TORONTO — Walking through the hallways of her former high school, experimental dance-pop singer Ceréna is reminded of how quickly her dreams fell into place once she embraced her true self.
A few years ago, it would've been unimaginable to see who she is today: a first-time Juno-nominated transgender woman who relaunched her singing career after almost being derailed by pressures to conform in the Canadian music industry.
She couldn't have predicted how as co-founder of virtual party hub Club Quarantine, she fostered one of the buzziest LGBTQ spaces to chill in lockdown, with appearances by Lady Gaga, Charli XCX and others.
But on this recent visit to Cardinal Carter Academy for the Arts in Toronto, Ceréna is reflecting on the young theatre student who ultimately overcame the unforgiving pop music machine.
"That's one of the wildest and most affirming things of this whole moment," she says in reflection.
"I was made to believe that I could not get to this level by being myself; that I had to hide, play the game and be somebody else."
For years, Ceréna did just that, begrudgingly performing as a male-presenting singer. She reintroduced herself as a confident woman with her 2021 album "Resurrection," a blissful celebration of overcoming external forces to find peace in body and mind.
The album's closer "See," a retro house-inspired bop, competes for dance recording of the year at the Junos "opening night" awards. The industry event takes place on Saturday and streams on YouTube, the day before a televised show on CBC hands out the marquee trophies from Toronto's Budweiser Stage.
Raised in Toronto, Ceréna grew up in a household that thrived on music.
Her Colombian immigrant father, a musician, one day brought the then five-year-old along to his vocal lessons and saw his child thrive in the setting.
"At that moment, he knew," she remembers. "And he stopped taking classes so that I could."
In elementary school, musical talent was "a buffer for the bullies" who zeroed in on anyone who was different, she remembers. They backed off after a competition at school inspired by "American Idol," won her top prize with a performance of Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles" from behind a piano.
Her mind was set on a music career by the time 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-presenting pop artist.
But the singer clashed with management when they expressed reluctance in marketing the music as coming from an LGBTQ singer. Surrendering 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 on the industry's intolerance at that time is difficult for the singer – whose full name is Ana Ceréna Sierra. Only a few years earlier, Adam Lambert was blasted with hateful comments after he kissed a male dancer on the 2009 American Music Awards, and in her view, 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-year-old.
Seeking answers for herself, she discovered the 1990 documentary "Paris is Burning" and began identifying with a story of free-minded Black and Latin-Americans who created the boundless New York ballroom scene years before Madonna's "Vogue" introduced it to 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 tap into that," she says. "And it wasn't long before I discovered this was so much deeper than what I knew."
"Ballroom saved my life," she adds. "I don't say that lightly."
Inspired by this community, she pitched a music video to her label. The concept featured her male pop persona discovering the world of ballroom with a local drag queen as the guide. It ended with the singer being welcomed with open arms in a celebration of queer identity.
The label shot down the idea, calling it "too queer," says Sierra, in part because the creators of the song "were not about that." Shortly afterwards, her relationship with the label dissolved.
"What really hurt me the most is the fact that my management refused to see the ways that I was falling apart," she says.
"It was a lot of fear that stopped me from making that jump to reclaim my body, reclaim my time, and reclaim my spirit."
Four years later, Sierra says she doesn't harbour animosity.
"I know what they were operating based off of — they were doing literally what is expected in the music industry," she says.
Slipping into a long depression, Sierra spent hours watching old "Sailor Moon" and "Digimon" episodes. Both anime series embraced shapeshifters who thrived in their worlds, she says.
Yoga and meditation were already helping her find spiritual direction when further introspection in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic speeded her coming out.
Ceréna stepped onto the public stage as a woman for the first time during a DJ set at Club Quarantine in summer 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 moon align, you can see it in my eyes/ It's a kind of evolution, I've never felt so alive."
On the Juno-nominated "See," Ceréna takes a reflective stance by offering herself reassurance over a keyboard riff that evokes 1990s house classics, the most prominent being Crystal Waters' "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)."
"You have had too many falls/ Feels like nothing goes your way," she sings before pointing out that "resilience and patience is key."
The "See" music video brought her full circle as the centrepiece in a showcase of the ballroom community as they served their best looks.
Before the Junos are handed out, Sierra hopes to take hold of the moment on her own terms. She recently launched an entertainment company that will build her career and — she hopes — other LGBTQ artists of colour who want to buck the traditional label system.
She's also finding peace with her past and the male pop persona she once felt pressured to portray.
"Recently I had a moment where I meditated on it.... I gave compassion to that person and I said: 'I love you, because you were doing what you could with what you were given. You were doing your best,'" she says.
"I want to honour that person and understand that through it all, there was still me in that moment."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2022.
David Friend, The Canadian Press