On September 11, at the most recent Creative Arts Emmys, RuPaul received his first Emmy, for Best Reality Show Host for
RuPaul's Drag Race. It was a moment of triumph for the world's most successful and famous drag queen, endowing one of his catchphrases—"you better work"—with a double meaning: You better serve it on the runway, but to get paid the way Ru does, you better work really, really hard, too.
On the second season of Drag Race All-Stars, which is currently airing, queens like Alaska Thunderfuck 5000 and Alyssa Edwards compete for a prize of $100,000, an outrageous sum in an industry where most queens perform in bars for dollar bills. We asked four of them—an energetic young queen in Brooklyn, an American making a name for herself in Berlin, a San Francisco legend, and one of Mama Ru's all-stars herself—how they graduated (or are trying to graduate) from amateur tips to professional wages. They spoke to the ways in which drag necessitates hustling to survive and establish one's name—but even with financial success, at the end of the day, the will to perform comes from nowhere but the heart.
THEE SUBURBIA, Brooklyn, NY. Years doing drag: 1–2
I've been doing drag for two years, but in my first Drag Race audition tape, I said since birth. In reality, I've been performing professionally for about a year. The biggest challenge in terms of making money at first is getting people to know who you are. People need to respect you, so you have to show them a strong concept every single time—for me, it's gotta be something high energy and controversial.
When I perform, people give me tips, and I get a booking fee. I work three parties a week, plus my own party called Bananas. A lot of the work I do is just getting my name out there. I also make money selling real estate and writing for a website called Melo. Everybody should have an alternative besides drag.
I recently went to Milwaukee, and that was good coin. The place was packed with people, they had a good budget for the show, and the tips, plus the base pay, were amazing. When you're from New York and you're traveling, just saying you're from here—and actually giving people what they expect from someone saying that—instantly makes the coin rise up. On Twitter, they were like, "Someone's coming from NYC…" and a lot of people came just to see who it was, even though I haven't been on Drag Race.
PANSY, 30, Berlin, Germany. Years doing drag: 10
I started doing drag in San Francisco ten years ago for fun. Then I moved to Berlin to be an artist after graduating from art school, but I found art to be really unfulfilling. One night, years ago, I really wanted to see a drag show, and there just wasn't anywhere to go—there are shows here in Berlin, but the type of performance, the style and level of humor that I was used to, just wasn't there. So I started doing shows in this tiny bar in [the Neukölln neighborhood], and it grew from there. Within a few months, I was doing a dance party, then I started producing larger drag shows with 300 to 700 attendees, and in the span of three years, it's grown from myself and two other performers to 15, sometimes 20. And now I've branched out into a queer music festival called Yo Sissy! and other projects.
I wouldn't say I've achieved monetary success, but I definitely consider myself very successful. Berlin has a huge socialist history, and people have strong opinions about money here. So when I do something that on the surface looks very successful, people assume that I'm making a lot of money. Of course, I have to charge entrance fees, pay performers, rent venues, buy insurance. So there's some friction there—and if I have a bad show, I'm fucked. But personally, I don't do drag for money. I use drag to make money, but I do drag because I love it and believe that it brings people pleasure.
PEACHES CHRIST, San Francisco, California. Years Doing Drag: 20
The first time I was paid to do drag was at Trannyshack [a legendary San Francisco drag night] in 1996, and I performed there for a couple years, but I spent more money renting chainsaws and props for my numbers than I was taking in. Then I realized I could have this Midnight Mass movie show, because I was running theaters, and so I started doing that in 1998. They're cult-movie screenings where we invite guest actors from the films, and we perform spoof tribute sketches, usually a parody of the movie. After a period of many successful years doing that, some friends said to me, "You're making this theater a lot of money. How much do you make?" But my brain wasn't wired that way. In San Francisco, people didn't expect to get paid. We were all doing it with this art for art's sake attitude.
Today, I make almost all of my money via ticket sales for live events that I produce, write and direct, several of which—including Return to Grey Gardens with Jinkx Monsoon, a part-spoof, part-tribute stage show to the movie—we take on tour. I control the box office, and I'm able to pay myself. The biggest thing for me is that I'm entrenched in the cult-movie universe, and I'm also a filmmaker, so my career stretches far beyond drag. I have one foot in the drag world, but I also get booked frequently to do horror conventions. I think if you're a young queen and you're passionate about something like rock 'n roll, it'd be smart to pursue both and try to integrate the two.
COCO MONTRESE, Las Vegas, Nevada. Years Doing Drag: 24
Until 2012, I was making an amazing salary working on the Vegas Strip. I loved entertaining and thought that being on billboards and cabs all over the city was going to be enough for me. I was at the top of my career. I had money put away. I could have retired.
But then I was in season five of RuPaul's Drag Race, which took it to a different place. It's been amazing. I make more doing this than I would have with my college degree. It doesn't always work out like that for everyone, but if you're ambitious enough and you work hard to perfect the craft, you can make a very lucrative living doing drag. My booking fee is high, and it has to do with my résumé. Not just Drag Race, but I also do a lot of corporate events, weddings, and parties. If you limit yourself, then you limit your pay. If you're not able to adjust—if your potential clients are looking for a certain thing, hiring for a certain kind of event, and you can't deliver—you're probably not going to get the job. That's pretty much how that works. They just want to see a great entertainer, and if you're a great entertainer, you'll make great money.
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