On Friday, March 13th, New Orleans-based drag performer Laveau Contraire put on her last drag show for the foreseeable future.
“That’s a good, ominous date,” she jokes a week later. Up until then, the coronavirus pandemic felt like a “distant threat” for the city she calls home. Even so, the news was not lost on them, so the bars where she hosted shows — like her weekly, Friday evening RuPaul’s Drag Race viewing party — had already started taking extra precautions: Encouraging tips via Venmo, satin gloves, less physical interaction with the crowd, and sanitizing dollar bills at the end of the night.
“There was a vibration shift,” fellow NOLA-based drag performer Tarah Cards adds, on the same call. Her birthday was that same night and she had re-adjusted her prior party plans of having nearly 60 friends in her home.
For drag performers across the world, the looming pandemic has caused a total upheaval of their livelihoods. By its nature, drag is a live industry where a performer’s success and financial stability is measured by their weekly shows, potential tours, and tips. But with bars and venues shut down in major cities, the performers who depended upon live audiences are finding creative ways to support themselves and their communities.
“I thought I would be good for the next few months as a full-time drag queen,” Contraire continues. She had drag brunches, Drag Race viewing parties, and Jazz Fest shows lined up that have since been canceled or postponed. “I relied on those guarantees to pay my bills. It’s a little up in the air.”
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“It’s safe to say all drag performers started thinking about this once things got announced,” Cards says. Together with Contraire, the pair have put into effect a virtual drag festival aptly titled Cyber Distancing. From March 26th to 28th, they will use Zoom to broadcast shows from local drag performers: An evening show on Thursday and Friday, as well as a Saturday drag brunch. Partnering with a local bar, they have set up a “seclusion stage” where one performer at a time can come in and put on their show in a familiar environment. Others can perform from the comfort of their homes through either pre-recorded footage or by joining the Zoom live.
“I love change and an opportunity to get creative. I’ve been so busy keeping myself from looking at the news,” Contraire says.
Virtual drag shows have already become commonplace over the last week, as quarantining measures have been enacted across the U.S. Last week in Chicago, performer Mini Pearl Necklace took to Twitch with 11 performers for a show they called Notta Contact Sport. Trying to capture the energy of a live show, all of the performances were filmed in one take, whether they were pre-recorded or live sketches. Since Mini Pearl Necklace drag performances are less frequent than her friends’ due to her day job as a teacher, she donated all $150 of her tips to the other performers. One performer told the host that they wouldn’t have been able to pay for groceries without the show.
“I’m seeing people re-post about the show that I’ve never even met,” she says. Since the first show was a success, she’s hoping to plan more. “People are excited to do something else besides masturbate and watch TV.”
On Friday, Dragula Season Two winner and Los Angeles-based drag queen Biqtch Puddin’ brought in over 8,000 viewers to her Digital Drag Show on Twitch, which included Cyber Distancing host Laveau Contraire alongside former Drag Race contenders like Alaska Thunderfuck and Laganja Estranja. The show featured a suggested donation of $10 and an overlay on the stream with the performers’ Venmo accounts so that fans could tip them.
“Drag is like the church of our community,” Puddin’ says. Performances were a similar mix of live and pre-recorded clips, cobbled together for the 4 1/2 hour stream that featured 30 entertainers.
“It’s a safe haven,” Puddin’ continues, referring to both the shows and the gay bars where they are typically put on. “The fact that people are missing that right now is really hurting us.”
Puddin’ was fortunate to gain a larger audience through Dragula, the subversive answer to Drag Race that specializes in underground scenes of the culture that has recently moved from OutTV to Netflix. Given her platform, Puddin’ has been able to find other creative ways to produce content and make money. She has a Patreon account with paywalled content and has set up a Cameo account where fans can purchase personalized video messages. She also plans to do more editions of Digital Drag Show, already teasing a second one on Twitter.
Other drag stars with big audiences are feeling the hit of canceled tours and regular shows. Jinkx Monsoon, who won Season Five of Drag Race, had taken six weeks off after wrapping a holiday tour. Monsoon, who uses the pronouns they/them, had moved from San Francisco to Portland during that period and were enjoying the down-time before setting out on two more scheduled treks.
“Then the virus hit and everything just disappeared,” they said. “Seeing that loss of income and just watching all my gigs vanish really sent me into [thinking] ‘Oh my gosh, what am I gonna do for the future? What am I gonna do in a couple months from now?’”
Monsoon took the time to find ways to interact with fans, hosting solo shows on Instagram Live where they sang and played the ukulele.
“I kind of choked up a little bit because so many people viewed it and sent tips to my Venmo with messages that said they just really needed some entertainment right now and really needed to laugh,” they said.
They also set up a Cameo account, something they never thought they had the amount of time to do properly before. The social isolation has also given Monsoon an opportunity to work on creating new ideas, like a potential Vaudevillian radio show with friends Peaches Christ and BenDeLaCreme that is still in the early planning stages. Monsoon was also tapped to join a slew of other Drag Race alums and LBGTQ performs like John Cameron Mitchell and Justin Vivian Bond for a bigger production titled Digital Drag Fest. Taking place from March 27th through April 4th on StageIt, viewers can pay a $10 cover for each 30-minute solo set from the performers.
“I don’t know when my next gig is going to be,” Drag Race alum and Digital Drag Fest performer Jujubee says. She was filming the TLC reality show Dragnificent — where drag queens help engaged women plan their weddings — when the virus caused production to stop. She has been trying to remain calm as the news rolls in, and hopes that the virtual show’s eventual release brings some “light and happiness” to fans around the globe. In the meantime, she’s been enjoying make-up tutorials on Instagram that other queens have put on as well as news for other virtual drag shows.
“It’s nice that people are getting together to make everyone feel comfortable and normal.”
“I feel really grateful in this time that I have such a big following and a lot of resources at my disposal,” Monsoon says, “but it’s been a double-edged sword, because I also think constantly about the drag entertainers, bartenders, servers, go-go dancers, and people in the sex work industry, who are LGBTQ+ people, who are out of jobs.” To help, they have taken DM requests on Instagram to share links to Etsy shops, OnlyFans, Venmo accounts, and anything else that can aid in helping pay the bills.
New York’s Justin Elizabeth Sayre, who uses the pronouns they/them, puts on The Meeting of the IOS (International Order of the Sodomites), a monthly drag-adjacent show that regularly takes place at NYC venue Joe’s Pub. The next one was scheduled for March 29th, but after the show’s inevitable cancellation, they ended up livestreaming it early on YouTube, instead. They have been considering what to do in the long run and how to best adjust the show for an online audience, along with what Pride Month in June will look like.
“I don’t mean to be so negative, but we’re all kind of in a daze,” Sayre explains. With estimates of life continuing to be socially distant until July or August, LGBTQ artists will lose some of their biggest paychecks with the loss of Pride Month, meaning wrenches thrown in already tenuous yearly incomes.
“I don’t think people understand how much that community of performers will really suffer,” they continue. “At this point we’re really just trying to keep a grasp on our normal existence, when I think our normal existence is really going to be shattered.”