Here We Go: Drag Queen Economy is ‘Booming’ in Hollywood

Cutting the ribbon at DragCon 2019.
Movi Inc for World of Wonder

As Angelina Jolie made the usual red carpet rounds at the L.A. premiere of Disney’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, she stopped for a picture with stars who didn’t appear in the film, even if they looked like they had: drag queens Nina West, Shangela and Ginger Minj, decked out in horns, black dresses and, in Minj’s case, an ensemble dedicated to the film’s fairies.

In recent months, queens were invited to the Frozen 2 premiere and the Charlie’s Angels debut, posing with Kristen Stewart, Idina Menzel and Josh Gad. (Reps declined to say how much the queens were paid to appear.)

Studios like Disney are the latest entrant to the new drag queen economy, wooing the robust fan base that queens have carved out since RuPaul’s Drag Race broke out on Viacom’s Logo channel in 2009 (the 13-time Emmy winner moved to VH1 in 2017). While the show deserves much of the credit for the boom, its success dovetails with a wider cultural shift in depiction and exploration of gender identity. Top drag queens have ascended from working primarily nightclub gigs to selling out arenas, appearing in major scripted projects (including A Star Is Born and RuPaul’s upcoming Netflix series AJ and the Queen), making Billboard charts for music releases, socializing with over 100,000 fans at DragCon, and booking fashion collaborations with legacy brands like Prada and Moschino. “Drag queens have tapped into an audience that’s been desperate for a different kind of entertainment,” says Randy Barbato, co-founder alongside Fenton Bailey of World of Wonder, the company behind Drag Race. “Madison Avenue, the fashion industry and Hollywood are finally catching on.”

Overall if you’re a queen, “your money is on the road,” West says. Drag tours have expanded rapidly: In 2017, the RuPaul’s Drag Race Werq the World tour featuring stars from the show stopped at 10 U.S. cities and 12 cities in Europe. In 2019, it played in more than 50 U.S. cities, in 35 European cities and in more arenas than ever before. This year the company has sold more than 130,000 tickets, which range from $50 to $170-plus; top queens keep over 50 percent of ticket sales.

Individual tours remain an important income driver, too, though fees vary: “One [queen] can make $300 at a nightclub and Bianca del Rio will walk out with $30,000,” says Brandon Voss, the owner of Voss Events, which runs the RuPaul’s Drag Race tours. (Voss says that all his drag clients make more than $500,000 annually and that Aquaria has made over $1 million in endorsement deals and performances alone.)

Merchandise sweetens the pot. At DragCon, an annual event in New York and L.A. (and the U.K. in 2020) co-produced by RuPaul and World of Wonder, fans can meet queens and buy their products: In 2018, $8 million was exchanged at the New York and L.A. conventions, which saw 100,000 combined visitors. “I make more in merch sales than I do in pay on big tours because a bunch of [my customers] are under 21 and can’t go to clubs,” says Race contestant and Coverboy Cosmetics founder Willam Belli.

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SOURCE: The Hollywood Reporter, Katie Kilkenny