RuPaul’s Budget Race: How to Be a Drag Queen When You’re Broke
Art by Jonan Everett
So you want to become a drag queen, but you are one broke-ass son. How are you ever going to become the next Bianca Del Rio when you’re struggling to pay the rent? Worry not, my good Judy. I have the answers for you from the Holy Book of Drag (or rather, some international drag stars who gave me the low down — same thing).
And really, how much money can you make from this art form? Sadly, tipping culture doesn’t exist in Ireland, and prices for a single gig vary wildly. But in the States, you have more of a chance of making serious cash — tipping there is alive and well, after all. However, you must be dedicated.
Reddit user and drag queen Cosmo gave me some insight into how life can be in the United States for someone just starting out. “It really depends on your crowd that night and where you’re performing,” she says. “More tips definitely come with more experience and more performance know-how. The more gagged [engaged] your audience is, the better the odds that you’ll make more money. Granted, you can be sickening [amazing] all you want and make zilch with the wrong audience. But if you stick to it, you’ll definitely see it pay off.”
What about them numbers, though? “When I started out, I generally made only $10 to $20, which has upped gradually, albeit slowly over time,” Cosmo says. “I have had the off-night of getting much less or much more. The lowest was $8, and the highest was $103.”
In Australia, if you’re just starting out, you can probably expect to earn $10 to $25 per number for your first paid gig (as in not paid with free drinks). In Japan, you are sometimes expected to work for free or even to pay to play when you are just starting out.
So who do we have lined up for you today?
Meet the Queens
If, like me, you’re a RuPaul’s Drag Race fan, then you’ll know exactly who Farrah Moan is from Season 9 of the show. Need I say more?
One of the most popular queens in my hometown of Dublin, wittily named Victoria Secret, also lent her expertise. Unlike Saint Patrick, she’s been bringing the snakes back to Ireland in the form of performances from other Drag Race contestants.
Madame Fabulous from Saint Augustine, Florida gives us the scoop on the trials and tribulations of doing drag in the South. She also shares tips on looking expensive while wearing a garbage bag. And if that’s all your bank balance will let you buy these days, your attention will be rapt.
Puns! Who doesn’t love a punny name? Havana Fair from Newcastle, Australia provided me with endless entertainment. Queen turned multi-award-winning filmmaker, Havana gave me some of the most thoughtful drag advice that anyone could ever hope to hear.
But enough pleasantries and ass-kissing. Let’s get down to business.
How to Do Drag on a Budget
Kelly Meehan Brown: What is your experience with doing drag when you haven’t got much money?
Madame Fabulous: Like many people, I live paycheck to paycheck, so I don’t have money to spare for a gown or an expensive wig. Everything is on the cheap, with the hope of looking expensive. I would like to think I’m pretty crafty and good at bargain shopping. In the end, you can walk out there in a garbage bag and some makeup and really sell it with attitude. It’s been done!
Havana Fair: I did drag at a time when your payment could range from just a free drink at the bar all the way up to getting $50 for a number in Taylor Square [in Sydney]. Considering all the money that goes into a costume, you’re always losing money. That’s why you have to perform the same song so many times: because you want at least to break even on your investment. But if you’re doing drag for the money, get out. It’s too difficult to treat it just as a job. You have to have a passion for the art form for it to work.
Victoria Secret: Well, unlike what Michelle Visage told Chi Chi DeVayne in season eight of Rupaul’s Drag Race, drag is not cheap. You can do some types of drag much cheaper, but I’m guessing that if you did, Michelle would be the first judge to read you to filth [mock you]!
My start was probably as cheap as I could manage, and even at that it was expensive. With size 13 feet and shoulders more suited to rugby than ladies’ wear, I have never really been able to buy off the rack. But I started as cheap as I could, finding any stretch clothes that would work for my 6-foot-2 body, grabbing the ugliest shoes I could find as long as they fit, and investing in a limited amount of makeup while begging, borrowing, and stealing the rest. Wigs were way more expensive at the time, and I still remember my first wig costing 300 euros [about $362]!
Farrah Moan: I started out with no money. You have to get creative. Go thrifting and vintage shopping; learn to rhinestone and customize what you find to make it work. Watch hair tutorials online and try and get your wigs just right.
KMB: Jokes get told all the time about using the stuffing from old couches to get that womanly shape. Is there an element of truth to that? What other tips and tricks do you have?
MF: I may not have savaged innocent upholstered furniture, but I do have rolls of upholstery foam that I pick up at the fabric store with my 40-percent-off coupon. For just $20, a roll lasts a while, and you can make a variety of pads for yourself. The real trick is to sculpt the edges so they’re tapered and you don’t look lumpy. And duct tape. Duct tape is a girl’s best friend, Henny!
HF: For starters, in Australia, there’s no need to pad because in my day it was all about the performance, not about looking like a woman. But my biggest tip to someone starting out is to think of yourself as a business.
As my creative partner Paul Leeming often says, “If you want it to be good and cheap, it’s not going to be quick.” So give yourself time.
VS: Ha ha — this is the total truth! I don’t know anyone who has used an old couch, but we do use a type of couch-cushion filling that we cut up and shape with a carving knife for hip pads. It’s an art form in itself to get a pad the right shape and not looking lumpy.
FM: Absolutely. That’s still a trick many queens use to this day. If you’re looking to save money with drag, taking care of your shoes, wigs, and wardrobe is a must.
Challenges of Being a Drag Queen
KMB: Have you ever faced any difficulty in doing drag because of money?
MF: Definitely. While Drag Race has really put drag on the map, there is this general misconception that drag has to be high drag or fishy [overtly feminine] drag. That’s not me. I’m more of your middle-aged bimbo, secretary, cougar-type of girl.
Plus, if you don’t do the splits and death drop — I would probably break a hip at this point — you aren’t seen as interesting. That’s okay. That’s why I pursue other avenues of developing my craft, including theater productions and developing a drag home-and-garden show to pitch to cable networks. I’m going to be the next drag Martha Stewart! Bottom line is that unless you are doing pretty, polished drag, you’re less likely to get bookings, because that is what the mainstream audience wants, especially if you can do the stunts. I mean, I could, but my insurance sucks and I would have to use a crowdfunding site, like Jackie Beat did, so I could get a hip replacement. So there’s that.
HF: All the time. As a filmmaker now and as a drag queen then, money is the biggest difficulty. But difficulty is the mother of innovation. That thing between your ears is the best thing you have. You may not have money, but with a little work, you can be creative.
VS: I started drag for the love of it and as a hobby. A polished look wasn’t sought after or, to be honest, overly celebrated. So my lack of money to invest in it didn’t really matter. I lived in the same hair and clothes for the first few years, and to this day those drag experiences were some of the most fun of my life. Now as I work a fair bit, I try to pick up bits and pieces constantly so that I don’t have to overspend in one particular month.
FM: Absolutely. Drag is the most expensive profession ever. And it doesn’t become cheaper when you make it on the show! In fact, it only gets more expensive. I used to host a show in Austin that aired once a month, and they gave me $75. I usually had to try and figure out how to get the next event’s looks with half of that. Thrifting and rhinestoning saved me there.
Advice for Beginners
KMB: If you had any advice for someone just starting out doing drag without much money, what would it be?
MF: Just do it! It doesn’t matter if you look a busted mess — express who you are unapologetically and have fun with it. Drag is what you define it as. It doesn’t have to be any one thing, just make it your thing.
Don’t worry about the money, and do what you love — that is all that matters. The rest will follow!
HF: Just have fun. All drag has value. No matter how you look, you have value. Drag queens and trans people are the heroes of our community. You are a part of a legacy that includes kabuki, shamanism, the two-spirit, Divine, and RuPaul. Go out there and carry that torch.
VS: Be creative and remember that an audience will respond far more to a queen who has thought out her number with the aim of entertaining than to someone who walks onstage aiming to look head-to-toe polished, but who has not really invested anything into making a performance entertaining.
FM: I think anyone starting out as a drag queen should really look deep inside herself and figure out why she wants to do this profession. Do you think it looks like an easy way to get rich and famous? Or do you actually have a passion for entertaining and fashion or makeup? I’ve seen people get into drag for the wrong reasons, and they never last. You have to be completely dedicated to your craft and understand you will be turned down so many times before you actually get a paid job.
Final Thoughts From Our Queens
MF: Where I am, drag is pretty limited unless you head further south toward Orlando or Miami or west toward Tampa. It’s a scary place, so you can’t be hanging out at Walmart shopping for bras without most likely getting shot — unless you have more teeth than their old lady, and then you have a fighting chance. There is so much out there online. It may be hit or miss, but there is a lot to explore and play with. Just experiment. Don’t try to be perfect, don’t compare yourself with any other queen (others will do that for you), and just have fun! Smooches!
HF: Don’t limit yourself in terms of what you can accomplish. So many young queens are focused on working in bars, when with a little time and work, you can put yourself out there on the corporate party circuit. You’ll work in the daytime and raise money for charity, and the pay is so much better. Mainstream culture knows RuPaul, but they don’t see a difference between Lady Bunny, Trixie Mattel, or a man in a wig — they are all just referred to as drag queens. Use that to your advantage, and contact your local event planners and pitch yourself to them for their next event.
Also, don’t think that just because you are a drag queen you have to work as a hairdresser or in makeup. I successfully transitioned from doing drag to getting behind the camera to become a multi-award-winning filmmaker [writer and producer of the short film An American Piano, available on Amazon Prime] and the director of my debut feature film, Kodokushi. As Bebe Zahara Benet says, “Drag will take you everywhere”!
VS: Drag is fun! Make sure you enjoy yourself. Do everything, try different vibes, and don’t take yourself too seriously.
FM: Drag is not easy. It’s extremely hard. And it only gets harder the bigger you get. When you’re starting out, you will spend every cent you have on drag, until you’re broke. If the passion, drive, and dedication is there, you will persevere.
How to Be a Drag Queen: Lessons Learned
So what have we learned? You don’t have to be rich to do drag, kids. But you do have to be serious and dedicated, investing both time and money. With these tips, you’re sure to do it in the most financially viable way possible. All our queens have also taught us to just have fun, no matter who or where you are.
Here I am with my best friend, makeup artist Jessie O’Neill, imitating skinny legend Trixie Mattel. I can’t take the credit for the makeup — that’s on O’Neill.
Coincidentally, I also randomly ran into Farrah Moan at LAX last year. Now she’s one of the stars of what is surely the favorite article I’ve ever worked on!
Where to Find the Best Sites and Stores
Apart from actual clothes, thrift stores are great for fabrics, curtains (to use for fabric), and costume jewelry.
Amazon is great for wigs, shoes, and undergarments. The prices are good; and when you ship with Amazon Smile, a portion of the proceeds of any purchase can go to one of your fave — maybe even LGBT-plus — charities.
In Sydney, the place to go to for cheap wigs is Paddy’s Market. At wig shops and warehouses, ask if they have a factory-seconds bin. Great for bargains! And when starting out, eBay can always be your friend. While most queens will keep their suppliers to themselves, most shoe and wig websites — such as Msbuy and Wigsbuy — sell a very similar stock.
Quick Tips and Tricks
Here are a few last drag queen words to the wise:
- Befriend staff at secondhand and thrift stores to stay ahead of the game.
- You can use weave bond glue — normally used to affix weaves or hair extensions to the scalp — to stick on lashes. It’s less than half the price of typical glues for four times the amount. But be careful, some people are allergic to it.
- Don’t have your ears pierced? Drag legend Roxxxy Andrews glues a magnet to the back of her earring and places a magnet behind her earlobe to hold it in place. Genius!
- Save your fake lashes and nails to reuse again and again. It will save you a ton of money.