Canadian queens of business: COVID-19 or not, the show must drag on

With the bars and clubs closed, drag queens like Tynomi Banks are tapping new audiences (and big brands) to make money

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      Just under 100 million viewers watched Tynomi Banks glammed up and dressed in gold and white. Playing Medusa in a 15-second Wealthsimple commercial, the Toronto drag queen joined the exclusive group of drag performers to appear in a Super Bowl spot (RuPaul has starred in two).

      The job was completely unexpected, Banks says. She had recently written an article for Wealthsimple about her expenses as a drag queen, and she suspects she was “freshly on their mind”.

      During the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when most people—especially creatives and performers—have struggled financially, Banks (a.k.a. Sheldon McIntosh) has found herself faced with more varied opportunities than during her career as a drag performer..

      “I feel like Madonna,” Banks says. “She’s always reinventing herself. That’s what’s great about my drag—I could keep on adding, getting better, learning. I just didn’t know that this situation that we’re in would turn me down a new lane.”

      Before becoming one of Canada’s most recognizable drag queens, McIntosh was working as a background dancer and performing in music videos for pop stars like Nelly Furtado. That became the perfect foundation for Tynomi Banks. 

      Banks has flourished for years, gaining national and even international recognition prior to getting cast on the first season of Canada’s Drag Race last year. 

      The success of RuPaul’s Drag Race and its spinoffs has broadened the audience for drag, allowing queens to capitalize on acting, performance, and other skills outside the club scene. Drag performers now pursue careers in acting, advertising, stand-up comedy and more. It’s an especially welcome turn of events during COVID-19 now that in-person performances are largely banned.

      In her Wealthsimple magazine article, Banks laid out her expenses, noting that she’s booking more corporate gigs and sponsorships these days. And the level of pristine and polish that is expected doesn’t happen for free. In pre-COVID times, being Tynomi requires an investment of $800 per month (on top of rent and other non-drag expenses, of course) to cover wigs, outfits, makeup, and travel.

      “The past few months I have definitely spent less than usual,” Banks wrote. “I wouldn’t say those are typical costs, it really depends on the drag queen. I find that the community doesn’t really talk about money, so I often don’t have a good sense of what other queens ‘at my level’ spend.”

      She’s done ad campaigns for Crest and Ikea, and appeared in the CBC docuseries Canada’s A Drag and the web series Queens Of Netflix. During COVID times, she had a role in the feature film Jump, Darling, and released her own line of Black Lives Matter merchandise. She’s also done livestreams and was part of a series of pre-recorded performances from drag performers all over the world.

      BMO, Sabra, Lush, Coach, Orbitz, Toyota, and Kellogg’s have all worked with drag performers in the past decade. These new career opportunities have guaranteed a level of financial stability in a creative art synonymous with “hustle”.

      Drag is now “profitable”

      Comedian Nicky Nasrallah, a.k.a. Selena Vyle, began booking more jobs almost immediately when he made the pivot from comedy to drag. Nasrallah was doing improv and sketch comedy and did drag as part of a show where all the comedians performed a number in drag for the first time. One of the queens, Vicki Lix, saw something unique and encouraged him to do it again. While at first Nasrallah didn’t think it would work, he workshopped a name and a look with Lix and entered competitions.

      “I immediately started getting booked, not on drag shows, but on comedy shows. The same people who were booking me before were not paying me, but now because I was in drag they were paying,” he says.

      Nasrallah partially credits that difference to the fact that people know drag performers invest a lot into their acts, but he also started to notice how drag queens really value themselves.

      “I just realized I could use all of my talents. I could use my comedy, I can use my puppetry, I can use my musical improv experience,” he says. “I became known as a comedy queen, but I could also do advocacy work and raise awareness for issues and use my culture because my family is Mexican and Lebanese.

      “It became an amalgamation of everything that I am rolled into one,” he continues. “And I was getting paid.”

      Thanks to drag, Nasrallah has landed opportunities that draw on skills he says he’s always had. He recently got into voice work, booking a gig for a video game, and has written a few essays for the CBC.

      “These are skills that I’ve always had, but suddenly people value [me] more as a drag queen,” he explains.

      Toronto’s Devine Darlin, who has been doing drag for over 14 years, took a big financial hit when the pandemic shut down live gigs.

      “I worked at basically all of the venues on Church Street,” she explains. “When it became mainstream, drag became much more profitable, and I found some of my drag sisters left their day jobs to become a drag queen because you had more exposure.”

      Darlin was able to tap into a “wider market,” getting to perform internationally or go to Pride events in different countries  because there was a larger fanbase and more recognition. But Darlin experienced a serious depletion in savings and quit her job as a personal support worker because it was too difficult to do that along with drag and school.

      Michael Gorman, an artist manager at Straight Up Management who represents multiple drag performers, has told his artists to approach the pandemic as a time to reimagine their art and careers.

      “It’s definitely a lot of learning what your skills are, what your art is and what you can contribute to the artistic community,” he says. “It’s also about seeing if you’re able to parlay that into online. People have been performers for so long, but they never really had to be a performer in their living room or kitchen with a ring light and a backdrop.”

      There’s also advertising gigs.

      Gorman says beauty, skin care, alcohol, and finance brands are looking to work with drag performers in advertising and sponsorships. Beauty brands are a given due to the intense emphasis on makeup, and Gorman says alcohol brands look to drag because of the association with clubs and parties.

      So why are financial institutions working with queens like Tynomi Banks?

      “They are trying to encourage people to do their taxes,” he explains. “Drag performers typically earn cash and maybe haven’t done their taxes in a traditional way in a long time.”

      The target audience for these ads is usually younger (Drag Race is a hit with adults 18 to 34, according to ratings), particularly women and queer people. From a financial standpoint, corporate and brand sponsorships are much more lucrative than booking shows, online or in-person.

      “Many queens would not have been able to make it through this pandemic without these partnerships,” Gorman says.

      The show goes online

      Weeks into the pandemic, the drag community had to create online alternatives to live performances and to keep the community going, especially as bars shutter and struggle.

      Allysin Chaynes, a Toronto drag queen, joined with Speakeasy Tattoo to create a Twitch stream, for both live Drag Race watch parties and for streaming original content.

      “There’s so much audience interaction, you can see your chat the whole time,” she says. “I just found it to be the closest facsimile to being able to perform in a live space and still feel that kind of immediate audience interaction and community.”

      At first, Chaynes built up viewership by appealing to the same people who come to in-person events. But over the past year, she’s gained viewers from all over the world. She suspects streaming content is especially popular with the type of people who consume long-form internet content or are inclined to binge-watch on YouTube. “The growing audience comes from people who are looking for new and different entertainment,” she says. 

      From a financial standpoint, Chaynes says Twitch is her best option for streaming because it’s easy to accept donations from the audience, similar to getting tipped during a live gig.

      Ivory Towers, a drag queen who began streaming on Twitch at the start of the pandemic, says that in the 15 years she has been doing drag and performing, COVID-19 has been one of the largest “hits to [her] entire life”.

      Towers was doing drag full-time, but the pandemic challenged the foundation she had built. She hasn’t had a day job since over two years ago. The majority of her income comes from tips, she says. 

      “We all get show fees when working at bars if you are booked there, but we really banked on getting good tips from audience members. Now and then a great opportunity would pop up. I did a Sephora ad a few years ago but stuff like that doesn’t come so often,” she explains.

      On Twitch, Towers combines drag with her other main interest: video games. “As nervous as I was to start streaming in drag and playing video games I was surrounded with loads of support,” she says.

      So far, streaming revenue doesn’t compare with live shows. While she used to get a base fee on top of generous audience tips, virtual tips are less frequent. 

      “A lot of it comes from people subscribing monthly to streams. So even if you get people to subscribe you won’t see any money unless you reach a minimum of $100 payout after Twitch has taken their cut,” Towers explains.

      Before the pandemic, Chaynes says supporting herself full-time through drag meant non-stop live gigs, sometimes multiple per day that required travelling across town to different locations. “It’s a very real hustle and it’s very busy and takes up a lot of your energy,” she says. “I love it, I really do, but operating on that level of constant work is not something I really want to do anymore.”

      That’s where Twitch comes in. Chaynes says on a Friday night stream, she can make as much in tips as she would have during a live performance—and saves on travel expenses. Looking to a post-pandemic world, she’s excited to be able to devote time to making great Twitch streams from the comfort of her own space and then taking on live gigs when she wants to, “instead of just having to take any gig possible to make the money I need to make”.

      She says the channel is slowly developing to include subscription and donation options that go directly to the channel itself. “One day, the goal is that we could sustain ourselves off of what’s coming in purely off the channel,” she says. 

      Darlin is also streaming and hosting a sit-down dining show called Devine Dining through Instagram and Facebook. “It was basically just me having a few drinks and laughs, talking to people while making something to eat, just like a little dine-in,” she explains.

      A combination of increasingly diverse opportunities for drag performers and a pandemic that forced many to creatively pivot has prompted a new wave of drag performers to take drag beyond late-night.

      Samuel Engelking

      From late-night to daytime

      Kyne, one of the youngest queens to appear on Canada’s Drag Race, says the pandemic pushed her out of her comfort zone. She recently graduated from the University of Waterloo with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, and decided to combine her two interests by doing math in drag on social media. She has since amassed over 800,000 followers on TikTok, and is hoping to do drag full-time.

      She sees the internet as the “new frontier” for drag.

      “I grew up in a town where we didn’t have gay bars. So even before COVID, performing in bars wasn’t as much of a reality for me,” she says. “All my experiences have pushed me towards the internet. There’s a totally different audience online of young queer people who want to consume drag in a different way than in bars.”

      Along with young queer people looking for different content, Kyne says her tutorials are great for parents, teachers, and anyone else interested in math.

      “This pandemic has really given me the opportunity to push the boundaries of what drag can be,” she says. 

      However, some drag performers face barriers to new moneymaking opportunities—as well as the old ones returning when COVID cases flatline.

      “Last year, there was a really big push towards recognizing performers of colour, and non-cis male drag queens and white male drag queens,” Nasrallah says, “and recognizing that drag queens aren’t just men and there are drag kings and there are gender performers.

      “In the summer and into the fall, bars started opening up again and we saw that the people getting hired were still cis white people,” he says.

      Chaynes echoes this sentiment, noting representation of more diverse queens on Drag Race and other mainstream outlets will influence hiring decisions and local opportunities. (RuPaul’s Drag Race recently cast a femme trans man, GottMik, who is one of season 13’s top competitors.)

      “A lot of the time that drag gets utilized in advertisements or in corporate sponsorships, it’s very typically white cis queer drag performers,” Chaynes says. “There’s a whole spectrum of amazing performers that companies can be reaching out to.”

      Banks has also encountered these challenges, but all these new career opportunities have taught her a lot about confidence.

      “I used to be kind of scared because it’s almost like if you don’t know so much about something you’re just not confident about it. Now my confidence levels have gotten stronger,” she says. “I learned to trust in myself, trust in my craft, trust in my talent. And I will always shine.”

      Tynomi’s Wig: Edward Scissor Hands
      Creative Direction: Marc Andrew Smith