Jolene Queen Sloan’s Indian jewelry shimmers under the club lights while the gold sequins of her dress, known as a lehenga in Punjabi, sparkle with every twist. The night is young at Numbers Cabaret in Vancouver.
The crowd cheers and applauds Jolene’s performance even though she might not understand Bollywood music. For Jolene, energy sums up a dream come true with her Punjabi roots.
“They let me be in this space so I can bring my community and celebrate my own culture,” said Jolene, who is Prianshu Grover’s drag character.
In June, Grover celebrates his first Pride Month as a Punjabi drag queen in Vancouver.
Grover immigrated from India in 2016 as an international student hoping to start afresh and come to terms with his gay identity – something, he says, he found difficult back home in India.
Now he’s pushing for greater representation of dating in the South Asian LGBTQ community, with Bollywood music, Indian glam and a message that promotes culture and self-acceptance.
“Right now most of Indian dating 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 an early age in India. After revealing her identity to her parents, her close family accepted her. However, he says, other relatives and friends did not.
“They knew from the start that I had something special. I heard people insulting me…I was beaten up because I was gay at home.”
He arrived in Canada in 2016 as an international student and decided in 2020 to pursue dating 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 ended up marrying a woman.
Grover’s decision to pursue drag was not taken lightly by those back home, including parents and friends.
“People from society would come to my house, show the [social media] videos to my parents, and be like, see what your kid is doing in Canada… it was really hard on me emotionally,” he said.
Grover says that while the people of 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 about what it means to be queer and South Asian, through Jolene’s performances and social media.
“It really helps me educate them about my profession. And it really helps me stand up for my gay friends.”
Grover chose his drag persona from Dolly Parton’s song “Jolene,” which he says he listened to several times after his long-distance breakup. He says the song’s description of “Jolene” as a powerful, attractive woman helped spark and solidify his drag persona.
Create safe 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 solace in Grover’s performance art.
“It’s really amazing to come here and see other South Asians thriving in their industry as creatives,” Jag said.
Pri Shah says the drag queen is helping spark more conversations about South Asians in queer spaces.
“It puts people at ease. It creates a huge space of safety for people at home who feel like they’re not represented enough.”
Grover says Vancouver crowds and drag queens welcomed him with open arms.
Cheryl Trade, an Aboriginal drag queen from Saskatoon, is part of Jolene’s support network. The two have done many shows together on Davie Street in Vancouver.
“We want to see diversity. We want to see people of color…it’s so important to support artists who bring their culture to their flirtation,” Trade said.
Soon, Jolene heads to her next show, dazzling Davie Street in gold glitter. The pride flag flutters above her.
“I’m able to provide that space, the safe space that I haven’t had in a very long time.”