This article originally appeared on VICE US.
“Welcome to Oops!” Juku said to the audience on Wednesday night, not from the Brooklyn drag night’s usual stage at the back of the Rosemont, but from my iPhone screen. The 21-year-old queen was filming live from her apartment on Instagram, where she has been socially distancing all week amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The screen was split in half horizontally with Juku on top. On the bottom half of the screen stood her fellow Oops! co-host and New York nightlife fixture, West Dakota, broadcasting live from her own self-isolation chamber somewhere else in the borough. Together, they launched into the first number of the night, Eduard Khil’s rendition of “I Am Very Glad, as I’m Finally Returning Back Home,” better known on the internet as the “Trololo” song. They both moved in super close to their front-facing cameras, forming a single face with Juku’s eyes and West’s nose and mouth, both of them bugging and mugging to outlandish effect.
“Oh my god, make some noise for West!” Juku shouted when the song was over. “What a time to be alive. I can’t believe you are currently alive! That me and West are currently alive. Currently! That’s so crazy.”
“Currently, girl,” West said.
“Currently!” Juku shot back, cueing up “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.”
Like a lot of live performers around the country right now, Juku and West have found their livelihoods threatened, if not taken away entirely, by the escalating global crisis that is the coronavirus. More than 7,300 people have died as a result of the worldwide pandemic, with over 100 of them in the United States alone. Public health measures like social distancing, banning large gatherings, shutting down bars, and ordering city residents to shelter in place are necessary right now to halt the spread of the virus before it overwhelms American hospitals nationwide. But they also make drag as we know it pretty much impossible to do at the moment, forcing many queens to get creative.
Irregular Girl, for example, is a 24-year-old queen from Chicago who started doing drag full-time last September. To do her job, she has to interact with strangers all night, taking cash tips straight out of their possibly unwashed hands.
“I’m terrified, honestly,” she told VICE. “When I touch that dollar bill, I’m touching all the things the person who handed it to me touched and everything whoever he got it from touched.”
“Money is filthy,” added Chanel Mercedes Benz, who cohosts Mom Jeans at Berlin Nightclub with Irregular and fellow Chicago queen K’hole Kardashian. “It goes through so many hands, just imagine! That dollar in my sweaty boot? It’s now in my 8-year-old brother’s birthday card.”
Chanel, also 24, quit her day job in the medical field three weeks ago to do drag full-time. “Just my luck,” she said. Now, all of those gigs have disappeared, including the weekly RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 12 viewing party she started hosting with Irregular and K’hole on February 28, which has been postponed indefinitely. “It was really slow at first,” Irregular said of the gigs she has lost over the past couple weeks. “I didn’t realize it was happening until it was too late.” First, a college she was scheduled to perform at canceled her set. Then, as public awareness about social distancing rapidly grew, attendance at venues like Scarlet Bar and Berlin began to drop. And on Monday, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker ordered all bars and restaurants closed for two weeks, forcing Irregular and Chanel inside like so many others.
For any queen or gig worker in nightlife who relies on VH1’s annual season of RuPaul’s Drag Race to make money and build their platform, the timing is particularly inopportune. There are the 13 contestants themselves, of course, who were planning to spend the next few months performing at gay bars across the country and building up a national fanbase while they were still on TV, as well as any queen who’d planned on appearing at RuPaul’s DragCon LA, LA Pride Festival, or any number of other major Pride season events this summer that might end up getting canceled. There’s also the many people in the nightlife industry who depended on those weekly Drag Race viewing party bookings to make ends meet.
“ Drag Race viewing parties remain our most profitable shows,” said DJ Accident Report. He had been co-hosting one such event at the Palace in Brooklyn along with the other two members of the Nobodies, a nightlife trio he belongs to. “It’s a little disheartening, but the hard truth is that a lot of people wanna see Drag Race more than they wanna see local drag. [The viewing parties] are a big moneymaker for us, which is why we’ve continued doing it for about five years now.”
Still, some of the drag queens VICE spoke with remain optimistic.
“So many people are wondering how they are gonna pay the bills,” Chanel told VICE. “[For drag queens,] it’s been how are we gonna pay the bills.” She, like many other queens, is now looking into different ways to take their drag online, transforming their various social media platforms into digital venues themselves. “We have cameras. We know how to edit things. We come up with content all the time,” she said. “Maybe this just means switching the culture briefly until we’re all able to get back to work.”
Many queens, like Juku and West in Brooklyn, have decided to turn their regular gigs into at-home livestreams using Instagram Live, YouTube, and Twitch. Irregular, Chanel, and K’hole will also be taking their Drag Race viewing party to Instagram Live, starting this Friday. Some of the first queens to do so under quarantine, if not the first, were Wig star Charlene Incarnate and Tyler Ashley, the Dauphine of Bushwick, who live-streamed their monthly DUMBO drag brunch Baby Tea from their Brooklyn rooftop on Saturday afternoon. Viewers tipped the performers digitally over Venmo, just as all those who tuned into Oops! on Wednesday night did over Venmo and PayPal.
“For me, drag is a responsibility,” Juku told VICE. “And I don’t mean that like it’s necessarily a bad thing. More that it’s our responsibility to bring light to subjects like these, to let everybody know that we’re gonna be OK. We can laugh. We can have a good time, even if that means having it in the comfort of our homes for a second.”
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