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An oral history of drag post-coronavirus: 'Nothing's ever going to be the same'

At the beginning of quarantine, drag performers had to quickly adjust to the whiplash of nightlife going dark.
RuPaul's Drag Race: Werq The World 2019
Monét X Change performs during RuPaul's Drag Race: Werq The World 2019 on Oct. 19, 2019 in New York City.John Lamparski / Getty Images

As COVID-19 forced cities into lockdown, nightlife shut down almost overnight, taking countless gigs and jobs with it. With no ability to stage shows, draw crowds, or even just dance it out with their friends and chosen family, drag performers have had to turn to digital platforms to keep themselves afloat, both financially and creatively. BenDeLaCreme, formerly of “RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars,” postponed her summer tour and banded together with other queens to create a “Queer Quarantine” radio show.

New York City artist Untitled Queen embraced the new possibilities of pre-recorded video performances, particularly in terms of being able to caption everything for deaf and hard of hearing audiences who rarely get to fully enjoy drag shows. And Biqtch Puddin, the season 2 winner of “Dragula,” has hosted a digital drag show on Twitch every Friday, attracting some 40,000 live viewers with dozens of acts from around the world.

Variety recently spoke with these artists and more about navigating this new normal, the challenges and advantages of virtual performances, and how they’re looking to the future, whatever that may look like.

At the beginning of quarantine, drag performers had to quickly adjust to the whiplash of nightlife going dark.

Biqtch Puddin: I was booked for a show with Alaska Thunderfuck and Willam at Precinct [in downtown LA] on Thursday, March 12. And Alaska was putting on her wig and going, “Is this my last gig for a while?” Willam and I were like, “No….?” But we all realized, yeah, this is probably it. Afterwards, I got my ass to the grocery store as soon as I could and started quarantining from there.

BenDeLaCreme: My partner and I moved to Los Angeles on March 1, and then I was going to be on the road for a couple weeks. My last show was supposed to be with Peaches Christ and Jinkx Monsoon in San Francisco on the 14th. We were in rehearsal process for our show, and every day we were getting new news about new ordinances where, O.K., now it’s only 2,000 people, now it’s 1,500, it’s 1,000. Then it got to 200 people or something and we were like, O.K., show’s canceled.

Pearl Harbor, Brooklyn-based drag artist: For the first two weeks of the quarantine, I really couldn’t find myself being creative at all. I would go out on deep daily walks, listen to music and just try to be with my body and be with my thoughts. I was honestly kind of astounded that people were able to perform. The high horse part of me was like, “How can people be thinking about productivity and performance when this is happening?” But when I think more about it, I understand that it’s necessary to have a form of expression.

Bitqch Puddin: A lot of the gigs I was looking forward to got canceled. I was out of work for the foreseeable future, and I knew like all my [drag] brothers and sisters were, too. Regardless of if you’re on an international platform, like “Dragula” or “Drag Race,” or if you’re Susie Q hosting bingo down the street every Tuesday, everybody was out of work.

With no other option, performers started figuring out how to make performing from home work for them.

Monét X Change, “Drag Race: All Stars” Season 4 Winner: Once again we’re seeing how resilient artists, and especially queer people, are. We are so used to getting doors closed in face, to being marginalized, to getting our whole lives uprooted. So when queer people see the bars are closed and they can’t perform, they’re going to do a digital show.

BenDeLaCreme: In some ways, it does feel like it gets back to some of the scrappy roots of drag where you have to figure out how to do glamour with very few resources. I’ve been saying a lot that I feel like drag queens are sort of uniquely equipped to deal with this moment in time because. As artistic entity, we have had to create so much with so little, and so much of the beauty we’ve made over the decades and centuries has been fueled by adversity and pushing back under circumstances that don’t necessarily set us up for success to begin with.

Untitled Queen: The thing that I love about digital drag — not only for me, but for everyone — is the creativity when you have a resistance that you have to create something for. It’s a whole other set of challenges. And I love DIY aesthetics and world building as a huge part of my practice, so this is another way for me to retreat and return to a lot of these things.

Pearl Harbor: For a lot of queer people, myself included, home is such a difficult space and concept. I always feel like I never learned how to make a home. When I was younger, my main motivation was to get away from home as soon as I could, to be myself. So now that we’ve all been forced to stay at home, it’s just like, “How do I make peace with this space?” Maybe I didn’t have the best home life, but I can really relish in the home that I’m building for myself right now.

Early into quarantine, Biqtch Puddin went from joking with her roommates about digital drag shows to staging a wildly popular one of her own.

Biqtch Puddin: We announced the cast and the show before we realized we could do it technically. Halfway through the week, I was like, having like heart palpitations, because something like that’s never been done on [Twitch] before. We’re having live performances, which is something I really wanted to have as a part of the show. Some performers’ internet is not as good, so they pre-record, but we try to keep it live as much as possible. You can tip people while they’re doing their number; there’s an intermission and a commercial break for queer businesses. We have a DJ with a chat for the audience to interact with each other as if you would scream and yell at a show — just type in all caps if you’re living for a diva or a king! We’re just trying to keep it as real a drag show as possible, because it’s my church.

Losing live audiences has been an inevitable, tough side effect of drag going digital that’s shifting thinking for many performers.

Pearl Harbor: It’s tough because performing is all about connection with people, right? You have all these nerves before you go on and you have to remind yourself that everyone’s here to see you and they want to see you succeed. That’s a whole ritual before we perform. But with [virtual performance], it feels a little bit like you’re in a vacuum.

BenDeLaCreme: They always say that the final ingredient to any show is the live audience, and only then can you really tell what’s working and what isn’t. So we’ve had to be more vigilant about knowing that there’s no opening week where you find the correct delivery or say, “Oh, this thing does or doesn’t work.” I have an ongoing relationship with the audiences that have supported me over the years. They’ve stuck with me as I have found my footing and I’ve learned so much from them as a performer.

Biqtch Puddin: Our chat is live, so I can see what people are feeling and thinking. It’d be weird if I was just, like, speaking to a void. We’ve had a lot of compliments from Twitch — they really shocked at how positive our chat is based on like, how many 12 year-olds from Wisconsin are trying to watch “Call of Duty” on there.

Untitled Queen: It’s amazing to have the chat, because typically in a show you’re not supposed to be talking while someone is performing, let alone commenting with somebody. It’s like talking during a movie, which can be really fun.

Pearl Harbor: You don’t get the shouting and screaming that’s very invigorating and affirming, but you do get to read people’s very hilarious commentary all laid out. So it’s also a forum for audience members to be seen as well.

Bitqch Puddin: Each person who tags me on Instagram to show me that they dressed up for the show, it makes me so happy, because I know it’s making them happy to get out of their [quarantine] routine. It melts my heart. It’s obviously not just important for our performers, but also our community.

One unavoidable result of COVID-19 shutting nightlife down is that, for many, it also shut down a ton of paying gigs.

Monét X Change: The truth is everyone has taken a hit, because practically everything has been canceled.

BenDeLaCreme: My entire solo tour this summer, which was supposed to go all over the U.S. and U.K., is now postponed to 2021. We were able to postpone the whole thing rather than just have to cancel it. I’m grateful for that. But losing that tour was like, “Oh, man.” I mean, we just moved. We just bought a car, all this stuff moving to L.A., but were like, “These big expenses are fine because we’re about to go on tour,” and then we lost that.

Monét X Change: I’m hiring local queens to do stuff through my channel. I’m trying to keep as many people that I can employed as possible, because I know that everyone is feeling it.

Bitqch Puddin: The messages [from performers] the day after the first show, were like, “Thank you so much, I didn’t know how I was going to pay rent. Thanks to this we were able to go get groceries.” I just realized how important this was. I’m not saying each and every [audience member] does tip performers, but each performer has walked away paid. They get 100 percent of their tips, and then we also have a $10 suggested donation that we divide evenly with all 25 performers. I know that sounds small, but it does go a long way. We’re actually able to really help these entertainers, and that’s why I wanted to do a digital drag show in the first place.

BenDeLaCreme: That’s always the balance of a performer and an artist: the work versus the actual commerce. You always just want it to be following the work and the art, but there’s just financial realities.

As artists figured out what makes the most sense for them in the digital space, they discovered some unexpected, undeniable advantages of going virtual.

Monét X Change: I think that we’re just seeing lots of artists being super creative and thriving even though, you know, the world is literally going to shit.

BenDeLaCreme: I like to do big production value, but I like you to be able to see somebody’s hands on something, I don’t like it to look too slick. And so it didn’t occur to me until just now that really, that this “at home “thing is very much like that, where it’s like, the more you can pull off with people knowing you have super limited resources, the more exciting it is.

Untitled Queen: I’m working on a show called “Untitled America,” and I’m asking for a drag artist from each state — all queer people of color — to do some sort of reflection on America, to premiere July 4th. It’ll be a vision and voice amplification of brown queer America…I could never have all 50 states represented if it weren’t digital.

Pearl Harbor: Video art is not the same as live performance; it doesn’t translate the same. But you can also take advantage of a moving camera in a lot of different ways that live performance does not allow. Even though there’s one person on screen, there’s always two dancers — and the second dancer is the camera person. Their role is equally as important, because without movement of the camera, the dance would look so flat and boring. [My videographer] is my gay neighbor Kyle — we hang out all the time now.

Untitled Queen: With pre-recorded videos, I can add captioning for deaf and hard of hearing audiences. One time I did an ASL performance, and I did it incorrectly without knowing it. A deaf performer named Gregor Lopez reached out to me and was like, “Your translation is incorrect.” And I felt so bad, but I became friends with him in the last year and he’s taught me a ton about Deaf culture and community, so I’ve really tried to incorporate that and make shows more accessible with captioning, which is missing from almost everywhere. Instagram, which is what I use almost all the time, really has it nowhere.

Biqtch Puddin: Our show is open to all types of drag. After I went on “Dragula,” I started touring and saw a lack of black and trans performers being embraced, and drag kings barely getting a spot. You can’t foster new talent if you don’t water it. I think it’s a shame that most people only know a sliver of what the drag community has to offer.

Untitled Queen: This is the thing with all accessibility and inclusion … we’re often not thinking: “What does our community look like? How do you widen what that means, and how do you challenge yourself to do better?”

Bitqch Puddin: I was raised in a city [Atlanta] where everybody was welcome to the stage, as long as you could turn the party and get the kids living. So when it comes to my show, I think it’s so important to have diversity because that’s what makes for the best show.

With no firm answers on the horizon, and lockdown stretching well into the summer, the drag world keeps looking towards the future. So what’s next?

BenDeLaCreme: Nothing’s ever going to be the same, really. We’re not going to be filling theaters in the same way and we’re all going to have a different relationship to being in groups. There’s no way to know how that will manifest.

Bitqch Puddin: I have plans for “Digital Drag” after COVID, but once things go back to normal I’ll stop doing it weekly, mostly because I want people to go out and support our queer businesses. They’ll need every amount of support they can get.

BenDeLaCreme: I also think that there’s going to be a combination of people feeling more comfortable with this type of connectivity that happens through media, and also a real hunger for being in a physical space with somebody. I don’t think that we’ll take being in shared spaces with other humans for granted as much anymore.

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