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As Angelina Jolie made the usual red carpet rounds at the L.A. premiere of Disney’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, she stopped for a picture with stars who didn’t appear in the film, even if they looked like they had: drag queens Nina West, Shangela and Ginger Minj, decked out in horns, black dresses and, in Minj’s case, an ensemble dedicated to the film’s fairies.
In recent months, queens were invited to the Frozen 2 premiere and the Charlie’s Angels debut, posing with Kristen Stewart, Idina Menzel and Josh Gad. (Reps declined to say how much the queens were paid to appear.)
Studios like Disney are the latest entrant to the new drag queen economy, wooing the robust fan base that queens have carved out since RuPaul’s Drag Race broke out on Viacom’s Logo channel in 2009 (the 13-time Emmy winner moved to VH1 in 2017). While the show deserves much of the credit for the boom, its success dovetails with a wider cultural shift in depiction and exploration of gender identity. Top drag queens have ascended from working primarily nightclub gigs to selling out arenas, appearing in major scripted projects (including A Star Is Born and RuPaul’s upcoming Netflix series AJ and the Queen), making Billboard charts for music releases, socializing with over 100,000 fans at DragCon, and booking fashion collaborations with legacy brands like Prada and Moschino. “Drag queens have tapped into an audience that’s been desperate for a different kind of entertainment,” says Randy Barbato, co-founder alongside Fenton Bailey of World of Wonder, the company behind Drag Race. “Madison Avenue, the fashion industry and Hollywood are finally catching on.”
Overall if you’re a queen, “your money is on the road,” West says. Drag tours have expanded rapidly: In 2017, the RuPaul’s Drag Race Werq the World tour featuring stars from the show stopped at 10 U.S. cities and 12 cities in Europe. In 2019, it played in more than 50 U.S. cities, in 35 European cities and in more arenas than ever before. This year the company has sold more than 130,000 tickets, which range from $50 to $170-plus; top queens keep over 50 percent of ticket sales.
Individual tours remain an important income driver, too, though fees vary: “One [queen] can make $300 at a nightclub and Bianca del Rio will walk out with $30,000,” says Brandon Voss, the owner of Voss Events, which runs the RuPaul’s Drag Race tours. (Voss says that all his drag clients make more than $500,000 annually and that Aquaria has made over $1 million in endorsement deals and performances alone.)
Merchandise sweetens the pot. At DragCon, an annual event in New York and L.A. (and the U.K. in 2020) co-produced by RuPaul and World of Wonder, fans can meet queens and buy their products: In 2018, $8 million was exchanged at the New York and L.A. conventions, which saw 100,000 combined visitors. “I make more in merch sales than I do in pay on big tours because a bunch of [my customers] are under 21 and can’t go to clubs,” says Race contestant and Coverboy Cosmetics founder Willam Belli.
“Drag queens are united in the visual aspect of drag, but that’s just an icebreaker: There are singers, comedians, actors, et cetera,” Jacob Slane, a partner at Producer Entertainment Group, which specializes in drag queen management, says. A diversified business portfolio can help improve an artist’s “longevity,” he says, and works to offset a drag queen’s considerable overhead, which includes the cost of costumes, makeup and wigs, which several queens say cost them, on average, thousands per year: Sasha Velour has said that her time on Drag Race cost her $4,000 for her looks on the show alone, and Jan Sport has said she spends $6,256 on costumes, wigs, makeup, nails, fragrance and treatments per year.
Several queens have launched music careers, including Belli, Latrice Royale and Sharon Needles. Others have collected fees just to appear in videos (several were featured in Taylor Swift’s 2019 “You Need to Calm Down”) or for lip-syncing on YouTube. “If you see a famous drag queen doing a lip sync to a Lady Gaga song, chances are the label’s working with that drag queen,” says Voss. Many queens have also done makeup collaborations with brands like NYX, Sugarpill and Kat Von D.
While a drag queen doesn’t have to have appeared on RuPaul’s Drag Race or other series starring drag queens to be successful in 2019, most of today’s highest-earning drag queens have been prior show contestants. “Without the show, I don’t know if businesses would be interested in the viability of drag,” says West, who started getting Hollywood invitations shortly after her turn on season 11. “For me, the opportunity window was opened by Drag Race,” queen Shea Couleé, who participated in the ninth season, concurs. “Honestly, the opportunities [that followed the show] surpassed my expectations.”
World of Wonder’s streaming platform, WOW Presents Plus, is another option. Launched in 2017, the $4-per-month service includes shows like Alyssa Raw, featuring Alyssa Edwards, and a docuseries following the Werq tour. WOW says the platform is profitable, with 142 percent subscriber growth year-over-year (they declined to give subscriber numbers). There are still only a few ongoing, non-WOW-produced options for talent, including New Zealand’s House of Drag and the internet show Hey Qween.
Given its meteoric rise, some fear elements of drag’s pop-cultural influence have peaked. “The live performance bubble is already starting to burst, especially in the U.S., where it’s saturated,” says Voss. But that hasn’t stopped companies focused on the business from moving forward with expansion plans. RuPaul’s Drag Race, which the U.K., Chile and Thailand has already adapted into country-specific versions, will soon launch a new show in Canada; Celebrity Drag Race, featuring three stars undergoing makeovers with the help of Drag Race alums, will launch in 2020; a live Vegas show based on RuPaul’s Drag Race will open in 2020 at Flamingo Las Vegas and if it does well, “our next move will be to get it to Broadway,” Voss says.”
Still, champions of the drag business say certain areas of entertainment continue to have glass ceilings. “I would love for drag queens to begin to be the star of more series instead of an ensemble or a side component, whether that’s [in] feature films or scripted television,” Slane says.
A version of this story will appear in the Dec. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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