The plight of the local drag queen

The drag scenes in Central Florida and Tampa Bay are full of talent, but it’s not always easy for performers. Wigs aren’t cheap and drag – especially starting out – isn’t exactly lucrative.

That’s the general consensus of drag performers within the area. When queens decide the limelight is for them, they’re often losing money on costumes, not to mention gas and time.

For many performers, it’s worth it to do what they love.

A Central Florida comedy queen often bedazzled, tucked and painted as Lady Gaga, Mr Ms Adrien is the winner of the 2022 Miss National Comedy Queen and a familiar face in Central Florida LGBTQ spaces like Hamburger Mary’s Orlando and Sawmill Campground.

Her days as a baby drag queen may be over, but when she was new to the scene, she first competed at Pulse. She stepped into the drag community at one of the venue’s amateur drag competitions for the winning prize of $50.

“It seemed like a million back then,” Adrien says.

The first time she competed, she lost, but she didn’t stop showing up in heels.

Local queens often start their careers like this, entering small competitions with cash prizes and a winning system based on which performer gets the loudest cheers from the audience.

Southern Nights Orlando and Southern Nights Tampa continue to regularly host weekly “So You Think You Can Drag” competitions.” In Orlando, they’re held on Tuesday nights and in Tampa, on Wednesdays.

The winning cash amount for both clubs in 2022? Still $50, often with other prizes or subsequent performances.

However, the weekly winners claim a spot at the main finals at the end of the year. Winning the final competition pays $500, plus a gig on the club’s main cast.

It’s a start, and a way to get on the stage without prior experience.

“There was no profit for the first three years,” Adrien recalls. “Breaking even was the goal. It’s tough work and most of the time you’re putting yourself in front of people who are just cheering for their friends.”

While much has changed in the world of drag, including inflation when it comes to purchasing essentials like body padding and makeup, the monetary value of the winning prize of this specific competition has not.

Opal D’Marco, a 22-year-old transgender woman and entertainer based in Orlando, performs in her home city and often travels to Tampa to perform. She’s out of commission this Pride month while she recovers from a surgery.

It’s a dent in her early career – she has only performed in drag for one year – but a necessary one.

The first time D’Marco got in full drag was at the now shuttered Stonewall in Orlando for a themed night in 2021. She had friends do her makeup and lend her looks for the night and found that after one weekend she was hooked.

“As a trans woman, it was a way to feel feminine when I was feeling masculine early on in my transition,” D’Marco says.

As much as the emerging performer loves the community, she says the monetary compensation for drag is lacking.

“I think that Orlando is one of the worst places to be, as far as compensation,” D’Marco explains. “There are so many queens, so much competition, not a lot of venues. I’ve gone out of town and gotten paid twice or three times as much.”

She performed in front of a rainbow-clad crowd on the Southern Nights stage in Ybor for Tampa Pride 2022, and performs on Rush Thursdays at Southern Orlando under Cara Cavalli Andrews. Andrews, a staple at Southern Nights Orlando, is the drag daughter of Roxxxy Andrews.

Roxxxy is known worldwide as a finalist on the fifth season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” as well as the second season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars.” She’s known locally as a powerhouse and proud drag personality.

When D’Marco performs on Thursdays at Southern Nights, it’s the host, Cara Cavalli Andrews who pays out her performers from her club fee. Oftentimes in the industry, the performers share door tips as well as a dressing room.

“I think everyone has a day job if they don’t just happen to have the money,” D’Marco says. “It’s hard to make a living off performing.”

D’Marco, who almost exclusively wears lingerie on stage with her blonde hair in a high ponytail, is a Starbucks barista by day.

Adrien says day jobs wouldn’t be a necessity if clubs would pay responsibly.

“Sometimes you get fully dressed up and there are six people in the audience; what am I supposed to do with that? If we were paid properly, then it wouldn’t matter. Those six people would get the best show they’ve ever seen,” she says with a laugh.

When those six people are supposed to provide a chunk of your pay for the evening, it’s less funny, she adds.

While each club or bar is different in their payment styles, a common theme is “pooling.” The performers of the night split the tips made from tip buckets at the doors.

“A lot of times we’re shoving buckets in people’s faces to get paid,” Adrien explains. “We swallow that crap over and over, and I see hundreds of people paying for drinks. We know that the clubs make money, they could pay us fairly if they wanted to.”

Typically the headlining host(s) of the night earn a flat fee, but the performers that make up the show are oftentimes not paid directly by the club.

Adrien knows what it’s like in other, larger cities, noting that she lived in New York City as a performer for several years pre-pandemic.

“My first few weeks in New York, the bars welcomed me, offered to pay me $200 a night when I was brand new to the scene,” Adrien says. “It’s a different atmosphere when the performers aren’t fighting for their lives.”

Leaving her Floridian community again isn’t an easy concept, however, despite her strong feelings.

“I have a kiss of death, I daydream about leaving all the time,” Adrien says. The Orlando native moved back home to Florida after she was offered a stable hosting gig at Parliament House, one of the larger Orlando clubs.

She considered it a long-term career move, and then Parliament House closed in its longtime incarnation in 2020. It is expected to reopen in another location.

Despite this loss, the performer also wants to stay in town to support the drag community that raised her. They helped make her the seasoned queen she is today.

“I feel a bit of me wants to fight here a little longer, the kids coming here now are 10 times more talented than anything this city has seen in years,” she says.

Orlando’s community may not be perfect, but the city offers more LGBTQ+ spaces than other areas in Central Florida.

Aaliyah Nouveau, the current titleholder of Miss DeLand Pride 2022, often travels to the city’s LGBTQ spaces for diversity and to escape the disadvantages of doing drag in a predominately red county.

DeLand, population 37,351, sits about 30 miles from central Orlando, and 23 miles from Daytona Beach.

“There’s a lot of work to be done in DeLand. It’s, well, Republican,” Nouveau says. “But there’s been a lot of growth in the community.”

Nouveau, who spoke with Watermark while wearing her winning DeLand Pride silk sash at Southern Nights Orlando, says there’s “nothing gay in DeLand at all.” The city has no openly LGBTQ bars in its limits.

That leaves queens and performers who live in less LGBTQ-friendly areas, such as Nouveau, to travel to places like Orlando and Tampa Bay.

Seasoned entertainer and locally renowned queen Jade Embers has found her niche in Tampa. She performs regularly in the drag scene as a host and female illusionist in Ybor and occasionally in Pinellas County.

Embers is the host of “So You Think You Can Drag” at Southern Nights Tampa, a cast member for the club’s Crave Fridays show, a rotating performer at Bradley’s on 7th, an occasional host on Fridays at Blur Nightclub & Showbar in Dunedin and the host of Drag and Drop every second Thursday of the month at The Loft Ybor City. She’s also a former Miss Tampa Pride.

It’s safe to say that Embers, an old-school glam Tampa queen constantly cracking a joke into her microphone, makes a living for herself as a busy performer.

She’s been doing drag since January 2012. Ember’s first official performance was more than 10 years ago at Valentine’s Showbar in Tampa.

Valentine’s is no longer in existence, but Embers still remembers the thrill of her first performance in one of the bar’s talent shows.

In 2014, just two years after stepping into her first (and much shorter) heels, she booked a regular hosting gig for Frat House Thursdays at the since-shuttered Liquid Tampa.

Embers says the art form in Tampa has changed much in the decade she’s been involved, and she can’t get enough of the colorful community.

“Drag in Tampa has elevated and so much talent has emerged,” Embers explains. “Throughout my years, I’ve always noticed that as more time passes, there are more and more entertainers taking the stage and I’m here for it. So many new styles have emerged and so many new facets of drag are finally getting the spotlight.”

Does Embers think drag performers are fairly paid in Tampa?

“Absolutely, the higher ups at Southern Nights Tampa respect the art of drag and have always paid fairly and then some,” she tells Watermark.

Embers says it’s rare she feels shortchanged by a club or promoter.

“You can only be paid unfairly if you don’t set a booking fee up front,” Embers concludes. “You’re your own boss. If someone doesn’t feel like the amount offered is enough, they don’t have to take the gig.”

Across the bridge – Ashlee T. Bangkx, Miss St Pete Pride 2021 – is originally from Fort Myers and regularly performs at Cocktail and Enigma in downtown St. Pete.

According to the entertainer, however, she wasn’t always a polished Pinellas girl.

“I started out doing the talent shows and my first performance, girl, it was horrible,” Bangkx laughs. “I did a Rihanna song, my makeup was orange and my brother read me after the show.”

That was more than a decade ago, and the queen says she’s grown, especially since intentionally entering the St. Petersburg drag scene in 2012. In Bangkx’s opinion, the pay and culture in St. Petersburg and Tampa is better than in other Florida cities, but could always improve.

“In St. Pete and Ybor, they usually pay a flat rate and I always get my check,” she explains. “But it’s not like that everywhere.”

Shade Showcase director Morgan Le Shade knows the process better than most. He doesn’t perform as an entertainer, but he lives in the world of drag.

“I’ll wear heels, that’s about it,” Shade notes.

He’s a queer, Black photographer and the creator of the Shade Showcase in Tampa Bay. It prides itself as “being the most diverse show around while still treating entertainers with all the respect they deserve.”

Shade created, debuted and hosted it three years ago at the defunct Flamingo Resort in St. Petersburg before he found it a home at South Tampa’s City Side Lounge. At its core, The Shade Showcase aimed to include all performers of all identities and backgrounds.

This May, Shade canceled his show.

A fearless artist with little patience for those who he deems incompetent, Shade started out as a professional photographer for Liquid and Southern Nights. Despite being dazzled by the LGBTQ fun and fanfare, he noticed the lack of representation early on.

“I got very tired of these very white-washed and generic cast of characters with one style of drag,” Shade recalls. “Clubs would book the same eight showgirls every week.”

So he created his own show and vowed to include every style of drag and every type of person.

“I think The Shade Showcase was pretty successful in doing that,” he explains. “Since I started doing it, I’ve seen a small change in the lineups here in Tampa. I’ve seen some progress from other clubs.”

For now, he’s pulling the brakes on his event, citing personal reasons and a fluctuation in audience numbers. The Tampa show director suspects his monthly event may not have had the attendance that other, less-inclusive shows have because it’s not located in the heart of Ybor, a Tampa city with a culture of LGBTQ nightlife.

“I think people will see what they’re losing when it’s gone,” Shade notes.

In the case of The Shade Showcase, City Side paid Shade a flat fee, which he would use to divvy out each performer’s pay. In its last year, the show director paid all performers at least $100 per show.

It’s not a whopping amount of money, Shade says, but an amount he always promised.

“I am on the side of the performers, I’ve paid people out of my own pocket before,” he says. “I have a disdain for people working for free.” When Shade and his show were just starting out, the flat fee was $65.

He’s stopping for now but maybe not forever. Shade says he hopes to bring his show home to a new venue when the time is right.

Despite club closures, a lack of representation and what many see as unfair pay, the drag community in Tampa Bay and Central Florida remains a refuge. Especially for entertainers looking for places to be themselves and to be celebrated for it.

“I don’t want to do the thing that I love in a painful way,” Adrian says. “My heart bleeds for these kids who don’t have spaces, we need to stick up for each other and keep going.”

D’Marco, one of the “kids” her predecessor is referring to, agrees.

“I love drag because it has opened my eyes to a community I didn’t think was available to me,” D’Marco says. “There’s a shared understanding between the performers and the people; that’s why we do it despite the monetary compensation. The community is so big and beautiful.”

Le Shade, the self-described “shadiest man in Tampa,” has one thing to say to the drag community and the people who run it.

“Do better,” he asserts. “No one is perfect, but we can all try to do a little better to be inclusive.”

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