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Love, Loss And Drag: How COVID-19 Has Radically Changed These 3 Queens’ Lives

Bob the Drag Queen, Naomi Smalls and Nina West discuss how the pandemic has affected what they do, where they do it, and the community they’re devoted to.

08/06/2020

If there’s one thing the world could use right now, it’s a drag show.

What better way to escape the grim realities of our “new normal” than the intoxicating cocktail of joy, sweat, wit and scathing political commentary that’s served up when our favorite queens take the stage?

But right now there are no in-person drag shows, no dimly lit bars to pack into on a Saturday (or Monday or Tuesday or any other) night, and those who have built a career performing drag, like so many others, have been forced to rely on digital options to reach fans and earn income.

“I’ve been quietly doing my thing here in Columbus,” Nina West, Miss Congeniality from Season 11 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” told HuffPost over the phone last week. West, who had just returned from nonstop touring in Europe and the U.K. before COVID-19 struck, now hosts a weekly children’s storytelling show as well as a weekly podcast.

If there’s one thing the world could use right now, it’s a drag show.

What better way to escape the grim realities of our “new normal” than the intoxicating cocktail of joy, sweat, wit and scathing political commentary that’s served up when our favorite queens take the stage?

But right now there are no in-person drag shows, no dimly lit bars to pack into on a Saturday (or Monday or Tuesday or any other) night, and those who have built a career performing drag, like so many others, have been forced to rely on digital options to reach fans and earn income.

“I’ve been quietly doing my thing here in Columbus,” Nina West, Miss Congeniality from Season 11 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” told HuffPost over the phone last week. West, who had just returned from nonstop touring in Europe and the U.K. before COVID-19 struck, now hosts a weekly children’s storytelling show as well as a weekly podcast.

“It makes me sad. For the past five years I’ve been performing and traveling and I’ve developed a really good relationship with a lot of these venues, and it’s interesting to see how they’re all handling business,” Smalls said. “I’m trying to do my part and contributing what I can. Roscoe’s was my home for a couple of years and they are they best as far as how they treat queens and performers. I did a video for them on social media that was like, ‘Please come to Roscoe’s and get your chicken tenders!’”

“It makes me sad. For the past five years I’ve been performing and traveling and I’ve developed a really good relationship with a lot of these venues, and it’s interesting to see how they’re all handling business,” Smalls said. “I’m trying to do my part and contributing what I can. Roscoe’s was my home for a couple of years and they are they best as far as how they treat queens and performers. I did a video for them on social media that was like, ‘Please come to Roscoe’s and get your chicken tenders!’”

Smalls also acknowledged the “huge loss” that losing live drag has had on the sense of community that is so crucial for LGBTQ+ people.

“I grew up with an amazing family, but being surrounding by like-minded people who have the same interests as you, a lot of queer people deal with the same storylines through our youth and navigating the world,” she said. “So being at a show is just a big party, just such a feeling of togetherness.”

There are upsides to drag moving online, though. Digital shows make the experience more accessible to a much wider audience.

“I have more time now to engage with people online,” Bob said. “I’m connecting with people who have never been able to see a drag show before. It means a lot.”

It’s hard not to fantasize about what a live drag show would look and feel like right now, considering drag’s unique ability to critique culture and politics ― especially with the presidential election just a few short months away. But Bob, Smalls and West are still using their social platforms to provoke change.

“I’ve been burying my head in my activism,” Bob said. “I’m proud to be one of the founders of the Black Queer Town Hall. I’ve been using my voice to talk about trans lives ― that’s what I’ve been focusing on.”

“It’s really important right now for queens, kings, AFAB, nonbinary burlesque performers all over this country to stand up for political causes, but also for Black trans lives and voices, Black queer voices, queer voices of color,” said West, who recently partnered with Dolly Parton on a collection benefiting Parton’s children’s literacy charity Imagination Library. “There is so much we need to be doing, and there’s a reason why all of this is happening now. We are called to action and we need to listen to that call and act in response. It’s a great time to demand mail-in ballots, look into how you can volunteer in polling places to help prevent voter disenfranchisement, ensuring our November election comes easier for all of us, not just some of us.”