How Drag Queens Are Keeping Their Industry Alive in a COVID-19 Era

Drag Queens
Photo: Courtesy of Gina Tonic, Bella Noche, Ducky Sheaboi, Marily Monhoe. Design: Cierra Miller/STYLECASTER

Anastasia Beverly Hills eyeshadow palettes, Kryolan foundation sticks, Tarte glitter gels and Revlon lipsticks are all neatly positioned beneath Gina Tonic’s white Hollywood mirror. With a drink to her right and a vanilla-scented candle to her left, the transformation begins. After blocking out her eyebrows, she works her way from top to bottom with her skin; eyes and lips first followed by a teased blonde wig. After a few hours, she is ready to hit the stage for her show. Beloved by fans for her vintage-style looks, Broadway show tunes and original jokes, this New York City-based drag queen, like most others, thrives off the energy from the audience and makes a living by collecting tips and booking fees. Prior to COVID-19, Tonic performed at bars and venues where she would make roughly between $200 to $300 in tips per show.

Now, over the past six months due to COVID-19 and social distancing guidelines, drag queens have not only lost gigs, but drastically had to change the way they perform in order to pay the bills and keep the industry alive. She only makes a fraction of what she made before the pandemic. 

“When the pandemic first hit, we were totally shaken and had no idea what to do,” Tonic says. “I really had no idea what was going on either because there was so little research and information out there about what was happening in the world. We had no idea if we were going to be off for like a month, or three months, but I had no idea that it would go on for this long.” 

Like Tonic, other New York City-based drag queens also faced economic hardships when shows were cancelled. “I had regular shows as well as a number of private bookings lined up all through 2020 and they were all inevitably cancelled,” Bella Noche, New York’s drag queen mermaid, says. Prior to COVID-19, Noche’s booking fee ranged from $100 to $400 depending on the gig, and she would receive between $100 to $200 in tips from live audience members. 

As a result of stay-at-home orders and social distancing protocols, many drag queens turned to the internet. Digital drag shows became the new normal; with brunch to bingo, audiences could enjoy drag entertainment directly from their homes. Tonic started by hosting and participating in digital drag shows on social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitch. Noche developed weekly virtual shows, including her most popular, “Mermaid Monday,” where she talks with virologist Dr. Paul about the pandemic. Similar to Noche, Ducky Sheaboi, New York’s self-proclaimed queen of hysteria, has been taking advantage of Instagram Live by hosting monthly shows with her drag wife, Patsy InDecline, and offering sex toy giveaways for viewers.  

While tips are normally collected by performers during a show, audiences are now encouraged to tip queens through PayPal, CashApp and Venmo. 

“During the first few shows, it was going really well, people were really excited about it,” says Tonic. “But of course when the audiences aren’t making any money and they can’t afford to tip us anymore, you know by two-three months in, we stopped making as much money off of it.” 

When the pandemic first hit, we were totally shaken and had no idea what to do.

Tonic roughly earns between $5 and $20 in tips from digital drag shows and other online platforms, a significant decrease compared to her live shows. Like Tonic, Noche now earns between $25 and $75 in tips per show.

While income from digital tipping might not be significant, some money, despite the amount, is still being made. “Just pinning the username of money apps, has made generating some form of income possible,” Sheaboi says. “We joke that performing has now become ‘putting a quarter in the jukebox’ because the cash flow, for multiple reasons, isn’t the same as pre-COVID times. But money is money, and that’s not something to make a stank face at in 2020.”

Janae SaisQuoi, a theatrical New York City-based queen, looks at the bright side of virtual tipping during COVID-19 as a way to reach a larger audience. “Virtual tipping is kind of nice because you can receive tips from people anywhere in the world. I’ve had people from the U.K. watch my lives or shows and be able to tip, which wouldn’t be the case if shows were exclusively in person.” 

While queens are making less money off online platforms, they also miss thanking the audience for their tips in-person. “I’m old-school; as I’m one to hug someone after they tip for enjoying the performance; and electronic payment seems a bit impersonal,” Marilyn Monhoe, New York’s blonde bombshell, says.

As drag queens make a majority of their income from tips, a large part of that relies on having an in-person audience.  “A huge chunk of the money a drag queen makes comes from tips,” Noche says. “The audience is an integral part of making money during a drag show, as many times a queen will make more in tips than than with their overall booking fee. So remember to tip your queens!”  

In addition to receiving tips, interacting with the audience also makes the job more fun. “I love interacting with the crowds; making sure they’re enjoying the show, and always finding 2 to 3 people during a number that I can connect with—all while making an absolute fool of myself,” Monhoe says.

While in-person events were not possible a few months ago, different event companies are now making drag shows accessible in-person with drive-in drag shows. Drive N’ Drag was developed by Brandon Voss, the founder of Voss Events, while he was in line at a fast food drive-thru earlier this year. “From there he brought his vision to fruition with sold out shows across the U.S.,” says Stephen Sparco, production coordinator for Voss Events. The show relied on touring queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race around the country to perform for live audiences who could watch from their cars. 

This method of performing not only provided drag queens with a live audience, but also a more reliable source of income through tips and booking fees while also keeping audiences and performers safe. 

Money is money, and that’s not something to make a stank face at in 2020.

At many of the socially distant shows, queens collect tips through Venmo, CashApp and PayPal which their accounts are advertised on the tables. There is also a bucket near the stage for audience members to drop cash into while the queens perform. 

Other venues noticed the demand for live drag entertainment during this time and started shows of their own. In August, Tonic hosted the “Dears in the Headlights” drive-in drag show at the Bel-Aire Diner in Astoria, Queens. Like Tonic, SaisQuoi has slowly started to resume drag in-person as a cast member of a socially-distanced outdoor show called “Girls Gone Viral” held at Now & Then in Brooklyn.

In order to keep both the acts and audience members safe, drag queens perform on a raised stage and wear masks when they are not performing. 

“It’s also challenging because we have to be careful not to rub our makeup off,” Tonic says.

While drive-in drag shows might have presented unique problems of their own, queens are now able to get back to doing what they love most: performing live. 

“Nothing can substitute for the energy and magic of a live audience,” Tonic says. “I feel that there is a certain magic to interacting with the audience live that people just crave. Part of our humanity is watching live performances on stage and I think it is so great to be able to bring that to people not only live and in-person, but in a way that is totally safe.” New Entertainment Newsletter