On March 12, Biqtch Puddin was backstage at Downtown L.A.’s Precinct club with fellow drag queens Willam and Alaska Thunderfuck, half-joking that their upcoming deranged country singer act might be their last in front of a crowd for a while. The next day, she says, “I got my ass to the grocery store and grabbed what I could.” Nightlife, as far as she could see it, was about to go dark for a very long time due to the coronavirus.
As the winner of Season 2 of “The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula,” a fun-house-mirror version of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” that brings together drag “monsters” of every kind, Biqtch was in a better position than most nightlife entertainers. But once COVID-19 hit, her future revenue stream abruptly disappeared. “I was out of work for the foreseeable future, and I knew all my [drag] brothers and sisters were too,” she says. “Regardless of if you’re on an international platform like ‘Dragula’ or ‘Drag Race,’ or if you’re Suzie Q hosting bingo down the street every Tuesday, everybody was out of work.” As statewide lockdowns keep bars and venues shuttered, the world of drag, which has depended on physically intimate gatherings and interactive crowds for decades, has had to rapidly shift gears — and go digital — to stay alive.
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Even “Drag Race” had to turn its usual live-to-tape finale into a virtual showcase, while DragCon, the behemoth convention that packs L.A.’s Staples Center with adoring fans, had to cancel in favor of a virtual weekend stream, with featured guests’ Venmo handles emblazoned across the bottom of the screen. “It’s an incredibly special event where people get to connect with each other, but it’s also a way for a lot of the queens in this industry to generate some income,” says World of Wonder co-founder Randy Barbato. With twin health and economic crises crashing at people’s feet, the drag industry is fighting to keep audiences entertained, performers paid and communities afloat.
While there’s no replacing the particular magic of grimy dive bars and elaborate theatrical productions, nightlife performers are, as always, bending norms and innovating new forms. And as any of them will tell you, drag performers are used to creating something amazing out of nothing. “We’re uniquely equipped to deal with this moment in time,” says former “Drag Race” All Star BenDeLaCreme, who’s long embraced the DIY aesthetic that quarantine necessitates: “As an artistic entity, so much of the beauty we’ve made over the decades and centuries has been fueled by adversity, and pushing back under circumstances that don’t necessarily set us up for success to begin with.”
Staring down potential months of quarantine, Biqtch and her roommates decided to create their own online drag show. On March 20, they launched “Digital Drag,” an extravaganza that streams live on Twitch. Performers apply for the chance to do live acts (or send in taped videos if their internet is wonky); DJ sets and commercials featuring queer-owned businesses give Biqtch breaks from hosting. Technical difficulties inevitably crop up, but as she wryly notes, that’s pretty typical in drag anyway.
“We’re just trying to keep it as real a drag show as possible,” says Biqtch, “because that’s my church.” She’s not alone: Every Friday since launch, “Digital Drag” attracts some 40,000 viewers who gather and scream their approval in the comments section. Donations and tips have been generous enough, Biqtch says, to help performers cover rent and grocery expenses when they didn’t know how else they would.
While many miss the feel and ritual of their live acts, others are appreciating some unexpected benefits to the new digital landscape (and not only, as just about every performer told me with a laugh, getting to kick off their usual towering heels). Biqtch, for example, is working on an evolved version of “Digital Drag” for the post-pandemic era, whenever that might be. Brooklyn drag artist Untitled Queen has started a midday “Lunch Break” show on Zoom, and is recruiting 50 nonwhite performers, one from each state for a pointed July 4 marathon. DeLa is collaborating with fellow queens Jinkx Monsoon, Major Scales and Peaches Christ to make a “Queer Quarantine Radio” podcast that mimics old-school audio plays. The possibilities are, as they say, endless.
Another advantage to virtual drag is that it makes more room for video art. “It’s very much a different medium,” says drag performer Pearl Harbor. “It’s not the same as live performance, but you can take advantage of the camera in a lot of different ways.” Case in point: a recent number Pearl did for Switch n’ Play, their Brooklyn drag collective. It starts with Pearl waking up in bed, beaming, to Florence + the Machine’s “Stand by Me” cover before gliding through the apartment and up a ladder to the roof, where they and their shadows dance for all New York City to see. Pearl practiced the act with their neighbor, a new quarantine friend, who filmed it with his phone. “Even though there’s only one dancer on-screen, there’s always two dancers,” Pearl explains, “and the second dancer is the cameraperson.”
Untitled Queen expresses enthusiasm for video and virtual acts, not just for their artistic possibilities but for how they can improve accessibility. Untitled has made a point of including captioning on every video to accommodate the hard of hearing, who are rarely served at live shows, where getting an interpreter can be difficult and expensive. “[Captioning] is missing almost everywhere,” says Untitled. “Instagram, which is what I use all the time, really has it nowhere … and it’s not hard. It’s just time-consuming.” With the benefit of making more pretaped pieces, she can more easily include captions and ask others to do the same. What true inclusion comes down to, Untitled says, is asking yourself: “What does our community look like, and how do you widen what that means? How do you challenge yourself to do better?”
These questions lie at the beating heart of digital drag, which has swiftly expanded a world that was already pushing entertainment to be its most daring and radically inclusive. And with no endpoint to quarantine in sight, performers and producers are casting an eye toward how these new formats can better serve themselves and their community. “Sometimes,” as DeLa puts it, “this kind of horrific situation can force you to dust off some cobwebs you didn’t even know were there.”