When you think of “drag,” you might think of the queens on the popular reality TV show on VH1 RuPaul’s Drag Race, hosted by legendary drag queen RuPaul Charles. Most of the contestants are gay cis-gender men. (Note: The term “cis-gender” describes people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.) These aren’t the only people that do drag, however. Cis-gender women, trans women, trans men, non-binary identifying folks and others are performing as drag kings, drag queens, cosplayers, and more.
Clearly, the drag world is very diverse but so are the incomes performers take home. According to some working performers, what drag artists make and spend is dependent on the stage you’re at in your career and personal tastes.
Drag is a “type of entertainment where people dress up and perform, often in highly stylized ways,” says the National Center for Transgender Equality on its website. Drag queens present themselves in exaggerated feminine dress and demeanor while drag kings dress and perform in an overly masculine way. Performers might use different pronouns, a different name and present a different personality when performing in drag.
The money drag queen Glitz “GG” Glam has put in and made out of drag has increased the further along she got in her career. Based in San Diego, California, GG is known for her gender fluid style of drag and being a part of Urban Mo’s management — a San Diego club with many drag shows.
“The pay has changed over the years and the costuming has changed,” says GG. “In the beginning, it was pretty much whatever I could get off the rack … If you were lucky, you got some cute hand me downs — we call them ‘drag droppings.’”
Costumes can get pretty elaborate and pricey, especially if they’re custom-made — anywhere from $100 to $1,000, says GG. Custom designs are nice but cheaper options are available off the rack or if you link up with an up-and-coming designer to get low-cost drag costumes.
Wigs in the lower price range might run between $20 to $80 at a wig store or on Amazon, but more costs are tacked on after washing, styling and lace fronts. A basic wash and style could be around $30, says GG. If a performer is looking for a particular style or recreation, they might spend $80 to $200 in styling.
Drag performers need lots of makeup plus fabulous nails to transform them into their drag personas. Refinery 29 calculated that New York City-based drag queen Jan Sport spends about $2,756 on makeup a year. That includes paint sticks for contour ($392 a year), highlighter ($160 a year), and eyeliner ($174 a year). Jan Sport uses press-on nails at $8 a box (that ends up being $416 a year). Some performers choose to get their nails done in a salon which’ll cost more.
Drag performers can make income from booking fees, tips, merch, or none of the above — it depends on how experienced you are and the clubs you perform at. For example, tipping is more obvious to guests in cabaret type clubs. But if you’re at a gig where you’re dancing on a pedestal or a tall stage out of reach from patrons, tips might not be possible, says GG.
Venues might cover costs like costumes and transportation depending on the venue and where you’re at in your career. Otherwise, you might have to pay for gas and plane tickets out of your own pocket.
RuPaul’s Drag Race has been pivotal in introducing mainstream audiences to the world of drag. (It’s been a long time coming — RuPaul started in 2009 on Logo.) However, there’s been some negative consequences from the way the show presents drag to the world.
For one, the elaborate costuming seen on the show has put pressure on performers to spend a lot more on costumes, says GG.
Secondly, mainly cis-gender gay men have appeared on RuPaul, thus shaping the public’s idea of who can be a drag performer. Those identifying as drag kings might gig less than drag queens. GG agrees that performers that fit into more avant-garde categories might not get the same amount of attention.
“The negative side of RuPaul is he’s kind of set the standard of what a drag queen is supposed to be,” says GG. “She’s found the perfect formula for a television show — she has got the bad guy, the good guy, the old queen, the new queen … if you don’t fall into one of those brackets then you are not as marketable to their clientele.”
“Historically, the queens get more attention. There are many different perspectives on it. Some say it’s still the patriarchy even if it’s in drag,” drag king Ivory Onyx told Vogue in March 2018. “So, there are the inherent characteristics that men are born with and nurtured with that carry over into the drag community.”
RuPaul himself even dismissed the idea of having drag kings on Drag Race in an interview with the Advocate in September 2016.
“The idea of drag and why drag resonates so much in our male-dominated culture is there is irony in a man dressing up in the synthetic version of being a female,” RuPaul told the Advocate. “If a female were to do drag, it loses the irony.”
“As Ru points out, we do live in a ‘male-dominated culture,’ but how is there a lack of irony if women impersonate the very men who dominate them?” Los Angeles-based drag king Landon Cinder wrote in a 2016 op-ed also in the Advocate.
The industry’s preference for drag queens is understandably frustrating. Until that changes, treating all gigs in a professional manner is essential to earning income a drag performer rightly deserves — RuPaul boost or not.