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What’s It Like to Be a Drag Queen? We Spent Time With Some to Find Out

Drag queens at Hamburger Mary's perform as a group.
From left, Jason Doolin (known as Jocelyn), Kenneth Lawson (known at Juno), Gary Cohen (known as Jade) and Delores Van-Cartier perform as a group at Hamburger Mary's in Clearwater, Fla.


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.

A woman plays with her dog at her home.
Van-Cartier plays with her dog as she unwinds from a busy day at work in Holiday, Fla. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

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.

Drag queens get ready in a dressing room at Hamburger Mary's.
Cohen and Lawson get ready in the dressing room of Hamburger Mary's in Clearwater. Cohen is a full-time performer and regular drag queen at Hamburger Mary's and often performs hits by Britney Spears. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

How did you get your start in the drag community?

Juno performs at Hamburger Mary's in Clearwater, Fla.
Lawson, known as Juno, performs at Hamburger Mary's. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

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?

A poster of Van-Cartier hangs in her drag room surrounded by her costumes, jewelry and shoes.
A poster of Van-Cartier hangs in her drag room surrounded by her costumes, jewelry and shoes. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

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?

Lawson applies makeup before putting on a costume in the dressing room at Hamburger Mary’s. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Lawson applies makeup before putting on a costume in the dressing room at Hamburger Mary’s. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

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?

A woman puts earrings on in the dressing room of Hamburger Mary's.
Van-Cartier puts on earrings she made herself in the dressing room of Hamburger Mary's. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

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?

A person holds an eyeshadow palette.
Lawson holds an eyeshadow palette while getting ready to perform at Hamburger Mary's. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

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?

A drag queen performs at Hamburger Mary's' in Clearwater.
Cohen, known as Jade, performs a Britney Spears song at Hamburger Mary’s. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

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 decides what shoes to wear before a performance at Hamburger Mary’s.
Van-Cartier decides what shoes to wear before a performance at Hamburger Mary’s. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

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?

A performer at Hamburger Mary's takes selfies with restaurant patrons.
Van-Cartier takes photos with Hamburger Mary’s patrons as she performs.

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.

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