, "OK, this is the moment."

JM: When you say you spent all your money on your audition video, do you mind me asking how much you spent?
IV: I think on my Season 12 audition tape, I probably spent close to 10 grand.

JM: Oh my God.
IV: I wanted it to be really good. So I got a bunch of new custom outfits. I hired my friend who's a drone operator to film drone footage. It wasn't just like, "Oh, here I am wearing this look in my apartment hallway." I was serving production.

When we went to film Canada's Drag Race, one of the producers from World of Wonder was there to welcome us to the Drag Race family, which was an amazing experience. He's like, "Yeah, I really loved your tape for Season 12. And I loved it again when you recycled it for Canada's Drag Race." I was like, "Oh, drag me, drag me." 

JM: The Drag Race alumni in the U.S. are a tight group. Do you feel like you're in community with them? 
IV: It's been interesting because there's been a lot of the American girls who have reached out, interacted with all of us and congratulated all of us, and welcomed us to the family and like, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

But there's a really good half of the American girls who want nothing to fucking do with us and have made it very clear. It's a very interesting experience to have people that you looked up to not want to acknowledge your existence, but that's life. That's show business, I guess.

You know what? I do have my American citizenship. So look out, bitches. As soon as that border is open, I'm coming. I'm taking all your gigs.

Listen and subscribe on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or Sticher.

LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Pete Buttigieg, Roxane Gay, Trixie Mattel, and Laverne Cox. New episodes come out every Tuesday. 

(RELATED: Shea Couleé Talks New Music, Drag Legacy, and Why She's Retiring by 40)

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