TORONTO — Strolling through the halls of her old high school, experimental dance-pop singer Ceréna recalls how quickly her dreams came true once she embraced her true self.
A few years ago, it would have been unimaginable to see who she is today: a first-time Juno-nominated transgender woman who relaunched her singing career after nearly derailing under pressure to conform in the Canadian music industry.
She couldn’t have predicted how, as co-founder of virtual party hub Club Quarantine, she encouraged one of the liveliest LGBTQ spaces to chill out in lockdown, with appearances from Lady Gaga, Charli XCX and others.
But during this recent visit to Toronto’s Cardinal Carter Academy for the Arts, Ceréna reflects on the young theater student who finally overcame the unforgiving pop music machine.
“It’s one of the craziest and most fulfilling things in this whole moment,” she says, reflecting.
“I was made to believe that I couldn’t reach this level by being myself; that I had to hide, play the game and be someone else.
For years, Cerena did just that, reluctantly performing as a male vocalist. She reintroduced herself as a confident woman with her 2021 album “Resurrection,” a blissful celebration of overcoming outside forces to find peace in body and mind.
Closest “See,” a retro house-inspired bop, is competing for Dance Recording of the Year at the “Opening Night” Junos Awards. The industry event takes place on Saturday and is streamed on YouTube, the day before a CBC TV show that hands out the hallmark trophies from Toronto’s Budweiser stage.
Raised in Toronto, Cerena grew up in a family that thrived on music.
His Colombian immigrant father, a musician, once took the five-year-old with him to his singing lessons and watched his child flourish in the setting.
“At that moment, he knew,” she recalls. “And he stopped taking classes so I could.”
In elementary school, musical talent was “a buffer for bullies” who focused on everyone who was different, she recalls. They backed down after a school competition inspired by “American Idol”, won its first prize with a performance of “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton behind a piano.
Her mind was on a career in music the moment she enrolled in a Catholic arts high school. She pursued those dreams professionally in 2012, signing up with a local independent record label as a male pop artist.
But the singer clashed with management when they expressed reluctance to market the music as coming from an LGBTQ singer. Bowing to the pressure for several years, she performed as a cisgender man, singing dance-pop songs with music videos that promoted an unmistakably straight lifestyle.
Thinking back to the intolerance of the industry at that time is difficult for the singer – whose full name is Ana Ceréna Sierra. Just a few years earlier, Adam Lambert was bombarded with hateful comments after kissing a dancer at the 2009 American Music Awards and, in his opinion, his career never fully recovered.
“There was a lot of internalized racism, homophobia and transphobia that I couldn’t even address at the time,” says the 30-something.
Seeking answers for herself, she discovered the 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning” and began to identify with a story of free-spirited black and Latino people who created the theaters’ unlimited scene. New York prom years before Madonna’s “Vogue” brought her into the mainstream.
Sierra found an offshoot of the community in Toronto and immersed herself with like-minded artists who encouraged her to explore “feminine energy” on the catwalk.
“It was the first space that allowed me to exploit that,” she says. “And it wasn’t long before I discovered that it was so much deeper than I knew.”
“The ballroom saved my life,” she adds. “I don’t say that lightly.”
Inspired by this community, she submitted a music video to her label. The concept featured her male pop persona discovering the world of ballroom dancing with a local drag queen as her guide. It ended with the singer being welcomed with open arms in a celebration of queer identity.
The label rejected the idea, calling it “too weird”, Sierra says, in part because the song’s creators “weren’t there for it”. Soon after, her relationship with the label dissolved.
“What hurt me the most was the fact that my management refused to see how I was falling apart,” she says.
“It was a lot of fear that kept me from taking that leap to get my body back, get my time back and get my mind back.”
Four years later, Sierra says she harbors no animosity.
“I know what they were running on – they were literally doing what’s expected of the music industry,” she says.
Slipping into a long depression, Sierra spent hours watching old episodes of “Sailor Moon” and “Digimon.” Both anime series adopted shapeshifters who thrived in their worlds, she says.
Yoga and meditation were already helping her find spiritual direction when further soul-searching at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated her.
Ceréna stepped onto the public stage as a woman for the first time during a DJ set at Club Quarantine in the summer of 2020. She remembers how the virtual community lit up with support.
“Gender Euphoria”, one of the singles from “Resurrection”, describes the rebirth that followed: “When the stars and the moon align, you can see it in my eyes / It’s kind of an evolution, I have never felt so alive.”
On Juno-nominated “See,” Ceréna takes a reflective stance, reassuring herself with a keyboard riff that evokes ’90s house classics, the most prominent being Crystal Waters’ “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless).”
“You’ve had too many falls / You feel like nothing’s going your way,” she sings before emphasizing that “resilience and patience are key.”
The “See” music video brought her full circle as the centerpiece of a ballroom community showcase as they served up their best looks.
Before the Junos are given out, Sierra hopes to seize the moment as she pleases. She recently launched an entertainment company that will build her career and, she hopes, other LGBTQ artists of color who want to oppose the traditional label system.
She also finds peace with her past and the male pop persona she once felt compelled to portray.
“Recently, I had a moment where I pondered on this…I gave this person compassion and said, ‘I love you, because you were doing what you could. with what you were given. You did your best,” she said.
“I want to honor that person and understand that through it all, there was still me then.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on May 8, 2022.
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