COVID-19 Done Fucked Up Drag Race

By Ahad Sanwari

It’s safe to say that RuPaul’s Drag Race season 12 has earned itself a spot as one of the best seasons of the show in recent memory (stay tuned for that, though, you don’t know what later episodes could bring). This season, the queens are particularly well-rounded and diverse. Even Dahlia Sin, the first queen to be eliminated, was able to bring some fantastic looks to the runway before she was sent home.

But there’s an enemy bearing down on the success of the show, one dark and foreboding. No, it’s not the legions of fans who think it’s fine to send hate mail to queens they don’t like. No, it’s not RuPaul himself who tries to endlessly produce each and every move the queens make.

Nope. It’s the, as Cardi B eloquently puts it, “CORONAVIRUS!” Or, as fans now call it, Miss Rona (great drag name, by the way).

When the season first premiered on February 28, the US had a little over 100 cases of the disease. People were still living their daily lives, “social distancing” hadn’t become the choice buzzword it was meant to be. But as the weeks went by, the virus quickly spread throughout the nation, killing hundreds and infecting even more. As a result, stay-at-home orders ensued, along with general haywire. Public spaces closed down as well, including bars and clubs. Aka, the same bars and clubs which most drag queens rely on for earning their income, sometimes their ONLY source of income.

Now, that last point makes it particularly worse for the queens from Drag Race 12. Usually, the airing of the show allows for contestants to take advantage of their newfound popularity. Many of them frequent bars where episode viewing parties are held, where they talk about what went down, watch together with the world, and then perform. This is a chance for them to not only make some extra fans, but also some extra dollars in tips. Drag queen Trannika Rex and “Roscoe’s Tavern” in Chicago host viewing parties every week, and the guest queen there each week is usually the one who goes home that episode. Viewing parties at “Roscoe’s” alone have given the Drag Race fandom some iconic moments. But, alas, all that came to a screeching halt.

Some queens choose other ways to capitalize on the moment even more— they release music to coincide with episodes where they usually do either particularly well or really badly. Contestant Widow Von Du released her single after the premiere episode, an episode in which she won. But, conversely, another contestant, Jan Sport (simply “Jan” for the show), had to scrap her plans to release her music after the episode where she was eliminated because she wouldn’t be able to promote it or shoot a music video for it.

Usually, though, when a queen doesn’t have the ability to rake in the love (and money, honey) while the season is airing, they’re more than able to do so at RuPaul’s DragCon, the nation’s (possibly, the world’s) biggest drag convention that saw over 100,000 visitors in its New York edition in 2019. And DragCon LA is right around the corner, on May 1, 2 and…wait…what’s that?…DragCon is cancelled? Well, there you go.

These queens aren’t popular enough yet to merit losing out on such promotional means. Sure, many of them do come from prominent drag families and are well-known enough in their hometowns. But those are still limited audiences. Plastique Tiara, a contestant from last year’s season, became the first queen to hit one million followers on Instagram while the show was still airing. And all this happened before she was eliminated in episode 9. In comparison, Gigi Goode has the highest Instagram following of this year’s cast as of episode 8, standing at 519,000 (as of this writing).

Queens are having to go completely virtual to appease their fans and build some connections. Many of the contestants frequently go live on Instagram and some of them even collaborate on live makeup tutorials. Contestants Nicky Doll and Rock M. Sakura, both early outs,  are now doing a themed makeup live-session each Monday to bring some regularity to their drag lives. Queens are doing Zoom and Facetime video interviews too, but even those always start off with “So, how’s the quarantine been?”

Apart from Instagram and Zoom (the Beyoncé of 2020), Cameo has become a pretty regular feature for many of the contestants from the season. Cameo is a website that allows people to pay for celebrities to send them personalized video messages and answer questions, generally not more than a minute long. Of the season 12 queens, Gigi’s cameo costs the most ($50), while Brita Filter and Jaida Essence Hall charge the least ($30).

Then there’s the several digital drag fests, at-home performances from queens being broadcast wherever one can find a filter-less internet connection…if you pay a certain sum to join the stream and can tip, of course. Think “Together at Home,” but with drag queens instead of Lady Gaga. 

But COVID-19 still weighs heavy on all of them. Gigs are being cancelled. Queens are constantly having to push Venmo, PayPal, Cash App, and Cameo accounts to their fans. For so many other local queens, it’s a fight to earn their livelihood. But with the queens of season 12, they’re not only trying to make money (well, somewhat), they’re also trying to stay fresh and relevant. 

Drag queens had to adapt to an unexpected reality. (Credit: VH1)

Fans have termed this season as the “cursed season.” The season’s second episode was overshadowed by the emergence of alleged sexual assault claims against contestant Sherry Pie, which led to VH1 and the show issuing a notice that Sherry had been disqualified and, effectively, had no chance at the crown. That doesn’t help when you remember that the season had already been taped, and Sherry has already become one of the best performers so far. Then came the virus that shut down the queens’ livelihoods. And now, this may just be the season that never ends, since there’s no knowledge on when and how the show’s finale will take place, considering it’s usually taped a couple of weeks before it airs in May. What now? Will the reunion special be on Zoom?

Season 12 queen Jackie Cox recently contributed to an article for Variety with a personal essay, where she says, “We already were talking about how meet and greets might go at DragCon. Is it a no-touch policy? Do we just elbow bump fans who’d been waiting hours and spent hard-earned money to meet us? How do we make these moments memorable for one of the most passionate fandoms out there?” Even writing as someone who’s spent over $100 at the same event in order to spend five minutes with a queen (my parents don’t know, shhhh), I sympathize with them quite a bit. They don’t have the luxury of knowing that they can go on worldwide tours post-show or sell merchandise at conventions. They don’t know what the future holds for their careers in this uncertain time.

Yes, they’re making money off doing Cameos, for example. But the $50 high pales in comparison to the $100 that Plastique charges. And, at this stage in the season, Gigi has been doing much better than Plastique did on her go, having won three challenges and never being in the bottom, as opposed to Plastique winning only once. Also, these queens expect to use this time while the show is airing to increase their earnings and compensate for all that they’ve spent just to be on the show. Queens often spend thousands of dollars on wigs, outfits, shoes, makeup, jewelry, etc so they can be effective “lewk” queens.

Do I sound like a debbie downer to you? Well, I just might be one. It’s disappointing that a group of queens this talented from my favorite show, probably the most talented and versatile of any season in the show’s herstory, aren’t able to see where their years of social struggle, dreams, and hard work could’ve taken them. Many fans think that this season is Gigi Goode’s to lose. Honestly though, Ru, I think we might as well hand over the crown and the $100,000 cheque to Miss Rona, because she slayed all these queens.