Featured image: Kelvin Gray @kelvin_oh_my_media
Manchester’s rising star ‘Viola’ on Queen of the Universe and navigating the city’s drag scene.
Fabulous drag queens strike fierce poses in their own outfit creations. Cabaret show hosts request tequila shots from the bar staff every five minutes. Further down the street, lip syncing competitions rage on. All just an average night out in Manchester’s Gay Village, featuring local talent, established performers and emerging artists. Manchester Met student Niall Trowsdale Stannard, also known as ‘Viola,’ is one of these rising drag stars.
Niall explains how his hometown of Coventry doesn’t have much diverse drag, aside from a few gay bars and local drag queens: “There was nowhere for ‘baby queens’ to break into the scene and really find their drag identity.
“Before leaving to study at MMU, I had visited the Manchester Gay Village only once, and I knew it was going to be my second home while living in Manchester.”
For Niall, Manchester’s drag scene has it all. “Manchester is more diverse than most cities. I have to admit, it is very oversaturated, but I don’t see a negative in that; it pushes queens to try new things within the niches of drag,” he says.
Niall’s journey into the world of drag began unexpectedly when a classmate playing the role of the Killer Queen in their school musical production of We Will Rock You dropped out. Without hesitation, Niall stepped up to fill the spot. He crafted a “gender-bending evil villain” character for the role, which later evolved into his current act, ‘Viola.’
Niall explains, “I started as an androgynous, quirky singer. I would spend hours in my bedroom perfecting my unique drag makeup style while being inspired by Trixie Mattel’s YouTube videos.”
He adds, “Drag can be ANYTHING! It has no boundaries. Art is limitless, and drag is art. However, the community that we call drag nowadays is an amalgamation of many different cultures and movements throughout history.”
Niall’s love of drag comes from his passion to perform, sing, and dance. He picked up the violin at only seven-years-old and the flute at 14: “I love playing the violin and I love singing, so what fuels my drag is really my passion for performing. And let’s be real, the drag audience LOVES a queen with a niche. It was a no-brainer to bring my talents into my drag.”
Deciding to maximise his niche talents, Niall applied to be on the TV show Queen of the Universe, a global singing competition featuring the most talented drag queens from around the world. Each episode, hosted by Graham Norton, features a musical performance by the contestants, who each represent a different country, performing live in front of judges Michelle Visage, Trixie Mattel, Vanessa Williams, and Mel B. After seven months of auditioning, Niall was selected to represent the UK on the show as Viola.
Viola sang several songs on the show, originally performed by queer British icons Freddie Mercury, Sam Smith, and Elton John. On top of this, Niall was the youngest queen in the cast. He describes how this was intimidating but gave him “the fire to show that it doesn’t take experience to be a superstar”.
The show featured a particularly emotional moment which saw judge Michelle thank Niall’s parents, who were in the audience, for supporting a queer child. “It’s so important to have support from family as a queer person, let alone a drag queen. My parents have been amazing, from the moment I came out until now,” says Niall.
They’ve driven me to gigs, paid for wigs and heels, and come to my shows wearing my merchandise! My dad pushed me to learn musical instruments and to join choirs and orchestras. I really don’t think I’d be a singer, musician, or drag queen if it wasn’t for him.
When discussing the challenges faced by drag queens, Niall mentions various difficulties such as finding work, competition, funding, and balancing work with social life. He expresses that securing residencies at venues and performing at least three nights a week is highly coveted for drag queens, as it allows for a full-time drag career. For those without such privileges, every gig requires extensive planning, communication, negotiation, and travel.
When asked about life after university, Niall says: “I’m asking myself, can I make my dream of having a full-time drag career a reality?” He acknowledges the need for plenty of hard work and establishing a reputation within the drag cabaret scene to secure regular bookings. However, without guaranteed gig stability, Niall recognises the importance of sustaining himself financially and considers pursuing work as a textile artist.
“I love making drag and art through all kinds and media, I am grateful for all the opportunities and support and I hope I never stop.”
You can watch all episodes of Queen Of The Universe on WOW Presents Plus and find Viola on Instagram @playedbyviola