Drag queen exploding from an envelope that says "final notice" while surrounded by fake nails that dangle with credit cards
Illustration by Eric Kostiuk Williams
Money

Shantay, You Pay: Inside the Heavy Financial Burden of Going On ‘Drag Race’

As drag has gotten more mainstream, it’s gotten further from its DIY roots—and performing on the biggest stage is becoming prohibitively expensive.
April 15, 2021, 4:41pm

Two mermaids are lounging, tails and all, on the kind of boxy, nondescript gray couches you’d find in the office of a small startup. Behind the couches is artfully layered backstage detritus: two megaphones, a couple of director’s chairs, a ladder, and a neon light shaped like a pair of lips. 

The first mermaid looks like she loves Lush bath bombs and Dunkin Donuts iced coffee, and can usually be found swimming around in the waters of Paramus, NJ: A gold headpiece decorated with larger-than-life pearls keeps her flowing, cotton candy colored hair off her face, so her hot pink eyebrows, thick black eyelashes, and fuschia mouth are fully visible as she speaks. 

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The other mermaid looks like your friend’s ex-stepmom celebrating her third divorce with a trip to Vegas: Her luscious margarita-green hair is accented by a headband topped with starfish, seashells, jewels, and fake flowers. She has long red nails curved into claws, impressive triceps, and visible tattoos. The peach-colored plastic flower necklace she is wearing ends a couple of inches above her absolutely enormous cleavage, which is nestled in the bejeweled bra of a pop star. 

The two mermaids are sipping drinks and discussing how much it cost to transform themselves into glam sea nymphs for this episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race

“This competition….” the first mermaid, who goes by the name Miz Cracker, is saying. “I don’t think people realize how much money… literally...” she continues, using her baby-blue talons to adjust the waistband of her tail, which is covered in iridescent pink and turquoise paillettes, and which she said moments earlier was too expensive to want to take off. 

“Oh!” the second mermaid, Kameron Michaels, replies knowingly. “I’m not even gonna say how much money I spent to get here, because it is—” She doesn’t finish her sentence and instead twists her overdrawn hot pink ombre lips into a frown you could see from space. 

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 “Girl. I took a loan out against my asshole to get here,” Cracker says, and Kameron snort-laughs. “Like, my asshole is collateral against a loan, my asshole is in a bank vault somewhere…” 

“COLON COLLATERAL!!!” Kameron yells.

Miz Cracker in her mermaid look on Drag Race Untucked

Miz Cracker on RuPaul's Drag Race Untucked. Photo via VH1

“Exactly!” Cracker says, laughing. “Literally, my life and my funds and my financial future... I put it on the line because this is so important.”

“I spent more coming into this competition than I did as the down payment on my house,” Kameron says, her tone serious now.

“I spent more on this competition than I did on college,” Cracker replies solemnly, and a moment of silence falls over both queens. 

Kameron Michaels mermaid look on Drag Race Untucked

Kameron Michaels on RuPaul's Drag Race Untucked. Photo via VH1

This conversation between Cracker and Kameron, which happened on a Season 10 episode of Untucked (a spinoff show dedicated to behind-the-scenes aftermath of each episode of Drag Race) offers a rare glimpse into just how much the performers who have appeared on the show over its 12-year lifespan are spending to prepare. College tuition money. House buying money. The-bank-owns-my-butthole money. All from their own pocket, because the show doesn’t provide them with any sort of budget. While it’s impossible to know exactly how much every queen spends to go on the show, I’d estimate—based on conversations with several former contestants and the designers who often dress them—contestants are spending anywhere from $4,000 on the low end to upwards of $20,000 on the higher end. 

“I did not spend a lot of money,” Bob the Drag Queen, who was crowned the winner of Season 8 in 2016, told VICE. “I realistically spent maybe, maybe $3,000 to go on Drag Race.” (Later, she added that she spent an additional $3,000 on her two finale looks, bringing her total to $6,000.) “If I went back on Drag Race now, I’d probably be spending $20–40,000,” she said.

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As the show’s profile has grown, so too, it seems, has the budget needed to feel competitive. Not every dedicated viewer is a fan of the shift—and not every queen who appears on the show can keep up. While this has been quietly discussed among viewers and contestants for years, the now-infamous “H&M incident” from the just-aired season of RuPaul’s Drag Race: UK put it on the forefront of a lot of viewers’ minds. 

During Episode 5’s critiques, judge Michelle Visage took issue with contestant Joe Black’s look from the week’s maxi challenge. Earlier in the episode, Joe had sung and danced his way through the Eurovision girl-group challenge wearing a pink knee-length dress with a high neck and puffy sleeves. “You came out wearing a finger wave wig, and something I probably could have bought off the rack at Primark, no joke,” Michelle says. In response, Joe stage-whispers, “Aiiitch and emmmmm,” and then laughs. 

The music hits a dramatic note as the camera cuts to RuPaul, who looks… grim. “That outfit off the rack was a huge disappointment to me,” Ru says. “That’s what everyday people do, and you are a star. And this goes to all of you up here: If it is from H&M, you better glitter the fuck out of it, and make it something special. We’re looking for Great Britain’s next superstar. Don’t waste my time. I don’t want to see any fucking H&M.” 

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The harsh criticism of a downmarket dress didn’t look great coming from a world-famous drag queen who owns a 60,000-acre ranch in Wyoming. And it got worse. Joe Black had been eliminated in Episode 1, then unexpectedly brought back to replace a different contestant after the show’s mid-season seven-month COVID hiatus, but had been forced to sell all of his costumes during lockdown. (The pandemic decimated live entertainment, including drag performances.) “I had sold them because I needed the money to live,” Joe said. “So not only did I need to find the money, but I also needed to get the costumes again.” 

Later in the episode, RuPaul apologized for being short. Meanwhile, Joe Black got loads of love and support from viewers, and from H&M itself—the retailer sent Joe a cake and flowers, along with free clothing

Fans couldn’t stop talking about it. The incident brought long-simmering questions up to the surface: What does it actually cost to compete on RuPaul’s Drag Race? Is the competition classist? Are the bigger budgets making the show better or worse? And, for the queens who drain their bank accounts to appear on the show and don’t take home the $100,000 prize, is it all worth it? 

The role of money in drag

The idea of investing a ton of money in a drag career and having it pay off is a relatively modern one. According to Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez, authors of Legendary Children: The First Decade of RuPaul's Drag Race and the Last Century of Queer Life, performers simply didn’t have access to many venues for most of drag’s history—largely because cross-dressing was illegal throughout the United States until the 1970s. Most drag performers never left their community, and while their local gigs may have been emotionally rewarding, they weren’t particularly lucrative. 

Social and financial marginalization forced drag artists to be creative. “Up until the 80s and the 90s, drag queens essentially dressed in vintage clothing,” Fitzgerald told VICE. “Trans women and queer men couldn’t walk into a department store and buy dresses. It was easier and safer to go look for a size 13 pump in a used store than it was to go into the ladies section. The underground aspect of drag defined the aesthetic for a very long time.” 

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Even in earlier seasons of Drag Race, when contestants were competing for an amount of money that was unprecedented in the drag world, the runways had nowhere near the scale that they do in more recent seasons. “When Drag Race first started, they were literally coming in off the street to do this TV show,” Fitzgerald said. “And now it's 13 years later, it's won all of these Emmys, it's HD, it's got superstar guest stars. The stakes are just higher.”

Fitzgerald, Marquez, and many others all agree that drag becoming mainstream is overwhelmingly a good thing. “But it also is very dangerous, because that means it can become all about capitalism, right?” Season 11 winner Yvie Oddly told VICE. “It can be all about who has the connections, who is spending the most money.” (VH1 declined to answer questions for this article.) 

“It's an unfair playing field,” BenDeLaCreme, of Season 6 and All Stars 3, told VICE. “A lot of these folks who might not have the funds also probably don't have the time. They’re working paycheck to paycheck. And there's other queens who can afford it, and literally can just be like, ‘Make me 10 amazing outfits,’ and then they pack them in the suitcase and show up.” 

How contestants prepare to go on Drag Race

In the years since it began airing, RuPaul’s Drag Race has become a cultural juggernaut, with numerous spin-offs and international editions. It’s won 19 Emmys, the most of any competition show; it’s an incredibly influential part of the reality TV genre, and of U.S. culture.

If you haven't watched much Drag Race, here are the basics of how it works: Around 14 performers compete each season to become “America’s next drag superstar.” Every episode has a “maxi challenge,” in which contestants will be asked to demonstrate a skill like acting, improv, choreographed dancing, lip syncing, celebrity impersonation, stand-up comedy, or all of the above, while wearing an outfit they’ve brought with them. At the end of each episode, there’s a runway competition, where they wear a look tailored to the week's theme—say, “leather and lace” or “jetset eleganza.” 

 Drag queen BenDeLaCreme attends "RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars" Meet The Queens on January 17, 2018 in New York City.

BenDeLaCreme, of Season 6 and All Stars 3, attends an All Stars event. Photo by Bennett Raglin / Getty Images

After everyone has walked the runway, queens are sorted. The tops and bottoms then receive critiques from the four judges (typically including a celebrity guest judge) on their runway outfit, hair, and makeup, as well as on their performance in the maxi challenge. One queen is named the week's winner, while the two bottom queens compete in a lip-syncing competition to avoid elimination. RuPaul chooses one to continue (“shantay you stay”), and one to eliminate (“sashay away”). 

Receiving an invitation to compete on Drag Race is many queens’ dream come true, but it’s quickly followed by the reality of the huge logistical challenge ahead. Cast members have just two to four weeks after getting the call to prepare 20–25 unique looks for all of the episodes’ events above (including an outfit, wig, and shoes, along with any unique makeup or accessories they want to use) before filming starts. The contestants also have to prepare looks for the entire season knowing that if they get eliminated early, the outfits won’t see the light of day. They also don’t know which of the looks on the list will be worn for the all-important runway, and which will be worn for, say, less important acting challenges.

Heidi N. Closet's Drag Race entrance look

Heidi N. Closet makes her entrance on RuPaul's Drag Race Season 12. Photo via VH1

While some queens are able to take time off work to prepare to go on the show, others can’t afford to. Take Season 12’s Heidi N. Closet, who said that her annual salary at the gas station where she worked before the show was $9,000. “When I went to Drag Race, I actually had only 33 cents in my bank account the day I showed up,” she said in an episode of Gap Chat, her Wow Presents streaming show. “Even to just pay for the suitcases to get there was stressful.” 

Contestants may go on Drag Race hoping to strike gold, but before the lucky few get to that point, they’ll be paid a per-episode rate of just a few hundred dollars for two to three long days of filming. Winning a maxi challenge now nets a $5,000 cash prize, but that only began in Season 12 in 2020; before that, it was gift certificates for wigs and jewelry, and, eventually, in Season 11, nice vacations. (Meanwhile, because of British TV standards, Drag Race UK contestants don’t win cash prizes at all.)

How much money contestants are actually spending on a season of Drag Race

Season 10 winner Aquaria told VICE that she doesn’t remember exactly what she spent on her wardrobe, but guessed that it was around $5,000. She also said that she’d been setting aside money in the hopes of getting on the show, but that her savings was “not a lot. I mean, rent in New York is expensive, even if you're not in a fierce place.” Still, when she got the call, she decided to spend everything she had because it was her one shot. But money was constantly on her mind as she prepared for the show. “I remember we would have to make decisions on like, Oh, are we allowed to get some more rhinestones? or something stupid like that,” she said. 

While Aquaria had a major hand in creating her own pieces, including designing, sewing, and stoning many looks herself, she got a lot of help from extremely talented friends who happened to work in fashion, and who were excited to help her prepare. She said a lot of her looks were priceless—in the sense that some of the garments her friends created or helped with, like her iconic bone mask or her Dawn oil spill ad–looking mermaid outfit, didn’t really have a price she could point to. Put another way: the value of her wardrobe was far more than the $5,000 she spent. 

 Aquaria attends VH1's "RuPaul's Drag Race" Season 10 Finale at The Theatre at Ace Hotel on June 8, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.

Aquaria attends the Drag Race Season 10 finale. Photo by Rodin Eckenroth / FilmMagic / Getty

Season 11 winner Yvie Oddly—who was regularly criticized by her fellow contestants for wearing “trash”—told VICE she spent $14,000 on her famously “cheap”-looking wardrobe: $2,000 of her own money (“all of my bank account”), $5,000 that her creative partner put on a credit card, and $7,000 that the bar where she worked “sponsored” her with. She created nearly all of her costumes herself, along with the help of some friends. 

Despite spending $14,000, Yvie said she knew from her first day on set that she had been outspent by everyone else on Season 11. “I could tell that, even having spent more money than I had ever even had in my life, everybody else was clearly more expensive,” she said. “I could tell that I was the cheapest person there. So when they called me cheap, I understood why.” 

Yvie Oddly attends the "RuPaul's Drag Race" Season 11 Finale Taping at Orpheum Theatre on May 13, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.

Yvie Oddly on the Season 11 finale red carpet. Photo by Chelsea Guglielmino / Getty Images

Yvie isn’t the only contestant to turn to others for help funding her wardrobe. Sasha Velour said she spent $4,000 for her looks, half of which she had in savings, and half of which her father loaned her. Heidi also told VICE that she spent $4,000, half of which her partner at the time loaned her; a good friend loaned her the rest. Then she and her drag sisters made all of her looks from scratch. 

Coming up with thousands of dollars on very short notice has been all but impossible for some contestants. “I think I had a month's worth of time between getting the phone call and leaving. And I really didn't have the money,” Monique Heart said of her Season 10 appearance. “I had maybe $1,500 total. I could sew, and I knew my silhouette, so I could make stuff work. I knew I had personality and flavor. I mean, it was just hard.” 

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Monique, who told Paper magazine that her car broke down as she was preparing to go on Drag Race, was open about how a lack of funds hurt her prospects on the show during a heartbreaking episode of Untucked following her elimination. She often used her very limited downtime on the show attempting to improve the runway costumes she brought—or make new pieces on the spot—and spent so much time doing that, she said, that she didn’t have time to learn the lyrics for the week’s lip sync. 

Monique was invited back for All Stars 4, where, as a runner-up, she was more successful—and also spent more. “That was a lot more expensive,” she said. “I spent close to $20,000 just on supplies, fabrics, and wigs and designers and whatnot, and... didn’t win! So, I believe it’s a myth that you can do Drag Race without money. Or you can—you can go, but you won’t win.” 

The cost of a Drag Race runway look

The cost of a given runway look depends mainly on how complicated and unique it is, and the materials used to make it. Sam Branman, of the Brooklyn-based queer fashion label 10 Yards, worked on several of Tina Burner’s looks for Drag Race Season 13. Branman told VICE that one of his custom leotards costs anywhere from $150–$500, depending on the complexity of the pattern. But when contestants try to wear leotards alone, the judges notice; Michelle Visage has been known to ding queens who show up in nothing but a leotard week after week. 

Mondo Guerra, a Brooklyn-based designer and Project Runway alum who has outfitted queens like Blair St. Clair, Jackie Cox, and Olivia Lux for RuPaul’s Drag Race, told VICE that a simple custom dress of his—i.e., a straightforward silhouette without any rhinestones—costs $700–$800. Bigger builds are in the $1,200–$1,400 range, and season finale–worthy looks start at $2,400. (Many finale gowns are also huge, so having them shipped can add hundreds and hundreds of dollars to the total.) 

Mondo Guerra works on Crystal Methyd's Drag Race finale look in his studio

Mondo Guerra at work on Crystal Methyd's Drag Race Season 12 finale look. Photo courtesy of Mondo Guerra

Wigs are another significant expense contestants have to account for. Bobbie Zlotnik, aka BobbiePinz, has made wigs for many RuPaul’s Drag Race queens, including Alyssa Edwards, Alexis Michelle, Aquaria, Cameron Michaels, Willam, Jackie Cox, and Rosé. (Alaska and Trixie Mattel were both wearing BobbiePinz wigs when they were crowned on their respective seasons of All Stars.) Simple BobbiePinz wigs are available on his site for around $95, and pre-styled wigs, which Zlotnik calls “stage readies,” start at $275. A custom wig starts at $325. “The high point for a synthetic would be up to about $1000,” Zlotnik said. “Human hair generally will start around $1,000 or $1,500, and go up from there, depending upon what they want.” 

“You can spend an entire week, week-and-a-half working on one thing,” Guerra said. “And so the price reflects that. It also includes fittings, and back-and-forth.” (He said that last-minute edits and additions are fairly common during the process.) 

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“Actually sitting down to sew something can take anywhere from three to 60 hours,” Branman said. “I did a look for Bob a few years ago that took 55 hours and was like 300 separate pattern pieces.” 

Sam Branman models a Tina Burner look he worked on.

Sam Branman models Tina Burner's "little black dress," which he worked on for Season 13 of Drag Race. Photo courtesy of Sam Branman

If bespoke pieces aren’t in a queen’s budget, buying something inexpensive off the rack and customizing it (or “glittering the fuck out of it,” as Ru told Joe Black to do with the H&M frock) might not be a feasible alternative. A lot of contestants are simply taller, broader, and heavier than the people that off-the-rack clothes in the women’s department are typically designed for, and that’s before they put on thick hip pads and big fake breasts. 

“I have to get my stuff made custom if I want my gown to touch the floor, my sleeves to touch my wrist,” Bob the Drag Queen said. DeLa echoed this. “My body shape is very unique in drag; I have a huge ribcage,” she said. “My waist in a corset is about three inches lower than the average female waist placement. So it's actually very hard to fit me correctly. It’s also what makes it impossible to wear stuff off the rack.” 

Bob The Drag Queen at RuPaul's DragCon UK presented by World Of Wonder at Olympia London on January 18, 2020 in London, England.

Bob the Drag Queen at DragCon UK. Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for World Of Wonder Productions

The next logical option is DIY, which is what a lot of contestants who can sew or even just wield a glue gun effectively choose to do. But the cost of materials still adds up. “Fabric is expensive—particularly good-looking, easy-to-use fabric,” Sasha Velour said, adding that the fabric for her “Faux Fur Fabulous” Russian-inspired runway look cost $250 (and kept her safe during that week’s critique). While she made the vast majority of her costumes herself (with the help of her longtime partner, Johnny Velour), it was a huge effort. “Johnny and I didn't sleep for two weeks,” she said. The couple took the subway to Manhattan’s Garment District every day to buy fabric, and then came home and sewed all night. 

(Above: never-before-seen footage of Sasha Velour trying on her faux fur runway outfit in her Brooklyn bathroom before going on the show.)

“A lot of the looks that have feathers can be expensive,” Aquaria said. “We had a whole feather runway on our season, which I know was financially crazy for the girls. I remember when we were talking about it in the Werk Room, we were like, ‘Damn, if they don't do this look on the runway soon, before girls start going home, we're about to be so pissed and so broke.’” 

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Sasha, who won Season 9, said the most expensive item she wore on RuPaul's Drag Race was the medieval tapestry–inspired look topped with a bloody horn she put together for a “Sexy Unicorn” runway challenge. “I rented from a costume shop in Queens, and it cost $500,” she said. “And I remember being like, Is this worth it? I was like, If they eliminate me early, maybe I can return it, and I won't have rented it for so many days. But if I make it all the way, it’s going to be this expensive rental. I had never spent $500 on a costume.” She was runner-up that week. 

At the other end of the spectrum, the glam Jack-in-the-box look Sasha put together for a club kids–inspired runway was fairly cheap. She had gotten the dress for free from a vintage store after modeling it for them prior to being cast on the show, and the fabric and yarn for the hat she made cost $50. “I reused my same Target heels that I'd been wearing every night,” she said. “So that one's like a $60 look.” Thanks, in no small part, to having the sort of je ne sais quois that transcends dollars, she took home the prize of the week while wearing it. 

Sasha Velour club kids runway look on Drag Race

Sasha Velour on the Drag Race runway in a $60 look. Photo via VH1

DeLa said that contestants often spend money on details that feel important or high-end, but that don’t necessarily give them much bang for their buck. “I don't need a small, delicate hidden zipper,” she said. “If anything, I'm going to break it in a day. Put a parka zipper in my dress.” She also said that big plastic jewels are likely a better choice than more expensive glass ones, which often don’t actually read well on camera. “There's stuff like that that you really have to learn, because it is a waste of money,” she said. 

While most of the queens who spoke to VICE had budgets that were on the lower end, a little back-of-the-napkin math shows that a lot of queens are likely spending way more. Let’s say the materials for one DIY outfit total $300, and a synthetic wig, shoes, and jewelry cost another $150. For 12 runway looks, that’s $5,400. Twelve $500 custom runway outfits (which, again, is on the low end) plus wigs and accessories adds up to $7,800. And that’s not including any costumes for other challenges, or the more elaborate custom runway looks—which many, many, many queens in recent seasons are wearing regularly, if not every single runway. 

Chi Chi DeVayne's pink leotard Drag Race runway

Chi Chi DeVayne on the Drag Race runway wearing a look she was criticized for. Photo via VH1

Despite the difficulties of putting together multiple outfits in a very short time span without spending a lot of money, judges (and fans) still expect the queens to look like they belong at what is often called “the Olympics of drag.” Contestants might be told their runway outfits look “cheap” or “arts-and-craftsy.” On the rare occasion they push back on this criticism, they aren’t likely to receive much sympathy. This was the case for the late, great Chi Chi DeVayne in Season 8 during an exchange that is fairly representative of these kinds of conversations. “I’m in a bankruptcy,” she says to the judges after receiving criticism for her “Neon Queen Realness” look in Episode 4. Michelle puts up a finger, the long nail filed into a sharp point, to stop Chi Chi. “You don’t need money, girl,” Michelle says. “That’s never an excuse.” 

What a queen wears vs. how she wears it

This “you don’t need money” ethos shows up a lot on Drag Race, despite the fact that you very obviously do need money to go on the show. That said, everyone I spoke to for this story said that styling and swagger matter a lot to the judges. A confident, charismatic queen truly can make an Amazon jumpsuit or a thrift store dress look incredible, particularly if the garment feels authentic to the queen’s overall personality and vision. 

“Some of it just comes down to taste,” Branman said, pointing to Season 13’s Utica as a recent example of someone who’s got it. (See also: the avant garde hooded dress Utica made out of a sleeping bag for a design challenge.) “There are people who have spent money on things and it just doesn’t look good, because the eye isn’t there.” 

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Joe Black is actually a good example of the role styling plays in how a look is received; while he was being read for the H&M dress, he was wearing a runway outfit that was also off-the-rack, and it looked incredible thanks to the props he’d added to turn it into a “windswept” day-at-the-seaside look. The judges called it “genius” and “magical.” 

A confident, charismatic queen truly can make an Amazon jumpsuit or a thrift store dress look incredible, particularly if the garment feels authentic to the queen’s overall personality and vision.

Still, phrases like “a great eye” or “can pull off anything” are the sort of fashion-industry compliments that are often only applied to people who fit a certain mold: thin and tall, for starters, and likely also white and able-bodied. When someone who reads as wealthy thanks to these physical privileges wears H&M or Converse sneakers, it’s viewed as an intentionally subversive and cool choice. When a person who doesn’t fit our preconceived notion of “fashion” does this, well, it’s because they can’t afford anything better. And regardless of what a Black queen wears or how she presents herself, she might not be viewed as “elevated” or “expensive.” 

“I was called ratchet on the show, famously by Michelle and Derrick,” Bob—who, to be clear, does not do ratchet (or banjee) drag—said. “Which was funny because in the moment, I didn't feel ‘ratchet,’ or particularly ‘urban’ or ‘hood.’ I felt really elegant in this gown with my Afro. There’s a visible shock on my face at being called ratchet.” 

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This points to the additional hurdles that Black contestants have to overcome. No matter what they are wearing, there’s always a chance that they will be perceived as ratchet—not just by the judges, but also by wildly racist viewers. (Bob said she and Derrick have talked about it and are “cool now.”) 

Monique Heart pointed out that young queens of color don’t always have the kind of community support that allows them to embrace activities like, say, reading Vogue or playing with makeup while they are still in high school. Essentially, she said, they might be discouraged from participating in the sort of activities that can help a person develop a “good eye.” 

Monique Heart on RuPaul's Drag Race

Monique Heart. Photo via VH1

“I think a lot of times, because of where Black and brown people grow up, they don't have that safety of expression that I think white people have,” Monique said. “And because of that lack of expression, and that lack of exposure to different forms of expression, I think that sometimes we are just confined to that which we know.”

Contestants of color might also not have the kinds of connections to designers and other queens that make all of this easier. “White homos tend to know other rich white homos with money… or if they don’t have money, they know someone who does," Monique said. "If you're a Black girl, that's generally not what's happening.” 

What happens to queens’ careers after Drag Race

Most queens invest in their Drag Race wardrobe believing it will pay off, the same way that someone might take out a loan to fund their small business. And it does seem to be money well spent, even without winning $100,000; contestants who appear on the show get an increased profile, which leads to more gigs and better booking fees. Going on the show also opens them up to the extended RuPaul and World of Wonder universe, which includes opportunities like the Werq the World world tour, and DragCon, a multi day event that happens in both Los Angeles and New York City.

This is where the charisma really pays off. A queen might not be able to splurge on her wardrobe or even be the best at Drag Race—which, it’s often said, is different from being good at drag—but those who are exceptionally magnetic, funny, and unique tend to do fairly well for themselves post-show. To wit: Alyssa Edwards starred in a reality show about her Dallas dance studio. HBO’s excellent series We’re Here centered around Eureka, Bob, and Shangela. Monet X Change was in a Pepsi Superbowl commercial alongside Cardi B. Miss Peppermint made her Broadway debut and was part of the 2021 Inauguration entertainment lineup. And Shangela and Willam both appeared in the Oscar-winning film A Star Is Born

Trixie Mattel, one of Drag Race’s most blessed and booked bitches (to use the term of art), has put out three albums, gone on tour, and been the subject of a Netflix documentary. With her frequent collaborator Katya Zamolodchikova, she’s published a New York Times bestselling book and had several successful web series (including one that ran on VICE and one with Netflix). 

But, like any business venture that involves startup costs, investing in a Drag Race appearance is a risk, and contestants have no way of knowing if they’ll be eliminated first, or forgotten after the season ends. 

Following a Drag Race run, many queens use their boosted income—as well as any prize money they took home—to re-invest in their drag career. Many self-fund new projects (like tours, comedy specials, and music videos), and do a big post-show glow-up, appearing at meet-and-greets with better wardrobes and wigs, and, occasionally, new teeth. Yvie Oddly was the rare winner who was an exception to the makeover tradition, which led to a lot of backlash. “The fans, when they expect that glow-up, I don't think they realize how much money goes into that,” Yvie, who is now working on growing her YouTube channel, said. “Every time you travel somewhere, you're spending money; every time you plan a new show, anytime you go to a DragCon or something—everywhere you go, everything you do, you are spending money.”

Yvie Oddly attends 2019 DragCon in a white dress painted to say "really expensive fashion" with a handmade "$100K" price tag

Yvie Oddly wearing an outfit to DragCon that led to fan backlash. Photos by Santiago Felipe / Getty Images

“I personally could give a shit if my drag looks more expensive as long as I have a roof over my head, and, like, a future,” Yvie said. “Like, I'm not trying to look like the most flossin’ bitch getting evicted from my apartment next month,” she added with a big laugh.

Money isn’t a panacea on RuPaul’s Drag Race

In spite of some of the more conservative numbers quoted, it appears to me that some contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race are very likely spending upwards of $15–$20,000 on their wardrobes… but winners are not necessarily spending the most money on their wardrobes, or splurging on a bunch of custom pieces. Bob and Sasha certainly didn’t; Aquaria and Yvie spent more—in line with the show’s higher profile and increased focus on the runways in later seasons—but per their accounts, not as much as one might expect. But despite the number of pricey designer looks on the runway each week, it’s not really accurate to say that someone can simply buy themself a win (or even a better-than-average run) on Drag Race

While we don’t know what Season 12’s top three queens spent (none could be reached for comment for this article), winner Jaida Essence Hall recently said that she made all but two of her costumes herself. Season 8 runner-up Kim Chi recently told Paper that she spent just $1500 on her season, and Naomi Smalls, a runner-up on both Season 8 and All-Stars 4has said that her idea of “investing in drag” going into Season 8 was “buying 10 lace-fronts from Amazon.” Charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent still seem to be proving out over dollars. 

For her part, RuPaul has talked about being “destitute” as a young person. Early on in her drag career, she walked around the East Village asking people for money while wearing literal trash as a drag costume. Now, she seems to truly believe, in the way only a very wealthy person who was once very poor can, that you don’t need money to succeed. (You just need to wear a suit!) Ru also seems to genuinely value—and reward—the charismatic queens who can make something out of nothing. “I do think they give space to the Nina Bo’nina Browns, the ones that are making stuff,” author and blogger Tom Fitzgerald said. “Ru has always had a soft spot for those girls.”

Still, it isn’t necessarily fun to be the broke but charming queen who is regularly in the bottom because of her runways. “I’m sitting up here spending between $4,000 and $5,000 on everything. Whereas some girls spent 20, 30, 40, even $50,000 on garments,” Heidi said. “Yeah, my garments just aren’t gonna stand up to their outfits. It’s just not gonna happen.” 

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“In the moment, it feels very like, ‘This is what I brought,’” she continued. “And if they don't like it, then what can I do about it? There's nothing I can do about it. I've already packed all my bags, I'm already here.” 

There are typically a couple of design challenges during a given season, wherein queens have to make their looks from scratch on the spot. These should, in theory, level the playing field a bit, and benefit the DIYers in the group. But it’s also the case that some of the more affluent girls can also sew (and some broke queens can’t), meaning there’s no guarantee that a design challenge will favor the people with less money. Still, it’s a start.

Gigi Goode and Jaida Essence Hall on the Drag Race runway in their ball looks

Gigi Goode and Jaida Essence Hall walk the Drag Race runway in looks they made during a design challenge. Photos via VH1

“I know a lot of those girls have never sewn before,” Tom Fitzgerald said. “But it really gets to the heart and the history of what drag is: You pull it together from what you have. And you make beauty out of that. To me, that is the essence of queer art—people pulling together from the culture, from whatever they can pick up, and making it queer.”

“Ru is the one that will say, ‘It doesn't have to be expensive, but you've got to make it drag.’ And I do agree with him on that,” he added. “Go ahead and get that H&M dress or that ASOS jacket and do something with it. Because that really is the heart of drag history. That is what they did. They would buy cheap shit, and then they would make it all glittery and stone it or do whatever they had to do to turn it into drag.” 

Yvie Oddly echoed this point, and said that the bigger issue with Joe’s Black H&M look is that it didn’t really showcase her unique talents or perspective. “Buying an H&M dress and not doing anything to it says, ‘Not only do I not have my own perspective on this, but I couldn't even alter somebody else's perspective to get my voice out.’ So I actually agree with the judges overall,” Yvie said.

Several people I talked to for this article said that they don’t love the proliferation of designer looks on the runway because, in many cases, queens are using money not to simply elevate their drag, but to become a different queen entirely. At the end of the day, the judges—and, I believe, the audience—mostly want to see authenticity.  

So, is going on RuPaul’s Drag Race worth it?

“The process of going on Drag Race is, in my opinion, more than a fiscal investment,” Bob said. “It’s cultural. It’s the Game of Thrones of reality TV.” 

“I think for some people it’s worth it,” she continued. “And I don't want to discredit anyone who spends a lot of money if it takes that amount of money to achieve what they want to achieve. I don't think having money is a bad thing. Nor is not having it.”  

“For me, it was [worth it]—definitely, 100 percent,” Heidi, who recently released “GAP,” her first single, said. “I literally came from poverty to where I am now. I didn’t have much to lose from going. I was like, If I go and get eliminated first, at least I can say I was on it, get a couple gigs, get an increased booking fee, and keep working. And here I am. I now live in L.A., living my best life. So it was definitely a good up-front investment.”

Aquaria believes that a run on RuPaul’s Drag Race is what you make of it. “You’ll collect some fans along the way if there’s something there to fan over,” she said. “You still have the charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent, no matter where you go home. It's just what you do with that in the future that really makes the difference.” 

That said, it’s probably not the best use of thousands and thousands of dollars if you’re not really serious about your drag career. “If you’re just a drag queen that just wants to do drag brunch and, you know, it would be cool to get on Drag Race,” Monique Heart said, “I’m gonna tell you not to go, cause you’re gonna embarrass yourself. If you’re not talented, if you’re not funny, if you can’t sing, you can’t dance, your drag is basic… baby, you shouldn’t go.” 

Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People. Follow her on Twitter.