On a scorching hot Sunday in early August, drag performers at Hamburger Mary’s in Andersonville braved the heat, wearing showstopping costumes and performing slickly choreographed routines for patrons on the burning pavement. If performers were tired or overheated, it didn’t come across to the audience as they utilized their new performance space, which now includes both a standard indoor dining room and an extended outdoor patio. While the queens’ overall drag styles varied between performers, they all sported the latest accessory within the community: over-the-head face shields to protect from potential exposure to coronavirus.
As is the case for a majority of professions, abiding by COVID-19 restrictions poses new challenges to those who perform drag for a living.
“My style of performance is super interactive, so I’m used to touching people, I’m used to conveying an emotion,” says Cee-Cee LaRouge, a performer at Hamburger Mary’s. “And trying to do that at a distance now is a bit more challenging because you can’t really touch people, so it’s all based on innuendo now, which gets harder.”
When stay-at-home orders were enforced in Illinois in March, it led to the mass shuttering of dine-in restaurants and bars. For drag performers in Chicago, it also meant the loss of a live performance space. Many drag queens turned to online shows, utilizing platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitch to continue working and interacting with fans. For performers like LaRouge—who boasts a Facebook following of more than 180,000—adapting to an entirely virtual audience was rather seamless.
“I actually love [online shows],” she says. “And the reason why is because I can read people a mile away, so I know if they’re not interested. I can command attention, one way or another, I’m gonna get it, online or in person.”
Other performers, like fellow Hamburger Mary’s performer Fay Ludes, found transitioning to a digital audience more challenging.
“For me, drag is so much about community and human interaction,” they say. “I live alone, so performing in my house to a tripod and my dog just doesn’t appeal to me.”
Ludes, whose routines feature intense choreography full of high kicks and other impressive dance moves, briefly turned to digital platforms like Twitch and Facebook Live to compensate for the loss of a live-performance space.
“A lot of drag performers had to go out and get jobs. I basically just suffered,” they say. “I didn’t get unemployment, I couldn’t get it to work. I called so many times and it didn’t work out. Luckily, I have a little bit of an online following and they were tipping me online for some digital shows, but yeah, it’s been really rough. Any savings I had, which is already hard to have when you do drag full-time, is gone.”
As restaurants citywide prioritize outdoor dining as a safety precaution, venues like the Kit Kat Lounge in Boystown have also utilized outdoor patios to keep a distance between patrons and employees. However, according to showgirls—the term preferred by these trans women who work as drag performers—employed at the club, this presents a challenge in the form of easily preoccupied customers. Showgirl Traci Ross says there is “no way” to divert attention away from various outdoor distractions during a show, like people walking by, dogs barking, sirens, or someone walking down the street just for attention.
“You can’t compete with outside things that are happening,” she says. “So there is nothing I can do. I could jump off the building on fire, and [if] the fire truck is coming down the street, everyone is going to instantly turn and see what’s going on.”
Face shields have also required performers to adapt their looks in order to make them conducive to the over-the-head design.
“I wear a face shield and a different version depending on my outfit,” says Madam X, a showgirl at Kit Kat Lounge. “Sometimes I wear headpieces and so those shields I kind of have to work around. I’ve had to adjust a lot of things, you know, like the way I put on my wigs, picking [them], and keeping in mind that I’m gonna have to put a shield on.”
LaRouge reiterates this sentiment, remarking that the combination of high outdoor temperatures and the high level of costuming makes performing drag a very involved endeavor.
“The main thing I wanna tell people is that if you’re gonna come to a place like this, and there’s gonna be a show, pay attention, please, because we’re doing a bit more than everybody else here,” she says. “We have to do all this stuff, all of it, and it’s homophobically hot, it is so hot. I’m wearing padding, stuff like that, my internal body temperature is already rising. I just wish that people would take that into consideration.”
In addition to having to adapt routines to new safety guidelines, performers have anxieties regarding the uncertain state of the world.
Ruff N’ Stuff, a queen at Lips Chicago in the near south side, recently started doing shows at Hamburger Mary’s, Replay Lincoln Park, and Lark Chicago during the venue’s temporary closure. When asked about the challenges that come with adapting a live routine, she mentions the omnipresent fear of contracting COVID-19—a hardship she does not want to repeat. Stuff, who contracted the virus in March before recovering, says that abiding by safety measures designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is a cultural shift that can be hard to keep up with.
“We come from a culture where we’ve never in our lives had to wear masks. We’ve never had to keep social distance,” she says. “So from overnight to go from that culture and then in the last six months or so to now have to always wear a mask or some type of shield, as an entertainer you have to keep those things in mind at all times. And sometimes it can feel a little draining or a bit much sometimes.”
In spite of the hardships presented by working amid a global pandemic, these drag performers feel gratitude for being able to continue entertaining. While appreciative of the ongoing support, queens also want the general public to recognize the hard work that goes into a professional career in drag.
“I would say that a lot of people don’t realize that drag for a lot of us is not a hobby, it’s literally our lives,” Ludes says. “I think that a lot of people take entertainment for granted and COVID just kind of showed us, your local queer community is suffering because our livelihood is entertaining people. And with COVID, we just can’t really do that in the way we once did.” v