What It Takes to Make a Living as a Drag Queen
Most drag queens have modest incomes, but their expenses for hair, makeup and travel can easily top $10,000 a year. Here’s what they spend on and the tricks they use to make ends meet.
Drag queens VyVyan Vyxn (left) and Gina Tonic (right). Photos courtesy of VyVyan Vyxn and Gina Tonic
“It takes a lot of money to look this cheap, darling!” Alaska Thunderfuck, winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars sings on her track, “Hieeee.” The verse before: “Tipping is compulsory / Tip. These. Men.”
Unlike, say, Dolly Parton—whose empire is built on album sales and concert tickets and merchandise—drag queens often perform for free, although some sell music and merch as well. The cost of hair, makeup, jewelry, accessories, shoes and outfits alone easily adds up to thousands of dollars a year. Add in transportation to and from shows, promotional flyers, mixed music and more and any drag look, cheap or not, is downright expensive.
While some drag queens earn more than $100,000 a year, most make much less. New York bars pay between $50 and $250 a night plus tips, the New York Times reported. One drag queen, Jan Sport, told Refinery 29 that she expects to make $60,000 in 2018.
Drag is, first and foremost, an art form, and monetizing art is never easy, and talking about it can be considered taboo—art and capitalism don’t necessarily mesh, nor does queerness with capitalism, but for queer art forms, like drag, the price of performing can be high, with audiences expecting a free show, which, of course, is not sustainable in any way.
The high price of doing drag
Comedy queen Gina Tonic, who started doing drag in 2009 as a hobby, estimates she spends $10,000 annually on “drag-related expenses”—all of which are a tax write off. For Gina, a basic, unstyled wig started at $50, with lace-front, professionally-styled wigs priced over $200. For her face, she likes makeup from Dermablend, Sugarpill, Tarte, and Urban Decay, filling her makeup bag regularly with $30 worth of foundation, a $50 contour palette, eyeshadow palettes that range from $20-$100 and cheap lipsticks, which can be under $10 each.
On her lids, Gina stacks three pairs of faux eyelashes, which she buys in bulk to save money, and zips through razors, shaving cream, makeup remover, primes, moisturizer and more personal care products regularly. Tights and padding, which can cost anywhere from $30 to over $120 are essentials for an authentic drag look, as well as dance tights (to cover up padding, and leg hair), which retail at about $15 a pair.
Add in heels for size 13 feet, which start at $75, jewelry (Gina never wears fewer than five pieces, though she finds costume jewelry on the cheap at a New York wholesaler), and outfits, which start at $200, for custom dresses, and we’re talking about a hugely expensive “hobby.”
What drag queens earn
New queens can expect to earn about $50 per show, Gina estimates, mostly from cash tips in the form of one dollar bills. Tipping, while not mandatory, is essential to a drag queens' professional (and personal!) survival. Keep in mind: Most queens are essentially freelancers, meaning they cover their own health insurance costs, retirement savings and lack the stability of a traditional salaried position.
Income can vary greatly depending on where you live, but successful queens make enough to support themselves. Drag Race contestant Shangela told WealthSimple earlier this year, “I’m still hustling... But I'll just tell you this — I sure ain't workin' for a hundred dollars a night no more.”
Celebrity impersonator VyVyan Vyxn (shown above) says she earns up to $800 a night at private events, clubs and theaters. “My fiancé and I are able to live very comfortably. We own our home [in Pennsylvania] and drive three cars, which I think is pretty impressive at 23 years old,” said VyVyan, who also goes by the stage name Dalton Grady and includes Cher, Dolly Parton, Liza Minnelli and Judy Garland in her repertoire.
How to make your drag queen dream work financially
For hobbyists turning professional, Jane Hamilton, consumer finance expert at Mint and Turbo, recommends keeping a close eye on finances, not forgetting to market and promote yourself, and putting in the work that makes audiences want to pay to see you.
“Selling is an absolutely vital component to making a living off of performance,” Hamilton says. “No one is going to do this for you. If no one knows about you and your stage act, no one will pay for what you have to offer.”
Hamilton recommends building a social media following, trying to perform in a showcase with bigger name performers and never stopping the hustle, even if it means taking on lower paying or less prestigious gigs for exposure—and hopefully generous cash tips.
“It's definitely a sustainable long-term career, as long as you are smart about it and find ways to stand out and stay relevant,” Gina says, noting that every famous queen started out as a local queen. When Gina first started doing drag, for example, she had a corporate day job to cover the bills. Crawling into her office each morning tired and hungover from her drag work in nightclubs got her fired from her 9-to-five corporate gig, which pushed her to pursuing drag full time—a leap that, for her, worked, thanks to generous audiences.
A novel way to jumpstart your career by dressing in drag
Instead of getting dragged into the financial trap of starting drag as a low-paying gig, VyVyan Vyxn learned the tricks of dressing and performing in drag from her boyfriend in 2009 and used her business-focused mind to sell adult novelty products door-to-door in drag. An initial investment of $600 in product and $450 in drag attire led to a five-year career.
As she got more experienced, she increased her initial booking fee for in-house events from “two digits to three digits”. That said, she still relies on fans of drags to support his career. “Go to [drag] shows no matter the cost!” VyVyan says.
“Drag is expensive. Drag is an art form. Drag is a talent," she adds. "Pay for your entertainment whenever you have the chance. Some performers work for next to nothing—always tip the queens! Even if they might not be your favorite they still put time, effort, and probably money into walking out on that stage.”
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