By: Sophie Desrosiers
The stage is set with a rainbow flag backdrop, symbolizing pride in the capital. A crowd is gathering in front of City Hall, ready to kick off another day of celebration. The sun is shining, but with a high of only 20, performers and fans alike are able to keep cool and stay comfortable.
Backstage, she’s getting ready. Nerves are building as she glances in the mirror one last time, making sure the sweep of black and blue eye shadow is still well in place, and her full lips have just the right amount of a subtle pink lipstick on them.
With one last adjustment of her nun costume, she walks out with three others like her. It’s August 25, 2008, and with her first step on stage, Jade London is born.
Before the story of London can be told though, the story of a shy, soft spoken 26-year-old Cambodian-Canadian man, needs to be understood. This is also the story of Sammie Tep.
Tep is a hairstylist and makeup artist at Joseph’s, a posh salon in the Rideau Centre. Despite having never gone to school for hairstyling, he has built a strong and faithful clientele.
Everything he has learned has been through shadowing the other stylists at Joseph’s. His natural talent and passion combined with the mentoring of professionals has turned Tep into a success. It’s no surprise he feels right at home in the salon.
As a child, Tep was very energetic. He didn’t have a specific type of toy he preferred over others. Instead he enjoyed a healthy dose of both dolls and toy trucks. He was the youngest of three. Because of his level of energy and rambunctiousness, Tep’s mother had fondly nicknamed him “joker” in Cambodian.
While Tep’s childhood years were playful and fun, his early teen years were awkward. Tep describes this as a time where he started breaking out of his shell and discovering who he was as a person in this world.
He was known at school for having crazy hair that was ever changing, and not caring what others thought of him. Despite his strange appearance and apparent lack of a desire to fit in, his friends always supported him and stuck by his side.
When Tep was 15, he and his then-girlfriend broke up. Tep struggled with his feelings, wondering why he didn’t feel as upset as he had seen his friends who had gone through similar experiences. He wondered why it hadn’t affected him more.
Upon deep digging and soul searching, Tep realized he was gay. It seemed he was the last to know, as most of his friends had already figured it out. But while telling others didn’t seem to be a problem, Tep admits that the personal struggle to come to terms with his sexuality was a difficult one at first.
In high school, Tep struggled to find a place he could focus. He found himself more worried about decisions of what to wear, rather than what to study. “It was more of a fashion show,” he says before pausing to think. “If that makes any sense.”
Realizing his studies were important, he switched high schools a few times within Ottawa, hoping to find someplace he could focus, an early sign of the dedicated, hard worker he would become.
After high school, Tep worked a few fast food and retail jobs. Finally, four years ago he decided it was time to go after his dream. He started working at Joseph’s and has been a rising hairstyling superstar since.
Danielle Hammond has been going to Tep for a year and a half to get her hair done. She describes his work in two simple words: “Fucking brilliant!”
She says he is very in tune with his clients. This is a talent of his she considers to be very important. As a busy student, Hammond doesn’t get much time for herself, and this is the very reason she looks forward to her time spent with Tep. She says it’s an opportunity for her to relax.
Another one of Tep’s clients, Anna Wilson, describes almost the same experience. She describes him as intuitive.
Like many of Tep’s clients, Wilson believes Tep’s obsession with his own hair, which hangs down to his shoulders, is shaved on the sides, and is often decorated with colourful extensions, is a major contributing factor to his natural talent. “He’s got a style of his own,” she says. “He has fun with hair.”
Tep is doing exactly what he wants to be doing. “I’m in love,” he says about his job.
One of the aspects he enjoys most about hairstyling is “creating something from nothing,” this is a talent he has taken into other areas of his life as well, including sewing and making music.
His creative side is obvious when he’s asked his favourite colour. “Sparkles and glitter!” he says, smiling proudly like the diva he truly is.
Making the decision to work at Joseph’s four years ago played a huge role in how Tep’s life is unfolding. But another decision made four years ago had an even bigger impact than even he could ever have imagined.
Being gay didn’t make Tep the social butterfly some would imagine. He went to the occasional gay bar with friends, but preferred keeping to himself. In his outings though, he made friends. One of those friends was Robyn DeCradle, a local drag sensation.
In August 2008, DeCradle asked Tep, also a skilled dancer, if he would be willing to perform as one of DeCradle’s backup dancers for a Capital Pride performance. Tep jumped at the opportunity before finding out DeCradle expected him to be in drag.
Within the local gay community, drag queens have a reputation of substance abuse, prostitution, and being lazy, often choosing to collect welfare instead of working. Tep knew he didn’t want that life, and was determined to set himself rules to live by, if he was going to agree to DeCradle’s offer.
After thinking it through, Tep decided to give drag a chance in the spirit of helping DeCradle. On that fateful day in August 2008, Jade London made her debut, stepping out on stage with other local queens Scarlette Bobo and Ginger Snatch, who were also backup dancers.
The three were dressed as nuns while DeCradle played the role of Jesus. They performed “I will follow him” from the movie Sister Act. As the song ended, all four ripped off their religious gear to expose skimpy shirts and miniskirts. London’s softly curled wig flowed down, framing her perfectly made up face as she found herself more vulnerable than ever.
The second part of their performance was “Good girls gone bad” by the Pussycat Dolls, a high-energy number that really got the crowd going at their second performance at Club Edge later that night.
That day, Tep realized he could express his love of fashion and dance through drag. “I went in there knowing there was a possibility I would enjoy myself,” says Tep. But once the performance ended, it became “a total obsession.”
London became an avenue for all of the projects the ambitious Tep had wanted to take on. In his mind, both personalities are different people. Tep is shy, quiet, and keeps to himself, while London is fearless, sassy, and a star in her world. No matter how different they are though, both are extremely hard working in the tasks they take on, and refuse to quit.
London became an overnight celebrity in the Ottawa drag scene, growing in popularity with every performance, feeding a sense of acceptance never felt as Tep. She also launched a clothing line, and is currently working on a CD, with two singles and a music video already released. She also won the first ever “Canada’s Next Drag Superstar”, a show on OUTtv.
Whatever little bit of downtime Tep finds between his career, and London’s projects, is normally spent in his apartment hanging out with Kingsley, his toy Yorkie.
London’s ambitious ways have created some negative backlash in the local drag community, with some queens feeling threatened by everything London is accomplishing. She is viewed by some as snobby, or high maintenance. London tries to brush off the negativity. “I wish them the best in whatever they want to accomplish,” she says.
The negativity followed her to Winnipeg for “Canada’s Next Drag Superstar” when she showed up prepared with backup dancers and a thoroughly choreographed routine, while the other queens competing seemed more laid back and less prepared.
The night before the competition, all the queens competing were out to dinner when they were told some rules on how each would be judged were going to be changed. London was accused of being a diva by the others after questioning the fairness of last minute rule changes.
When London was crowned at the end of the competition, tears of joy started trickling down her cheeks. Backstage though, was a different atmosphere as the other queens made it clear they felt the win was undeserved.
The happiness was suddenly cast aside with every cold shoulder she was given, and every mean remark made. London just wanted to celebrate the win, but other than the queens who were now bitter, she had no one to share the special time with.
What should have been an amazing moment in her career quickly turned to loneliness and pain. London couldn’t wait to get back home, where a group of friends were waiting to celebrate with her.
While there is some negative backlash as a result of Tep’s life choices, he doesn’t regret anything he’s done. He continues to move forward with his blossoming hair and makeup career while trying to make time for London, whose popularity continues to grow.
London has been travelling to London, Toronto and Montreal for a multitude of shows, and is also a contestant in RuPaul’s “Lip sync for your life” competition, for which voting will begin April 16.
What’s most important to Tep is knowing he has tried as much as he can, even if it doesn’t always bring success.
He thrives from pushing not only himself, but the boundaries of what can and can’t be done – a goal shared by his alter-ego, London. In fact, London’s Facebook profile contains hundreds of beautiful pictures of the fabulous queen, but what stands out the most are five little words on her profile. It’s a quote that, no matter how different both personalities are, they both live by; “If I don’t, who will?”