Drag Queens Stay Fabulous Despite COVID-19

Athena Sapphire serves elegance and drama, even if it's only in her backyard during the pandemic.
Athena Sapphire serves elegance and drama, even if it's only in her backyard during the pandemic. Screenshot from Facebook
The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a "new normal" and people have started getting inventive to perform the same tasks we took for granted a few months ago. Arts organizations have turned to online performances as a way of connecting with audiences. Restaurants have retrofit their operations from dine-in services to curbside and delivery tactics. The web-based conference service Zoom has become the newest word in the American lexicon.

But there's one group that has taken Gloria Gaynor's anthem "I Will Survive" to heart and turned a well-contoured visage toward the unknown future with grace, sass and of course a flawless mug.

Leave it to the drag community to make like their fake nails and press on during the pandemic. Due to the shutdown of Houston's bars and clubs - where many female illusionists earn their main source of income - the entertainers have turned to their ingenuity and creativity to float them through the rough patch we all are experiencing. Most of them have taken to social media to make money and/or cope with the hard times.

A Rare Gem Always Keeps Its Value

Athena S. Sapphire works at The Room Bar in Spring, Halo in College Station, and Rumors (both the Galveston and Beaumont locations). She is relatively new to the Houston scene, but watch her perform once, and it's an instant addiction. The way she moves and mesmerizes the audience is truly a talent that only comes from years of experience. But what happens where there is no audience to watch? Well...the show must go on, and so must Sapphire.

She has taken up what several other queens have done and performed live, even though the bar was empty. Thanks to live broadcasts via social media and cash apps like Venmo and PayPal, even a virtual performance can still earn tips.
"Rumors allowed a few of us to come in and gain tips that way. The bar was empty, and there were seven queens. We bucked the house down and lifted spirits up. We’re still out here and going to push through," she said, noting that other performers have started following suite. "That really helped show the Houston queens they can do it. After that, it was a trickling effect."

She also has performed via social media in her home and implemented a question and answer session she calls "Tips for Tips."

"It's me asking what people need help with, and then every answer is a tip. I would hopefully get a monetary tip in return," she said. "It's something obtainable and not too crazy. It could range from pet tips to life tips to makeup tips."

No Blues For Violet S'Arbleu

Violet S'Arbleu is a versatile performer who speaks several languages, sews an overwhelming majority of her own costumes, and has a sense of humor that could earn two thumbs up from Statler and Waldorf, the cranky movie critic duo from The Muppets.
click to enlarge Violet S'Arbleu channels Emmett Kelly since the performer's facial hair is finally growing out. Kelly created the character clown Weary Willie, based on hobos in the Great Depression. - PHOTO BY JACOB CHAPUT
Violet S'Arbleu channels Emmett Kelly since the performer's facial hair is finally growing out. Kelly created the character clown Weary Willie, based on hobos in the Great Depression.
Photo by Jacob Chaput

S'Arbleu regularly goes online to show her make-up transformations before her shows at Barcode, Crocker, House of Blues, JR's Bar & Grill and Michael's Outpost.

So what is this quirky queen doing with all her downtime? She's been showing off make-up tips, like she always does.

"My mentality is I was already doing live videos. I do it maybe two to three times per week or just once every couple of weeks. It depends on how I'm feeling. The normalcy of the routine was helpful for me, and I hope it was helpful for other people. We’re all at home being claustrophobes, and this might help people feel better," she said.

While she has mostly refrained from raising money for herself, she has done online performances to help raise money for the bar staff at the venues where she normally performs.

As a side, since she performs several times per week, the break has allowed S'Arbleu to embrace the facial hair that usually is shaved off every day.

"Part of my mechanism is to think of this as a forced vacation. I'm telling myself not to do drag. I can do makeup, but that's a process and not a performance. I'm not stubbornly refusing to shave. It's more like I'm not going to shave because I'm on a break."

The Music (Wo)Man

Carmina Vavra is an artsy queen with a flare for the stage. Fans can find her performing at Avant Garden, Michael's Outpost, Piggy's Kitchen & Bar and The Room Bar. Yet when disaster struck and all her shows were put on hiatus, she leaned on her technical background to get through and hopefully bring in a few dollars. This vamp is highly proficient at mixing music.

click to enlarge Carmina Vavra is a Jackie of all trades. She mixes music, runs tech at shows, performs in drag, and is a video game mastermind. - PHOTO BY CORBY SHAFER
Carmina Vavra is a Jackie of all trades. She mixes music, runs tech at shows, performs in drag, and is a video game mastermind.
Photo by Corby Shafer
"I did the mix-making workshop because I take commission for mixes, especially in the drag king community. This is a skill that I have and can market and help people out," she said.

But if that doesn't work, she's got another trick up her feathered and beaded sleeve. Since a lot of entertainers' livelihoods depend on the success of their social media accounts, Vavra plans to keep things fresh during the break.

"The other thing I’m planning on doing is streaming video games. I'm going to get in drag and play video games," she added.

It would make sense as Vavra has been a member of Houston Gaymers and was at one point the go-to host for the group.

"I’ve been working with them for over a year now. Before all this, I would do the monthly meetup at Guava Lamp where the meetup starts at 9 p.m. for video games, and at midnight we would do an all cosplay drag show," she said. "They’re how I got my start in drag a couple years ago. They were some of my first friends in Houston when I moved here from college."

Reading Is What?...Fundamental!

Angelina DM Trailz can normally be found performing at Bar Boheme, Barcode, JR's Bar & Grill and Rumors Beach Bar. But when Miss Rona blew into town, Trailz decided to revive Houston's beleaguered Drag Queen Story Time in an online format. In years past, she volunteered with the live format before it was eventually phased out of the Houston Public Library's programming.
Trailz is a bilingual entertainer who slays the lip sync and has mastered the violin, and she's using those skills to keep people of all ages captivated. She's especially inspired to take part in educational ventures because of her upbringing and her young relatives.

"I loved doing it. I have nieces and a nephew, and it was part of what I wanted to do. The parents who brought their kids to Drag Queen Story Time at the library are now stuck with them during this time, and I wanted to do something they could enjoy together," she said. "I really hold onto my memories of childhood, and one of them was my teachers reading to me while I was learning English. I liked helping to create similar memories."

Trailz added that adjusting to change is something that she has always done. As an immigrant to the United States, she found her footing. As a musician, she has eked out money-making ventures. As a drag performer, she has established a fan base and steady bookings.

"Just with any artist, we take what we’ve got and mold it to the situation around us. I’ve always been adapting to whatever situation I'm faced with. My friends are not as optimistic as I am, but this is not very different for me," she said. "It is different in the sense of I have to adapt to entertaining people with the art of drag through the phone and through the comfort of their own home. That was the most challenging part for me."

Drawing Upon One's Talents

click to enlarge Arguably the most infamous skater ever, Tonya Harding is one of many ice skaters Chloe Knox has sketched during her down time. - PHOTO AND PORTRAIT BY CHLOE KNOX, WITH PERMISSION OF THE ARTIST
Arguably the most infamous skater ever, Tonya Harding is one of many ice skaters Chloe Knox has sketched during her down time.
Photo and portrait by Chloe Knox, with permission of the artist
Chloe Knox is has been drawing on her glamorous face for years, but long before then she was an artist who created pencil sketches and drawings. Since her drag has been put on hold, she's going back to the old hobby.

"I’ve always just drawn to keep myself occupied since I was a kid. Pencils and printing paper are easily available, and my parents would give them to me to keep me busy. I’d always start drawings but not finish them. In the last few years, I’ve re-implemented the discipline of drawing."

The images she gravitates toward are figure skaters. With the drama, heartbreak, suspense, artistry and joy that comes with each performance on ice, the subject has long fascinated Knox. She says, though, that she's willing to work on commission to draw whatever anyone requests.

"I hope people can appreciate classical medium arts like a good ol' fashion pencil sketch. There’ s a place in this world for that, I hope."

Her drawings take anywhere from three to six hours, but they also offer a break from the craziness of her uncertainty about the future. In true drag queen style, she expresses that sentiment with a little more flair.

"Aside from being a hobby, drawing has been helping with the stress of the annihilation of the world as we know it."

Long Live The Queen

While the money probably isn't flowing the way that it did before COVID-19, the drag performers have proven necessity truly is the mother of invention. It's an interesting business response to a rather unconventional challenge that none have ever contemplated, much less faced.

Despite it all, though, there is an unspoken honor code that many of them follow. They try their hardest to perform shows online only when they would have normally been booked at a venue. To stray outside those times is viewed as being overly opportunistic when there's a limited amount of resources available, and it will wear out the community's good will if performers overly exhaust their online avenues too early into the shutdown.

"I know there are people who don't have what they need right now, and I can’t in good conscience ask for help when someone needs that money right now, and I can wait a few weeks. I know others need it more," S'Arbleu said.

Watching drag entertainers struggle to get by is also a stark reminder that this job is not for the weak of heart.

"Something that this pandemic is showing people is if you’re not in drag for the joy of doing drag, there’s not really a good reason to do it. With the success of RuPaul's Drag Race, some people have tried to make it into a career. But then something like this happens, and if you’re not doing drag for the love of it, you’re not going to get anything out of it. It’s not a money making career," she added.

Sapphire has an optimistic view that the nontraditional outlets for drag artists will work in the short run as long as social media is used the right way.

"If you look at this from a YouTube perspective, some people make a paycheck off their videos. If we can dip into that a little bit, Facebook would eat it up. It’s a matter of positive content and topics people want to talk about," she said. "Find the audience, make it appealing and get into it. Be yourself. Be authentic, because people like that instead of carbon copies."

And all performers agreed: Stay safe. Stay home. The less people go out, the sooner we all can return to a semblance of normalcy.

Follow the performers: @athena_sapphiree, @carminavavra, @chloeeknox, @iamqueenangelina, @violetwithav
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Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to the Houston Press who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture.
Contact: Sam Byrd