Drag Goes Digital
Local performers rely on online viewers and tips during the shutdown.
It’s a Monday night, and Houston-based drag queen Regina Blake-Dubois is in her apartment getting ready for her evening performance. The setting is a far cry from her usual dressing room in the back of Michael’s Outpost, but with bars and clubs shut down due to the COVID-19 outbreak, she is getting creative with how she executes her Monday-night Broadway revue.
Drag performers throughout Houston are turning to social media to continue entertaining their loyal fans and supporters, all while finding their footing in front of a camera and discovering previously untapped audiences.
Blake-Dubois, host of Houston’s only drag musical-theater revue, The Broad’s Way, admits that switching from lively bars to social-media platforms has not been the easiest transition. With Facebook’s strict rules regarding copyrighted musical material, and Instagram’s one-hour limit on live streams, her cast is in a constant battle against technology. “Essentially, it’s one giant experiment every week to figure out what works best for us and for our audience,” she says. The group’s frustration has led them to consider taking their show to the popular streaming site Twitch.
As Blake-Dubois moves her act from the bars to her apartment, the change of scenery has provided some new creative possibilities not usually available at a club. “I’ve felt almost like MacGyver, having to make performances out of things I have at home,” Blake-Dubois notes with her trademark wit. “It’s allowed me to perform ‘Cell Block Tango’ alone in my shower, douse myself in honey, and perform a song called ‘Hold My Hand’ while leading a hand-washing tutorial—all things I wouldn’t usually be able to do while performing in a bar or club.”
Other entertainers are facing similar hurdles with their transition from nightclubs to living rooms. Ian Syder-Blake directs and performs with The Kings of Houston, the only drag-king show in the city. The self-described “proud drag dad” is navigating unknown waters, since he admits to not being super-comfortable using Instagram Live. The bearded entertainer finds the collaboration process to be his saving grace. “I have amazing people to help me learn. For all of us, performing without an audience is tricky, but I believe we do a wonderful job at keeping our audience engaged and entertained.” Syder-Blake touts his team’s energy and ability to adapt. “My cast thinks outside the box for new ways to perform, as well as incorporating dance, live singing, and even reading stories during the show!”
The lack of an audience resonates with the Latina force-of-nature drag queen Angelina DM Trailz, who was the subject of a recent viral TikTok video. “From the first day I decided to do live shows, I wanted to maintain the integrity of the artform,” she says with passion in her voice. “A huge part of drag is interaction. I used to talk to people during my numbers, and now I don’t get to do that anymore. So now I’m performing from beginning to end, making sure everyone stays entertained.” But whether it’s faces in a crowd or user names on a screen, Trailz explains it’s all about pleasing her audiences, no matter the circumstance. “I’ve gotten all positive feedback. People are really thankful, and acknowledge that we are going out of our way to keep entertaining. They see that by us doing this, we are in this together.”
The drag performers have also tapped into social-media split-screen functionality to bring other guests into their virtual shows. “Primarily, everyone is performing solo while joining the video remotely,” Blake-Dubois explains. As for the Kings of Houston, “The cast consists of seven full-time performers including myself, and we are all a part of every show,” Syder-Blake says. And whether she is playing her violin, reading a story to young viewers, or doing an all-out performance, Trailz is determined to put on a show. “I’m a perfectionist, period. So it was hard to adapt to what was happening,” she explains. “But it was also liberating to know that I control what viewers see through the lens.”
Keeping within the CDC’s guidelines, Trailz will launch an exciting round of performances at a favorite Montrose drag-brunch spot.“I’m doing a brunch show at Boheme on Sundays,” Trailz notes. “We are going to be going live on selected Sundays. The video stream will be on Boheme’s Facebook account, and all of the “Ladies of Boheme” are going to join in.”
The entertainers all facilitate viewer tipping through online payment apps such as Paypal and Venmo, but they aren’t banking as much as they did before the quarantine began.
“I can’t speak for anyone else,” says Blake-Dubois, “but I’m currently making significantly less.” The Kings of Houston pool their tips and split them with the cast and creative team. “Not all of us need those tips,” says Syder-Blake, “so some are donating their tips back to the pot for those that need it more.” Trailz, an immigrant who won’t be receiving a government stimulus check in the mail, also notes that the tips are small. “But you know, we are thankful for anything!”
All of the performers agree that they are grateful to be able to connect with their loyal base and receive whatever the fans are willing to give, knowing that financial insecurities are running high everywhere. At the end of the day, it’s all about the artful expression these entertainers get to share virtually. “The thing we keep discussing in our group chat is how happy we all are that people worldwide can see us now.” says Syder-Blake. “We have viewers from all over the U.S., but also from Great Britain and Canada as well!”
In this new age of social distancing, Houston’s drag entertainers look forward to being back in the bars and clubs spreading joy and fierceness. Trailz, reflecting on how life has changed so drastically over the last few months, summarizes their collective experience: “I don’t take any performance for granted!”
Follow Regina Blake-Dubois on Instagram @reginathornedubois; follow Ian Syder-Blake on Instagram @ian_syder; and follow Angelina DM Trailz on Instagram @iamqueenangelina.