TORONTO — “Canada’s Drag Race” winner Priyanka hopes to unite country music fans and the LGBTQ community as she serves cowgirl realness as co-host of this year’s Canadian Country Music Association Awards.
The Toronto drag queen will saddle up with co-host and CCMA Awards nominee Lindsay Ell later this month for a country music celebration aimed at “bridging the gap” between two worlds that don’t always mingle.
Priyanka, known as Mark Suknanan out of drag, said the goal is to make the CCMA Awards feel as if “we’re one big happy family with cowboy hats on.”
“This is a historic moment for Canada,” he said over a video call while applying eyeliner for an appearance as Priyanka.
“Like, I want this to be one of those Canadian Heritage memes.”
Inviting the star of a nationwide drag competition into the country community might raise eyebrows among more conservative listeners, but Suknanan insisted the crossover isn’t that unusual.
Country music has a storied history in LGBTQ bars and clubs, he pointed out, noting Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” and Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” are all hugely popular on drag stages.
“That’s where I think a lot of people don’t realize how much of an impact country music icons have, like Carrie Underwood, like Shania Twain, like Reba, like Dolly Parton – hello!” he said, emphasizing Parton’s influence.
“She said if she was a man, she would be a drag queen.”
There’s also “RuPaul’s Drag Race” alum Trixie Mattel, whose bouffant hairstyle is eclipsed only by her down-home country girl persona.
Ahead of the CCMA Awards, Priyanka will foray into the country scene with a single titled “Country Queen.”
Suknanan brings years of television experience to the hosting duties. Before becoming a drag superstar, he was known as Mark Suki, co-host of YTV’s “The Zone” and a personality on the station’s competition series “The Next Star.” He quit that gig at age 28 when he was selected as a competitor on “Canada’s Drag Race.”
The gamble paid off when Priyanka won the first season of the series last year, becoming a household name in the drag community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ell carries her own prestige as one of Canada’s rising stars in Nashville.
The singer-songwriter was discovered by Randy Bachman when she was 15 years old, and her 2017 album “The Project” debuted atop the Billboard country album charts. She’s also lined up as host of “Canada’s Got Talent” when the new season begins next year on Citytv.
The CCMA Awards will be a warm-up of sorts for Ell and one she’s confident will be a visual spectacle, promising “a lot of incredible fashion” and some powerful LGBTQ representation.
“There’s going to be a lot of incredible moments of being able to say things that really matter and bring light to issues that sometimes are difficult things to talk about,” said Ell.
“If we have learned anything in the past couple years, it’s that we all have a lot to learn and grow from. We all can do work in terms of being more inclusive and in loving every human as a human.”
Leading this year’s CCMA Awards contenders is sibling duo the Reklaws with six nominations. The Cambridge, Ont.-born pair, Jenna and Stuart Walker, are up for categories including entertainer of the year, Amazon Music & Alexa Fans’ Choice and single of the year for “Where I’m From.”
Following closely behind are Calgary-born Ell; Dallas Smith of Langley, B.C.; and Brett Kissel from Flat Lake, Alta. who each have five nominations.
The indoor bash will be held in-person at Budweiser Gardens in London, Ont., and stream live on the Global TV app and Amazon Prime Video on Nov. 29. An encore presentation will broadcast on Global TV on Dec. 3.
The CCMAs will also enforce a vaccination policy at all Country Music Week 2021 events, which include the Songwriters’ Series, Fan Village, CCMA Legends Show and the CCMA Awards red carpet.
Attendees including performers, presenters, their teams and guests must be fully vaccinated.
The organization says members who are not yet fully immunized have until Friday to receive their second dose.
David Friend, The Canadian Press