“I think it’s a great loss,” said David Bryant, one of the promoters for National Entertainer of the Year, one of the largest drag pageants. “RuPaul’s Drag Race has allowed people to watch drag from the comfort of their home, without leaving their house, and without having to get dressed up, go to a venue, pay a door price, sit down, and watch a show.”
Of course, Drag Race isn’t the only factor in declining club attendance. Other factors like hookup apps and social media contribute, according to Bryant. With Drag Race and gay hookup apps like Grindr bringing the “night out” experience to people’s phones and televisions, nightclubs and bars have to up the ante to compete commercially.
In order to make a career out of drag in 2018, it takes extensive work to captivate an audience and stand out from under the shadow of Drag Race. But it’s possible.
“It's like the spotlight [for attention] just got smaller,” Baird said. “You've got to catch it where it falls through the cracks.”
There are two major factors in making a career as a drag queen - location and money.
“It’s very much dependent on where you are. A lot of opportunities to perform locally are leaving because gay clubs are closing and there's not enough shows to be booked,” Baird said, adding that a full-time career as a drag queen is only realistic in large urban areas like New York City and Las Vegas.
In a suburban area like Long Island, the drag scene isn’t lively enough to support a full time career, although Drag Race has still revitalized drag in the area to some extent.
“For a long time the drag scene had died out, but it’s up and coming now so much more than before. I’ve seen drag queens have drag brunches here on Long Island, which we only kind of had in the city for a long time,” said Patrick Long, “Miss Patricia”, a queen local to the area.
Even though it’s on the rebound, drag on Long Island is mostly concentrated on Fire Island and areas near Brooklyn and Queens.
“Fire Island, every summer, it’s a very big thing, but getting a booking at Fire Island is very hard to do because it’s such a small area. It’s mostly city queens that come out,” said Matt Cecchini, “Savannah”, a local drag queen. “There’s a very few small places on Long Island but not too much right now.”
Many queens with ambitions to be full-time entertainers move to cities where drag is more lucrative.
by Joshua Pietzold
The casket stood upright in the middle of the stage as people filed into the bar. They were dressed, or rather in various stages of undress, in all-black attire. They were there to be the audience, and more importantly, to pay respect to a queen.
The music started and Jayme Coxx strutted out onto the stage. “Her” hair was big, her lips overdrawn, her contour fierce, and her attitude fiercer. Her image was eclectic with a hint of glamour, Broadway drama, and camp. She was a drag queen, and the audience went wild for it.
As her performance number reached it’s finale, other queens joined Coxx on stage. In a flourish of dramatics, they collectively laid Coxx to rest in the casket in what was meant to be her final goodbye to the stage.
Or at least that’s what the audience thought.
“I already knew there was a plan, but I made sure we didn't tell anyone yet,” said Kevin Wagner, “Jayme Coxx.”
At that point in his career, Wagner had been doing drag for almost five years. Originally from Connecticut, his career eventually took him to Buffalo, NY, where he was the headliner of his own popular long-running show, “Jayme Coxx’s Trailer Park Tuesdays.” Unfortunately, after the actual death of one of the queens on his cast, he knew that it was time for curtain call.
After being put to rest on stage in December of 2007 as a tribute to his late drag sister, titled, “The Killing of Jayme Coxx’s Trailer Park Tuesdays”, Wagner launched his second headlining show, “Bad Girls”, in the new year. And now, 11 years later, Coxx still has a long list of recurring gigs. It’s an impressive testament to his enduring strengths as a performer and entertainer who knows what it takes to reinvent, maintain interest, and most importantly - sustain a career.
Wagner is one of hundreds of queens around the world who choose to pursue a career in drag entertainment. Recently, drag has exploded into mainstream culture and the consciousness of the general public with the rise of popular reality television show RuPaul’s Drag Race. In its tenth year, Drag Race is breaking its own ratings records, and has played a pivotal role in launching the careers of nearly 120 queens.
“So much of us want to be on RuPaul’s Drag Race, you know, because it seems like the only opportunity you're going to get to make a full time living off of doing drag,” said Justin Baird, “ThundoraThighs Matthews.” Baird, 25, has been working as a part-time drag queen in North Carolina for five years. He started as a way to support himself while in grad school, and continues today post-graduation.
However, while creating huge opportunities in the mainstream for a large group of drag personalities, Drag Race has ironically made it harder, not easier, to make a living doing drag.
The success of Drag Race has meant that many people opt to stay home and watch drag for free on television rather than go out to a club, which means that local drag takes a monetary hit.
“It's taking away from the big fascination of getting that night out, not worrying about work because you’re going to call out, and going to a nightclub to watch your local queens,” Wagner explained. “Whereas now I can invite a group of friends over, buy a six pack and sit on my couch, smoke weed and do whatever I want because it’s allowed, and watch RuPaul’s Drag Race. Why would I spend money when I could just be a lazy ass and have people come over and watch it on TV?”
This sentiment is echoed by club promoters and organizers of drag pageants and events.
Picture of Jayme Coxx, courtesy of Coxx's Facebook page.
Picture of ThundoraThighs Matthews, courtesy of Baird's Facebook page.
Esai Andino, 22, a New York City queen who is longtime childhood friends with Drag Race alum Aja, dropped out of high school and came to the city to pursue a career in drag at the age of 14. He successfully cultivated a drag persona, “MoMo Shade”, and used his connections to establish his career within the New York City scene as part of the “Haus” of Aja. A haus, or house, serves as an alternative family and a safe space. Houses are led by “mothers” who provide guidance and support for their house “children.” In the drag world, a drag mother is someone who helps a fledgling drag queen develop their skill.
“I saw Drag Race and I was like, ‘Oh my God, these women look amazing.’ And I was like, maybe I could do this. I hit Aja up, and she was the first person that put me in drag and that was just that. I never gave up,” Andino said. “I’ve been doing this shit for a long time - illegally [due to being underage] - but I've been doing the damn thing.”
Besides location, the debate over what a local queen deserves to get paid is a heated one - especially when compared to what a RuPaul queen makes.
Complete Haus of Aja pictured, courtesy of MoMo's Facebook.
“A lot of us have to work for free if it's with a RuPaul girl, because the budgets are getting smaller, and it's even smaller when a RuPaul girl works because they get paid at least like a $1,000, and they don't really have enough money to pay us,” Baird said. “I told myself that I don’t work for free with RuPaul girls anymore. They have to find someone else.”
Andino has a different perspective on the pay gap.
“Let's be real, the Ru girls pack out the house - they bring the following,” Andino said. “Unless you're bringing in those type of numbers at the bar every time you do your show, then you can't be demanding [anything]. Your show is only hitting $5,000 at the bar, and these Ru girls are making at least $10,000 or more at the bar. So it's like, they get the numbers, they get the money, they get paid, you know what I mean?”
Starting out as a new local queen in a suburban area like Long Island, expect to either work for free or work for limited tips.
“Per gig, some of them aren't always paid,” Dale Wiebel, “Deelicious Fauntayne”, said. Wiebel has been doing drag for only a little over a year as a local suburban queen. Besides drag, he supports himself through working retail. “It could be $20-$30 dollars, tip-wise depending on how many numbers I do. If I did a couple numbers in a night, I could expect double that.”
One of the best ways to start getting recognition in the drag scene and to start getting more bookings is to show up to bars in full drag to support the local shows.
“If you go out and support the shows when you're not performing, and you see the performers and you talk to them, it really helps them know that you're dedicated and you want to be booked,” Nate McCarten, “Opal Essence”, said. McCarten is a local city queen who started doing drag part-time after being inspired by Drag Race. Besides drag, McCarten has a job working at a makeup store.
Even when you’ve been on the scene for a while, or for five years like McCarten has, don’t expect to be making the big bucks yet.
“You can make like five bucks to a hundred, it really just depends on who's hosting the show and the night. Sometimes I'll make like $5 on a number and then in one night I can make like $100. It’s a crazy range,” he said.
Performance video of Opal Essence, courtesy of McCarten.
For more consistent pay, a queen would need to be employed as part of a cast. A cast is a lineup of drag queens employed by a bar or nightclub to perform on specific nights. The same lineup of queens perform every night on the night that they’re booked.
“You have girls on house cast and they work every Friday and Saturday or any day of the week that they do shows. And then you have freelance girls - like I consider myself - I just get booked for alternate positions on different days of the week. Sometimes it's Tuesday, sometimes it’s Monday, sometimes it’s Thursday, and then there's a weekend spot,” Baird said.
When a queen is employed as part of a cast, or even as a regular freelance agent, the pay is more consistent and higher.
“It can range anywhere from, sometimes there's a bad night and it's only like $125 and sometimes it's $300 in your pocket, and $300 for one night of work isn't bad at all,” Baird said.
A drag queen can also build a following and recognition by getting involved in drag competitions and drag pageants. The drag pageant system, which dates back to the 1970s, can be seen as the original Drag Race in terms of launching a queen’s career.
In the pageant system there are a number of esteemed national titles - Miss Gay America, Miss Continental, National Entertainer of the Year, and Miss Gay USA to name a few. There have been a number of pageant competitors and title holders who went on to compete on Drag Race.
For many queens, the cost to do drag eats up most of the profits. The cheapest drug store makeup and drag products, at minimum, will probably cost at least $200 for one look, according to Baird.
“You could start doing full drag if you're creative for like, $200 - but if you think about wigs, makeup, lashes, the nails - $200, that's not a lot of money,” Baird said. “Realistically you’re probably going to end up spending a lot more.”
Successful drag requires constantly updating looks, wigs, and makeup, which can rack up a pretty hefty price tag.
“I'm constantly adding things, buying new things, getting wigs done,” McCarten said. “I could spend one week, about $100, and then the next week I'll be spending $200. It could range, overall, from like $1,000 a month to like $2,000. Some people spend like $10,000 on one gown - it's crazy.”
The steep cost is a reason why many part-time queens stay only part-time, despite ambitions to be full time queens.
“It takes hardcore dedication and money to do drag full-time,” Wiebel explained. “I work at Walmart now on the side, and I’d probably need like two or three other jobs to support myself if I wanted to keep pursuing drag full-time.”
For Kevin Wagner - Jayme Coxx - the money has never been what drew him to drag. According to him, it’s all about the hustle and love for the artform.
“It’s a way for me to hide from the reality of the world or what’s going on in my personal life and basically create this character and basically create this world for a little period of time. That’s what it’s really about for me,” Coxx said. “That's where Jayme lives. Kevin lives at home, Jayme lives at the club.”