Written by Lorette C. Luzajic
Vince’s Vintage Vaults Queen DonnaRama’s Early Days of Reign
It’s an ordinary Sunday night in Toronto’s gay village, and as usual, Woody’s, the place to see and be seen, is hopping with proud and hopeful thirtysomethings. In the swirl of tobacco smoke and the din of clanking glasses and dangling conversations, everything is as it should be.
Everything, that is, except for the spectacle of Linda Blair writhing on stage in a skanky grey nightgown. Everything except for Scream’s grim reaper hacking away at notoriously weird drag queen Donnarama. Especially strange in an almost all-men’s bar is the proliferation of grenadine-soaked tampons flying across the room at Prom Queen Carrie.
There’s something sick and perverse about the whole thing, but secretly guests at Woody’s are thrilled that they don’t have to live through another Sunday night of Bette Midler impersonations, another night of somebody squeezed into a white mini singing I Feel Like a Woman.
But then, Donnarama is always a little over the top. If she decides to do a B-movie themed drag show, she is the only one who can.
In the ladies’ room of the legendary dance club The Barn, there’s graffiti scrawled across the stall wall broadcasting I LOVE DONNARAMA! SHE SO RULES! Somewhere on the floor in the rhythm of progressive house (on a good night) and Europop is a cult following for the city’s strangest female illusionist.
Dancing up a storm is an especially handsome young man in a cut-off tanks shirt and sexy blue athletic pants. Short, bleached hair and an unshaven face give this distinctive and stunning youth a bit of edge. In a sea of queens hoping to look self-assured and beautiful, Vince Pincente, 22, just is.
This is the one- the wild and crazy one and only, Donnarama.
“The first time I met Vince, she was in a wedding dress and a big, blonde wig, completely trashed,” says Dimitri Kousis, 23, writer and club-kid and one of Pincente’s best friends. “There was a limo parked there and she was trying to convince the driver she was Courtney Love.”
The two are inseparable whenever their schedules allow. They go to clubs, they stay up late watching tacky horror movies, they traipse all over Toronto making antics and giggling. “We’ve had so much fun together,” says Kousis. “Dancing, hallucinating, crashing on that hard wooden floor! She takes care of me. She makes me boiled pasta with ketchup instead of tomato sauce. This is the ghetto.”
Kousis tributes Pincente as being “among the most positive people I know.” He envies her kind of casual confidence and happy outlook, things that contribute to Pincente’s natural star quality. “If she of anybody I know says she’s going to do something, she is going to do it. If she says she’s going to make an album, she’s going to make an album. She’ll do it. She’ll do anything she wants. She’s like that.”
Like so much in rainbow culture, Madonna is, in some ways, the mother of Pincente’s Donnarama. “Madonna, she’s the One Mother who actually does what I wish I could do. She was so alone when she started out. She was different and determined.”
Pincente saw his own reflection in that determination. “People always said they knew I was something different. And so did I.”
It all began as Madonnarama. But Pincente is as unlimited as Madonna is, and he grew tired of the self-imposed restriction of Madonna covers. “It was an accident waiting to happen,” he says. “It was 1996, and everyone was so broke. There was a talent contest that night I wanted to compete in. I was at the Goodwill and saw a wedding dress. I said, this is me. This is Courtney Love. I was going to be her. I walked out of the store in the wedding dress, all the way home. I went mental. I knew it had begun.”
Pincente had tried on dresses before, as Madonnarama, and earlier, at age five, in his sister’s closet. “I thought, where are mine? I was five and didn’t understand that boys didn’t wear them. It was pretty and I wanted one. It wasn’t that I thought I was a woman. I just thought anyone could wear dresses.”
He says the feminine part of his identity is about stardom and drama, about theatre, about being larger than life. But drag is just for the stage- it isn’t an identity for him, but a spotlight. If gay culture had happened to have a different kind of performance culture, say heavy metal or karaoke, those things would have had to spotlight Vince. They still might. “I feel way more drawn to my masculine side,” says Vince, who is so far away from effeminate when out of dress that you wonder how the hell he can work curves he doesn’t have and come off so incredibly convincing. “But people should get past those boundaries, who cares, it’s so like, whatever. I like dresses. I don’t like to shave.”
Stefan Walker, 20, has known Pincente since before the incarnation of Donnarama. He also tried drag for a while. “I got into it really seriously, but I couldn’t call it a lifestyle for myself. I wanted to play with Mom’s shoes since I was kid, and enjoyed the freedom of expression, the fun. But the whole scene is so superficial, so much backbiting, “ Walker says. He feels he isn’t equipped to deal with the catty, competitive world of drag and does better as an audience member.
“Vince and are in total sync with each other. I come to all her shows to support her. She is my best friend- make that capital letters! We can make tiny facial expressions and know exactly what we’re talking about.”
Walker knows that Pincente is well equipped to deal with the cruelties, realities, and drugs rampant in the drag world. “She is made of steel, but warm and friendly, fiercely independent, and always positive. She is creative and sweet to others. She can let things slide off her back in ways no one else can, and then has the confidence to do it again.”
Pincente does have a huge, warm smile that rarely wanes and a catchy upbeat attitude that will provide enough ammunition to brave the runways and dressing rooms of drag. To her, it isn’t about winning or about popularity contests, it’s about being new and enthusiastic and showing old dogs new tricks. Donnarama is flexible enough to do justice to old classics- with that shnoz, she is Barbra Streisand’s Doppelganger. But she’s adventurous enough to add new sketches that drag has never seen or tried or thought of. Colour or gender don’t matter- Donnarama will impersonate the white trash she claims to be, guy singers, and even black girls. “I’ve got the moves. Colour is secondary.”
Variety is the spice of life, indeed, but white trash artist Courtney Love is Donnarama’s signature. She comes out on stage in a cut-up wedding gown with SLUT scrawled across her guitar, roaring numbers from Celebrity Skin and throwing the guitar around the bar.
“I get so pissed when drag stays boring and pathetic. There is so much more material out there. I hate it when I see people being pathetic, doing typical bullshit again. It’s so boring and so done,” he says. “It’s like, if you’re up there at least try something different. I know for a fact, if the stage were more open, if there was more creativity, there would be nothing unusual about me.”
But there is everything unusual about Donnarama. She’s down the usual venues in unusual gowns, headlining every spot on Church Street. She was a finalist in this year’s Miss Bailey’s Irish Cream competition. She was also lined up to be the first Toronto Sun Sunshine Girl who was not a girl, but after the photo shoot, the Sun decided to not risk going forward with that. It is a newspaper for rednecks, after all.
For someone who has a smile for everyone and not a hint of snobbery, with such a positive and cheerful outlook for the future, it’s a paradox how Pincente’s obsession is with darkness and madness. His apartment is overflowing with cult horror paraphernalia. In the tiny shitbox at Lansdowne and Bloor, where the door doesn’t lock and the bathtub water never shuts off, the walls are covered in posters of bleeding prom queens and macabre dolls with all manner of pins and axes. Freddie claws and video cases clutter all available surfaces. A giant fat cat who looks like one of the monsters waddles awkwardly toward the food dish. Her name is April.
“April understands that I’m never home,” Vince says, leaning over to give her a quick cuddle. “She is fat and depressed. I have to help her. She has feelings.”
There’s also Sylvestor, a much more beautiful feline specimen. He is silver and grey and keeps his distance from April.
Aside from two cats and a few hundred B horrors, there isn’t much else here. The vanity counter in the bathroom is crammed with glittery hair accessories and tubes, and there’s a tickle trunk of red high heels and tacky vintage gowns. Vince pulls a few of these out eagerly and displays each treasure with laughter. “This is for Dee-Lite, this one worked for The Bangles,” he explains. ”Drag staples.”
They sure are. At a recent show, Escape of the Pageant Queens at the Red Spot, Dommarama and Lena Over came out in towels to do a bathhouse spoof to the Bangles’ song In Your Room. The volunteer guest, who had only to ‘sit still’ on stage, was keeping over laughing as Donna and Lena cavorted around the stage in nothing but towels. As for Dee-Lite, Donnarama appeared in a leotard with braids wound all over her head and showed how well she can dance. She is practically an acrobat.
Vince’s warm, showy spirit freezes a little when the questions turn a bit more personal. God, family, men? “God? Could be. I think so, sometimes, there’s something bigger than us.” His earthly family relations- none of your business. Suffice it to say he is close to his sister and mother but won’t talk about them. Despite the cult following and a phone that has been ringing nonstop since I arrived, I get the feeling that Pincente is a lone animal, ferociously independent and private. “I’ve been looking after myself my entire life,” is all he’ll about personal relations. He alludes to one long-term relationship with a man that disintegrated earlier in the year. “Anyhow, you are the only person you can rely on, right?”
I shrug. I’m not here to psychoanalyze anyone. After a lengthy, awkward pause, he says, “I’m always lonely though. Is that normal?”
Highly creative people like Madonna and Donnarama have historically felt lonely and believed their path a solitary, misunderstood place. But the audience has the highest regard for Vince Pincente’s alter ego.
Bing Tung, volunteer for Donnarama's bathhouse scenario, says, “She has an excellent stage presence, she’s witty, she’s very entertaining. Other drag queens should look at her and become influenced to a higher creativity. Then drag would be more entertaining for all of us.”
Dimitri Kousis, longtime friend, says, “She’s going to expand her horizons and become a huge celebrity. She is an original. Others try to be all vain and alternative but they don’t cut it.”
Pincente appreciates the applause and support of the community. “I’ll never stop giving you Donnarama!’ she promises.
But he wants to write songs and see the world and make people happier, on stage and in everyday life. He wants to put out the album that Kousis has no doubt we will hear.
“I know I have something to say. I’ve known that from the moment I was born,” Pincente states. “I like to live large, to talk large, to feel great, to smile large, all while being down-to-earth. I want to share that. I’m just getting started. I’m going to show everyone that they should do whatever they damn well want to and shouldn’t care about what people thing, What if you only get to live once?”
He tosses a ripped sequin hat into the corner “for repair later”. Then, “Oh, I hate that old rag anyhow. It’s tired, it can go.” The interview is evidently over now. “That’s pretty much it, sugar,” he says. “Just let it all go. Or, if the cookie crumbles, pick it up and eat it anyways. It’s your choice.”
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