How Drag Queens Are Going Digital in the Wake of Coronavirus
A queer industry that depends so deeply on person-to-person connection is moving from the bars and the clubs to the live streams.
BY ALIM KHERAJ
On Wednesday night, in front of an audience of a thousand people, a drag performer from London named Crayola the Queen took requests from her audience about how she should do her makeup. Fans saw her apply contour with a carrot and do her eyebrows with a spoon. After nearly two hours of requests, she then performed an hour-long cabaret set, singing numbers like Lady Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory” and Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles”. She didn’t do all this in a packed bar or theater—in London there isn’t an open bar or theater she could do it in, thanks to the spread of coronavirus and the ensuing self isolation requirements. Instead, Crayola did it all from the comfort of her living room, live streaming it from her phone to a thousand eager viewers online. Welcome to drag in the era of coronavirus.
“I actually cancelled my own gigs,” Crayola says over the phone from her London flat. “The government in the U.K. hadn't mandated anything yet, but I was seeing what was happening around the world, and I knew what my responsibility was to society: to distance myself.”
Crayola is referring to the impact of the global coronavirus pandemic, which has spread across the world over the past few months. But as people are told to practice social distancing and self-isolation to help curb the virus’s spread, many individuals who don’t have the privilege to be able to work from home have quickly found themselves either without a job or a means to make money. Many of those affected include service industry professionals like bartenders, servers, bar managers, and—as a result of closures—drag queens.
Thankfully, drag is still in the middle of a renaissance. RuPaul’s Drag Race, VH1’s Emmy-winning reality show, is airing its 12th season, and has helped the art form filter into the mainstream. Now, more and more people are coming into contact with drag than ever before, which has done wonders for those in the drag community. But drag as a profession is reliant on performance and interaction—where other entertainers like musicians and actors have streams and residuals to help them stay afloat in turbulent times, queens and kings need in-person gigs, bookings, tips to make money. With bars and clubs closed, what do they do?
“I immediately sprung into action, created a little graphic on my phone, and made an announcement that I was going live on Instagram” Crayola says. She’d already been doing live makeup videos, so knew how to command an audience via stream, but quickly found a way to hybridize what you’d see in a club with what you’d expect to see on Instagram. “I blended it with how I would actually run a cabaret show, but tried to keep it more focused, chatty, and interactive.”
During the show, Crayola asked her viewers and fans to tip her via her PayPal account. After hosting a number of follow-up shows, she managed to nearly reclaim the money she’d lost from her canceled bookings.
Live streaming seems to be the easiest way for queens to connect with (paying) fans while monetizing their art. Cash Monet is a drag performer from San Francisco who also teaches dance classes. When her bookings got cancelled, she too turned to live streaming. “As an arts performer and a maker, I love drag and going out, but I've always tried to make other things,” she says. “I've made stuff for YouTube. I've been a video game streamer in drag.I have skills that I can apply to right now. ”
Along with her roommates (the drag queens God's Little Princess and Mary Vice) Cash Monet launched Trish TV, a sort of TV network: the three artists each host their own show throughout the week that plays to one of their strengths (Cash Monet’s is a dance tutorial), with a joint show on Fridays.
“The thing about streaming—and this really falls into the category of how drag works in bars—is that you can't do copyrighted music on Instagram or YouTube,” she explains. In essence: what’s the actual bread and butter of a live drag show becomes increasingly, legally knotty when translating an in-person performance to a digital one. “Doing a drag number will get taken down if the music gets flagged,” Monet adds. “We all have to think about ways of entertaining an audience for an hour, but also not confusing them.”
Like Crayola’s shows, the live streams are all free, and audiences are encouraged to tip via PayPal or Venmo. But with so much uncertainty economically worldwide right now, getting people to part with their cash is proving to be harder than in days past. “We live in a three-bedroom apartment in San Francisco,” says Cash Monet. “We have been getting around $20-$50 a day in tips, but that's definitely not enough to cover rent this month.”
Other drag performers are looking at revenue opportunities beyond live streams. Just May, a drag queen from London, has been losing nearly three bookings each day for the last week, so they’ve started side hustling. “I make and style wigs on the side, and will be doing online wig tutorials to show the process. We know how to make a coin, even if the coin isn't there.”
“Instead of doing gigs, I am focusing on my YouTube instead,” says Maxxx Pleasure, a drag king who performs in Brooklyn. “I've been thinking about digital drag a lot, really. Even before the coronavirus happened, drag was already inching into the digital realm. This just pushed it full speed ahead.”
Though the Drag Race queens have been given a significant leg up with their time on the show—larger fan bases, pre-built platforms like DragCon, and overall brand-name familiarity—they aren’t immune to the financial blowback from the coronavirus crisis, either. Many say they, too, are feeling opportunities shrivel.
Nina West, who competed on Season 11, says her touring took the most immediate hit. “I've lost all my gigs through the end of March for sure, but it's most likely going to be longer than that,” she says. “For all intents and purposes, I am unemployed.”
To cope, Nina recently launched “Story Time with Nina West,” an all-ages Instagram Live series in which she reads her favourite children’s stories. She’s also writing new material for when things go back to normal, and says she’s bringing back her podcast, Drag Cast, with Skype interviews instead of in-person recording.
“The life that we knew is no longer. That's scary, but we should also acknowledge that as a reality,” she says. “Queer spaces across the globe are going to close because of this. The world is going to look different when we all come out of this. We have to be prepared to fight for what we believe in, stick together, and hopefully unify..”
Jinkx Monsoon, who won Season 5, agrees that the closure of queer spaces is one of the hardest pandemic realities to stomach. “All these bars have shut down, so that means that GoGo dancers, bartenders, servers, and drag queens have all been immediately affected,” she says. “One of the things that is making it particularly difficult on the LGBTQ community is that gay bars are oftentimes safe places for queer people to find employment, based on their locale or region. It can be extra difficult for queer people to find safe and reliable employment, be they trans or living in an area where being queer is not necessarily safe.”
Jinkx says one of her main concerns right now is those performers who don’t have the Drag Race bump to help them be heard above the tidal wave of digital noise. “There are so many queens who live hand to mouth, local performers working every night of the week to support themselves,” she says. “Even though it's a small contribution, I've been sharing the Venmo profiles or PayPal accounts or Etsy stores or OnlyFans of people who have messaged me, to hopefully get them viewed by a larger audience.”
“Supporting your favorite drag artist on Instagram is a really important thing,” Maxxx adds. “In addition to actual money, social media interaction, likes, and follower numbers are all really important when you serve as your own PR person.”
Despite its fissures, the queer community does have a beautiful history of solidarity during times of intense difficulty. That togetherness is visible in the way that drag performers all over the world are joining forces to keep the art alive, like last weekend’s Digital Drag: An Online Drag Show, a streaming event led, organized, and hosted by the queen Biqtch Puddiń. The show broadcast worldwide on Friday night, and featured a host of queens, kings, and performers from all corners of the globe—including Alaska Thunderfuck, a Drag Race winner and arguably one of the biggest queens the show has ever produced.
“I don’t want to get too much into it because it'll make me emotional, but collective spaces where queer people can physically go and be around each other is how we've survived through really hard times, and how we continue to thrive in a society where we're shit on a lot of the time,” she says. “The loss of that, even for a few months, is something that I already feel. But just imagine it'll be when those places reopen their doors: I'm looking forward to those parties.”
Alaska and other Drag Race queens have since been booked for an upcoming series of paid, streamed events called Digital Drag Fest, which will donate half of its merchandise proceeds to GLAAD. It’s just a testament to drag’s resilience, and ability to adapt to change, even in deeply uncertain times. “Drag queens,” Alaska adds, “Girl, you can't keep them down.”
You can find Alaska on Instagram here.