As a queer subculture, drag often escapes mainstream notice, and Milwaukee’s drag scene is no exception. But like all artists, drag performers have had to get creative to make it through the pandemic, creating their own music videos, performing in parking lots and dancing in face shields to keep their profession alive.
Milwaukee’s drag is often overlooked, says drag queen Jemma Stone, who first moved to Milwaukee a year and a half ago. “I think Milwaukee has some of the best drag in the entire country,” she says. “There is room for every type of drag, and it’s all valid.”
Self-described “glamorous clown” Dominique DeGrant has performed all across Wisconsin. Milwaukee’s plethora of performers makes its drag scene “very competitive,” she says. “You definitely have to be on your A-game if you want to actually make a living doing something like this.”
Becky Essence Hall, drag daughter of recent “Drag Race” winner Jaida Essence Hall, agrees that the scene can be cutthroat. “All drag queens here want to succeed and be the best. So once they see that you are doing well, they won’t help you anymore, you know?” she says. “But besides that, I love Milwaukee drag. It is great. And I’m so glad that this is the place that I was able to start doing everything.”
Cut to March, when the pandemic hit America in full force. “All of a sudden everything shut down and we were just like, ‘Oh, this’ll last a few weeks,’” says Stone. “And then it didn’t.”
Live performances, of course, were no longer viable. So how did queens react? With panic, says DeGrant. “I had to start canceling shows. And for me, that was very scary because that’s my primary income.”
Like DeGrant, many drag queens rely on live shows to survive, including Hall. “You don’t have a fixed income, so you’re putting everything on the line, hoping that you make enough to support yourself. And not just rent and food and bills, but drag. If you’re going to do drag full time, you need to invest,” she says, as a steady influx of new clothes, hair and jewelry is essential to getting consistent bookings. “You get more opportunities when you spend more money.”
Another queen, Coco Monet (the “vixen of Milwaukee,” as she puts it), was worried not just for her own wellbeing, but for the survival of Milwaukee’s few drag performance locations. “A lot of the bars that do host drag shows and have drag queens there are smaller bars,” Monet says. “So I’m kind of worried — so, are the bars going to open back up? Are they going to close?”
One such spot is This Is It, Milwaukee’s oldest gay bar. General manager Chad Harrington says the bar’s first priority was providing for its performers through the lockdown. “We knew that that was going to be a big hit for them, you know?” he says. So the bar’s staff came together on the day of the shutdown and started brainstorming. “We literally spent that entire day learning how to stream things online, how to do the graphics, all that stuff, and we literally did a show the next day online.”
Digital drag shows like This Is It’s are one of the most popular ways drag has operated during the pandemic, usually consisting of prerecorded drag performances, edited and conceived similarly to music videos. This Is It’s weekly digital show was slightly different, with queens coming to the bar and performing to an empty room. Videos of these performances were then published the following day.
“That experience was a little awkward because you’re performing really just for a camera, so you don’t have the feedback of the audience,” says Monet. “You’re like, ‘Well, do people like me? Do people not like me?’, until after the next day when you see the video posted.”
“I hate digital shows! I do not want to do a digital show,” says Hall. “The audience interaction is why I do drag. You’re performing on an empty stage with your heels clacking and you can hear your breathing, and yes, it’s going to be cute when you edit the music over it, but it’s really not fun to just put it together and do all of that.”
Beyond the slightly uncomfortable nature of these shows for performers, they required a lot of work. On top of the normal effort needed to get into drag and perform, self-producing a digital performance called for “an additional, from start to finish, probably 10 to 12 hours of straight work, and then that’s if you don’t have any hiccups with your editing or your lip-sync not laying over properly with the music,” says Stone. “I will say this: virtual shows are not my favorite thing to do, but when it comes together, it’s pretty incredible.”
So for a queen who’s not cut out for digital shows, what other options were there? As lockdown restrictions started to ease up, drag franchise restaurant Hamburger Mary’s brought a new kind of show to Milwaukee: drive-in drag. As with a drive-in movie, the audience brought their cars to the restaurant and watched from their vehicles as queens lip-synced in the parking lot.
DeGrant, a regular performer at Hamburger Mary’s, says the drive-in shows were mutually beneficial to the business, the queens and the audience. “Everybody had been inside for so long, they didn’t have anything to do. So I think people just felt it was a really nice way to get out and still feel safe because they were outside, they had their own separate spaces they could go to and there could still be a live entertainment type of thing, you know?”
“That was cute. That was a very fun and safe idea, I thought,” says Hall. “But my heels definitely did not agree, performing on the pavement and the concrete and the uneven road.”
Most recently, drag shows have cautiously returned to an indoor in-person format.
Obviously, holding indoor shows in any capacity is a risk. “The bar is a dangerous place to be during a pandemic, one, because you get alcohol involved in anything and things get a little bit more loose, people lose inhibitions a little bit easier,” says Stone. “But the bars in this city especially have done such a good job of making these spaces safe for people.”
These shows take shape differently depending on the performance location. At This Is It, queens aren’t required to wear masks, but perform behind a barrier at a safe distance from the audience. All tipping is done via tip bowls and cash-sharing apps.
“That’s what we do, you know? We have drag shows. We want to have those entertainers there and give them a space to perform and interact with the community,” says Harrington.
At Hamburger Mary’s, queens wear face shields while performing, tips are collected with butterfly nets instead of by hand and plastic dividers are set up between the tables. “You feel like you’re dancing in a little aquarium and you’re going to all the different exhibits,” says DeGrant.
“I hate the masks! If anybody knows me, I do not like performing with the face shields,” says Hall. “I make silly faces, and then on top of that I dance. It’s very hard to dance and keep your mask on and be holding a butterfly net. […] I’m not going to complain because I’m performing live, which I love to do. So I can suck it up and wear my little face shield for three minutes.”
Audiences take a while to warm up to the new protocol, says Monet. “Everyone is usually nervous. They don’t know what to expect. And then once they see how things are run, then everything is kind of back like the normal shows, like before quarantine, to a certain extent,” she says.
“I’ve had people tell me that they just love the fact that they can just escape things for a little bit and forget about everything,” says DeGrant. “That’s the reason I entertain in the first place.”
With no end to the pandemic in sight, the current procedures for drag shows are likely to stay in place. So how can drag continue to move forward?
One way is to focus on social progress, says Monet. “I feel right now that the drag scene really needs to come together as far as racially. Just like there’s racism in the heterosexual world, there’s racism in the gay world,” she says. “The racial tension in the drag and the gay community, period, needs to change.”
Otherwise, the way things are run now is as good as they’ll get, says Hall. “The worst thing people could do right now is just say, ‘Fuck it,’ and have us perform, 100% capacity, no masks, and as much as I would love that, that’s going to put a lot of people at risk,” she says. “I feel like safety is the number one priority right now, so this is the best we can do.”