Toronto’s Naomi Leone on COVID-19-era performances, Black Girl Magic and #BlackLivesMatter

Naomi Leone AKA Victor Keita has been on the up and up for the last seven years. As the drag daughter of Devine Darlin‘ and the fairy Drag daughter of Lady G, she comes from a family of well-respected Toronto Drag entertainers, but she says her real family inspires her drag just as much. “Growing up surrounded by strong, beautiful African women inspired me from an early age to want to emulate their greatness. Seeing them in their gorgeous Kente cloth dresses and extravagant jewelry always made me wish I could be as graceful,” she says.

Naomi is a fierce Queen with a point of view. Earlier this year she reached out to a kindred spirit in Chicago named Anthony Taylor, a famous Drag Queen who competed on the tenth season of “Rupaul’s Drag Race” as The Vixen. The Vixen is known for her amazing dance skills, her series of Drag shows called “Black Girl Magic” and her fierce truth-telling, specifically on the topic of race.

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👑 📸 @victorbertrand

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Naomi admired The Vixen because “Her message is so important, celebrating black girls and black Queens,” she says. Naomi also says she likes to highlight the experiences of other black Queens in the Drag industry. Naomi describes their conversations together as “nice, sweet and open.”

Conversations turned into collaboration when Naomi had The Vixen as a guest on her online drag show “Woman Crush Wednesday.” A few months later, The Vixen asked Naomi to contribute a number to her August online edition of “Black Girl Magic,” which regularly hosts big Drag stars like Season 11 winner, Yvie Oddly as well as Kennedy Davenport, A’Keria Chanel Davenport, and “All-Stars” Season 5 winner, Shea Couleé. “It was a huge moment for me,” says Naomi, who met a lot of new fans and grew her social media following through the appearance.

Drag shows have been changing over the past few months due to world events. Guests were welcomed back into bars this summer under strict regulations after months of lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, limiting guest capacity and putting Queens behind plexiglass, and while the changes have been hard for establishment’s bottom lines, Naomi says they’ve had surprising benefits for performers. Seating-only shows ensure audiences “have to sit down and actually watch the show, and I feel like I’m making way beyond the normal expectation of tips,” she says.

The substance of shows has also changed. World events like the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others have revived #BlackLivesMatter protests which have been going on since the founders, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi invented the hashtag in 2013. Drag has also felt the influence of this movement. Black performers have been speaking out on their experiences in the industry and bookers and fans have pledged them their support.

Queens and fans are bringing attention to Drag show lineups that hugely favour white Drag Queens, with black Drag performers in Chicago even starting the Chicago Black Drag Council who held online public meetings this summer to combat the issue in their city. “I’m sick of seeing the same white people on the same stage and one token black person,” Naomi says. A common reason cited for why lineups look the way they do is that people tend to work with their friends, but statistics show that people are more likely to be friends with folks of their own race. “If you only work with your friends, how are you supposed to meet other people and get to know them and understand their stories?” she adds.

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Together we’re powerful.

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There’s also a cultural divide between some older and younger performers. Many older performers subscribe to the idea that their job is to offer audiences an escape from politics, while many younger performers think it’s important to speak their minds on political and human rights issues. A lot of younger audiences also want to know performers’ views before they support them because they don’t want to throw their support behind folks whose views they may perceive to be racist, sexist, or transphobic.

“The young generation speaks their mind. That’s the most important thing right now. No more silence, speak your mind, let the world know how you’re feeling,” Naomi says. “Sometimes when I see flyers out there I wanna comment so badly. These people are still not realizing what’s happening!” she says.

Naomi says she wants to see a level of support that doesn’t waiver in-between tragic incidents. “When something happens everyone wants to start supporting, but once it slows down and is quiet no one really continues to talk about it. It will happen again,” she says, referring to extrajudicial killings of black people by police.

In the meantime, she says bookers of Queens and other performers have to show sustained interest in the issues affecting performers of colour. “Share the love,” Naomi says. “I hope people will not forget the movement and go backward again. We need to keep moving forward.”

Naomi Leone – “Shameless”
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