The Queen B
Brooke Lynn Hytes ruled the runway on RuPaul’s Drag Race. The story of the Toronto dancer who became the world’s best-dressed drag queen
Last February, Brooke Lynn Hytes, a classically trained dancer from Etobicoke, became the first Canadian to compete on RuPaul’s Drag Race. For Toronto drag obsessives who’d patiently endured 10 seasons, four All Stars cycles and two Christmas specials populated exclusively by American queens, the patriotism was intoxicating. And Brooke Lynn leaned into her Canadianness. In the debut episode, she dubbed herself the Queen of the North, dressed like a bedazzled blonde Mountie. Her confessionals, littered with “aboats” and “sohrrys,” stood out against the other queens’ Texan drawls. And in a series that feeds on wig-yanking catfights, she seemed almost exotically poised and polite. During one particularly savage six-way scrap between contestants with names like Silky Nutmeg Ganache and Plastique Tiara, she buried herself under couch cushions, pleading, “Can’t we just bottle our feelings like normal people?” Canada was proud.
Brooke Lynn’s defining moment came in episode eight, when she had to lip-synch for her life to Demi Lovato’s “Sorry Not Sorry.” On Drag Race, a lip-synch isn’t just about moving your mouth. It’s a challenge in magnetism, musicality, showmanship. That night, Brooke Lynn turned out a performance defined by supernatural elasticity and the brazen raunch of a Vegas stripper. She stood on her head, slithered across the stage, twirled cartwheels and checked her manicure in full splits-mode. Camp and sex usually go together like toothpaste and orange juice, but Brooke Lynn managed to fuse them into a sly, spectacular performance. Audiences jumped on social media to call it: this was the best lip-synch in Drag Race herstory. Until then, the world only knew Brooke Lynn Hytes as the ladylike queen from Canada. From that night on, she was a star.
A celebrity drag queen is a relatively new category in the taxonomy of fame. There have been a few examples here and there—Divine in the ’80s, RuPaul herself in the ’90s—but they were largely classified as novelties instead of artists. The defiant queerness of drag queens was too taboo. Yet mainstream culture has commandeered elements of drag—its politically charged camp, its dance moves, its fashion—for decades. Designers like Thierry Mugler and Jeremy Scott borrowed drag’s cartoonish silhouettes and poppy flourishes. Madonna and Lady Gaga are queens in every sense but the tuck. Jimmy Fallon has appropriated the art of the lip-synch, and Kardashians and Real Housewives have monetized the contouring makeup techniques pioneered in the drag world. The only people who hadn’t cashed in were the queens themselves.
Until now. A drag queen is a Swiss army knife of talent: a personality, performer and visual artist in one glitzy package. In 2009, RuPaul Charles recognized the opportunity the art form presented for reality TV, as a satirical purée of America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway. As the show evolved beyond its B-series premise, it featured different forms of drag, which are as plentiful as feathers in a boa: there are comedy queens and runway queens, bald queens and trans queens, rhinestoned showgirls and avant-garde surrealists. Intentionally or not, Drag Race became one of the most radical series on TV: a vivid neon utopia where straight people don’t exist and queerness is the default mode. In 2017, VH1 slotted Drag Race on Thursday nights, creating a licence for gay bars to print money with screening parties. The show has spawned spinoffs in the U.K., Thailand and, next year, Canada. And Drag Race viewers are more active on Reddit than any other TV fandom, including Game of Thrones.
Brooke Lynn, who’s 33 and goes by Brock Hayhoe when she’s off the clock, didn’t win season 11 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. She placed second after the Denver grunge queen Yvie Oddly (a controversial decision; visit Reddit at your peril). But Brooke Lynn got something better than a rhinestone crown: she became a fashion icon. Her brand is Cylon couture, all frosty beauty and androgynous angles: structured vinyls, dramatic cut-outs, shoulders and hips as sharp as steak knives. “Brooke Lynn is inspired by Linda Evangelista, Brigitte Nielsen, Grace Jones,” Hayhoe says. “I think of her as an otherworldly Amazon: tall, powerful, wealthy.” Other queens have parlayed their drag into acting, music, comedy, burlesque. Brooke Lynn Hytes is going to be a supermodel.
It takes Brock Hayhoe two hours to become Brooke Lynn Hytes. Hayhoe is six-foot-three and handsome, with a crinkly-eyed smile, caterpillar brows and a reflexive duck-lip pout in selfies. His first step is to erase all of that. After covering his eyebrows with Pros-Aide adhesive—the better to conceal them with cakes of makeup—he slathers foundation over his face, using an orangey shade to colour-correct his beard undergrowth. He puffs himself with clown-white powder, creating a featureless death mask. Then he slowly carves out Brooke Lynn’s face: a swoosh of brown contouring to form Vulcan cheekbones; an elegant nose with a slimming stripe of highlighter on the bridge; a pair of villainously arched synthetic eyebrows glued mid-forehead. He blends eyeshadow into an ombré cascade and tacks on a few sets of black lashes made from human hair. He paints his lips plump and pink, like a pair of genetically modified grapefruit segments. Depending on the outfit, Hayhoe might pad his hips and chest to create a Coke-bottle silhouette. “I want to look like a natural woman,” he tells me. “Or as natural as a six-foot-seven woman can look.”
Drag Race fans expect their queens to be chummy and gregarious. Hayhoe conducts himself with inexhaustible charm, but there’s an icy hauteur that takes some time to thaw. It might be from his ballet training, which gave him the bearing of a matador. In drag, Brooke Lynn is a maximalist, and that innate reserve communicates power, dominance, mystery. Out of drag, Hayhoe is a minimalist in a uniform of grey tees and black baseball caps, and his reticence conveys shyness, careful observation and the good sense to know when to keep his mouth shut. The day I met him, all it took was about 20 minutes and a few slices of pizza for him to mellow into chatty gossip mode. I knew he’d relaxed when he dipped his crust into the leftover juice from a bowl of cubed watermelon. It was a strange thing to do. If Brooke Lynn Hytes is a carapace of glossy perfection, Brock Hayhoe is a weirdo just like everyone else.
He was raised in a devout Christian household in Etobicoke. His mother, Joan, is adorably square, with a tiny frame and a headful of springy white curls. She grew up in Borneo, the daughter of evangelical missionaries and members of a church called the Meeting. “Looking back on it now, I’d call it a cult,” Joan tells me. “It was very controlling and isolating. You could only hang out with like-minded people. No dancing, no makeup, no jewellery, no shorts, no haircuts.” When she moved to Canada as a teenager, she began dating Alan Hayhoe, a school guidance counsellor and a fellow member of her church. They had two girls and two boys; Brock, the youngest, was born in 1986. When he was a baby, the family switched to Rexdale Alliance Church, a less restrictive congregation on Islington. Brock dutifully attended services every Sunday, but he never took to Christianity. For him, church was just an opportunity to see his friends.
An astute drag spectator could have predicted Hayhoe’s destiny from the start. As a toddler, he’d drape tea towels over his head and pretend he had long hair—his first wig, Joan jokes. He played obsessively with his mom’s porcelain doll collection and tried on her clothes in secret. His most treasured item was a flower-girl dress a family friend had worn at a wedding, which was left at the Hayhoe house and never picked up. “It was basically a white wedding gown for a little girl. It had the big puffed sleeves, the taffeta, the lace,” he says. The Hayhoe kids weren’t allowed to watch many movies, but one of their few sanctioned titles was Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. The first time Brock watched it, he was captivated by Anne Baxter, who played an Egyptian princess. “I looked at her and thought, That’s who I want to be in drag. A walking fucking sexpot.”
Hayhoe was athletic, but not sporty; he tried hockey as a kid, and it wasn’t his thing. At 14, he started taking dance classes one night a week—a little tap, a little hip hop, a little ballet—and discovered a natural aptitude. A year later, a friend mentioned that the National Ballet School of Canada on Jarvis was holding auditions and she was going to try out. On a whim, with no hope of success, Hayhoe told his mom he was going to join her. “I said, ‘Brock, you’re crazy,’ ” Joan says. “ ‘You’ll never get in. These kids have been dancing since they were two.’ ” He promised it was just for fun, so she agreed to take him. At the audition, Hayhoe was the only boy in the room. Even though he’d only been dancing for a year, he performed every barre exercise as if he was onstage at Lincoln Center. When the tryouts were over, two names were called. One of them was Brock Hayhoe. As he celebrated, all the rejected girls burst into tears, their lifelong dreams thwarted.
Hayhoe finished his high school education at the National Ballet School. He liked the fact that he’d found something he was good at, but there was a snag: he only wanted to dance the women’s roles. “My dream in life was to be the tall, beautiful soloist girl,” he says. The first step, he figured, would be to learn how to dance en pointe, so he went to the shoe room at school, miraculously found a pair of pointe shoes in a women’s size 12, and started practising. Many male dancers simply can’t dance en pointe—they’re heavier than the ballerinas, and their feet and ankles often lack the flexibility to keep them whirling like dreidels. In that respect, Hayhoe turned out to be something of a unicorn.
In his last year of high school, Hayhoe came out to his mom during Pride Week. The Toronto Star’s front page was plastered with photos of half-naked men marching down Yonge Street, and she asked him outright if he was gay. “Yeah, I think I am,” he replied. Joan was devastated. “I started to cry,” she says. “It was totally against my religious beliefs. And I knew it wouldn’t be easy for him.” For the next decade or so, Hayhoe’s relationship with his family was cold, distant and uncomfortable.
After high school, Hayhoe left the awkwardness of home for the Cape Town City Ballet in South Africa, where he danced for two years in the corps. He was working toward a long-term goal: he wanted to join Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, an all-male troupe based in New York that simultaneously spoofed and saluted the frippery of classical ballet. At 21, he was finally hired by Trockadero. He lived out his fantasy, dancing female leads in gossamer ballets like The Dying Swan, Concerto Barocco and a Vivaldi suite. For four years, he travelled with the troupe to Europe, Asia and South America. By the time he was 25, though, he was burnt out. “My body was dead. I was dead. And I wanted to be my own boss,” he says. “I realized I was more interested in the drag aspect than the ballet. You have to be really passionate about ballet if you want to do it well, and I just wasn’t. I was lazy.”
In between Trockadero tours, Hayhoe would come home to visit Toronto, sleeping on friends’ couches in the Gay Village. One of his regular hosts was Chantelle Carr, better known as Farra N. Hyte, a buxom queen with a face like one of Joan Hayhoe’s porcelain dolls. Hayhoe was toying with the idea of trying drag, so Farra offered to let him appear in one of her shows on Church Street. Hayhoe did his first drag number in jeans and a cropped zip-up hoodie. He went without a wig—like a nun going out without her habit—and dusted on some light women’s makeup from MAC rather than the industrial buttercream designed to feminize male faces. As he stood in the wings, Farra christened him onstage. “Please welcome to the stage, Brooke Lynn Hytes!” He performed his first lip-synch to Kelly Clarkson’s “Hear Me.”
Hayhoe had found his calling. He moved back to Toronto in the summer of 2012, performing at night. When I ask how he paid the bills, he arches an eyebrow. “Prostitution. I sucked dick on the side.” An excruciating beat. “Kidding!” he says. “I worked at a garden centre and did Christmas shifts at the Bay.” That was his last real job. Within six months of his first show, he was earning enough to become a full-time performer.
Brooke Lynn Hytes, in her fledgling years, was a dancing queen. Drag performances have their own physical vocabulary: a manic buffet of voguing, high kicks, flips and twirls. Like a bewigged Bob Fosse, Hayhoe reinvented the language of drag dance, channelling his ethereal ballet training into something gritty and sexual. Where other queens would shock and delight their audiences by falling on the floor in a death drop—a terrifying bent-leg split—Hayhoe performed entire numbers stomping en pointe, the shoes creating a new kind of percussion. Steve Neville, now Hayhoe’s manager and best friend, remembers the first night he saw Brooke Lynn perform at Woody’s on Church Street in 2013. “She was wearing this huge blonde Afro wig. And I was so in awe of her that I just stood there staring at her like a creep. I was so infatuated,” he says. “In those early years, she went very sexy because it was all about the dancing. Coming from ballet, being in a really structured dance environment, all of a sudden she could just be an animal onstage. And she loved it.”
By this point, Hayhoe’s older sister had also come out as gay, and Joan was starting to rethink her values. “My mom realized, ‘I have to figure out how to be good with this,’ ” Hayhoe says. One day, he asked her to drive him to Value Village. They each grabbed a cart and went off in separate directions, and when they reunited near the fitting rooms, Brock’s cart was piled high with women’s clothing, including a white wedding dress and a black bustier. “I realized that he was inviting me into this part of his life and I needed to embrace the moment,” Joan says. “So I went over to the cart, and the salesgirl asked if it was mine. I said, ‘No, that’s my son’s cart.’ I wanted him to hear me owning him.” When they got to the cashier, Brock put his arm around Joan, and they giggled. “And that was the end of that,” she says.
In 2014, Hayhoe won Miss Continental, a top drag pageant in Chicago with contestants from all over North America. After the pageant, scouts from Play Nashville, one of the largest and slickest drag clubs in the U.S., approached Hayhoe and asked him to become one of their Play Mates, the roster of regular performers. Hayhoe wasn’t thrilled about moving to the Deep South, but the opportunity was too tempting to pass up. Besides, he had another goal in mind. His new work visa would make him eligible to compete on RuPaul’s Drag Race—the Olympics of drag.
Neville moved to Nashville in solidarity and got a job at the Grand Ole Opry. He was there for Hayhoe’s first night at Play. “It was the only time I was scared for him. This is a huge stage and there’s a lot of pressure. I thought, He’d better blow the roof off this place.” Hayhoe lip-synched to “Partition” by Beyoncé in a fluorescent yellow lace catsuit and what Neville calls his Amanda Marshall wig—a lion’s mane of reddish-blonde curls. “And I don’t think I’ve ever seen an audience lose their mind like that. It was crazy,” says Neville. By the end of the show, the stage was awash in $500 worth of tips.
Watching RuPaul’s Drag Race for the first time is like sitting through a foreign film, without subtitles, set inside a Barbie dreamhouse. It hews, just barely, to the spine of a traditional reality competition: each week there’s a challenge, one person is eliminated, and the last queen standing gets $100,000. But that’s where the logic ends. Every challenge is gleefully nonsensical, requiring contestants to jump through glittery hoops—sometimes literally—that have absolutely nothing to do with the business of drag. In the latest season, they had to host a Britney Spears–themed televangelism broadcast, perform in a lewd magic show, and stage a truly insane Trump-centric lip-synch musical where the Democrats and Republicans were recast as Grease-style gangs. The show’s dialogue is a surprisingly sophisticated patois of English and drag speak. A “read,” for instance, is a carefully deployed insult; “sickening” is the highest compliment you can pay; “gagged” means dumbstruck; a “beat” is a faceful of makeup; and “hunty” is a bitchier twist on “honey” (see also: “henny”). And these are the easy ones. The show is also littered with quotes from Dynasty and Showgirls and Paris Is Burning and deep-cut references to previous competitors and seasons. For newcomers, the onslaught of in-jokes can be alienating. For fans, it’s a shibboleth for an exclusive club, an instant opportunity to bond with fellow obsessives. Last year, I was riding the Dundas streetcar when I heard a couple of 20-somethings discussing Drag Race runway themes. I couldn’t stop myself from interjecting, and we spent the rest of that sluggish streetcar ride joyously comparing our favourite queens. It was the first and only time I’ve spoken to strangers on the TTC.
Hayhoe auditioned twice before he made it on the show in 2018. From the first episode, Brooke Lynn Hytes cemented her status as an iconic runway queen. Each look outshone the last: a Pisces-themed gown of clear moulded thermoplastic swimming with koi fish; a slinky gold lamé dress and matching turban with a billowing boa; an aubergine caftan and gold bustier worthy of the goddess Athena. Hayhoe’s favourite creation was for the orange-themed runway: vivid tangerine strips criss-crossed his body like sexy mummy bandages, topped with a matching floor-length plastic trench. The bodysuit was inspired by The Fifth Element; the coat paid tribute to The Matrix. “I love simplicity. I love chicness, elegance and streamlined things,” Hayhoe tells me. “The dancer in me knows my body. I know what looks good and what to hide.” The night season 11 premiered, Joan joined Neville and Farra N. Hyte for a screening party at Woody’s. “It was the first time I’ve ever darkened the doors of any bar,” she says. The place was packed, with a line circling the block. It seemed like the whole country was rooting for Hayhoe. “I was blown away because of the love and acceptance that our family received from everybody there,” Joan says. “And I thought, Wow, if any of these people had come to my church, they would not have received that amazing reception.”
During Hayhoe’s time on Drag Race, he famously became involved with Vanessa Vanjie Mateo, one of his fellow contestants. (To drag aficionados, this kind of queen-on-queen hookup is known as a “kai-kai.”) Vanjie, whose real name is José Cancel, has the face of a Victoria’s Secret angel and the voice of a kitchen garburator. When filming wrapped, they continued their affair. “Brock had never had a boyfriend of any kind. Nothing that ever exceeded two dates,” Neville says. “So to see him excited about somebody was really cool.” Fans dubbed the duo “Branjie,” creating tribute accounts on Instagram and schmaltzy YouTube videos set to Ed Sheeran songs. They broke up a few months after shooting ended. Hayhoe didn’t want to commit.
Nor did he have time for a boyfriend. Most Drag Race queens tour more than the average rock band, either with the show’s official tour or on other routes organized by management companies—in Toronto, they regularly sell out venues like the Danforth Music Hall, the Opera House and the Winter Garden Theatre. They still do occasional club shows, but after Drag Race their booking fees can be as much as $10,000 a gig. Queens are also ideal corporate partners: some have started their own makeup lines with Nyx Cosmetics or MAC; others promote clothing lines and alcohol brands.
Every queen constantly churns out merch that’s available for purchase on their website—Hayhoe sells enamel pins, cat sweatshirts, tank tops and fans. And twice a year, hundreds of queens pile into convention centres in L.A. and New York for DragCon, a queer analogue to Comic-Con where each queen has a booth for meet-and-greets and merch sales. The programming includes fashion shows, performances and panels. Delightfully, DragCon is a family affair: parents bring costumed kids to pose with their favourite queens, get their faces painted—an upgrade from the school fun fair—and celebrate the exuberance of drag. Last spring, more than 50,000 people attended the expo. “I’m so happy that I live in a world where it’s okay for parents to do that,” Hayhoe says. “I couldn’t imagine seeing a drag queen on TV when I was a kid. But now I see little boys dressed as princesses. Now, we’re role models.”
There was a time when drag was considered misogynist. During the second wave of feminism, it was condemned as a phenomenon of men ridiculing women, their bodies, their sexuality. Unlike women, the thinking went, men could opt in or out of the crucible of femininity, exploiting it for profit and fame. But in an age of gender fluidity, drag has finally found its moment. Most queens—Hayhoe included—will tell you they’re deifying womanhood, not deriding it. “I think women are the most beautiful, inspiring, gorgeous creatures,” he says.
In 2019, we’re looking for something shiny to distract us, and there’s nothing shinier than a drag queen. This was apparent at Pride Week in June, where drag queens were treated like real queens. Hayhoe, home for a victory lap just a few weeks after the Drag Race finale, didn’t sleep for 72 hours. His weekend was scheduled to the minute with meet-and-greets, performances, interviews and media appearances. At the parade, he crawled down Yonge Street in the Lyft float. On Sunday, Neville got a call from the prime minister’s office, asking if it was possible to arrange a meeting and photo op with Justin Trudeau. “Never fear, the Queen of the North is here,” Trudeau quipped in an Instagram video. “He was lovely,” Hayhoe says. “You know how some people just give you a hug, like, meh? He gave me a huuuuuug.”
On the Saturday night of Pride Weekend, I ubered down to Yonge-Dundas Square with a few friends to see Brooke Lynn perform. When we arrived, we had to wait for 45 minutes in a line that meandered around the corner of Dundas toward Church. We stood sweaty shoulder to sweaty shoulder in the Hades that was the square, when suddenly Brooke Lynn appeared onstage, performing her now-signature lip-synch to “Sorry Not Sorry” for thousands of squealing admirers. Later, she appeared again in a black velvet jumpsuit covered with shards of mirror, the glass jutting out like wings at the shoulders. (“I love a bitchy shoulder,” Hayhoe says.) Performing “Bohemian Rhapsody,” she threw her body off the stage, crowd-surfing through the audience, her mirrored bodice shooting light into the sky.
After the show, still in costume, Hayhoe was mobbed en route to his Uber. “People were trying to take selfies with me while I was running down the street. It was a real paparazzi moment.” Hayhoe has almost a million followers on Instagram. He’s befriended celebrities like Cara Delevingne and Demi Lovato, who loved his lip-synch so much that she DM’d him to hang out in Los Angeles. But that night at Pride, dodging fans in his hometown, was the first time he truly felt famous. The next time he walked down the street out of drag, nobody recognized him.