You’re gonna find this hard to believe, but at one point in time, it was the norm for queer people to attend queer bars and fork out £10.75 for a single vodka and coke, before having their faces collide with a stranger’s sweaty armpit as a drag queen flips, kicks and splits on a nearby stage. No, we are not lying! Over the past year, however, that once-familiar stench of BO, spirits and desperation that dominated the dancefloor has come from [whispers] inside the house [ends whisper] as we’ve been sequestered in lockdown after lockdown (after lockdown). Due to the coronavirus pandemic, drag entertainers have been forced to adapt their charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent for virtual performances, from lip-sync-athons to hosting and – depending on the queen – re-enactments of their most iconic moments from their reality TV stint. Whatever the situation, drag will continue to flourish – even under adverse circumstances such as these. Drag queens can do anything! But, like Bimini Bon Boulash stated on the second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, the art-form proved to be “unfeasible” for many performers in lockdown, whose livelihoods primarily depend on income from club appearances.
BOA: The pandemic has probably been the greatest loss I’ve ever endured
BOA worked as a drag queen for six years before rising to fame in 2020 on the first season of Canada’s Drag Race. Unlike past competitors, she hasn’t had the opportunity to make the most of her stint on the Olympics of drag; touring the world, making money and interacting with her fanbase. By now, she would’ve experienced the joys of DragCon, the annual fan convention and expo of drag culture – one of the most profitable events for an entertainer. “The pandemic has probably been the greatest loss I’ve ever endured,” she tells us. “I don’t want to be negative and try to keep things light and fluffy for the fans, but the reality is that this is an extremely difficult time for everyone. It is especially hard for artists. For this to happen at a time that was supposed to be huge for me, it completely destroyed me to be honest.” London-based entertainer Virgin X echoes BOA’s sentiments, saying their career “was basically cancelled” due to the pandemic.
While UK season one star Crystal had the opportunity to tour after her franchise debut at the end of 2019, and have it screened for fans throughout BBC spin-off series God Shave the Queens, opportunities dissipated due to the rise of the pandemic at the start of last year. “It’s been super fucking shit. My career is basically on full hold,” she says. “I was in such a massive ascendancy and the most success I’ve ever had in my entire life. That got put on pause. There’s no guarantee that it’s going to continue after the pandemic, so poor me, basically.” Despite this, she’s keeping a PMA (positive mental attitude): “On the other hand, I’ve been very lucky to be very healthy and so’s my family. No one’s died, and I could’ve had it a lot worse.” While it’s been relatively straightforward for artists within the movie, television and music industries to adapt, with their work being sent directly to streaming services (how many times have we heard “will now be streaming on Disney+ lately?”), the same can’t be said for drag. Unless you’re an established drag artist with years of resources at your disposal, the virtual element can be… expensive. It’s also an entirely different environment from the BO, spirits and desperation we mentioned earlier.
Crystal: I was in such a massive ascendancy and the most success I’ve ever had in my entire life. That got put on pause.
When we ask Crystal’s UK season one sister Divina De Campo if she’s enjoyed this new element in her career, at all, she says: “The shows I’ve enjoyed most have been where there is some interaction with the audience. They’ve been my favourites. The ones where it’s just a screen and you can’t interact with anyone are a bit soul destroying to be honest. It’s just you in your garage or kitchen chatting and singing to a screen, which is a bit naff.” As a self-described “empath”, Canada’s Drag Race winner Priyanka agrees with Divina, saying she craves the social interaction that comes from a nightclub gig. Plus, applause from a computer screen pales in comparison to the noise she’d receive as she slays the stage to her fan-favourite lip-sync to Celine Dion’s I Drove All Night (still not over it). “Performing for a camera while people comment isn’t the most fulfilling,” she admits. “Instead, I used it as a way to drink and chat with friends and fans and make something different from it.” Although the pandemic resulted in Virgin X relocating to the United States to stay with their family, they soon realised that their career wasn’t cancelled, like they mentioned earlier, as it’s just the live aspect of drag that has taken a backseat. They soon got back to it, however, performing for their Instagram followers from their old high school parking lot. They tell us: “It proved to me that where there is a will, there is a way and that art can and will evolve to find a way to thrive – no matter what the circumstances might be.”
Known for her daring live performances in East London, in which she defies gravity for a sickening display of aerial stunts and acrobatics, Crystal approached virtual performances with reservation, but admits that it’s been an enjoyable experience for her so far. “All of them have been a good teaching experience,” she says. “It’s been a great opportunity to learn a different skill and learn different kinds of hosting, all of that stuff. I’ve appreciated the opportunity and I’m so thankful that I’m able to perform in some small way, even if it’s not ideal.” Like the others, however, she did admit: “That said, performing to a little green dot on your computer is really not the same as having a live audience, and I miss that.” BOA can relate. She adds: “It is nice to be able to do drag in the comfort of my home, but it gets tedious after a while, painting a sickening mug and then standing in front of your ring light for a few hours!”
Divina De Campo: [The pandemic has] made art much more accessible to so many people who wouldn’t be comfortable going to a theatre.
So, it begs the question: will virtual performances live on, post-pandemic? Who can even remember a time when their social media feed wasn’t chock-full of drag queens promoting their upcoming digital event? Divina thinks they will, to accommodate all of the fans who aren’t ordinarily comfortable with attending a big-scale event and finding themselves smacked up against a stranger in the crowd. “I think there is likely to be an element of live and digital mix going forward,” she explains. “It’s made art much more accessible to so many people who wouldn’t be comfortable going to a theatre. So, I think seated and then streamed will be much more common going forward.” When approached with the same question, Priyanka lets out an eager “Yes!” before expanding further: “It’s really got a lot of entertainers stretching their brains and thinking of music video concepts, not live performance concepts, which is very exciting.”
For entertainers who rely more on comedy than death-drops, Priyanka says it’s “much easier” to land a punchline through a screen, rather than a stage, plus “you can reach millions of people, not just a bar full of 100!” It seems to be unanimous amongst the queens, as Crystal continues: “Yes, I think virtual performances are here to stay, but hopefully we will have less of them. I could really imagine, especially corporate stuff, people are less likely to go into offices. I used to do quite a lot of office away day performances, team events and social stuff – drag queen comes in and does bingo, that kind of vibe. I have a feeling that stuff might continue on Zoom. I did a lot of that virtual party hosting over Christmas. But I hope people just go back out to clubs.”
Priyanka: Performing for a camera while people comment isn’t the most fulfilling.
But, in a post-pandemic world, will nightclubs ever be the same? Even with this vaccine, will those who attended performances before be willing to enter a venue with hundreds of people? Drag Race UK star and Celebs on the Farm alum, Cheryl Hole, is hopeful. “Right now, I think people are just waiting for the moment venues reopen,” she says. “I think the minute that live performances can happen again safely there will be such joy in the atmosphere. I do believe masks in audiences will be a part of our lives for quite some time. But when Cheryl is on stage? I love to get in amongst the audience and party with everyone!” Tia Kofi, UK season two star, thinks it will take a while for audiences to come out in droves like before. She remembers a show from last year when lockdown was eased, where the club accommodated social-distancing measures with perspex screens: “It was obviously a safety precaution, but it’s not my fave thing in the world because the best thing about drag, for me, is being able to fully interact with the audience, and use the space and use the stage. I don’t wanna be some kind of futuristic, Star Trek hologram beaming in from some other room.” She doesn’t think this will be permanent, however.
“Things will go back to normal and we’ll all be able to live our lives as we once did,” she says with confidence. Her season two sister, Joe Black, thinks the “little plastic booths” are here to stay for the unforeseeable future. But, she’s optimistic that we’ll once again see “rooms packed full of people” and the nights will be “long, chaotic, sweaty, wonderful, messy and glorious”. Virgin X is unsure what the future holds, but is determined to continue their craft due to the importance of entertainment in our current climate. “It’s a part of our human experience,” they explain. “That need and desire to be entertained and have our moods lifted in the very unique way live performance does will not go away. We will just have to keep finding a way! And we will.” Whatever the case, BOA just wants entertainers to thrive. “We’ve been starved of human interaction and once everyone is vaccinated, hopefully we can pick back up and shake our asses in each other’s faces.” Next time Crystal performs, she hopes the audience are “so off their tits that they’re not even paying attention to me, they’re just having so much fun, drenched in sweat, Chromatica is playing and we’re all living our best lives – give me the full-on sex party rave!” Like we said above, drag queens have proven time and time again that they will conquer. But, they require our help as well. If you’re able to, support your favourite queen! Whether that’s via a purchase of their latest merch or a stream of their new single or podcast, there’s something we can all do.
To stream shows from your favourite queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race, head over to WOW Presents Plus: https://uk.wowpresentsplus.com/