For many ‘Drag Race’ queens, the jump to business owner was rocky. “I wasn’t ready at all,” Pearl, a Season 7 runner-up, said over lunch. “I was 23. I had no idea how to manage money. There’s a ton of full-time queens in New York. They’re not making hundreds of thousands of dollars; ‘Drag Race’ girls are. You need somebody to guide you. So I put my whole career into my manager’s hands. And I worked way too hard.”
Others complained of inexperienced promoters overbooking meet-and-greets, or drunkenly refusing to pay their fee at the end of the night. “My manager had to get the money; it took, like, a month,” Kim Chi, from Season 8, said of a Miami club. “Anyone can be a promoter if they can get a venue and money lined up.”
Shangela Laquifa Wadley, who will compete on “All Stars,” formed Say What Entertainment after a manager allegedly booked her at clubs, pocketed the deposits, and never informed her of the gigs. The clubs reached out to her on social media. “I called the sheriff, honey,” she said by phone, adding, “I got everything back.”
Last year, a Season 6 runner-up Adore Delano filed a $3.5 million lawsuit against her manager, David Charpentier, and his company Producer Entertainment Group — which has an all-star roster — over accusations of embezzling appearance fees and tour revenue. The company filed a countersuit. Mr. Charpentier said in an email message that Adore’s allegations were inaccurate. (Adore did not respond to interview requests.)
Such headaches prompted Latrice Royale, from Season 4, to form LRI Talent & Management, which represents several “Drag Race” queens. “It happened a lot as a local queen: ‘You’re canceled tonight,’” she recalled promoters telling her. “Bitch, I was counting on that money to pay my rent.”
Absent any formal union, a whisper network formed among “Drag Race” alums. They group-text warnings and recommendations, like how to incorporate, or set up a self-employment I.R.A. “We’ll be like, ‘O.K., sis, did you register with Ascap for your music?” Shangela said.
Without representation, local queens must determine their own fees, something Sasha remembers well. “It’s always at least four hours of your time,” she said at her apartment, packing for the Christmas tour. “It has to be around $100 or you’re getting ripped off. It’s amazing that that’s considered a good gig in New York — it should be minimum wage for drag, but there are no standards. And people would do it for free. It’s a passion.”
Horrorchata, a founder of the Brooklyn drag festival Bushwig, said that she worked free her first two years in drag, to get her name out.
“It’s freelancing,” Kelsey Dagger, a Brooklyn queen, said over coffee. “You’re constantly reappraising your worth and balancing that against the fact that you do actually enjoy this and want to be doing this.”
Merrie Cherry has worked full time for several years. “It’s not easy,” she said. “But if you’re worried about money all the time, you’re not going to live.” She nodded at the spiked outfit on a chair opposite her. “It took me two months to pay for that. Live, girl.”
Outside her weekly show at the bar Therapy in New York, Pixie Aventura waited while a designer tossed a commissioned costume down from a fourth-floor window. She tried to catch it, but the double-bagged outfit hit the sidewalk. “Text me how much,” she shouted, referring to the price, and ducked into the bar.
New York bars pay anywhere from $50 to $250 a gig, plus tips, which can be fruitful — Bob, before “Drag Race,” said she paid off student loans with 10,000 singles — or not.
Regular expenses like new outfits and wigs, makeup replenishment and cabs (to avoid harassment on 3 a.m. subways) add up, as does drag’s physical toll. “There’s athlete’s foot, joint pain, U.T.I.s, pink eye,” Katya said. “There’s bizarre sexualization, not being sexualized when you want it, and the almost complete forfeiture of a regular gay relationship.”
Charlene, laughing at her kitchen table, said, “Unless you win ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ the rewards are mostly spiritual.”