Financial struggles are part of every artist’s story, but Latinx drag performer Jean Decay has discerned a particularly entrenched history of money troubles among her community. Here she discusses how drag maintains the illusion of luxury while causing complex personal strife and the sacrifices one makes for art’s sake.
Money, when you are a local drag queen, can feel like an elusive, ephemeral idea rather than a tangible exchange for services rendered. It is a necessary evil you are always at odds with because of the life you chose. Doing drag sometimes feels like a self-imposed obstacle. In my life, I’ve been able to make less money due to my partner taking on the heavier financial burdens in my household. During these periods, doing drag can feel like an obstacle you’ve imposed on those in your life. There are many drag queens in Los Angeles, but very few that live exclusively off of their drag earnings. Most of us have one or two other jobs that fill the gap in bills drag can’t pay for. I work at a coffee shop, a classic “artist living in Los Angeles” profession, and have done so throughout my drag career. Between the two I’ve managed to sustain my life and pay my bills – most of them, at least.
Drag as an art form is not cheap. But the expense is part of what makes it so compelling: the multifaceted, multi-reaching aspects of the art. It is a subversive mirror to society that reflects and mimics the economic turmoils at large. While it is expensive to do, the competition for assets makes it even more tumultuous. There are only so many bars, so many roles, so many performances where drag queens can get paid. In this post-Drag Race era, the expectation for queens is also very different. You are expected to be able to put on a certain quality of performance for a certain amount of pay. Ironically, you can’t get to that level of quality until you’re compensated well enough. Most gigs you get are “tip-spots,” meaning you only get to keep the tips you make in your four-minute number. You may make $30, you may make only $2. Hours of preparation and practice for a four-minute shot to make back what you spent on drinks alone.
Drag, in reality, still doesn’t exist on that large a scale. One television show does not dismantle the multitude of negative reactions drag queens experience on a global scale. Drag is inherently tied to communities that have long been marginalized. Its inception is in part due to the economic and social turmoil that oppressed communities go through. This is obvious in the documentary Paris is Burning. One of the most important queen documentaries, it perfectly captures the challenge that queer artists face in a medium created in reaction to the ostracization experienced due to the oppressive nature of the dominant culture. It is important to recognize the sacrifices transwomen and transwomen of color have made for the art of drag. We can’t talk about the money problems that we as drag queens face today without honoring the fact that it exists on the backs of an underrepresented, ignored group in our community. Yes, there are still queens who lament that transwomen aren’t drag queens. I argue that part of the reason money is so elusive in the drag community is that we recreate within our sphere the same systems of oppression we experience overall.
Yet through it all, drag still exists. Since its inception, it has never stopped being a queer historical record, a channel to process trauma, and an escape from the difficulties life offers. I know for myself, I keep doing drag because I feel that I provide a space that people can safely deal with more complex issues in our world. I have had to come to terms with the fact that drag may not ever sustain my life financially. We all have a reason for doing it; we all have methods to survive it. Many of my friends make outfits out of two-dollar fabric, creating luxe dresses. Other friends borrow wigs. I take clothes from my sisters. In Paris is Burning they talk about “mopping.” In case you don’t know what that means, it simply is stealing. Regardless of actual wealth, the American Dream propels itself on the assumption of privilege and power. Drag challenges society’s obsession with the visual manifestation of that wealth. By donning the same wardrobe, queens argue that nothing is really that different, a moment of sameness that subverts the tenets of the American Dream.
This is how drag has always been. I try to think about how these struggles with money have been an active factor in the progression of drag, especially in times of my own financial duress. The weight of bills can be very destructive to your psyche. It has at times felt overwhelming. I have often fought back feelings that I am not contributing enough to my family, my partner, or my community. Somewhere, in the pit of my stomach, I question if my drag performance is impactful enough to justify the disparity in my income. I am then reminded of what my drag ancestors sacrificed to keep this art form alive. People have lost their lives because of their decision to do drag. It serves as the historical record for queer people and our often forgotten community. A community that has a history that can easily be re-written. I know in my heart that I must keep the tradition alive and hopefully provide a stepping stone for drag to become something even beyond what I believe it to be. The money comes and goes; I watch enough reality TV shows to at least know that. Because if drag has taught us anything, it is that the facade of society is malleable. It is not rigid, it is something to distort and make your own.
Drag will never really become mainstream or even an easy avenue to gain financial stability. The very essence of drag is dependent on the dismantling of traditional perceptions about how life is supposed to be lived. We may never see a day where art is treated with as much importance as money. Art doesn’t get bills paid; it doesn’t send kids to college (it barely buys Netflix subscription services). But art is still what makes people so unique and it is how the history of our community has thrived and existed. Drag is the eternal punk aspect of that, an ever-dynamic “Fuck You” to how society tells us to live.
Jean Decay is a writer/performer drag queen based in Los Angeles. She focuses on politically charged messages in hopes of mobilizing her community for the better. She has her own drag house called the “Church of Decay” that she runs as an art collective with her partner. Learn more about Jean on Twitter and Instagram.
Continue to follow Honeysuckle for Jean’s regular online column regarding racism, gender identity and a perspective granted to her by a unique life story.