The drag racing Vicious Poodle

Culture

Victoria’s drag scene shines at city’s newest queer venue

Photo of Nikolai Hardbasskovitch (Annie Konstantinova) by Sonja Pinto

In recent years, the art of drag has shifted from the burlesque of basement bars and closed-off attic venues to a fully-fledged artistic industry — selling out venues and concert halls around the world. Though the COVID-19 pandemic saw the closing of restaurants, bars, and venues in Victoria and around the world, the drag community remained resourceful and found new creative opportunities within online mediums. However, as restrictions begin to ease and bars and restaurants reopen, one venue in particular has risen up to support the needs of Victoria’s drag and queer communities.

Socrates Diamant’s The Vicious Poodle, a self-styled “Gay Pub” and drag showcase, opened its doors to the public on June 12 after delaying their April opening due to COVID-19-related concerns. Unlike many of Victoria’s past and present queer venues, The Vicious Poodle is not hidden in an attic or tucked away in a windowless basement, but sits at wheelchair-accessible ground level with a patio and giant bay windows to let in the light on brunch munchers and evening drinkers alike, giving the venue an open and inviting atmosphere. 

While serving as a general hub for the queer community, The Vicious Poodle shows a marked focus on drag performance. Larger-than-life portraits of drag performers hang from the walls of the pub and the liquor menu offers a unique array of cocktails named after the venue’s regular performers. Since the pub’s opening, the venue has consistently put on three drag shows per week: a drag brunch on Saturdays, where numbers are performed every half-hour, as well as a double-header drag Tuesday set of shows (added by popular demand) with no cover charge. 

Compared to other drag venues, The Vicious Poodle offers a much more diverse and open space for performances. “This setting is a lot more casual…[and] more interactive,” says Charlie Nash, a five-year veteran of the Victoria drag scene and the mind behind the illustrious Henrietta Dubét. 

Where other venues tend to confine their performers to an elevated stage away from the audience, The Vicious Poodle allows space for the performers to dance and sing their hearts out around the pub’s socially-distanced tables, giving a level of intimacy and excitement to the performances. However, new COVID-19 measures have put a temporary halt to such mingling.

The venue has also been hailed as a new queer community hub. And that is exactly what Diamant says he intended with the venue.

 “We want to integrate as much as we can and that was part of my vision.” Diamant says. “You find that there are gay bars and there are lesbian bars and then a lot of the gender-non-conforming or trans individuals or non-binary individuals kind of fall through the cracks, and they’re like, ‘where do we fit?’ … We want everyone to feel like it’s their home.”

The Vicious Poodle drag show
Photo by Sonja Pinto

“I think it’s actually a space for all kinds of queers,” says Annie Konstantinova, a newly emerged drag king in the community and the energetic force behind the devilishly handsome Nikolai Hardbasskovitch. 

When asked what seperates The Vicious Poodle from other venues, Annie said, “immediately, I notice how centred it is on being like, unapologetically queer.” Co-performer Charlie agreed, saying that, “the whole idea of this was to be a [queer] community hub.” 

However, beyond the drag focus and the pub’s marketing as a queer venue, Diamant knows it takes a lot more than that to compete as a pub and restuarant in Victoria. 

“A lot of people open a queer venue and they think just because they are a queer venue they are going to do well,” he adds. “I see a lot of venues that aren’t competing on all the levels. We want to be at street level, we want to have a patio, we want to look out, we want to be seen, we want a nice room, we don’t want to be in a crappy room.” 

Diamant believes a pub offers more for the community than a bar can, because of this, the venue not only offers a wide range of drinks and a space to socialize but also a variety of food options. 

“That’s also part of my vision of making it a pub more than a bar. Food brings us together more than just drinking and partying.”

While offering great performance, community, and food, The Vicious Poodle still has COVID-19 to worry about. With the newest Dr. Bonnie Henry guidelines, Socrates has decided to put up a plexiglass barrier surrounding parts of the tiny corner stage and has now limited the venue’s performances to this small space. When asked about his concern regarding a second virus wave and new pub closures, Socrates said, “it’s definitely coming. I expect to be closed by October.” 

However, performer Nash recognizes that despite concerns, management is still dedicated to keeping the place as safe as possible while still servicing the community. 

“I think [management] really knows the importance of staying open, the importance of keeping everyone safe at a level that’s more than just lip service.” 

Charlie encourages those with any pandemic-related concerns to check out the venue on a quieter weekday so they can see the space between the tables and the precautions being taken, and then maybe come out to a drag show once they feel confident.

When asked about closures, Konstantinova offered some reassuring words.

“If the Vicious Poodle shuts down, we’ll keep doing online stuff. The drag community stayed alive [through quarantine], we struggled, but we stayed alive…drag can be in any type of venue, it can be outside, inside, online, in person, it can be anywhere … I’m not too concerned because I know I can keep going. I won’t make money if The Vicious Poodle closes but I can figure out another way to support my drag.”

The drag community of Victoria will continue to persevere regardless of COVID-19 closures. However, The Vicious Poodle has so far shown itself to be a much-needed addition to Victoria’s drag, queer, and pub scenes.