“Before the pandemic, I had regular gigs in a popular nightclub in Taguig City, which was every Friday and Saturday night. I would leave the house at 8:00 p.m. and would be back home by morning the next day,” says drag performer Andy Crocker, who has been in the drag scene for 10 years already. “I considered it my regular job, and I loved it.”
This was the same case with Lady Gagita, another drag performer who's been in the scene for 11 years by now. “Every day was a busy day. There were days when we would have three bookings in one day: I would be in Las Pinas for the first gig, and then I would run to Pasay City then later to Quezon City for my other gigs,” she says.
Lady Gagita said that her earnings from her live drag performances constituted 50% of her overall income every month prior to the pandemic — the other 50% came from her online content creation or vlogging gig, in which she would regularly post makeup tutorials, makeup transformation videos, and celebrity impersonations, among a host of others. Currently, she has 160,000 subscribers on Youtube.
The talent fee for a drag performer in one night would cost around P1,000 ($20). It’s not much, although the tips from the viewing customers could go high; Andy Crocker recalled some nights when she and her fellow drag queens earned P40,000 ($824) from multiple gigs in just one day.
And then, the coronavirus pandemic hit, and nightclubs were among the venues that first halted operations. They remain closed until today.
The drag queens, who are always used to looking all glammed up in their live performances, had to take off their wigs and brush off their makeup for a while.
They were, in a nutshell, left jobless.
Life during a pandemic
“I had no choice but to put Andy Crocker to rest for a while,” says Andy Crocker, or Ralph Joseph Plan without the hair and makeup. “I felt that 50% of Andy Crocker had died.”
Their displacement had a bigger impact on them during what they considered the peak months for the drag queens, particularly Pride Month celebrations every June, Halloween parties every October and November, and holiday festivities every December. “I was literally doing nothing during the Halloween and Christmastime last year, and I remember I kept thinking, ‘I should have been busy by now already,’” says Andy Crocker.
Vinzon Booc, or Lady Gagita when in drag, says he was able to find something else to do in these peak months. He took freelance hair and makeup gigs for corporate employees who participated in their online Christmas party programs. “It was actually sad. I should have been dressing up myself, but at that time, I was dressing up others. It was not what I was used to.”
“I miss everybody: my fellow drag performers, people backstage, and of course the live audiences,” says six-year drag performer Vinas DeLuxe, or Christian Vinas in real life. “I miss the jittery sensation before stepping up on stage, but more importantly, the cheers and the applause. I miss that feeling when audiences would come to hug and thank me after a performance. I miss being told I am beautiful.”
Because nightclubs remain closed until today, Plan, Vinas, and Booc had relied on their online hustle. Particularly, they brought their drag performances from the stage to the online realm. Sometimes they are invited to virtual parties on Zoom, but many times they initiate their own respective livestreams just to bring Andy Crocker, Vinas DeLuxe, and Lady Gagita back to life.
“I am my own DJ, lights man, set designer, performer, and host. After the performance, I am also my own janitor,” says Lady Gagita. “My house is now a studio.”
“Each of us has essentially become a one-man bar,” adds Andy Crocker.
Because of their adjustment to online, they have also learned new skills that they never had before. Andy Crocker, for instance, said that she has learned to become a better host and even a standup comedian now.
“Back when we were still performing in nightclubs, we would get butthurt when some audiences would say we did not look like the artists that we were trying to portray,” says Andy Crocker, who was known for her impersonations of Hollywood performers Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Madonna. “But I could care less now. I am now more focused on showing my hosting skills complemented with my fun personality because you can’t be boring in a livestream. Otherwise, people would leave.”
But Andy Crocker and Lady Gagita said that while they are grateful to have found or created another stage – although digital – for themselves to survive in this pandemic, they also admit that they are now earning less than before.
“Before, we would get tips from our audiences on top of our regular talent fee from the nightclub. Now, we rely solely on tips. But the thing is, not everybody in a Zoom show would give tips; most are there just to watch,” shares Lady Gagita. “Sometimes I would earn P1,000 in one night. That’s not too bad, because there are days when I would earn P500 ($10) only.
On the contrary, this is not exactly the case for Vinas DeLuxe, who said that the pandemic has actually enabled her to find her “true value.”
“As what Andy Crocker and Lady Gagita said earlier, a drag performer would get a regular talent fee of P1,000 per night before. It was systematized already,” she says. “But now, I learned that I am not just worth P1,000 per night because my online viewers are actually paying me better.” While she declined to give her current rate, she just hinted: “My life is actually better now.”
She adds, “If there is one good thing that has happened to the drag performers, it’s that we can come back to the nightclubs soon with a higher rate already.”
To earn money and survive, however, was not the sole reason as to why they shifted online. “We are performing online because dressing up is the passion that was initially taken away from us on the onset of the pandemic,” notes Lady Gagita. “There is this different feeling when we are dressing up and performing, whether on stage or online, so that is why we keep doing this. That adrenaline and confidence that we get from performing are incomparable. No pandemic can ever take that away from us permanently.”
Vinas DeLuxe adds, “I have realized that performing online is actually better than performing on stage because, now, I feel like my online viewers are really focusing on me and watching me closely – unlike in a bar when the spectators would be drinking beers or chitchatting with their friends, and I was just there to perform to fill up the silence, or at least that is what it felt like for me.”
All drag queens that Yahoo Philippines has spoken to all agreed that the pandemic has, indirectly, introduced them to newer audiences; they noticed that most of their viewers in their virtual shows are not the ones who watched them in the nightclubs prior to the pandemic. Probably, these new viewers are the ones who were not comfortable in entering nightclubs, or they came from the provinces and could not travel to Manila, or they simply had no idea what drag performers were doing.
“What’s good here is when we come back to the nightclubs soon when restrictions are already lifted, we might be able to bring these newer audiences and followers with us to the bars. Maybe they are comfortable in going to bars by then because they have an idea of what to expect already,” says Vinas DeLuxe.
“I always get messages on Instagram, asking me why I am no longer as active in drag. So I feel like this concert is a step for me to show my followers that I am back,” Andy Crocker says. “I am excited but at the same time very nervous because I have not worn high heels for a long time already.”
The concert aims not only to celebrate the rainbow community and the LGBTQIA+ rights movement during this Pride month but also to raise funds for the “Golden Queens,” or the members of the Golden Gays Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides support and care for the elderly LGBTQIA+ people. Many of the Golden Queens were also drag queens even back when “drag queen” was not even a popular term yet.
Founded in the 1970s by then Filipino gay rights activist Justo Justo, the Golden Gays Foundation was among those that pioneered in bringing LGBTQIA+ issues to national discourses.
“If they did not walk, we would not be able to run as drag queens today,” says Andy Crocker.
“Today’s drag queens have so much respect for the Golden Queens because if they did not push for their rights as gays and drag performers before, we probably would have remained unaccepted or shunned from the society today,” she adds. “We are able to become loud and proud drag queens now, and the Golden Queens had played such a huge role in this liberty that we have today.”
Lady Gagita says that the Golden Gays have always had a place in her heart. “There was this one time when I saw them all together in the backstage dressing room back when I was about to perform for the Metro Manila Pride event in 2017. They were happily assisting one another in doing their hair and makeup. I felt like I saw my elderly self in them. I thought, ‘I would be like them someday, and I would want my fellow drag queens to be with me at that moment, too.’”
Meanwhile, performing with Lustre would also benefit the drag queens themselves, according to Vinas DeLuxe. “This concert would really help raise more awareness about drag performers and to also show to people what we really do. We do not just dress up and act like girls – we are actually giving a high-quality performance with an added entertainment value,” she says. “This makes me very hopeful that more people would appreciate us more. Hopefully, we get more gigs and bookings after this concert.”
The strengthening Pride movement, which is now joined by more and more people across all generations, also gives them hope.
“I honestly felt some mild depression last year; I felt I did not have the drive to dress up and perform anymore,” says Andy Crocker. “But because I see that more people – many of whom are actually a lot younger than I am – are becoming more vocal in their support not only to the drag queens but also to all members of the LGBTQIA+ community, I get a new sense of encouragement and energy to keep going. If they are continuing the fight, then why would I stop?”
She adds, “This is why I know that the drag queens, no matter what problems you give us, will always rise up. The drag scene is not dying — we are just reinventing.”
Juju Z. Baluyot is a Manila-based writer who has written mostly news features, in-depth special reports, and opinion-editorial pieces for a wide range of publications in the Philippines. The views expressed are his own.
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