Edmonton’s Darrin Hagen reflects on 25 years of blood, sweat and heels

By Vickie Laliotis

EDMONTON — Darrin Hagen sits huddled over a keyboard in his quiet, dimly lit studio. Headphones on, his concentration is razor-sharp as he works among the organized chaos that surrounds him.

Darrin Hagen

Famed Alberta drag performer Darrin Hagen in a supplied photo.

Racks of elaborate costumes line the walls, while hoards of shoes take up residence in oversized bins. Wigs share shelf space with opulent headpieces, as an upturned throne sits tucked away in the corner. Papers are strewn about the tabletops, and posters of past performances adorn the walls in a nod to 25 years of blood, sweat and heels.

To Hagen, these are but a few gentle reminders of a life lived to the max, a life he increasingly feels ready to leave behind.

“Oh I didn’t see you there, come in, come in,” he calls out as he pulls off his headphones. His beaming smile and welcoming demeanour could put anyone at ease.

“Welcome to the dollhouse,” he says with a smirk.

None of this is out of the ordinary to the 48-year-old, who has spent his entire adult life shaking up Edmonton’s drag scene, first with his alter ego, Gloria Hole, then with his award-winning plays with theatrical company Guys in Disguise, which just celebrated a quarter century of artistic achievement.

After a quick tour of the chockablock space, Hagen settles into a chair with a rugged manliness you might not expect from  someone who has spent the better part of his adult life in makeup and women’s clothing. Now, in relaxed jeans and a forest green sweater, there are no visual cues pointing toward the six-foot-four glamazon’s love affair with drag culture.

“I was 18 when I saw my first drag show, and watching it I had this shock of recognition,” Hagen recalls. “I just knew it was what I had to be doing; it never occurred to me until I saw it live, and the impact it had on me was just huge.”

Fast-forward 30 years, and Hagen is starting to feel like the time has come to hang up his feather boa in favour of other artistic pursuits.

“I don’t like doing drag anymore; actually I can’t stand it,” he says with a hearty laugh. “It drives me crazy, it hurts, it’s exhausting, and it’s definitely the domain of the young. I love the art of drag, but I could easily leave it behind now and just be a writer and director who deals with drag themes and queer themes.”

Hagen’s first book, The Edmonton Queen, recounted his adventures as a young drag performer in the 1980s while telling the stories of friends who died of AIDS or some targeted act of violence. The tome to life as a drag queen in a rough-and-tumble city has been studied in queer literature and gender study classes across the country, a feat Hagen is particularly proud of.

“I get letters from students in those classes with the most incredible feedback,” he says.

“One girl wrote that she and the other girls in the class walked a little more proudly after one of my guest lectures, because it’s not only about bringing up gay issues, it’s about equalizing the playing field so that the straight guys in the room don’t think that it’s all about them anymore.”

Hagen’s passion for writing and research (Russian royal history is of particular interest to this queen) will be invaluable to his next passion project, an examination of Edmonton’s gay history that he hopes to release in the next couple of years.

“There’s so much about our city and its history that people don’t know or have forgotten, and I can talk about it with authority because I’ve been a part of that whole history.”

Born and raised in a trailer court in Rocky Mountain House, Hagen had a hard time growing up gay in small-town Alberta.

“It wasn’t easy being a queer kid in Rocky. I was just a young, femme boy who wanted to dress like a girl and didn’t quite know why,” he recalls

“At the time I thought I was going through hell, but as soon as I got out I realized that the hell other kids went through was much worse, so I was lucky. I didn’t feel that way at the time, but in retrospect I was.”

This I-won’t-let-you-get-me-down attitude is precisely what got Hagen where he is today — enjoying award-winning writer/director status while being touted as Alberta’s most famous drag performer.

“I just think all the things that made me vulnerable in high school are the things that made me powerful as an adult,” he says. “All the things that made me stand out and made me an object of abuse are what gave me strength when I got out into the real world.”

Two weeks after his high school graduation, Hagen packed his bags and moved to Edmonton to work at Coles Books and pursue a career in music. One fateful night at the now defunct gay bar Flashback, however, changed everything.

“I remember it was Halloween, which is when most drag queens are born. That’s the day that everyone gets to try it if they want, and sometimes you don’t come back from that experience,” he says of his first time watching a drag show.

“It was at that very moment that I knew what I wanted to do with my life.”

A sudden knock at the door halts Hagen’s trip down memory lane, as a neighbour he hasn’t seen for some time pops in to catch up. Hagen greets her warmly with the air of an old friend before asking that the recorder be turned off so the two of them can “gossip.”

It seems as though this local celebrity is never too busy for a friend.

After several minutes of spirited chatter, the woman leaves and he settles back into interview mode. Hagen talks quickly and with conviction. His laugh is contagious.

He speaks about the old days at Flashback, and about how 25 years ago he and his friends got the idea of taking their show to the Fringe, a decision that changed their lives and put Guys in Disguise on the map.

“Guys in Disguise is a rare example of a drag troupe that turned into a bona fide theatre company, one with a specialty in creating original, new work,” says Edmonton Journal theatre writer Liz Nicholls.

“It’s a remarkable story; what they did was leap into the theatre community and find a home there for cheeky and challenging new forms of comedy, sometimes, but not always, with a political edge.”

During these early years, Hagen replaced his biological family with an adopted one, the matriarch of which was a drag queen named Lulu LaRude who nurtured him for over a decade. Hagen feels fortunate to have had them in his life during those years of self-exploration and growth, and encourages anyone who lacks that level of support at home to find it elsewhere.

“When a person comes out, they’ve had their whole lives to prepare for that moment; parents start at that moment because that’s probably not something they had pictured for their child,” he says. “In my case, I had 17 years to prepare for coming out, so I had to give my parents some time to catch up.”

His personal experiences and those of his close friends have led him to become something of an activist when it comes to bullying and homophobia, the scars of which he says run deep.

“Everyone thinks that homophobia affects gay people and that’s the end of it, but many straight people I know are deeply affected by homophobia as well.”

At that moment he jumps out of his chair and dashes over to grab a manila envelope filled with Guys in Disguise memorabilia that he’s gathering for Edmonton’s Gay Archives.  He speaks passionately about Michael Phair — the former Edmonton city councillor who was the first openly gay elected politician in Alberta’s history — and about how far Alberta has come as a province, as well as how far it has left to go.

“There are some amazingly dedicated queer people in the community that are all challenging assumptions,” he says. “The best antidote to homophobia is going out and just doing your job and showing people that [being gay] is not all you are. There’s this real tendency to reduce gay people to the sex act, which always makes me angry because I’ve contributed a lot to the community.”

This is precisely why Hagen believes it is important to write a book chronicling Edmonton’s gay history, which he hopes will open a lot of eyes.

“Time moves forward and leaves backward fools behind,” he says of the impact publications like this can make.

In light of the upcoming election, there is some question whether Alberta’s political environment will become less accepting of sexual diversity. Hagen shrugs this off with his signature they-can’t-get-us-down attitude.

“Politicians in Alberta have tried many times before to stop the equal rights of Alberta’s population of sexual minorities — and failed,” he says. “If there are any setbacks, they will be temporary.”

“Alberta hasn’t been an easy place to be gay or different, and people like Darrin have set about changing that,” Nicholls adds. “He’s brought the talents of the gay community a wider public, profile and place in the theatre community; he has an activist streak in him.”

Now — after decades of hard work, struggle and spotlights — Hagen says that his ego has been satiated through all the applause he’s received over the years, and he feels ready to pass the proverbial torch on to someone else.

“I feel like I really got my mileage out of being onstage at the most vital time of my life, and I’m really looking forward to letting that diminish a little now, although I would never be able to stay off the stage completely,” he says.

“I don’t think people realize how emotionally taxing acting is; to make it good you have to make it real, which means going into places that are dark and scary.”

And speaking of dark and scary, Hagen pulls out a pair of heels from the shoe bin that are so tall it’s unimaginable that he could wear them for two minutes let alone two hours during a performance.

“I can’t believe I’ve been wearing heels for 20 years — it just makes me angry to think that I’ve probably ruined my insteps.”