Serving Face(time): How COVID-19 Has Moved Drag to a Virtual Realm
PÁRAIC MCLEAN

Allow me to paint a picture for you. I’m an Irish boy living in New York who has recently been let go from his job. I worked in event production as a designer and now I’m stuck in my apartment searching for future employment in a time of international pandemic. I’m watching all of my friends who moved to America move back home due to pressures from the state, their families, and their bank accounts. As each friend packs their suitcases and books their flight I can only reflect on the experiences that we had while they were here. In fact, it’s all I can do because I am an unemployed, self-isolating queer entrapped in his Brooklyn Flat and I am trying to find the silver linings through memories that have already happened in hope that they will happen again.

I think about the typical nights out we had pre-pandemic. Pre-game. Vodka sodas with freshly cut limes. Chatter and gossip. Uber to the club. Another round of vodka sodas to start. Someone complains about the lack of straws or the fact that straws are made of paper — and to be honest it is usually me doing both. Another reminds us of the poor turtles. We continue the chatter and gossip to the beat of iconic pop icons and princesses as we wait for the real show to begin. The Queens.

Drag Wheat Poster

I’ve always been fascinated by drag and not just the kind that you see on television. I simply can’t get enough of the creative mixtapes being lipsynced, the outfits that are pulled together just for the joke, the energy of performing to that new hit single that has been storming the charts, the concepts that go over most people’s heads (and a lot of time even mine). That’s the drag I want to see. Since moving to New York — a city that has always been an epicentre of queer performance — I’ve seen such variety of drag shows. I’ve watched Tina Burner in Barracuda perfectly recite Miranda Priestly’s iconic ‘cerulean’ monologue from The Devil Wears Prada. And I’ve stood mesmerized as the queens from Judy conduct a curation of performances where each queen represents a different era of history. However, these are all memories of the past that now feel distant, and they are the events that I long for in the future. Although I yearn for the vignettes of a night in a sweaty drag bar; for live, face-to-face performances; for the need to fetch another vodka soda while trying not to miss a second of the show; for hurling scrunched up dollars toward the stage in hope that they’ll get to the performer. I want those nights back, although I know that it’s not possible for now. The Oops Girls from The Rosemont and the Judy performers have been locked away from these small stages since coronavirus sent everyone into hiding. Where are they now? Instagram Live.

OOPS girls – Mean Girls Jinglebell rock | Source: Juku For Now/YouTube
Oops Girls as Teletubbies
Oops Girls as Teletubbies | Source: Seán O’Carroll

Oops, hosted by the fantastic Hara Juku, is a weekly drag show that graces the tiny stage in the back of the The Rosemont — a small gay bar in Brooklyn — every Wednesday night. The show became an instant favourite of mine after I stumbled across their Halloween edition of the weekly program. The gaggle of queers parted like the Red Sea as the Oops Girls all came strutting in, as a collective, dressed as the colourful characters of a childhood classic — the Teletubbies — and the icing on the cake was that their accompanying DJ was dressed as the baby sun. I was blown away. Never have dollars been torn out of my wallet and catapulted in the direction of a drag queen so quickly before.

Life may be a drag right now but these queens keep me optimistic about returning to reality.

It’s safe to say that I’ve returned to the Rosemont on numerous occasions to see the Oops Girls. I’ve braved the morning-after commute tired and hungover but have never regretted the antics of the night before. The creativity of the Oops Girls — Hara Juku, Magenta, West Dakota, and Crystal Mesh — is worth more than the lack of sleep, and the knotted stomach of a hangover. But now I can survive the hangovers from home thanks to social distancing (and unemployment) after drinking copious amounts of wine — it makes me appear more refined and adult-like on social media — while watching their show on Instagram Live!

Source: HarronWawker/Twitter

The popular photo and video social network has become a platform that drag performance has taken by storm since the beginning of coronavirus. Weekly shows across the world have opted to use the Live option as a way of connecting with their fans and to feel a sense of regularity during the pandemic. Using the Live feature on Instagram comes with its limitations and obstacles; Live can only be an hour in length (meaning there needs to be multiple new Lives throughout the night), and the host of the Live is always on the top half of the screen. Once you look past these limitations, and embrace them for what they are, the world of Instagram Live becomes a fountain for witty and entertaining performance. The Oops Girls have acknowledged these limitations, and decided to use them as a barometer for creativity as they construct their own Wednesday night shows at the Rosemont. Only now in the virtual realm. Why squeeze into a teeny tiny performance space to watch the drag queens perform when you can just do it from the comfort of your own home through the virtual realm!? Right?! Although in fairness, I never minded being pressed up against a hot twunk or 12!

What other positive things does Instagram hold? Effect filters! And, rest assured, Juku and the gang use them to their benefits. Your fellow sister is performing on the bottom half of the screen but you don’t want to leave them lonely? Why not just have an audience of a thousand Juku’s thanks to a trusty Instagram effect?! You and your fellow sister want to perform Estelle’s American Boy but you just want one face on the entire screen throughout the entire performance? Well, one of you suckers is just going to have to be the mouth and the other the eyes and half way through have your viewers flip their phone 180 degrees so your sister can live her Kanye West mouth fantasy. Have you had the sudden urge to recreate Thelma and Louise in a car with your drag sister but can’t because of your social distancing? Just grab a phallic looking fruit such as a banana, wrap some bandanas around your wigs, and away you go! Drive into the sunset like you’re avoiding an epidemic!

Source: mattdeanstew/Twitter

Judy, founded by the Mother of the House Issa Mia Mario, “is a community and platform for queer joy — part dance floor, drag spectacle, and fundraiser.” Started in 2018 as an afterparty for Bushwig, a drag festival that takes place in Brooklyn, Judy quickly evolved into a space for providing an entry point for amateur drag performance, and later a space for fundraising. Her drag daughter, Hazyl, describes it as “a sisterhood of not-so-amateur drag queens and incredible performers,” and “a queer safe-haven that’s as much a community as it is an event.”

I discovered Judy when my friend Hazyl started performing there and of course I had to go and support and see what it was all about. I arrived at C’mon Everybody — a tiny bar in Bedstuy with a backroom where the show was happening — eager and curious for a glimpse of new drag performers. The concept for the night was ‘Decades.’ Each queen served a different decade only after they stumbled through a homemade time machine that was plonked upstage. The concepts, the looks, the energy, made us all howl and gay scream in support as each queen made us – EAT – THEM – UP!

Source: judy.bk/Instagram

Why squeeze into a teeny tiny performance space to watch the drag queens perform when you can just do it from the comfort of your own home through the virtual realm!?

But Judy isn’t just about gagging on the looks of the performers, it’s also about the funds that are raised for queer charities. Since its inception, Judy has raised over $10,000 for a selection of different queer charities such as Sylvia Rivera Law Project, the Transgender Law Center, and the Russian LGBT Network. Every last dollar that Judy takes in, from the suggested cover charge to the tips that are thrown in admiration at the performances, goes to a good cause, and because of this I know that I have catapulted many more dollars at these performers than any other drag show in the city. Being locked indoors was not going to stop Judy from raising much needed funds — thus Quarantina, the first of the lockdown shows that Judy hosted, was born Live on Instagram. Queens flocked from all around the country, not just New York, to perform from the confinements of their own homes.

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📱WELCOME TO THE VIRTUAL KIKI EXPERIENCE 📱Judy Quarantina is here to deliver a mood adjustment during this dark and horny time of isolation. SHOWS from 15 queens from 7 cities across the globe! Bring ya virtual bills, this a fundraiser for those affected by the current crisis 💗 ⚠️ Saturday April 4, 9-11pm EST, @judy.bk IG live❗️ ⚠️ 15 spicy performances from queens all around the wrrrrlllddd – NYC, CDMX, MIAMI, LA, SF, Upstate NY, and Vancouver. Judy fam just went global!!! 🌎 ⚠️ Vibe: astral projection, hot with nowhere to be, queer angst, moodt lighting, DIY set design, high camp, booty pop, unsolicited opinions, a big hug ⚠️ Hosts @issamiamario @d4rlingnikki ⚠️ Art by scifi crush @colt_img

A post shared by JUDY (@judy.bk) on

Source: judy.bk/Instagram

One of my main concerns about Judy moving to the digital realm was if they would receive the same amount of tips from an audience that were watching at home, alone. Too often I’ve been in a drag bar and watched a queen up on stage giving their heart and soul, spinning, kicking and death dropping only for them to go untipped by viewers unless the viewer is pressured into it. In drag bars I feel guilty when I can’t tip a queen because I know that it is their livelihood. But sometimes you run out of physical dollars and you have to suffer with that guilt. In a drag bar there is a collective understanding of tipping your local drag queen, but would it transfer to the digital where the audience can’t see each other? Well, wasn’t I wrong!? Quarantina raised more money than any of the previous Judys — a whopping $2,550! My concern for people not tipping was blown out of the water. When I spoke to Issa, she acknowledged that “with Venmo people are more inclined to tip more than a single dollar.” Well, at least with Venmo there is no fear of running out of singles for the talented performers, is there?!

Life may be a drag right now but these queens keep me optimistic about returning to reality. The virtual performance will never satisfy me as much as heels onstage in a tiny bar. There’s nothing like being crammed in a dark, sweaty tavern, drinking an overpriced vodka soda with the skinniest slice of lime (I would much prefer a large wedge), and glaring at the twink that just shoved his way past you to the get to his ‘friends’ that aren’t even there… However, the digital does satisfy the craving a little bit. It makes me look forward to the end of the world wide pandemic so that I can go and visit all of my favourite drag bars (a list that is already too too long) and throw my hard-saved pandemic unemployment assistance cash at the queens. It’s also good to know that when the world descends into chaos, and a global nuclear war erupts which sends me into an underground bunker (and back into unemployment), that drag queens will still be performing. And I’ll still be tipping.


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