Dallas drag queens learn to survive amid pandemic | Lifestyle
DALLAS – After months without much practice, Joe Hoselton was afraid he wasn’t going to get his mug right.
Backstage at the Winspear Opera House, Hoselton transformed into his stage personality Jenna Skyy for his second live performance since the pandemic began.
Jenna’s makeup – the contoured cheekbones, the arched eyebrows, the purple lipstick – are key to bringing her character to life on stage. Would that face be the same after so far from the headlights?
“I suddenly have doubts about myself,” said Hoselton, carefully putting more makeup on. “All of a sudden, it’s like you’ve never ridden a bike before.”
Jenna is a regular cast member at Oak Lawn’s Rose Room, the largest drag venue in Dallas and the Southwest. There, and in other gay bars and venues in North Texas, drag performers typically take the stage several times a week.
But in 2020, when the pandemic put all kinds of live performances on hold, drag performers had to find new ways to stay afloat. Slowly – with clear plastic face signs, Venmo tips and virtual shows – Drag is returning to Dallas. But it’s been a tough year for many drag queens who make a living performing live.
For the first time in October, then again in early December, the Rosenzimmer cast was invited to perform at the AT&T Performing Arts Center as part of TITAS / Unfiltered, a series of adult-themed dance performances.
“We have to support these local artists,” said Charles Santos, TITAS Executive Director. “These people make a living from it, and it’s just a good time.”
The TITAS show allowed Jenna and a handful of other local drag queens to perform in front of a live audience – and get paid to do so. But dragging in the opera house is not the same as dragging in the club.
For many LGBT people, gay bars – and drag shows in particular – have historically been one of the few places where people can feel comfortable. Losing these safe spaces during the pandemic was particularly difficult for the LGBT community.
“We couldn’t connect,” said Jenna. “It’s evident in everything. People have not been able to cope with the things that weigh on them. “
Trying to make ends meet
Drag in Dallas is a big deal. The city has some of the largest venues in the area, and Dallas drag queens regularly do big things in the world of drag. The Dallas drag families – groups of performers who look after each other and share the stage’s last names – regularly spawn nationally known talent like Mesquite’s Alyssa Edwards and Grand Prairie’s Asia O’Hara.
While drag stalled everywhere in March, the blow from the pandemic on local artists was particularly hard.
Just ask Dallas’ Kennedy Davenport, “the dancing diva of Texas” who appeared in two seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race and is the reigning Miss Gay USofA. She usually charges a high price for appearances, but said she cut her fee significantly during the pandemic and continued to travel to find opportunities to perform.
Like many drag performers, Kennedy makes her career out of appearances. Some may have a part-time job or other source of income, but many rely on the stage to make ends meet. The loss of these capabilities makes it difficult to pay the bills.
“We thought this would take a few months,” said Cassie Nova, host of the shows in the Rose Room. “Nobody makes as much money as he does, so it’s a fight.”
Getting started with drag involves significant financial investments, and involvement can be costly. Quality makeup and costumes are expensive. Add in long hours and late nights at weekend shows and it’s a tough life. For many artists, it’s a full time job.
With the pandemic, some of that overhead has increased, Kennedy said. She needed to turn her living room into a stage, complete with speakers, lighting, fabric backgrounds, and more for virtual shows. All of that costs money, not to mention the makeup and costumes that come with regular appearances.
‘I love what I do’
“It costs to be pulled in the air,” said Kennedy. “I love what I do. Drag is my passion. Whether I get two dollars or three dollars, I love to entertain and I’ll do the show because I love what I do.”
Some of the top performers are paid by venue – which is why bars close was so difficult – but audience tips are a significant part of a drag queen’s income. Plus, tips are not only part of the profits, but also part of the fun of going to a show.
But during the pandemic flipping up close can be risky, and you can’t give a drag queen a few singles from 6 feet away.
When the bars briefly reopened in the summer, according to Cassie, cash tips were collected in large buckets, which the performers then took backstage and sprayed with Lysol. Others have relied on money transfer apps like Venmo for tips.
This is an adaptation from the time of the pandemic that some artists hope will last. Jenna said when fans ran out of money, they would often offer the performer a shot of alcohol. That might work the first or second time, she said, but at some point drag queens have to work on stage – don’t get drunk.
If Venmo were an option, more people could pull out their phones to tip instead.
“In the long run, this could benefit all of us,” Jenna said.
Like most other drag performers, Cassie turned to virtual shows when the pandemic started and clubs closed. She hosts a weekly show on Facebook Live where she can invite other artists to broadcast from home.
Such virtual shows are a mixed bag, as many drag performers agree. On the one hand, you can continue to build relationships with fans online and potentially earn tips. On the other hand, it is much more difficult to establish this connection via a camera – and the money is nowhere near as good as it used to be.
Kennedy tried doing virtual shows first, saying fans were quick to tune in and tip well. But as the pandemic continued, many drag queens say the tipping slowed. Kennedy said she made just $ 74 on a virtual show recently with hundreds of viewers.
“Should I do things for free? No thanks, ”she said. “I could save this makeup.”
Connecting with an audience over the Internet can also be difficult, Kennedy said. She has spent time performing on camera, but many drag queens say it is difficult to learn how to perform in the living room for a laptop after you are used to seeing and responding to a live audience.
“We lack the ability to interact with them on the virtual shows,” said Kennedy. “You have to be an entertainer to get that feeling through a lens.”
Back to the new normal
After months of empty stages, live drag shows have resumed in some locations in Dallas. Virgin Hotels Dallas hosted a drag brunch with several local artists. The Rose Room cast started regular shows at JR’s Bar and Grill on Cedar Springs Road in December.
Pandemic-era protocols have influenced these shows. For example, drag queens at JR wear plastic face shields or clear masks so as not to obscure stage makeup or hide their lips while the lips are synchronized during their shows.
But despite some changes, the specifics of a regular drag show – the flawless makeup, outrageous wigs, high heels – are still there.
At a recent show at JR’s, fans sat on bar stools with small stacks of dollar bills waiting for their favorite artists to take the stage. One after the other, the actors entered the stage wearing face protection.
Though encouraged to tip on Venmo, rows of masked fans still lined up hand tips to their favorites. Some drag queens stepped back and instructed them to put dollar bills on a nearby bar. Others collected the money by hand.
When Jenna appeared, a man produced a stack of dollar bills and handed her one at a time. She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek – through the face mask, of course.
At any other time, it would be a common sight on the drag show. Jenna said it was important for the community to get back to these fans and this routine amid the pandemic.
“I’m worried people will forget about us,” said Jenna. “We are ready to return to our friends and fans.”