Jolene Queen Sloan's Indian jewelry twinkles under the club lights as the gold sequins on her dress, known as a lehenga in Punjabi, shimmer with every spin. The night is young at the Numbers Cabaret in Vancouver.
The crowd claps and cheers Jolene's performance even though they may not understand the Bollywood music. For Jolene, the energy encapsulates a dream come true with her Punjabi roots.
"They are letting me be in this space so that I can bring in my community and celebrate my own culture," said Jolene, who is the drag persona of Prianshu Grover.
This June, Grover is celebrating her first Pride month as a Punjabi drag queen in Vancouver.
Grover immigrated from India in 2016 as an international student with hopes to start fresh and own up to his gay identity — something, he says, he found challenging back home in India.
Now, he is pushing for more representation of drag in the South Asian LGBTQ community, with Bollywood music, Indian glam and a message that promotes culture and self-acceptance.
"Right now, most of the Indian drag is influenced by Western culture … that's what I'm trying to change," he said.
The persistence of self-acceptance
Grover says he knew he was gay from a young age in India. After coming out about his identity to his parents, his close family accepted it. However, he says, other relatives and friends did not.
"They knew from the very beginning that there was something special about me. I would hear people calling me names ... I was beaten up for being gay back home."
He arrived in Canada in 2016 as an international student and decided in 2020 to pursue drag after a nine-year relationship with a male boyfriend in India ended. He says the long-distance relationship was not accepted by the community there, and his ex wound up marrying a woman.
Grover's decision to pursue drag was not taken lightly by people back home, including relatives and friends.
"The people from society would go to my home, show the [social media] videos to my parents, and be like, see what your child is doing in Canada … it was emotionally really challenging for me," he said.
Grover says while people in his village in India were curious, many never fully understood his drag aspirations. In Canada, he says he has made it his goal to better educate people back home on what it means to be queer and South Asian, through Jolene's performances and social media channels.
"It's really helping me out to make them understand my profession. And it really helps for me stand up for my queer folks."
Grover picked his drag persona from the Dolly Parton song "Jolene," which he says he listened to repeatedly after his long-distance breakup. He says the song's description of "Jolene" as a powerful and attractive woman helped spark and empower his drag persona.
Creating safes spaces with diverse representation
Grover says he hopes to inspire self-acceptance and love among his audience.
As Jolene dances, audience members like Melanie Jag find comfort in Grover's performance art.
"It feels really amazing to come out here and just see other South Asians just thrive in their industry as a creative," said Jag.
Pri Shah says the drag queen is helping spark more conversations about South Asians in queer spaces.
"It makes people feel comfortable. It creates a huge safe space for folks at home that feel like they're not represented enough."
Grover says Vancouver crowds and drag queens have welcomed him with open arms.
Cheryl Trade, an Indigenous drag queen from Saskatoon, has been part of Jolene's support network. The two have done numerous shows together on Davie Street in Vancouver.
"We want to see diversity. We want to see people of colour … it's just so important to support artists who bring their culture to their drag," said Trade.
Soon, Jolene is making her way to her next show, dazzling Davie Street in gold sequins. The Pride flag waves in the wind above her.
"I am able to provide that space, the safe space that I didn't have for a very long time."