Whitby, Ont.-born Drag Race winner Priyanka appears on cover of ELLE magazine

Less than a year after winning the debut season of Canada’s Drag Race, Whitby, Ont.-born Priyanka has marked another milestone — landing the cover of a national fashion magazine in Canada.

Priyanka, who rallied Drag Race fans with her signature call-out, “My name is Priyanka. What’s my name?” appears on the July cover of ELLE Canada, one of the country’s top fashion magazines.

She is the first drag queen to have a standalone cover in any of the magazine’s 45 editions around the world, according to ELLE Canada’s Editor in Chief.

In an interview with CBC News, Priyanka talked about the significance of her accomplishments this past year. She was also the first person of Indian descent to win Drag Race in the franchise’s global history.

“It’s so important for me to embrace my culture, because I didn’t see a lot of it growing up,” Priyanka said. “But now … on the cover of this magazine, there’s the name Priyanka slapped across it.

“Everyone’s like, ‘Wow, so there’s a brown girl doing her damn thing. So I can do my damn thing too.'”

Priyanka with her fellow queens during the season finale of Canada’s Drag Race last September. (Crave/Jackie Brown)

The 30-year-old drag star, also known as Mark “Suki” Suknanan, left a career in children’s television to appear on the popular Drag Race series in 2020, at the age of 28.

But long before she was Priyanka, Mark lived in Toronto’s gay village and in 2017 was encouraged by local drag queen Xtacy Love to get on stage. Performing under the name Priyanka Love, she got her start at drag venues like Crews & Tangos, and proved herself to be a natural.

Priyanka knew life was going to change when a Canadian edition of Drag Race was announced in 2019. She had been working as Suki on the YTV kids’ series The Zone.

“It’s scary to quit your bread and butter job and just try something new because it makes your heart happy and sets your soul on fire,” Priyanka said.

“But I did it and I’m happy.”

‘Representation on all fronts’

For LGBTQ advocate Daniel Pillai, Priyanka’s cover shoot with ELLE is about more than looking fabulous. 

“It’s such a huge deal,” Pillai told CBC News. “Not only do you have a drag queen representing the inclusivity and the diversity of the LBGTQ community here in Canada, but you’re also West Indian and you’re also of South Asian descent, so I think it’s representation on all fronts.”

A member of Toronto’s LGBTQ community, Pillai is a Canadian of Indo-Fijian background. He said Priyanka’s success and visibility gives him a sense of belonging.

“I think to have somebody of colour make the cover [of a national magazine] and to be celebrated in such a big way just shows how receptive Canadians are to stories like this and how open they are to seeing people like Priyanka take the stage,” he said.

The cover doesn’t mention Pride or that its star is a drag queen, choices that Priyanka said she appreciates.

“I am just existing as an entertainer, who is an icon, who looks like a young Cher…. you pick [the magazine] up and then you find out who I am,” she said. “That I am a drag queen. That I am also Mark Suki from Whitby, Ontario.”

First drag queen to do a standalone cover for the magazine

While ELLE Mexico in June published a series of covers featuring “ballroom” icons — ballroom is the term for ball-style drag competitions — Priyanka is the first drag queen to pose for a standalone ELLE cover in the magazine’s 76-year history, said Editor in Chief Joanie Pietracupa.

Pietracupa told CBC News that the magazine is committed to featuring diverse voices and stories, and that Priyanka’s historic shoot is a point of pride.

“I didn’t think it would be so groundbreaking,” Pietracupa said. “But it is, actually. So I’m pretty proud that we did that.”

RuPaul’s Drag Race star Brook Lynn Hytes appeared on a special style issue cover of general interest magazine Toronto Life in September 2019.

For ELLE, Priyanka’s bubbly personality and fashion chops were a pull for the magazine, Pietracupa added, citing the drag superstar’s “glamorous, classy” sense of style. 

WATCH | Priyanka on getting the cover a national fashion magazine:

In an interview with CBC News, Priyanka, who won the title of Canada’s first drag superstar on Canada’s Drag Race, talks about being the first drag star on the cover of a major Canadian fashion magazine, getting her start as a performer in Toronto’s Gay Village and what representation means to her. 2:03

‘It’s that light at the end of the tunnel’

Drag Race Canada is a spinoff of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which premiered in 2009. Currently, there are Drag Race series’ airing in Australia, the United Kingdom and Thailand, to name a few

Priyanka said watching drag performers during her early days in Toronto was a mode of escape before she had come out of the closet to her family.

“People needed drag during the pandemic because it’s just that,” Priyanka said. “It’s that light at the end of the tunnel that makes us so happy,” because it’s inspiring to watch others live their lives unapologetically.

“This is my moment to take exactly who I am and what I was born into and who I’ve become … and turn it into an art form.”

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