Tip your queens and kings: How coronavirus closures are upending the drag industry
As the world’s most fabulous, unabashedly queer art form continues its ascent up the pop cultural food chain thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race and The Boulet Brothers' Dragula, it’s never been easier to get swept up in the fantasy of drag. But, as the worldwide coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage local economies, complications both physical and spiritual have impacted the industry, from the girls on top (think Drag Race royalty) to regional queens and kings working gig-to-gig to put food on the table and heels on their feet.
Global virus containment efforts prompting government-mandated closures of bars, restaurants, and clubs have exposed the flesh, bone, and precious human cargo hiding beneath the wigs and corsets of our favorite showgirls — especially as venue closures literally halt the cash flow of a workforce of live entertainers that survive on tips from eager crowds, without the guarantee of health insurance, fair pay, and standard workplace protections.
In the wake of the ongoing outbreak, EW spoke with eight drag performers from all sects of the business, from leading innovators like Sasha Velour and Nina West to New York City-based showgirls (and guys) hustling for a hard-earned dollar as the walls close in on the clubs that built them. Hear their stories (and find out how you can help) below.
A $100,000 curtain call
Since winning RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2017, New York City’s Sasha Velour has enjoyed a reign as bountiful as the cascade of rose petals that fell from her wig during her iconic lip-synch that snatched the season 9 crown. From book releases to television roles (including her Nightgowns series, bowing April 6 on Quibi) and boundary-pushing theatrics, the 32-year-old has worn the title of America’s Drag Superstar with a keen focus on showcasing outcast, independent, inclusive, radical forms of drag not often seen under the mainstream spotlight, all while flexing the medium's newfound, cross-demographic appeal by selling out 2,400-seat auditoriums on international tours. Like, for example, theaters she was supposed to headline over 17 dates on the European leg of her critically lauded Smoke & Mirrors show.
“In a 24-hour period, we evolved from having this attitude of this all being an overreaction that would blow over,” Velour recalls of deciding to cancel Smoke & Mirrors’ 10 remaining dates — including sold-out turns in Paris and Amsterdam — after a show in Dublin on March 11, the same day President Donald Trump announced that he would prohibit certain European travelers from entering the United States for 30 days to help limit the spread of the virus. “We had a responsibility to do our own part in stopping the disease and giving doctors a chance to fight it by not encouraging large gatherings of people around the world," Velour says.
The result was a loss Velour and her team are still calculating, though it’s estimated to exceed $100,000 for March alone. Still, Velour has voiced a commitment to pay out the seven-strong staff that accompanied her on the road, even though the show is grounded until next winter at the earliest. While her selling power speaks to the demand for drag around the world, making up for such a huge financial hit will take time, but a queen with a brand as large as Velour’s can fill in the gaps.
“Merchandise is already a big part of our business, and that’s one thing that can sustain us during this time. As long as the T-shirt company can still produce shirts, we can sell them online and package them up from our house,” Velour says. “But, I’m already making my list of shirts and drag merch I’m going to buy to support other people.”
While the Drag Race family has also offered fans ways to support their favorite queens (this week, production company World of Wonder's Twitter account has shared multiple links to merchandise pages for past and current competitors), season 12’s first eliminee, Dahlia Sin, 28, says the coronavirus outbreak has blocked sales from her website as well.
“We’re all losing money, back-to-back. That’s what we do: nightlife, and people don’t want to go to bars or clubs anymore because they’re scared they’ll get the virus. It’s also impacted my merch, because my merch is made in China,” Sin explains, referencing shipping and manufacturing difficulties in the country where the pandemic began late last year. “So, I can’t really make money off of merch, either!”
Local drag lost its livelihood in a New York minute
The popularity of RuPaul's Drag Race has inarguably raised the profile (and the commercial might) of the art form around the world, but, for local performers in cities virtually locked down by coronavirus containment efforts, selling merchandise is a distant fear tucked far behind more primal needs.
Before the rise of COVID-19 prompted state governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio to shutter restaurant seating areas and limit large public gatherings at concert venues, clubs, and other spaces where drag performers earn money, 26-year-old Bronx resident Catrina Lovelace was able to sustain herself on the 20-30 gigs she books throughout a given month. After the coronavirus ripped through the city’s nightlife sector, she sacrificed $2,500 in paid jobs throughout March.
"It hit us harder than a lot of people,” says Lovelace, who speculates that up to $700 of her monthly budget goes toward crafting fashions and purchasing makeup and wigs to stay relevant and fresh as an entertainer, adding that it’s difficult to make up for lost income when so many other entry-level service jobs aren’t available because of city-wide closures. She feels she can survive for another two weeks on her savings before needing a miracle plan to pay her bills. “We want to entertain. [For many of us] this is the only way we know how to make money. At the moment, it’s the only way we can, because there are no other [service] jobs out there.”
Unlike most of her peers, however, Lovelace has health insurance through Lucky Cheng’s restaurant, where she works a weekly brunch event. But, as drag queen Robyn Banks observes, there’s still “no stability” in the market.
“People are hurting themselves all the time, tripping, everyone’s splitting and dipping, they’re pulling hamstrings. They’re fighting for health insurance, because that’s not guaranteed in drag. You’re working off tips,” says Banks, a 29-year-old Harlem resident who, at a young age, decided to perform drag on a part-time basis for financial security, and instead became a middle-school dance teacher in a field that provides around 70 percent of her monthly income. Banks says the $600 she’s lost to date from three coronavirus cancellations makes it more difficult to take care of basic utility costs, but it hasn’t completely broken her: “I didn’t want to make drag a full-time gig unless I got discovered. Drag is fun, everyone enjoys it, but, in the back of my mind, I think about the human inside of me.”
Soju, Delta Work, and designing a woman's contingency plan
Even for performers that have been discovered, like 28-year-old Korean-American Drag Race alum Soju, who’s lost a projected $20,000 from canceled jobs since the outbreak began (with no paid gigs on the horizon), the dream of becoming a superstar has turned into a financial nightmare as the pandemic worsens. One of the biggest casualties for the commercial drag world — and one that directly affected Soju — was the coronavirus-related cancellation of the RuPaul’s DragCon Los Angeles convention, an annual three-day expo that has drawn crowds approaching 50,000 on top of $8.2 million in merchandise sales between Los Angeles and New York editions.
“Last year I made $10,000 at DragCon. I’ve already spent so much money getting ready for it this year. Most of [this year’s money] went into music I was going to perform there, plus the outfits for each day,” Soju recounts of another $10,000 she spent preparing her booth for DragCon, which was slated for the first weekend in May. “I was depending on [money from] DragCon to help me get through the rest of the year."
“It makes me feel desperate to figure something out. Usually, when one community has a problem, it’s not like the rest of the world has that problem, so we can try to find answers from the outside world. But, it seems like the whole world is going through this, so who do I turn to for answers and help?” Soju asks, predicting that, when her lease expires in two months, she might be forced to move to Chicago to live with her parents. She fears that, if the situation doesn’t improve, she’ll have to de-scale her drag and venture into behind-the-scenes work in television writing and production: “I’m an artist, I want to create art, and if I can’t financially keep myself afloat, then I can’t create art, and if that means I have to step back and be a part-time drag performer, then I’m going to do that.”
Drag Race season 3 contestant Delta Work — who won an Emmy for her work as a hairstylist on the reality competition series — has lived the reality Soju faces, long before the coronavirus led her to cancel national bookings on top of placing her recurring local shows in California on hiatus until things settle down.
“I am not struggling to make ends meet, I am just meeting them on a different schedule and with the talents that won me my Emmy,” Work clarifies of her income, adding that she recommends always having a back-up plan for income in such a volatile industry.
“I learned early on that knowing your brand as a club entertainer can keep you viable for many years. The reality show [circuit] is an entirely different animal. The struggle for some is based on a discord between their passion for stardom or their passion for drag,” Work says of wide-eyed starlets who don't lay solid groundwork for longevity. “I don't use drag as the vehicle to become a celebrity; I use drag to become a star in a different sky. My reputation is built on the opinions of others who similarly do what I do. Unfortunately, stardom in this business is based on who speaks the loudest, who sparkles the brightest, and who has a catchphrase. Neither integrity nor professionalism are necessary to be a drag celebrity, but they are the foundation of a good reputation.”
From "clowns" to community organizers
LGBTQ society is no stranger to viral outbreaks decimating portions of the community (none more devastating than the deadly HIV/AIDS epidemic of the late ‘80s and ‘90s, which raged on in the shadow of poor government intervention and cultural homophobia). While coronavirus might not pose as much of a direct threat to queer lives as HIV did, Nina West — Drag Race season 11’s Miss Congeniality winner and longtime charitable activist who’s raised more than $2 million through her Nina West Fund — fears for her people's future when the dust settles.
“Our queer bars are closing all the time. What is this going to do to them? I can remember when Columbus had 23 gay bars, and now it has far fewer,” West, 41, says via phone from her home in Ohio, where she just finished watching her local drag sisters (as well as bartenders and servers) scramble to make last-minute money before a statewide order closed bars and restaurants at 9:00 p.m. on Sunday evening. “It’s devastating. I’m from a different generation where nightlife saved my life. I had a space to go to. This generation is different. We’re going to see closures of more safe spaces, where people can go and see themselves, cruise, or find people like them. There’s so much to our subculture that’s unique to us, and nightlife is such a part of that.”
Velour agrees, posing that, while healthy for our bodies right now, “isolation can be so destructive [for queer people]” if they don’t have proper support from those around them: “When I think of people who come to nightlife spaces, many of us full-time drag artists are privileged in a way to have created a life where it’s safe to be queer or to be trans 24/7, and without the economy to sustain that, that gets thrown into question. When you think about the people who escape to nightlife, to not have that available, it becomes potentially deadly — especially for young queer people finding spaces where they can even exist.”
Though West has lost close to six figures after voluntarily canceling her tour amid coronavirus concerns, she considers herself lucky in that Drag Race gave her a nationwide platform (she’s since released music and lent her voice to an animated film) and the ability to travel the world with her act, and plans to use her status to help others — like her foremothers in drag, who have, in the vein of action groups like the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, operated as community organizers for decades.
“There is no union for drag queens. There are no protections for us. There’s no minimum pay,” she says. “How much does a queen have to do to get the financial respect or due or benefits? We have no health benefits. We’ve been seen as these activist clowns of the community. Entertain me, kick down a door or two, but your value then ceases. Well, here we are, and who’s going to take care of these entertainers now?”
West praises RuPaul and Drag Race for putting the community on national TV each week, which adds immeasurable visibility to LGBTQ issues when contestants open up about issues of homophobia, racism, and more on VH1 airtime, but the fandom’s strict obsession with the beauty of the craft can lead to fantastical expectations for working performers who haven’t hit the big time.
“Drag has become pervasive in pop culture, and it has been Disney-fied [by fans], and we don’t always remember that drag is also gritty, dangerous, defensive, and a voice for our community,” West explains. “[Drag on television] makes celebrities out of people; however, most Drag Race girls aren’t multi-millionaires rolling in money. We’ve seen our incomes wiped out by this pandemic. The way I make my living is traveling, and now I can’t get on a plane, I can’t go to a venue, I can’t have a show....It’s a sobering moment. We have to pull our s—t together and help one another.”
Giving life to Vigor Mortis
Help begins with people like West, who says she’s devising a charitable effort to help those adversely impacted by the economic ramifications of COVID-19’s spread: “I don’t need to be throwing out things for people to be throwing money at me,” she stresses. “I want to be a leader in all of this…. How can I use my platform to engage people to a point that they’re willing to give some kind of money?”
For transmasculine, nonbinary, Brooklyn-based drag king Vigor Mortis, donations from friends are, at present, his only source of income, as he lost around $2,000 over nixed shows in March.
“I feel an incredible amount of guilt for having to go to work [this week],” he recalls of having to leave his Crown Heights apartment (against the Center for Disease Control’s social distancing recommendation) twice to perform temp work in an office building, where he claims another inhabitant later contracted COVID-19. “I had $10.00 in my savings account to keep it open, and $10.00 in my bank account. If I had to hole up for a week, I wouldn’t be able to handle that.”
Even amid his own struggles, Mortis, also a hospice volunteer, admits he feels a greater sense of “panic” over not being able to help others — particularly other marginalized communities — whom “the system has fully abandoned” even before the pandemic. Like West, Mortis sees drag as a tool to help rally the community in times of need. His work on stage with the Brooklyn-based drag and burlesque collective Switch n’ Play is proof, as the troupe regularly puts on its Moxie shows, where new performers take the stage in a safe space in an effort to raise money for LGBTQ causes, like the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project and a transgender legal aid organization called the Sylvia Rivera Law Project — the latter of which will not receive the planned donation (on average around $1,000 per show) Switch n’ Play could've given if March’s event hadn't been canceled.
"Our distress as a collective comes from not being able to do shows that financially support performers in our community, raise money for charities that are important to us, and provide a safe space for queer folks to come to," Mortis says. “There are so many people to count, how do you include everyone? We’re sure as s—t going to try.”
How can you help?
Whether it’s from friends, family members, fans, or strangers on the internet, the question most of these performers have been asked in recent days is: “How can I help?”
“If someone supports local queens, they can follow them on social media and champion them there and when they return to the stage,” suggests Work. “Especially with the postponement of RuPaul’s DragCon LA, I think now more than ever is a great time for people to treat themselves by purchasing the merchandise they would have picked up at the annual event. Ask for an autograph with the item to make it special. Order a personalized Cameo video and tune into virtual drag shows. Drop a line to say 'hi.' For me, the support means the world.”
Many drag artists have taken to digital platforms like Venmo and Patreon to collect tips via the internet while holding Instagram Live sessions and performing web-based lip-synchs — all acts Velour feels are essential not only to lift local performers’ spirits, but to push the envelope of the medium’s reaches.
“It’s all about showing up for every attempt that people create to generate other sources of revenue and work. I have no doubt that queer people, with nightlife taken away, are still going to generate and create,” Velour speculates. “I want people to keep paying attention to what their local drag artists are doing and support it: tune into those digital drag shows, tip performers, commission artists they love.... just pay attention to what people are saying and asking for, as at all times.”
She also sees the effects of the pandemic as “giving clarity on how we’re still very limited in the arenas in which we can actually profit,” and trusts that broadcasting "digital drag" while in quarantine — like Dragula season 2 winner Biqtch Puddin's upcoming (aptly titled) Digital Drag show streaming on Twitch — can help broaden the prospects of local performers even after the community gets its nightlife spaces back: “It’s a wake-up call how we have to diversify. You have to have lots of different ways [to make money] so that when times are hard, there are different strategies.”
In that vein, “necessity is the mother of invention,” concludes West. “So, we’re going to have to figure it out. I don’t know what that answer is, but I know there will be an answer.”
You can support some of the performers included in this article using these Venmo handles:
RuPaul — as host, mentor, and creative inspiration — decides who's in and who's out.