This March marks the 50th anniversary of Vancouver’s Empress II.
Since the early 70s, a non-profit organization and members of the gay community in Vancouver have gathered to hold a (sometimes themed) ball where they elect a drag court and Empress, a tradition that began in San Francisco followed by Portland.
ted northe was given the title of Empress of British Columbia by two of the past Empresses of Portland, Oregon in the late 60s. He pitched the idea of a Vancouver Empress election to bar owners in the city and they formed the Gay Businessmen’s Association (GBA).
By 1972 northe and the GBA were ready to host the first election on March 12. Even though each bar sponsored a candidate, the ball was held at the Commodore Ballroom because the gay bars did not have cabaret licenses and weren’t allowed to open on Sundays.
That night 800 members of the gay community gathered and elected a young queen and performer, Charity Regina (Rick Troke), from the BJ’s Club.
“It was all a very new idea and was designed to bring the gay community together and have some fun. It also made the Gay Businessmen’s Association take note. Could this be a way to muster support and fight City Hall and get some laws changed?” writes Mona Regina Lee in her online memoir chronicling the period of Vancouver's history.
Lee would go on to win the title of Empress the following year in a spectacular display of…potato salad.
Drag court drama
According to Lee, BJ’s wasn’t happy with Regina throwing parties and touring other clubs like Champagne Charlie’s or the August Club, with her new Empress title.
They wanted exclusive rights to Regina and Lee stepped in to offer her a job at their Beauty Salon in North Vancouver so that Regina could continue to perform and supplement the lost wages from the BJ’s Club.
Eventually, Regina met someone and moved to Seattle to be with them.
The following year, Regina was gone and the Commodore wasn’t available for the next coronation, so Lee and her best friend Ray Lewis stepped in to assist northe.
Lee’s Aunt Burnie helped the trio secure the Flame Supper Club, which used to be on Grandview Highway between Smith and Boundary Road just over the border in Burnaby.
They hired busses to take people from the Sands on Hornby Street to the Flame. Lee and Lewis even recruited people from Seattle and Portland to attend.
Again, because the event was on a Sunday in 1973, food had to be served and liquor couldn’t be served after 10 p.m.
According to Lee, she was not the favourite to win. Regina’s friend was running against her for Empress and “when midnight came the drunks had hangovers and the half-eaten food was still on the tables. When my name was announced as the winner all hell broke loose.”
Lee says she doesn’t remember the ceremony because “the shouting was so loud.”
“The leftover food was being thrown, notably the contents of the bowls of potato salad,” she recalls.
The RCMP were called and they escorted Lee and northe in their finery out to a van where Lewis, Lee’s newly crowned Czar, was waiting to drive the getaway car.
“I became the first Empress in Canada to be escorted out of town by the RCMP,” says Lee.
What is the role of a drag Empress?
For her role as Empress, Lee says she had to travel with Lewis to Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco to apologize and explain what happened at the ball. They also had to throw parties at different clubs in Vancouver to try and win back the Vancouverites and get back on the good side of the GBA.
BJ’s had also sponsored Lee’s victory so much like they were with Regina, they weren’t happy with the parties at other clubs and Lee lost her job as a performer there.
“We had to impress the community, and something landed right in our laps, as unfortunate as it was,” says Lee.
A family in the lesbian community, two women with kids, lost their home in a fire and had no insurance.
Lee and Lewis organized a deal with the Vanport Hotel on Main Street, a Lesbian party spot, that they would clean the bar to raise money for the two women.
“We got a crew together, promising them titles in our court and a walk at the Ball,” recalls Lee. “It must have worked because 14 people showed up and we went to work on a Sunday morning.”
It took 12 hours to clean the entire beer parlour and washrooms but the crew raised $600 for the women (the equivalent of over $4,000 today).
“We not only had a new court but we had a community that now supported us,” says Lee.
By the time the next coronation rolled around, things were back on track. The GBA was sponsoring parties and the event was able to happen at the Commodore Ballroom again.
A record 1,000 people showed up for the election of Empress III including 30 queens from Seattle, 40 from Portland, and over 50 from San Francisco and Los Angeles.
As one of her last rulings as Empress, Lee took away the title of Czar and made Lewis Emperor I Ray Alexander of Vancouver.
She also declared that all Empresses should be called Regina after Charity Regina and all subsequent Emperors should be called Alexander to honour Lewis as the first.
The tradition carried on for a while but isn’t followed today.
The Drag Court today
Today, the Vancouver drag court is run by the Dogwood Monarchist Society (DMS), and on Mar 12, 2023, Empress 50 sister fancy pants (stylized all lowercase) stepped down and they crowned a new Monarchs, Emperor 51 Scotty B. Box and Emprex 51 Karmella Bar
“I feel elated to pass the title,” she tells V.I.A. “I’ve done my job. I did everything I set out to do, and more. Now I look forward to celebrating and uplifting the two new Monarchs to help them realize their dreams.”
The process looks a little different now than it did 50 years ago.
sister fancy pants describes it as “straightforward but nerve-wracking.”
These days, applications for the next reign open in December with a due date of midnight on Dec. 31. Interviews are held in January and candidates are officially announced in February when they can “campaign” for the crown.
Voting day is open to the public and the community-elected Emperor, Empress or Emprex monarch is announced at the end of Coronation night.
“When I ran, I was the sole candidate for Empress. This meant that the public had the option of a 'Yes' or 'No' vote,” explains sister fancy pants. “So, it was not a guarantee that I would get the title.”
When sister fancy pants was crowned, Vancouver still had many pandemic protocols in place, there weren’t many drag shows at the time for her to perform in, and most campaigning was virtual.
“Anxiety was high as to whether I would get the title,” she recalls. “This year was different. We had three candidates for Empress and they all fought so hard.”
Empress 50 brings the Vancouver drag court full circle
“The 50-plus years of this non-profit organization have had past Monarchs of all races, genders, ages, sizes, and sexual orientations way before there was a letter in the queer alphabet to ‘label’ them,” says sister fancy pants. “We celebrate diversity and uplift diverse voices. And we do all of this with the sole purpose of fundraising and giving back to our community.”
To her, the drag court means “acceptance.”
“The make-believe world that it creates with fantastical titles and awards and medals is a world that celebrates a marginalized community,” she elaborates. “I feel celebrated and valued. Where else could I ever be called ‘Empress or ‘Monarch’?”