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Meet a New Brunswick drag king who’s all about entertainment, representation

Click to play video: 'Drag performer talks mastering the Maritimes' Drag performer talks mastering the Maritimes
WATCH: Alex Saunders has been a drag performer in Atlantic Canada for over a decade. With a summer full of shows already booked, they say there’s still a lot of work to do – Jun 14, 2022

A Saint John drag performer says it’s all about entertainment as they embark on a summer chock-full of gigs.

Alex Saunders, better known by their stage name Justin Toodeep, has been donning drag for nearly 13 years.

“There are two types of drag performers,” Saunders explains. “You’re either born at Pride or you’re born at Halloween. I was born at Pride.”

In Saunders’ hometown of Saint John, Pride is celebrated in August.

“So around that first weekend of August, I’ll be turning 13. Becoming a man,” they joke.

From foundation to facial hair, it takes Saunders about 90 minutes to transform into Toodeep. Travis Fortnum / Global News

In a market dominated by drag queens, Saunders is a drag king — basically meaning their Justin Toodeep character is a male as opposed to the female-presenting characters seen on reality TV show competitions like RuPaul’s Drag Race.

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Often those drag queens are male underneath the makeup, but don’t get bogged down by the gender of it all.

Read more: Queer arts community finds new stage in Dartmouth for regular performances

Saunders says letting the norms go is the whole point of the art form.

“We have this preconceived notion of what a man is and what a woman is,” Saunders says.

“Drag artists take that and they take all those components and they just mix it around to show you that this idea of what a man should be and what a woman should be doesn’t really exist.”

Saunders says they got into drag as RuPaul’s Drag Race became popular, like many drag queens and kings.

Yet that show, and its Canadian spinoff, have yet to feature a drag king. Or even one queen from Atlantic Canada, despite Canada’s Drag Race heading towards its third season.

Read more: Inside Pride: Two-spirited Indigenous girls inspire others to be themselves

“I want to show people that, yes, we exist. Our drag is some of the most unique in the world and we are every bit as valid and amazing as a queen from Ontario or a queen from Vancouver,” Saunders says.

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Saunders’ Toodeep persona is a staple at drag events all across Atlantic Canada.

Saunders says their drag name stemmed from a love of Justin Timberlake some 13 years ago. Facebook: Betsy Rich

They’re doing their biggest show yet on P.E.I. on June 25, two days after performing at a Memorial Cup event in Saint John.

It’s a historic show as, according to the Memorial Cup Host Committee, this is the first-ever officially sanctioned LGBTQ2 event in the tournament’s history.

Read more: How the 2SLGBTQQIA+ term can be both helpful and harmful

Booking and performing at all these shows is now Saunders’ full-time job after losing their last amid COVID-related layoffs.

“I kind of thank the pandemic because if I hadn’t got let go, then I don’t think I would have ever pursued this as seriously as I’m pursuing it now,” they say.

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“For me now it’s like, in order to pay my rent and feed my cats, I have to go do drag.”

Drag storytime

Saunders is a frequent face at “drag storytime” events in Saint John, something geared towards kids with drag performers reading children’s books about diversity and inclusivity.

Of late, that type of event has been the topic of controversy, a debate from the southern United States brought to Saint John by People’s Party of Canada candidate Nicholas Pereira.

In a post that’s since been deleted, Pereira questioned whether drag shows were appropriate for kids.

Read more: Drag queen storytime event at Montreal library ‘about respect,’ not controversy

Saunders, who alters their drag name to Justin 2D for the youth-oriented shows, says drag storytime is not only appropriate, it’s essential.

“There are so many children, like young children, killing themselves these days because of all of this divisiveness and ritual and hate,” they say.

“There are queer kids out there that need to see my content.”

Saunders (left) says Drag Storytime is important for literacy, as well as to allow kids to meet members of the LGBTQ+ community. Facebook: Betsy Rich

Saunders says they have no intention of stopping their family-friendly shows — or their adult-oriented ones, with still more to improve in a community assumed to be at the forefront of inclusivity.

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“Drag is a male-dominated profession,” they say.

“I figure if I can just smash my glitter boot through that glass ceiling, then I could open the door for so many other drag kings to be able to be taken seriously.

“Queer women and femme presenting non-binary people and trans women — we need space in this community because this is our community, too,” Saunders says.

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