The Coronavirus Pandemic Has Forced Drag to Sashay Online

Can an art form that thrives in live performance survive on livestream?

 A person watching a drag queen get dressed via Zoom.
Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Photos by Pojcheewin Yaprasert Photography/Moment via Getty Images Plus and Betsie Van Der Meer/Stone via Getty Images Plus.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

The novel coronavirus crisis has forced bars and theaters across the U.S. to close, shuttering with them the stages drag performers call home. But these artists are uniting to keep their community alive in innovative new ways. Using digital platforms from Instagram to Twitch, they are organizing online group shows designed specifically to reach homebound audiences in difficult times.

For some drag performers, these livestreamed spectacles are an essential means of staying in touch with their hard-won fans. But for others, finding work online may make the difference between paying the rent this month—and losing everything.

Speaking as a drag performer myself, it’s hard to overstate the impact of the current pandemic on our industry. In February, a few cautious queens began tweeting about cancellations at local bars, promising to resume their regularly scheduled shows as soon as it seemed safe. Back then, most of us felt that things would get better and that bar life would be back on track within days.

But when World of Wonder, the production company behind RuPaul’s Drag Race, announced the cancellation of DragCon LA two weeks ago, panic rippled out. (Full disclosure: I had made an agreement with WOW to appear at the event.) From performers with local drag brunches to artists and troupes slated for major tours, everyone began to call off their shows. I was personally forced to postpone a two-month tour, leaving me without planned work through at least July. Within days, the global drag calendar was empty.

In a community where even the luckiest often live paycheck to paycheck, this sudden shutdown is having devastating effects. Tina Burner, a New York City drag queen, has gone from one of the most booked queens in town—known for her choice Chelsea digs—to complete unemployment.

“I am making zero dollars. Not making five dollars here, five dollars there. Nothing,” Burner says. “And everyone thinks that because I do nine shows a week that She must have money, she must be doing fine. But I put every dollar I make back into my drag. I’m not prepared for a, you know, pandemic.”

Drag is a zero-margins business that requires constant and extravagant investment for performers struggling to keep their audiences and gigs. For example, while most queens in New York City receive a base pay of $100 to $200 per show, the garments and hair they are expected to wear can easily cost more than $1,000 per look. And that’s not to mention the cost of sets, signage, advertising, or myriad other expenses involved in independently producing a regular show with no financial backing.

As a stopgap, Burner has started producing online editions of her weekly shows, but even these come with their own costs. Streamed from her living room via Instagram Live, they’re complete with specially printed backdrops and paid guest performances by fellow queens.

One of last week’s shows featured a young queen performing in her own bedroom while her mother hopped in and out of the video frame to help with quick costume changes. Everyone got digital tips from Venmo accounts promoted on screen—except mom. The tips didn’t make up for lost gigs, but at least they were something.

“I’m a queen. I have to make content, or I don’t get paid,” Burner says. “[The Trump administration] just announced a stop on mortgages [in certain cases] but what does that do for artists like us? If you’re a bartender, you can apply for unemployment, but we’re on 1099s.”

For Mitch Ferrino, a New York City nightlife promoter, the need to get queens of all kinds working again is very real and very urgent. “Being able to go out and perform live is a queen’s livelihood,” he says. “If you take away their venues, they’re not going to be able to pay their bills, pay for their medication, pay their rent.”

That’s why Ferrino is working with major artists like Peppermint to create a livestreaming show that unites both well-known and rising stars to support performers in need. A “soft run” of the show last Thursday drew 15,000 viewers, but Ferrino’s vision is to build a large enough paying audience for a single streaming show that every participating queen can pull a significant base pay—something that can make a real difference in their finances.

Ultimately, he’d like to offer access to the show for free for viewers in need, but he’d encourage people with stable salaries and the luxury of working from home to donate whatever they can to keep not-so-lucky queens from going bankrupt.

“We have the technology available,” Ferrino says. “Why not keep the revenue flowing?”

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For drag queen Biqtch Puddin’ (crowned by Boulet Brothers’ Dragula), this new moment of digital drag is about more than making ends meet—it’s about helping queens hold their heads high through the crisis.

A few weeks ago, Puddin’ was working so hard that she found herself longing for a break, a mental cigarette, as she puts it. But then the outbreak brought everything to a halt and sent her into an emotional tailspin.

“I had this really big gig where all my childhood dreams were coinciding with my drag, and then I got an email message saying the party was canceled,” she told me. “I was like, what are we going to do, digital drag? And my best friend Meg Chase walked out and was like, That’s actually a good idea.”

Soon, Puddin’ and her friends had conceived Digital Drag: An Online Drag Show. The first iteration of the enormous, wonderfully chaotic group show, aired last Friday night on Twitch, drawing over to 27,000 viewers to see kings and queens from across the country—Alaska Thunderfuck, Rock M. Sakura, Vander Von Odd, Landon Cider, and many more.

“It was breaking my heart to see all my friends and people I admire posting their Venmo and PayPal,” Puddin’ told me. “It’s not like we want to do that. We want to perform art.” Her show will allow performers to do just that, working—and werking—just as hard as they normally do for the tips and donations they need.

There’s already a second show in the works, featuring queens like Jinkx Monsoon, Laila McQueen, Evah Destruction, and (full disclosure) me. “Because we don’t know if we’re getting a bailout. As entertainers, we don’t know if we’re going to be a part of that,” Puddin’ says. “Which is ironic because the entertainment industry is entertaining everyone trapped at home.”

Puddin’ raises an interesting point. Millions of Americans trapped by self-isolation and quarantine are using online content as a window into a happier world, and drag queens can certainly be proud to be part of that.

Is it going too far, though, to suggest that drag queens are actually helping people survive out there? And that America owes them for it? After all, it’s not like they’re medical professionals on the front lines—nor are they really even making public service announcements.

But for people like Pete Williams, director of digital at WOW, there is a real pride in creating drag content that eases people’s misery in a time of social distancing, even if the difference they’re making seems small. WOW Presents is scrambling to maintain its schedule of drag-heavy content through the crisis, guided by a belief that people really need it.

“I made a comment to my boss who wanted to do something serious: You know sometimes people just need a conduit to help them forget,” Williams says. “They come to our channel to forget about what’s bothering them for 10–15 minutes. After you laugh, it just changes your mood.”

Williams remarks that there’s no way to tell people that things are going to get better, but there is a way to make them feel better for a moment, to make them feel that people are going to carry on, and provide, as Ferrino puts it, “a distraction from the fact that we’re all stuck in our houses avoiding deep dark depression.”

And for queens, the ability to keep producing is a lifeline in itself. “There’s something inside me that’s always been inside me that if I don’t get it out, it makes me upset,” Burner says. “I know that’s weird, but I believe that I’m here to do that, to make people laugh.”

It’s a surreal moment for the drag community. RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 12 continues to air on VH1, showing drag in a state of heightened excess—meanwhile the season’s cast members are without work, watching episodes from living rooms they likely cannot afford. Though they’ve captivated millions of fans and followers around the globe, drag performers of every kind are struggling. If we can’t find ways to adjust to the times—and audiences and their support with us—the beloved world drag has created may not be there after the pandemic finally fades.

Biqtch Puddin’s next Digital Drag Show will air Friday at 8 p.m. EDT.

Miz Cracker’s solo show will air Saturday at 8, 9, and 10 p.m. EDT.