Meet the drag queen making thousands of masks during the COVID-19 crisis

Gary "Sushi" Marion is working with other drag performers to sew masks from his home in Key West, Florida.
Image: Gary "Sushi" Marion.
Gary "Sushi" Marion.Celeste Byers / for NBC News
By Julie Compton

Confined to his home as the coronavirus descended on Key West, Florida, drag performer Gary "Sushi" Marion had everything he needed to make masks for friends and neighbors: two industrial sewing machines, an eclectic selection of tropical-themed fabrics and a dozen drag queens who knew how to sew.

Marion, who runs Key West's famed drag show 801 Girls Cabaret, said the idea to make masks dawned on him after he saw a video of a woman making them on Facebook.

"I saw this lady making masks, and I said, 'I have fabric. I may as well start doing that. I'm not doing anything else,'" Marion, 53, told NBC News.

At first, the drag queens made masks for local people and friends. But after they created a donation page through Venmo and PayPal, money quickly poured in from around the globe, and they found themselves sewing masks for people from Brazil to Paris, Marion said.

To ensure social distancing, the performers arrive at Marion's home in shifts every day: two in the morning, two in the afternoon and one in the evening. They sew, cut and iron each mask according to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Marion said.

Out on the Frontline: Gary "Sushi" Marion is one of NBC Out's 2020 Pride Month honorees. To see the full list, click here.

They offer about 50 patterns — from flamingos to sea turtles and band themes like The Who and The Grateful Dead — that can be ordered for any amount of money, be it a penny, $5 or $1,000. Marion said they've sold about 6,000 masks, churning out around 1,000 a week. He even had to fly to three cities — Seattle, Atlanta and Miami — to find fabric stores that were open after he and his team ran out.

"Sometimes we have 60 different envelopes to send out," said Marion, whose husband, Jeff Kucin, handles the online orders and mailings. "He spends about an hour a day at the post office."

Marion is using the donations to continue paying his performers while they're out of work, but he said they've given away many masks for free.

After a local mail carrier told Marion that children in one of Key West's low-income neighborhoods were playing outside without masks, he sent one of his drag queens around to put kid-size masks in every mailbox. He also said he has given them away to sailors at a local Navy base, police officers, nursing homes and anyone else who requests them.

"I had this one housewife text me on Facebook. She said she's out of work. She has two kids, and she saw a post of mine, and I said, 'Don't worry about it. Just Venmo me one penny and send me your address,'" Marion said.

Marion, who goes by the drag name "Sushi," grew up in Salem, Oregon. He began performing drag at clubs around Portland in the mid-1980s, when he was still in high school. Despite being bullied by classmates, Marion said, he never felt ashamed of being gay.

"I don't know where that came from," he said, "but I've always done my own thing and never felt any guilt."

While in his 20s, Marion briefly attended fashion school in Portland before dropping out and moving to Key West in 1994. At the time, he decided to give up drag, finding the Florida weather too scorching for wigs and makeup. He founded a cleaning business, instead, and quickly picked up work scrubbing nightclubs around Key West. But his departure from drag wouldn't last long. He said that one night in 1995, after he performed “off a lark” for one of the clubs he cleaned, the manager asked him to perform there regularly.

"They bought the bar across the street, the 801 Bar, and there was a cabaret space upstairs, and they said, 'Sushi, this is yours,'" he recalled.

In 1997, Marion famously rang in the New Year when he dropped from the roof of Bourbon Street Pub inside a giant red high heel. The stunt landed him on the cover of The New York Times travel section in 2000.

"Then CNN called, and they came down here and did a live broadcast" the following New York's Eve, Marion said.

Now, with the pandemic raging across the U.S. and few people planning vacations, Marion worries about the future of Key West, which has been a gay tourist attraction for decades. But he remains hopeful.

"I know that we will survive, and I'm thankful that we have this money that we do now to pay the girls to survive, too," Marion said of his drag performers.

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