When coronavirus created nationwide shutdowns last March, artists and entertainers were among those whose steady income evaporated in a matter of days. That includes one Atlanta group known for reinvention and staying power: drag queens.
“I went from performing and producing multiple shows a week, managing talent, being a makeup artist for TV — to a dead stop, nothing,” said Phoenix, the local showrunner, club queen, Brooks family legend and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” alum.
The citywide quarantines — followed by scattered re-openings, re-closings and smaller crowd sizes throughout 2020 — was a wakeup call for 20-year veterans like Phoenix as well as queens at every level of experience.
Taylor Alxndr was ready to make 2020 their bitch. But then the live shows stopped for this performer, event planner and multimedia artist. Even for a queen with nine years and a deep foundation of support from their organization Southern Fried Queer Pride and their own drag family, it was tough.
“I was gearing up to release an album and do a cross-country tour, but both have been paused, which is another loss of income,” Alxndr said. “For the first part of the pandemic, I felt creatively starved.”
Another prolific showgirl, self-professed “quarantine queen” and nine-year hosting veteran, Brigitte Bidet felt the pressure, too.
“COVID ruined gig culture and forced everyone to either be super innovative with how they make money, or to just find a different job,” she said.
Bidet credited friends and fans with her survival during the COVID Era.
“I’m lucky and lots of people love me, so I got a ton of support from the community through my digital drag shows,” she said. “These amazing people are the only reason I’m weathering the storm.”
By day, Dotte Com is a gay male web developer named Starson Black. By night, the cosplay queen of five years found drag “hit or miss” during the pandemic. It became “an expensive hobby” but one that remains a priority, the performer said.
“I’ve fully stopped relying on drag for any income,” Dotte Com said. “I’m still trying to put out new content, but it’s all coming out of pocket.”
“I sometimes get lucky and get to do a drive-in show or another real-life show that I can deem as safe,” she added. “Some digital shows can be really good too.”
Queens of reinvention
Virtual shows became the go-to as winter gave way to spring last year. That unpredictable option for audiences felt spotty for the performers too.
“I think most audiences are patient and supportive,” Alxndr said. “They realize just as much as they have had to adjust, so have live entertainers.”
Some queens, including Phoenix, don’t care for the format and rely on the energy of a live audience. Others think virtual shows are OK, but the financial enthusiasm took a dive as the pandemic wore on, they said.
“I will say the support and donations were really high in Spring 2020 but died down after June,” Alxndr added. “I guess because the experience of online drag wasn’t the same, online fatigue, etc.”
Dotte Com went online with the popular show NeonBlk — the all-Black show at Mary’s that first came as a response to racism at the now-defunct gay bar Burkhart’s. The show streams on Twitch every first Saturday of the month with a rotating cast of kings and queens, both local and national.
“I fully didn’t have any intention to bring the show online, but when the protests for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor took place back in June, I had to bring Neonblk to Twitch,” Dotte said. “We changed up the format a little bit, since I wasn’t being supported by door sales or a bar’s budget, and made it a charity show so people can celebrate Black drag performers and help make a difference in our community.”
Bidet found bigger online tips just as “valid” as “collecting singles from every twink in the room,” she said. But most of her 2020 success came through diversifying her portfolio.
Bidet now co-hosts Wussy’s “Good Judy” podcast, and she consulted on three events mobilizing LGBTQ people for the U.S. Senate runoffs with Future Coalition.
“It made me understand how important the voices of drag artists are to the community,” Bidet said. “And gave me a new title: ‘Brigitte Bidet, Consultant.’ Cute!”
In addition to the podcast, Wussy helped set a standard for virtual shows in spring 2020 with its “End Metronormativity” marathon, hosted by Bidet and “Good Judy” cohort Ella Saurus Rex. As spring became super-saturated with virtual shows, warm weather unleashed outdoor extravaganzas and drive-in drag.
Phoenix headlined a Stardust parking lot show with fellow RuGirl Detox at Heretic. And again, Wussy crew was on the forefront of innovation for entertainers. Alxndr credits Wussy’s drive-in drag shows as one of their own biggest wins of 2020, and Bidet is working with Wussy for more shows in 2021.
That downtime, though
Despite epic pivots and digging deep for new ways to present their talents and make a living, Atlanta queens experienced a loss that hit hard at first. Then it became an opportunity for growth, self-reflection and change for the future. For Phoenix, aka Brian Trapp, that came as a direct hit.
“I tested positive for COVID months ago, and have had multiple family and friends to test positive, so it’s definitely been a reality for me,” Phoenix said. “Luckily I’ve got some amazing friends that have helped keep me in good spirits. I’ve used this time to reevaluate my business, my art, and rediscover my actual self aka Brian.”
“It’s been nice to find Brian again,” she added. “Being someone in the spotlight constantly, you play that role almost full time. After 20 years of it, Brian has taken a backseat. I’ve learned to work Phoenix around Brian, instead of working Brian around Phoenix.”
Phoenix also took time to “re-fall in love with my craft,” she said. She has big plans as the entertainment director for Future Atlanta when it opens in Underground Atlanta.
Dotte Com also spent part of the quarantine downtime tapping into creativity for digital drag videos and new costume ideas. That includes an Instagram “show” of nine colorful cosplay looks Elmo to Pikachu. It took months.
“Since I have a darker skin tone, I’ve struggled to figure out techniques that allow for bright and vibrant colors to stand out on my skin,” Dotte said. “The series was a celebration of the growth in my makeup journey, in addition to being a personal commentary about the racism in the cosplay community that affects POC.”
As Core Dance Afflilliate Joshua Rackliffe during the day, Bidet stayed on better financial footing than some during the early days of quarantine. Like the other queens, though, the art of drag is what got her through some rough nights.
“Drag is not only a career. It’s a creative outlet,” she said. “Dressing up and being self-expressive is a great way to stay positive and forget about the dumpster fire of 2020. Drinking in your apartment helps too.”
Bidet is in talks to dip her toes back into live performance with a weekly bingo game at W Midtown later this year. Alxndr stays busy creating social and streaming content around drag, queer and trans identities. In addition to weekly Twitch streams and costume creation, Dotte Com has guest spots booked on virtual shows and several podcasts.
Support those who support you
Atlanta’s worldwide reputation for drag talent, originality and diversity translated as a mixed bag for queens during the pandemic’s shifts in their livelihoods. Over the last year, they saw donations to their Venmos and Cashapps, as well as help meeting crowfunding goals, and they welcome fans who show their appreciation in that way.
Phoenix said that one of the best things about Atlanta drag is its willingness to help. That generosity is something fans could pay back during tough times like the pandemic.
“Drag performers are always the first people called when money needs to be raised or when attention is needed for a cause,” Phoenix said. “Even if you’re not at a show, if you can, send some love to your favorite performer, it means a lot.
Queens pointed out that support doesn’t have to be only financial, either.
“You can always show support to your favorite drag performers by sharing their content,” Dotte Com said. “It doesn’t cost anything to share what they do and help boost their visibility.”
“If you like what they’re putting out, compliment them and let them know how much you appreciate what they do,” she added. “You have no idea how many of us contemplate quitting, almost way too often. This shit is hard.”
But like the gay anthems go, Atlanta drag will survive. As it has for decades, Atlanta drag paves its own way through a new drag reality .
“I still see really awesome ways for me to still grow and use my time,” she added, but “I’m ready to stop waiting and start doing.”
Alxndr sees the diversity of Atlanta drag as both a strength and an opportunity to do better.
“Atlanta drag has its own flavor, and the key ingredient is being entertaining,” Alxndr said. “Whether it’s a cast of showgirls in Midtown, a gaggle of artsy queers in the EAV, or the more downtown stunts and shenanigans of my turf Edgewood Ave., you’re going to be entertained.”
“As always, I definitely think the various scenes of Atlanta could blend and collaborate more,” they added. “I aim to help do that more in the near future.”
Dotte Com echoed that sentiment, calling for ideas on collaborations in 2021, “especially if it’s nerdy, dancey, or sparkly.”
Bidet said the pandemic really drives home how special Atlanta is for drag and its queens.
“I never realized how much was going on here until nothing was going on at all,” she said. “If I could change one thing, it would be for us to have even more spaces, bigger spaces, and more events for everyone to feel supported by people who are like them.”
Resilience and a return to realness
With all the time spent showing themselves and the world what they’re made of, Atlanta queens are ready to put Coronatimes behind them.
“Usually I’m the one putting things behind people — shoutout to my femme tops,” Bidet said. “So yes, I am ready to put strep-covered dollar bills in my mouth and do a cartwheel split to Miley’s new album.
“We didn’t even get our ‘dancefloor poppers while Chromatica blares in the background’ moment,” she joked. “I’m very ready.”
“Honey!” Alxndr exclaimed. “The minute the majority of the public has been vaccinated and the CDC gives the OK, you will find me at all of the gigs. I’m so eager to not only get back onstage and in front of crowds, but also to support Atlanta’s amazing queer nightlife once again.”
One day at a time, and with a healthy helping of love, Phoenix said.
“I miss seeing so many faces, I miss the stage, I miss my family,” the local legend said. “I try to remain hopeful for a brighter future and hoping when we come back, we’re better than ever. At this point, positivity is how we get through this.”