Image courtesy of GayVan.com
By Angus Praught
The Dogwood Monarchist Society, Imperial Sovereign Court of the Dogwood Empire, The Mother Court of Canada, is responsible for the annual election of the Emperor and Empress of Vancouver, and for producing the most glamourous night on Vancouver’s drag calendar, the spectacular Coronation Ball.
Celebrating forty-six years in 2017, The Dogwood Monarchist Society (DMS) has a fascinating history, as well as membership in the International Imperial Court System (IICS), one of the oldest and largest LGBTQ2+ organizations on the planet. Canada’s Imperial Court System, established originally by the Empress of Canada, the late ted northe, now includes chapters across the country, from Halifax to Vancouver. The IICS encompasses over eighty cities in Canada, the USA, and Mexico, and each chapter is a legal, non-profit organization, with a mandate to raise funds for charity in its region, overseen by a board of directors.
Image courtesy of GayVan.com
Even before Hanns Ebenstein organized his first exclusively gay tours in 1973, monarchs were traveling to each other’s cities to attend their respective coronations, in a way making them the first (unintentional) LGBTQ2+ travel pioneers. Fast forward to 2017, and there is a substantial volume of travel being booked each year, as the 80+ courts travel to destinations across the continent, year-round. Notice a hotel lobby full of glittering gowns, dazzling crowns, impressive bouffants, and the drop-dead gorgeous milling about; chances are that you’ve arrived at the host hotel for the coronation ball.
Vancouver is where it all began in Canada, and we were fortunate to be able to have an up-close and personal chat with the current reigning monarchs, Emperor XLVI Tommy D, and Empress XLVI Jane Smokr, who reveal a little bit of what goes on behind the scenes, and what’s in store for the 46th Reign.
Angus Praught: Hello Jane and Tommy. First off, congratulations on being elected Emperor and Empress for the 46th Reign!
AP: Can you tell us a bit about yourselves and your roles with the Dogwood Monarchist Society?
Tommy D and Jane Smokr | Image courtesy of GayVan.com
JANE: Well yes, I’ve been doing drag for about five and a half years now. I’m originally from New Westminster, born and raised Jehovah’s Witness, turned gay, turned drag queen, turned Cobalt queen; my roots are in East Van, through and through. Then I ventured into the downtown/West End scene, won [Vancouver’s] Next Drag Superstar, while on a steady incline in drag, and most recently before becoming Empress, had my own monthly and weekly show, had my own book of my own selfies, had my own song, did a little bit of acting, and basically covered all the bases in drag that a drag queen would want to do. So the next step for me in Vancouver was to do something a little bit beyond being just about me, and that came in the form of running for Empress. Past Empresses encouraged me to run, I discussed it with Tommy to see if he would run with me, he agreed, and so we did it, and here we are.
TOMMY: Hi, I’m Tommy, I was born and raised in North Burnaby, and I was not a Jehovah’s Witness (chuckles). Basically my history in the gay community is that I’m a promoter, I’ve been a promoter for over ten years, started doing one night a year, which turned into hosting club nights for venues and stuff, and then I purchased the rights and trademark to an event called Rapture, which is the biggest dance party on Pride weekend. I then built a company around that, doing DJ shows, and from that Ru Paul’s Drag Race, [I] was the first person in Canada to book one of the girls, Nina Flowers, and then that just completely snowballed. From that I started working with OUTtv more, and now have two shows on OUTtv, one’s a talk show, one’s a reality show, and now (pause) I’M THE KING OF ALL GAYS! (Laughs.) Just be sure to put a little wink at the end of all that! (Laughs.)
The late ted northe, Empress of Canada | Image courtesy of GayVan.com
AP: Can you talk about whom or what inspired you to run for Emperor and Empress?
JANE: As I mentioned before, I am close with and was encouraged by past Empresses; Jaylene is my drag mother, and Carlotta and Joan-E and others were so supportive of me as a brand-new drag queen back in 2012, they took me under their wing, booked me for their shows and were very kind to me. They taught me about their pasts, as Empresses, and taught me all about the DMS, and pretty much pegged me as a good candidate to do it, one day, and it all just sort of fell into place. The younger generation here in Vancouver are also followers of mine, because of my shows and my type of drag, so maybe this would be a cool thing to turn the DMS into a younger, more hip thing, through me and Tommy. That whole idea sounded like a pretty cool thing to me.
TOMMY: So, I never wanted to be Emperor, ever; never ever, ever, ever, ever, and add 23 more times (laughs)! I was involved with the DMS for two years a long time ago, and then I just sort of pulled out of it. Then every year around coronation time, you always get that itch, where everyone is saying “maybe next year I’ll do it” and then this past year, Jane said “why don’t we just do it”? For me, the first thing was, I don’t want Jane to have a bad partner going into this, and have to do all the work, and the more we talked about it, and getting ready to put the application in, it was OMG, this is something I totally want to do; no, something I WANT to do, something I NEED to do! So for me, it was Jane who was my main inspiration.
AP: Once elected, you have a whole exciting year ahead of you. Part of a monarch’s mandate is to raise funds for charity. What are your charities of choice this year?
JANE: We have four; we’re being very ambitious, usually we do three, three or less. We’ve chosen Health Initiative for Men, Rainbow Refugee, Women Against Violence Against Women, and Zee Zee Theatre.
AP: How do you plan to raise funds?
TOMMY: Going into this year, we both already had steady followings with shows, so it was kind of unchartered territory. Jane had this great idea to do fundraisers for the DMS at all of our shows, and pretty much at all the shows in the city. There is something going on pretty much every day of the week; there’s Faux Girls once a month at The Junction, we have Monarch that happens at XY, which is our home bar, Jane has Generations, where she puts an old monarch on stage with a new queen, and they have a kind of talk show interview where they perform together, and with all of my events there is always a portion of the door that goes to the DMS, so it’s basically just incorporating what we have already, and putting a little turbo spin on it.
JANE: We also have special events coming up all this summer, like BBQs, we have ideas for competitions, an eco-fashion show, and a sexy car wash. Summer is the peak time to do events, as everyone wants to come out, so our first summer event [was] a Canada Day barbeque.
AP: Do you plan to do any travel during your year?
JANE: We are planning to travel quite a bit, we’ve already done three coronations since stepping up, and I did Seattle as I was campaigning. We did Calgary, Surrey and recently Albuquerque New Mexico, which was a lot of fun, and our next planned trip is to Austin, Texas, and after that Edmonton, and then Regina, Toronto, followed by Portland in October, and then there are those that are within driving distance, such as Bellingham, Everett, and Tacoma.
TOMMY: The day trips are easier, as we don’t have to plan to so far out. We also plan to go to Vegas in December, we’ve talked about Chicago, New York has been talked about, San Francisco, and then back to Seattle in February.
AP: Is there anything else you hope to achieve in your year?
TOMMY: Obviously, we want to raise the absolute most we possibly can for our charities, it’s become almost our second job, but it makes us so happy when get the messages every week telling us how much the shows have raised, and see that number climb, but for me, as far as the DMS goes, the thing I want to achieve, is I want to see at least two people running for each position next year. We ran unopposed, the year before they ran unopposed, and the year before that as well, so it’s been a while since we’ve seen competition; I want to see a bit of a blood bath; to see they really want it. We need to inspire the young generation, especially now, because everyone thought (and it was), that the DMS was a kind of old fashioned institution, and then we come along and say, hey, let’s party, and raise money
JANE: It used [to] be very intimidating to a lot of younger queens. There were all of these Empresses, with their gowns and all their regalia and the younger queens thought they could never do that. Then Jane Smokr comes along, and suddenly becomes Empress, without losing myself and changing overnight. I’m not suddenly going to start doing ballads and stop being myself. I want this new generation, if they are all looking up to me, for anything, I would like them to look up to me as somebody who is doing something, with a goal in mind, other than just being on Ru Paul’s Drag Race, or a famous Instagram queen. Bare bones, back to basics, drag queen realness; we are leaders that need to help the community, not fight each other all the time. This gave me a platform to show that you can still be yourself, your edgy little self, you can still go on Instagram, text and get all those followers and stuff, but remember what it’s all about, and that’s giving back. Don’t elbow each other out of the way to get to the top; if we all work together to raise money, and to see all of these young queens really excited about raising money, has just made me so proud, and that’s where I want things to go.
AP: The Coronation Ball is one of the city’s most glamourous evenings, and we have heard that you are planning to bring the Coronation Ball back to The Commodore Ballroom, after sixteen years; is that true?
TOMMY: Yeah, it’s the only place that I could see us doing it. I’ve done events at The Commodore for over ten years, and it’s the only place that feels like it’s us. We know that we’re going to get a great amount of people coming out, and we’re going to do the traditional coronation things early in the night, and then we’re going to switch it up; there’s no reason why coronation can’t be a party. We’ve come up with a great plan; early on there’s going to be the dinner and the walks, and then there’s going to be a second part of the evening, where we sell second tier tickets for what will be like a show, a big show, where we’ll have some locals, bring in some people from out of town, and have some special guests. We know most, or all of the famous queens from Drag race and other parts of Canada, so I’m calling in every single favour that I have. We want it to be a big celebration, and The Commodore is where it used to happen, so we want to bring it back, but switch it up, so we can keep this thing going.
JANE: We want it to be unforgettable.
AP: Have you decided on a theme/name for your ball?
TOMMY: We weren’t going to have a theme, and then we shot a video where everyone was wearing black and white, and after looking at it, we said, why don’t we just make that our theme; the Black and White Ball. Jane wanted beige, but no! (Laughs.)
JANE: I’m still working on it! (Laughs.)
AP: As you are travelling to all of these other balls, do you expect any out of town guests to come to Vancouver for yours?
TOMMY: They better be! That’s the way I sell things; I’m threatening! (Laughs.) Well, our ball is going to be over the Easter long weekend near the end of March , so it’s a great time for people to travel. We’re good friends with the monarchs from Albuquerque, and we were the first from Vancouver to ever go there, so we’re expecting a big contingent from there; if we don’t get twenty to thirty people from Albuquerque, I’ll die of shock. Austin definitely, the entire Pacific Northwest, Halifax and pretty sure every Canadian court will be here. We also want to get some of the big courts like New York and San Francisco.
JANE: A lot of Canadians, definitely Toronto, and we’ve also got Big Daddy from New York coming.
AP: For someone aspiring to become the next Emperor or Empress of Vancouver do you have any words or advice?
JANE: I would like to say, run with somebody you know you will be a good team with, but that’s not always guaranteed; we were lucky enough to run together. You have to pretty much be ready to put your own life aside, and just embrace your new role as Empress, and realize it’s only one year, and when it’s over, you’re going to look back on it as say, yes, I did that. I’m not going to lie, it gets really overwhelming at times, when there’s so much going on that you have to do, and he does a lot as well, but on top of it all, I have to shave, paint my face, and it gets gruelling, so I have to remind myself, this is one year and when it’s done, I will feel amazing about what I’ve done. Be prepared for a very wild ride, but a very fulfilling ride.
TOMMY: Always have one dollar bills for tipping, always have your Empress’s favourite drink on hand, if they smoke always have cigarettes, a lighter, a brush, get a USB key, and have a lot of patience. I think a lot of people think that the Emperor’s job is just about being like the side kick, and publically it is, you’re there to be their helper. But also, part of being a helper is taking initiative, like don’t bother them with details about what are we going to put on the poster for this event, take initiative on the little things, and always make sure she’s fed; that’s a big one, they always forget to eat.
JANE: For a long time, the Emperor has taken a back seat, but during our reign, we are very co-dependent, and we know what we’re doing. I’m very in front of the camera, and he’s very behind the camera; I’m running up and down Davie Street, doing all the shows, and he’s on the computer sending the messages, doing the posters, etc.
TOMMY: Like organizing the trips, and as one of my friends said “Jane can’t do it without you, and you can’t do it without her”. It’s like a perfect fit, as we both say we can’t imagine you doing this with anybody else. We ran unopposed, so I guess we were very lucky, so my advice to both people running is to keep an open mind.
JANE: Run with someone you want to ascend with, and [expletive] hustle! (Laughs.)
TOMMY: At the end of the day, we do all this fun stuff; we travel, we go to all of these coronations, but the job is, you are the head of a non-profit organization for one year, that’s the job, and although we sometimes forget that, you have to be responsible and keep an open mind.
JANE: Here’s another piece of advice for people running; don’t get blinded by the glitz and the crown, and don’t do it for the attention; they’ll give it to you for about a week and a half, and then they won’t give a damn, and you will have all of this hard work to do.
AP: Any final words, or something you would like to add?
TOMMY: When we stepped up, our Facebook feeds blew up, we couldn’t accept any more friends, and this was great, but then we realized that now was time to get to work. We went into this knowing that, and we’ve made a very good plan for the first six months, and now we’re planning the second half, so you have to be prepared to work. It’s very fun, it’s extremely fulfilling, it’s super stressful, sometimes you want to jump in front of a bus, but that’s when you have your partner in this crazy adventure, and you two just work through it.
AP: Congratulations to you both on your ongoing success, thank you for speaking with us, and we wish you all the best for the rest of the 46th Reign!
2017 is turning into an exciting and innovative year for the Dogwood Monarchist Society. Now is the time to start planning your visit for the Coronation Ball in 2018, or the year-round calendar of events LGBTQ2+ Vancouver has to offer. Feel free to visit mothercourt.ca for coronation news.
Angus Praught is president of Gayvan.com Travel Marketing, a Vancouver-based company featuring LGBTQ2+ welcoming destinations, in the Vancouver region, Canada, and beyond.
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