She wears high heels and heavy makeup, that goes just well with the heavily sequinned gown. Telling bawdy jokes, she goes from gig-to-gig, with rapturous applause accompanying her every move. She’s the queen and the night is hers.
The lockdown hit hard, forcing drag queens to leave the glamour of live shows and sending the drag industry to a standstill. Global virus containment efforts led to the closing of bars, restaurants, clubs and essentially ending every drag queen’s livelihood. As venues closed, the cash flow of the entire drag industry was halted. Bingedaily spoke to four drag queens, each a queen in their own right, to tell us how the pandemic put a stop to their business.
Maya The Drag Queen
Hailing from Kerala, Maya has been performing as an Indian drag queen since September 2014. With the aim to fight against inequality, Maya believes in individualism and feminism.
The lockdown came as an unpleasant surprise throwing this drag queen’s livelihood off balance. “As drag queens, we are used to performing in public and being interpersonal. It was heartbreaking to know that we will have to perform in front of a camera. But, we will have to hustle to survive these tough times.”
While most performances have gone digital, it has been a drastic change for drag queens. Accustomed to heavy tips through the course of the evening, a digital show doesn’t entail these perks. “We have digital shows happening where we get tips, but it's largely for the international audience. Indian audiences aren't used to tipping drag queens.” She speaks of cameos during the lockdown, wherein she would get paid to send birthday wishes, anniversary greetings or even give pep talks. Along with this, she partakes in panel discussions with the aim of educating people about the LGBTQIA community for a nominal fee.
Speaking about the challenge it’s been to still make her presence felt on a digital platform, Maya says “it was all about putting content out there, to get people to realise we still exist.”
Betta Nan Stop
Betta Naan Stop, out of drag Prateek, is from Delhi. Though his drag career officially began 3 years ago, he’s been in love with the idea of dressing up, putting on sloppy makeup, a party city wig to go with it and performing in front of the mirror, for the longest time.
Speaking about how the lockdown has changed the game for drags, he says “we solely rely on live events. Even with drag going digital, what really makes a drag queen feel like one is the performance, the audience and the crazy exchange of energies! I miss the stage and this has been a drastic change. We never saw the digital platform as revenue-generating. Livelihood has been impacted greatly!”
This queen says the biggest challenge is doing these digital shows while being at home. “A lot of us stay with our families, who don’t necessarily approve of drag. Things have taken a 360-degree turn, what with shooting videos in a closed room with heavy makeup and wigs and the attire! The process can be exhausting.”
Speaking of making the most out of the crisis, he says “We are collaborating with desi drag artists from all over the world. In June we did a huge event, which had 40+ South Asian drag queens and kings. But nothing would ever compare to the feeling of a live event. Getting ready with my fellow drag sisters will always be something I cherish and miss.”
Lush Monsoon aka Ayushmaan is one of India's prominent drag performers. When he's not doing drag, Ayushmaan works part-time as a legal researcher.
Compelled to move to his home in Ranchi at the start of the lockdown, was a setback for the drag. This, as he hasn’t yet come out as a drag queen there. Speaking about this conflict, he says “Naturally, it was impossible to do drag here. For me, drag is not just a performance but a gender expression as well. As a non-binary person, I feel that a huge part of me is being constrained if I am not doing drag. I feel like I've been forced into the closet again. While we have been advised to stay at home, traditional home is not always a 'safe space' for queer individuals.”
Ayushmaan says that while they have tried to create online shows and videos, it's very challenging to do it without a safe space. “Drag requires you to be a performer, makeup artist, designer, choreographer, all in one. Add to that the limitations of working from home, and it becomes almost impossible to do it frequently.”
When asked what he loves the most about his job, he can’t stop gushing. “After one of my performances, a girl came up to me and said, ‘I was depressed for a week but watching your performance gave me hope and made me happy.’ That moment is very dear to me as one of the primary reasons I do drag, is to make people happy.”
This half Marathi half Kannadiga long-legged woman is used to being surrounded by people. Laughing, gossiping and getting into glamorous clothes, would be her idea of an ideal day. But the lockdown changed this. “I have packed up most of my stuff. I do drag once in a while now, but the entire enthusiasm has gone a little down for me because I am not surrounded by my drag sisters.”
This drag queen highlights an important revelation, that is now emerging as an after-effect of the lockdown: impact on mental health. Expenses are increasing and with live shows having taken a hit, the queens do not have much to look to. “Absolutely no creativity at home is going to affect my mental health more than anything else,” she says.
Enthusiastic about the digital aspect of drag, she speaks of Instagram Lives that she often resorts to, “There have been funny videos, acting challenges, etc which have come up during the lockdown period. The best part is, the queens are digitally supporting each other during this. Drag queens are investing in backdrops and lightings because nobody wants to see furniture while we perform. The techniques have changed a lot since the focus is more on the finesse rather than the overall exuberance.”
However, optimistic about turning the crisis into an opportunity, she signs off “Who says we can’t go digital? We did it honey, and we will keep performing whatever platform you give us.”