Drag queen T Rex is sitting in her Chicago apartment on a Monday afternoon, trying to find new ways to fill her time. “I’ve been trying to, like, clean and do responsible things,” she says over the phone. “It’s all I can do when I just want to f—ing sleep.”
Normally, Rex would be spending this time preparing for shows, contacting venues about upcoming gigs and putting together looks and numbers for her multiple performances every week. But this week she can’t. As the coronavirus outbreak continued its spread through the country, the situation in Chicago changed rapidly and decisively, with all restaurants and bars closing within a matter of hours on Monday (March 16).
“Every time I try to get my bearings, I go back online, and it’s like, ‘Okay, we’re halving the amount of people allowed in the bars.’ Four hours later, it says no one’s allowed in the bars.” she recalls. “It’s like, ‘Cool, when does the swarm of locusts come?'”
Rex is just one of thousands of drag performers around the world who are suddenly facing the harsh reality of life in the age of coronavirus. With bars and restaurants being shut down out of caution, along with strict governmental limitations on public gatherings, performers relying on nightlife as their main source of income are now left without the gigs that keep them afloat, worrying about what they’ll need to do to make ends meet.
For Brooklyn drag artist and reigning Mr(s) BK Theydy Bedbug, performing was just one of their sources of income — but their work in childcare and as a technical director at a small arts non-profit have also been all but shut down in the last week. “I get paid hourly for everything I do, so if I’m not working, I’m not getting paid. It has a huge effect,” they say. “I can last a month of rent; I have been able to stock up. There are people for whom that’s not an option, and for whom social distancing means not eating.”
Even Los Angeles-based drag star Biqtch Puddin’, who has garnered an international audience after competing on and winning the second season of The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula, is feeling the immense pressure of losing all her gigs. “It’s already really detrimental,” she says. “This is hurting all of the industries that I and my friends are involved with … it’s just so heartbreaking.”
Part of that heartbreak, for Puddin’, comes from the fact that the queer nightlife scene is often a place meant to make people feel safe and loved, and not being allowed to participate in that is excruciating. “In the queer community, our bars are like our churches, it’s our safe haven,” she says. “We don’t know how long this is going to be affecting us. I don’t know if these two-week quarantines are going to go into a month-long quarantine.”
While big-name drag queens can rely in part on the sales of their merch, music, makeup and more, how are local artists supposed to maintain some form of income while being ordered to remain at home?
For T Rex, part of the solution has been simply asking for help. As one of the leading drag stars currently working in Chicago, especially well known for hosting Roscoe’s Tavern’s weekly RuPaul’s Drag Race viewing parties, Rex works with and casts a number of entertainers for her shows in the city, and has resorted to posting their online payment information, such as Venmo and PayPal accounts, on her Twitter feed, urging fans to donate whatever they can to help their favorite performers get by.
“I’ve never put my Venmo up before and said ‘Hey, tip me electronically,’ but I’ve done that now,” she says. “I’m not making what I would have made otherwise just off of Venmos, but to have those pour in has been great, and it’s actually already helped a lot: $2, $3, even $10 bucks here and there has been really helpful to people who completely live off that, and who have had the rug pulled out from under them. As of right now, that is floating a lot of us.”
Here’s how you can virtually tip the cast of this week’s @DragMatinee which is now cancelled due to the state mandated bar & restaurant closures! Thank you to our friends in Chicago & beyond in these difficult times! Be well & wash your hands! pic.twitter.com/Ct4pNKUrUh
— T REX (@trexinchicago) March 16, 2020
Theydy agrees, underscoring that while it may not seem like much to some people, a few small tips can make a world of difference for the artists who need it. “Find the people who are most vulnerable and find out how you can give them your money,” they say. “For you, a five-dollar tip might not mean as much as it will to the person who’s receiving it.”
Another potential, partial solution to the problem is livestreaming performances, a strategy many artists in the music industry are already adopting. Theydy explains that they are currently looking at Instagram, Twitch and other social media platforms, along with ticketing platforms like Eventbrite, to figure out how to put together a paid show. “The details are still in the works, we have to talk more about how exactly you want to do this, but there is definitely momentum. Mostly, there is a lot of momentum and motivation toward, like, making money,” Theydy says. “I know that there are people who are being paid right now, who are able to work from home, who have safety nets, and who are bored as f–k! They want to be supporting artists who they care about, so let’s give them some shows!”
While Theydy, Rex and other stars are still in the early stages of figuring out what to do, Puddin’ thinks she may have found a viable option. This Friday (March 20), Puddin’ is set to host the first in what she hopes will be a series called “Digital Drag” on her Twitch channel. Featuring a roster of 30 performers calling in to give sickening performances from their homes, including Drag Race stars Alaska Thunderfuck and Rock M. Sakura, the stream also offers fans the opportunity to donate directly to the performers, through a suggested $10 donation to watch, along with virtual tipping opportunities.
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#DIGITALDRAGSHOW Join us live Friday March 20th at 7pm PST/10pm EST only at twitch.tv/biqtchpuddin for the world’s first Digital Drag Show! Presented by @biqtchpuddin and @videodisease. Featuring the talents of @theonlyalaska5000, @harajukubk, @junobirch, @vandervonodd, @tenderoni88, @kat.sass & more! DJ sėt by @djmateosegade Hope y’all join įn on the fun but know when it comes to dåy øf shøw we do ask for a 10$ donation (anything you can give) to help us run this show and pay for this incredible lineup of talent. Info on how to pay will be provided dåy of shøw. Tips will also be on screen for each performer via their PayPal/Venmo links. Spread the word and see ya on the 20th!
Conceived with her friend and producer Meg Chase, and with help from her “Twitch mentors” Deere and 8BitDylan, Puddin’ is hoping to see the show offer a place for fans and queens to come and support each other with their money and their time. “Whatever we get from that, we will be splitting evenly amongst the talent, and then while each performer is performing, they can also tip with their Venmo and Paypal information up on the screen while they’re performing,” she says. “I know we’re all affected by this, so I understand if you can’t give anything, but truly, anything can help.”
Puddin’ is also opening up her future streams to other performers by putting out a casting call — any drag artist who wants to take part in a future “Digital Drag” show can email firstname.lastname@example.org with their photo, Instagram handle, performance concept and song to try and get a slot on the future streams.
When asked about what needs to be done now, Rex takes a deep breath, acknowledging that drag performers need support and help. But she also adds a note of optimism about taking this moment for what it is. “We will pick up the shovels tomorrow or even the next day,” she says. “But I think right now, the big thing is, get situated at home.”
For fans who can’t afford to donate money to their local queens, Puddin’ recommends fans find a way to feature them for those who can afford it. “If you’re a fan of them, take a moment and share them in your story or on your page,” she says. “That’s how you can get the word out with your followers and your fanbase, regardless of if you have 12 followers or 3,000. Any kind of sharing right now is really important.”
As for Theydy, the Brooklyn performer says that they see the coming weeks as a challenge, but also an opportunity for America to take a harder look at what the state of our gig economy actually looks like for those living off of service industry pay. “I really want to believe that this has exposed some really serious issues with the structure of social services, capitalism, how we all pay rent, income, and even the way we all connect and communicate,” they say, “I just fear once this is over, they’re going to say, ‘Okay, we fixed the problem, now let’s go back to killing ourselves to make rent every month!'”