The tour bus full of drag queens sped through rural Wisconsin on a brisk afternoon a few days before Thanksgiving. Mimosas were poured (and refilled) and hair was let down — or taken off. “A Drag Queen Christmas: The Naughty Tour” was underway: a 30-city, cross-country trek featuring stars from “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the Emmy-winning hit reality show on VH1.
The bus wasn’t exactly spacious — it slept 12 in coffinlike bunks and the shower was a standing M.R.I. — but it was still symbolic of a new status for drag, an often-misunderstood performative art. Popping corks on rock band buses and finding fans across America — not just in major cities — is a turn that one of the queens, Eureka O’Hara, never imagined growing up in Tennessee, so nervous the first time she performed that she carried her purse onstage and shook.
“I liked myself in drag,” she said, lounging on a banquette and tapping her glittered nails against a countertop. “I felt like I belonged somewhere.”
She rubbed her knee, which she’d injured on “Drag Race” last season. She couldn’t afford to take time off to heal properly — “I had to perform on crutches because the bills have got to get paid” — and doesn’t have health insurance. But she does have RuPaul, who invited her back for the 10th season this spring.
“I live in constant fear that the ‘Drag Race’ thing will end,” Eureka said. “I don’t want to go back to driving everywhere and working for no money, when you put so much love and money and time into this craft. I know what it feels like to struggle every single day to do this.”
For many performers and their followers, this is the golden age of drag, thanks largely to the popularity of “Drag Race,” and its spinoff “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars,” which returns on Jan. 25. The show has catapulted the careers of nearly 120 queens, many of whom embrace punishing schedules to perform worldwide, and made stars out of several, like Bianca Del Rio, a stand-up comedian who sells out performance halls; Bob the Drag Queen, who will play Belize in “Angels in America” this spring at Berkeley Repertory Theater; Violet Chachki, a fashion world favorite who sits front row at Marc Jacobs shows; and Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova, who co-host Viceland’s riotous “The Trixie & Katya Show.”
“Drag has finally arrived at the place it deserves in pop culture, in a way that cannot be ignored,” Randy Barbato, co-founder of World of Wonder, which produces “Drag Race” and its spinoffs, said by phone. “For us, it’s just the beginning.” (RuPaul declined an interview request.)
Lucrative sub-industries have emerged: wig and cosmetics lines, rhinestone peddlers and hip pad pushers, and YouTubers showing you how to don it all; online shops like DragQueenMerch.com selling T-shirts and enamel pins; and managers, publicists and assistants helping these brand-new celebrities meet the demands of their success. “Everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon,” Bianca said by phone. “Anyone on Instagram who wears mascara is a makeup artist. Anybody who knows two queens is a manager.”
But beyond the set of “Drag Race,” even more queens are working for unsteady pay at one-off gigs, and angling for their shot on the show.
“Who is good at ‘Drag Race’ is equated to who is good at drag, and queens palette themselves to get on,” Charlene, a Brooklyn queen and trans woman, said at her kitchen table. “There’s this dance you do on Instagram and way you network yourself. We’re like, in ‘Toy Story,’ the aliens in that machine waiting for the claw to pick them up. We have this stagnancy of queens doing the dance rather than focusing on their art.”
The show, which first aired on Logo, has on VH1 attracted a larger, more female audience, many of whom embrace drag as an arena for gender expression. While some are quick to cite earlier eras as truer golden ages — the 1980s, with its kaleidoscopic club and ball scenes, or the 1990s, with RuPaul’s talk show and the drag movie “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar” — they admit today’s popularity is extraordinary.
“I will say, this has never been seen before,” the New Orleans-based Varla Jean Merman said by phone. “Drag is a viable career.”
Livings are being made — but what are those livings like? Drag, it turns out, is a job like many others, with long hours and scant immediate return. There’s no union, there’s no health care, but there are cash tips if you go into the audience.
What follows are glimpses into bars and cabarets, concert halls and conventions — and the daily lives of a healthy (but certainly not complete) sampling of professional queens.
“Drag queens have the hardest job in show business,” Mr. Barbato said, and Fenton Bailey, the other founder of World of Wonder, chimed in: “They are mega-artists.”
“Make way for Bob, make way for Bob,” a stage manager barked in the wings of Town Hall in October, and everybody — crew, production assistants, stylists — hugged the walls. Bob the Drag Queen, having just lip-synced to a Shirley Bassey number backed up by four tuxedo-clad male dancers, barreled through, kicking off her heels, peeling off her wig, and spinning around so Luis AlvarezSchacht, her assistant, could unzip and yank off her dress. In the span of a wordless, well-oiled minute, Mr. AlvarezSchacht helped her into another gown, shoes and Afro wig, which he reached up to tease out while Bob took a breath and a wireless mic from a stagehand. Moments later, after seven other “Drag Race” alums performed a joint number, Bob marched back out onstage.
“I clean up real nice,” Bob said, as the sold-out crowd of nearly 1,500 cheered her costume change. “All it took was $100,000 and two years.”
She was hosting Voss Events’ “RuPaul’s Drag Race: Werq the World” tour, toward the end of 13 dates across the United States (a Latin American leg begins in February). Travel days proceed like so: arrive at the airport for a 6 a.m. flight, land in a town, take a nap if the hotel room is ready, get into drag (“After three hours of concentrated grooming and painting, it’s time to actually do your job,” Jackie Beat said by email), perform at a local bar, return to the hotel by 2 a.m. and repeat it all the next day.
“It’s lonely,” Bob said backstage. “I’m home maybe five days a month, but they’re never next to each other. You don’t really know anyone in towns you go to. You don’t establish connections outside of ‘Girl, you’re fierce,’ or someone saying your quotes at you. Sometimes you get laid, and you’re like, I could’ve finished ‘Stranger Things.’”
In September, roughly 35,000 fans descended on the Javits Center for the first New York DragCon. More than 50 “Drag Race” alums sold photo ops and merchandise branded with catchphrases. Attendees waited in hourslong queues to pose with their favorites — Sasha Velour, the most recent season’s winner and the convention’s Space Mountain, had a wait time of over six hours.
That night, at a DragCon edition of her monthly “Nightgowns” show, Sasha reprised her season finale lip-sync to Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional.” At the song’s climax she lifted her wig, and rose petals tumbled forth, as they did on the show — but this time they also rained from the ceiling — to deafening screams from the packed house. “Everyone is welcome in drag,” Sasha said into the mic. “Everyone is important and valuable.” At intermission, fans swarmed the merchandise raffle.
A couple of months later, in the green room at Build Studios in New York, Katya talked about the merchandise craze at the convention. “People are yelling at you to give them T-shirts,” she said, adding that she sometimes gives out items free.
Next to her, Trixie shrugged. “I’m going to shake teenagers down for their moms’ money,” she said.
For many ‘Drag Race’ queens, the jump to business owner was rocky. “I wasn’t ready at all,” Pearl, a Season 7 runner-up, said over lunch. “I was 23. I had no idea how to manage money. There’s a ton of full-time queens in New York. They’re not making hundreds of thousands of dollars; ‘Drag Race’ girls are. You need somebody to guide you. So I put my whole career into my manager’s hands. And I worked way too hard.”
Others complained of inexperienced promoters overbooking meet-and-greets, or drunkenly refusing to pay their fee at the end of the night. “My manager had to get the money; it took, like, a month,” Kim Chi, from Season 8, said of a Miami club. “Anyone can be a promoter if they can get a venue and money lined up.”
Shangela Laquifa Wadley, who will compete on “All Stars,” formed Say What Entertainment after a manager allegedly booked her at clubs, pocketed the deposits, and never informed her of the gigs. The clubs reached out to her on social media. “I called the sheriff, honey,” she said by phone, adding, “I got everything back.”
Last year, a Season 6 runner-up Adore Delano filed a $3.5 million lawsuit against her manager, David Charpentier, and his company Producer Entertainment Group — which has an all-star roster — over accusations of embezzling appearance fees and tour revenue. The company filed a countersuit. Mr. Charpentier said in an email message that Adore’s allegations were inaccurate. (Adore did not respond to interview requests.)
Such headaches prompted Latrice Royale, from Season 4, to form LRI Talent & Management, which represents several “Drag Race” queens. “It happened a lot as a local queen: ‘You’re canceled tonight,’” she recalled promoters telling her. “Bitch, I was counting on that money to pay my rent.”
Absent any formal union, a whisper network formed among “Drag Race” alums. They group-text warnings and recommendations, like how to incorporate, or set up a self-employment I.R.A. “We’ll be like, ‘O.K., sis, did you register with Ascap for your music?” Shangela said.
Without representation, local queens must determine their own fees, something Sasha remembers well. “It’s always at least four hours of your time,” she said at her apartment, packing for the Christmas tour. “It has to be around $100 or you’re getting ripped off. It’s amazing that that’s considered a good gig in New York — it should be minimum wage for drag, but there are no standards. And people would do it for free. It’s a passion.”
Horrorchata, a founder of the Brooklyn drag festival Bushwig, said that she worked free her first two years in drag, to get her name out.
“It’s freelancing,” Kelsey Dagger, a Brooklyn queen, said over coffee. “You’re constantly reappraising your worth and balancing that against the fact that you do actually enjoy this and want to be doing this.”
Merrie Cherry has worked full time for several years. “It’s not easy,” she said. “But if you’re worried about money all the time, you’re not going to live.” She nodded at the spiked outfit on a chair opposite her. “It took me two months to pay for that. Live, girl.”
Outside her weekly show at the bar Therapy in New York, Pixie Aventura waited while a designer tossed a commissioned costume down from a fourth-floor window. She tried to catch it, but the double-bagged outfit hit the sidewalk. “Text me how much,” she shouted, referring to the price, and ducked into the bar.
New York bars pay anywhere from $50 to $250 a gig, plus tips, which can be fruitful — Bob, before “Drag Race,” said she paid off student loans with 10,000 singles — or not.
Regular expenses like new outfits and wigs, makeup replenishment and cabs (to avoid harassment on 3 a.m. subways) add up, as does drag’s physical toll. “There’s athlete’s foot, joint pain, U.T.I.s, pink eye,” Katya said. “There’s bizarre sexualization, not being sexualized when you want it, and the almost complete forfeiture of a regular gay relationship.”
Charlene, laughing at her kitchen table, said, “Unless you win ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ the rewards are mostly spiritual.”
A few years ago, Varla, Sherry Vine, and Jackie — 20 years, 25 years, and 28 years in drag, respectively — had lunch. “Drag Race” had been on for several seasons, and bookings dwindled. “The clubs only wanted ‘Drag Race’ girls,” Sherry said by phone. “And we were like: ‘Oh my God, what are we supposed to do?’”
Lady Bunny, the D.J. and Wigstock founder, knows a bar owner who regularly books “Drag Race” queens. “He said the fans watch the first number and go get in line for the meet-and-greet,” she said over breakfast. “When getting a picture with someone you’ve seen on TV so people can like you on social media is more important than the performance?” She shook her head. “That’s not ‘Drag Race,’ though. That’s the way of the world.”
Varla was still a cabaret fixture in Palm Springs and Provincetown and Sherry and Jackie began to explore theater gigs. Their reputations and stage chops prevailed; club and bar owners began to call again.
“Look at where they are, without that ‘Drag Race’ golden ticket,” Bianca said. “Talent will always prevail.”
Coco Peru, who is known from the film “Trick” and a YouTube series in which she runs errands and rants, plans to retire in six years. “I’ve been lifting heavy suitcases around this globe for 27 years,” she said during her cabaret at Birdland in New York.
In her dressing room, she swatted at a fly with her pantyhose. “I’ll go anywhere they’ll pay me,” she said. “I travel on the weekends. I’ll do three or four shows and be home for a week. At my age that’s a nice schedule.”
Coco started in New York’s West Village in 1990. “I was going out in full drag to sing at open mics, to pass out my postcards,” she said. “I would spray paint on the sidewalk, ‘Miss Coco Peru, she knows,’ just to create buzz. There was no internet back then.”
Varla, who performed in bars like the Pyramid, the Brake, and the Works — “That was right behind the Natural History Museum; they’d put a piece of plywood on the pool table” — credits Coco with helping her into the cabaret scene. “We’d go out and beg people to come to the show,” Varla said. “There was no other way. Now, you’re on TV for five minutes, you’ve got a career.”
Sherry moved to New York in 1992, a time when drag flourished. “Limelight, Palladium, and Tunnel — all the big clubs would pay queens $200 or $300 to hang out for two hours,” she said. “You could do three of those a night.”
As film students, Mr. Barbato and Mr. Bailey skipped their editing class to go to the Pyramid, where they saw performers like Tabboo! and Ethyl Eichelberger.
The Los Angeles scene was similarly vibrant, Jackie remembered. “Clubs like Trade and Dragstrip 66 came along and it seemed like everyone was doing drag,” she said. “Retro, grunge, fetish. People like Alexis Arquette, Karen Dior and Steven Loya as Mondo Connie, the Bally Sisters, Sean DeLear — so many of them are gone.”
Things in New York changed when Rudolph Giuliani, then the mayor, used the Prohibition-era, now-repealed Cabaret Law to crack down on nightclubs. “Giuliani killed night life,” Sherry said. “You’d get in drag and go to a bar, and you’re there five minutes and the fire department turns the lights on. It was like: ‘Where are we? Is this 1938 Berlin?’”
The Roxy hired Shequida for the first of its weekly gay dance nights, Roxy Saturdays, in 1990. En route to host Drag Brunch at Highline Ballroom, she pointed at a construction pit along the West Side Highway. “That’s where it used to be,” she said; the club closed in 2007.
Lady Bunny, who started performing at the Pyramid in 1984, sighed. “The venues that I grew up in, they’re gone,” she said. “There’s not a large gay club that is open seven days a week with a dance floor in Manhattan, other than the Monster. Thank God it’s there.”
Linda Simpson, another Pyramid veteran, now hosts bingo at Le Poisson Rouge. “Ru is incredible,” she said in an Uber. “But it’s telling that the top person of the genre has been the same since 1992. Drag is still a ghetto. The entertainment industry is still unsure of what to do with drag. Why not give Bianca her own talk show? Why not have Sharon Needles do some sitcom? They’re wildly popular. Not to unseat Ru, but is there room for other sensibilities?”
It was a Sunday night in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Rumors, a gay club on Division Avenue, was having its weekly drag night.
Dymond Denae, the bar’s show manager, lip-synced to Adele’s “Hello.” A crowd of regulars sipped vodka sodas and waved dollars. Gabriella Galore, the show’s co-host, hopped off her stool to tip her as well.
Upstairs in the communal dressing room, the resident queens smoked cigarettes and changed for their next numbers. “I’ve always been interested in full-time, but my body isn’t,” said Dymond, who is in her late 30s and has been a performer for 16 years. “I’m old in the drag world. It hurts.”
Batty Davis laughed knowingly. After 12 years in heels she suffers from peripheral neuropathy. “I have pain shooting from my feet to my hips,” she said. “My toes are usually numb.”
To keep their heavy, clip-on earrings from flying off while dancing, many queens adhere them with nail glue. “I finally stopped,” Dymond said. “I was getting infections and headaches and this weird pain in my jaw. My ears looked like hamburger for 10 years.” (She now uses double-sided tape.)
Gabriella was gluing her earrings on at that very moment. “Did you tell him what we use for our lashes?” she asked.
Batty held up a bottle of $3.99 hair bonding glue: “This should not be near our eyes.”
Gabriella fixed her wig, her eyes focused intently in the mirror. “When I started, I was like, ‘I’m going to make this my career,’” she said. “Every new girl has that in their mind.”
Siren Heartt, a brand-new queen who drives six hours from Columbus, Ohio, to perform at Rumors, laughed.
“See?” Gabriella said. (She works full-time at Sephora.)
“People ask, ‘Don’t you hate doing drag after a long day’s work?’” Batty said. A makeup artist for MAC, she works from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and arrives at Rumors at 9 p.m. to prepare for 11 p.m. performances, which often last until 2 a.m. “I love the connection I make with women on a daily basis, and then I’m able to turn that around on myself. I don’t want to be the next drag superstar. I love what I do locally.”
Gabriella agreed: “It’s important to have visibility in rural areas.”
Gemma Stone used to bartend full-time at Lips in Fort Lauderdale, earning nearly $1,500 a week. Sixteen-hour days in drag quickly burned her out.
“When I started, it was an escape from my everyday life,” she said. “Turning it into my everyday life kind of destroyed it for me.” She now waits tables and performs monthly at Rumors. “I do drag when I want to. It’s fun again. We get here early and do our makeup together and laugh and joke.”
Batty, struggling to find the front of the dress she’d just pulled on, interjected: “If you’re doing drag for the money, you’re in the wrong business.”
Someone said, “Well, I’m gonna go, so,” and the room exploded with laughter.
At the Pantages Theater in Minneapolis, the Christmas tour’s preshow meet-and-greet attracted only about 30 fans. (The co-promoter, Murray Hodgson of Murray & Peter Present, blamed another drag event held two weeks earlier at the venue next door, a fund-raiser for hurricane victims in Puerto Rico, for keeping the count down.)
Backstage there were Red Bulls, white wine and Emergen-C — and straws, to avoid smudging lipstick. The queens changed out of their meet-and-greet looks and into their first-act costumes.
The theater, only three-quarters full, still roared. Eureka lip-synced to a holiday pop medley; Aja, who will compete on “All Stars,” lip-synced to Madonna’s “Frozen” and Azealia Banks’s “Ice Princess,” whipping her ice-white wig in furious circles; Latrice, a sequined Nutcracker, spun flags to “Carol of the Bells.”
Chi Chi DeVayne, also confirmed for “All Stars,” flipped and danced so hard to RuPaul’s “All I Want for Christmas” that the strap slipped off her shoe. “Did you see?” she asked backstage. “I just knew I had to stay off that foot.”
After the show, the cast marched upstairs for the post-show signing. “If you aren’t holding official tour merch, please step out of the line,” Mr. Hodgson told the crowd, who were kept behind stanchions 10 feet away while assistants handed items to the queens for signatures.
“Thank you for coming, y’all,” Eureka called across to them. “I love you.”
Two days later, the bus pulled up to DeVos Performance Hall — built by the family of the secretary of education, Betsy DeVos — in downtown Grand Rapids.
Sasha and Shea Couleé, a Season 9 runner-up who’d flown in that morning from other gigs, wheeled their suitcases to the bus. “I think I can get away with not shaving today,” Shea said, feeling her jaw. She climbed into her bunk for a nap.
She had at least an hour before work.
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