What’s It Like to Be a Drag Queen? We Spent Time With Some to Find Out
Delores Van-Cartier sinks into her couch one evening after work with a glass of good wine and some cheese. She watches reruns of the Cosby Show and plays with her dog. This evening her nails are big, pointy and red, an indication that she enjoys pampering herself. During the day, she boasts a casual look: jeans and a T-shirt. On weekends and some weeknights, she transforms into larger than life characters, including Patti LaBelle and Tina Turner. She’s a regular performer at Hamburger Mary’s in Clearwater, Florida. Hamburger Mary’s is an LGBTQIA chain restaurant that hosts drag shows, drag bingo and drag brunch while encouraging people to be their authentic self.
I went to Hamburger Mary’s with my camera to capture the action of what a typical night looks like for Van-Cartier and her fellow drag performers. I also interviewed Van-Cartier and Kenneth Lawson, whose stage name is Juno, to see how much it costs to be a drag queen.
How did you get your start in the drag community?
Van-Cartier: I went over to Europe, and I basically started there.
Lawson: I started out about nine years ago. When I moved to Florida two years ago, I had to start over. It was hard at first. There’s certain people you have to be seen by in the community. You have to be humble. You have to be nice to everybody.
Are you a full-time performer or a part-time performer?
Van-Cartier: It’s a job. I don’t live off drag. I do have a daytime job. Drag is my livelihood. It’s what keeps me sane.
Lawson: I’m definitely full-time lately. I’ve been full-time for about a year. I love it. It’s fun. I get to do what I want to do… I have this master class I do — techniques, acting and emotion. It helps me put money aside… I teach dance. I’m a busy boy. It’s enough to sustain my life and drag career.
About how much do you spend on your outfits, wigs, shoes and makeup?
Van-Cartier: I would say $1,000 a month.
Lawson: Per month, I would probably say $200 to $300 depending on what I’m getting. Sometimes I can go a full month without getting makeup. Outfit wise I try to keep it fresh. I keep my closet rotating. I sell it or burn it after a few years.
Is there anything you make yourself or repurpose to save money?
Delores: I used to make my own costumes. I do my own jewelry just to save money. If a set costs $500, it will cost half or less to make it.
Lawson: Sometimes I make my own stuff. I go to drag swaps and buy outfits there.
What’s your biggest work expense?
Van-Cartier: Makeup because you’re constantly using it.
Lawson: My biggest work expense is makeup. Makeup is expensive. You have to find the right shade of makeup. Cover Girl does not cover Cover Boy.
Are you responsible for paying for everything you need to perform or do you get a stipend from the club?
Van-Cartier: You’re responsible for everything. The better you are, the better you get paid.
Lawson: It depends on where I’m at. I do get a stipend where I work at Weiners Nightclub and City Side in Tampa on Tuesdays.
How much money do you typically make at a gig, and how much money do you make off tips?
Van-Cartier: It depends. Tips are never guaranteed. My booking fee is $100 to $150. If I travel, my individual fee is $750 out of state plus tips, airfare and transportation. A good night for tips is $200 to $300. If I make $100 a day when it’s the slow season then I’m fine. I’m happy. Less than $100 would be really bad. Drag pays for itself or it should.
What do you enjoy the most about being a drag queen?
Van-Cartier: It’s a getaway. A getaway from reality.
Lawson: I’m a theater geek. I have a degree in theater. I’ve always loved the escape of it. You’re a completely different person. I love to perform, and it’s a good way to do it.
Do you have any money-saving tips to share with readers who want to get involved in drag?
Van-Cartier: Invest in yourself and stay humble. You have to set money aside. Take out $10 if you make $20 or $30. Don’t spend it (the money you make) all at once. There’s always going to be a rainy day for panty hose. People don’t know how to save money or have money. You never know what tomorrow will bring so you can’t spend everything at once. Don’t treat yourself every day or every week.
Lawson: What I do, drag, the money I make from drag, I use for drag. I’ll put my tips aside for my drag stuff. I would say, just do it. You won’t find out if you want to do it or if you’re good at it until you do it.