Underpaid, mistreated and disrespected: The reality of being a drag artist in 2024

drag artists
The reality of being a drag artist in the UKGetty Images

It's Halloween night in Dundee and the club is already full. Chart bops ricochet around the dark room as a fog machine fills the stage with an anticipatory haze. The VKs are flowing and the atmosphere feels lively, as fans eagerly await the arrival of their favourite drag artists. Backstage, Miss Peaches is getting ready to open the show. Wearing a Jessica Rabbit inspired outfit - which took a month to put together - her red wig (cut and dyed herself) is glued into place, as she prepares to wow the waiting crowd. Thanks to her high energy choreography and perfected stage presence, they’re about to have the night of their lives. Yet, after spending £1,000 on her outfit, travelling to and from the show - then onto another one - and giving her all with a painstaking performance, Miss Peaches will never get paid for her work.

And she's not the only one. Recent months have seen the treatment of drag performers brought to the forefront of our attention, amid allegations that drag events companies have not been compensating their performers appropriately - or at all. Last October, X (formerly known as Twitter) was ablaze with allegations that Klub Kids, a well known drag events touring company, had not been paying many of its performers, Miss Peaches included. It all began when RuPaul’s Drag Race UK season four contestant Sminty Drop posted to discuss her lack of payment from a variety of gigs.

“It’s sad that with the amount I’ve worked this year, I should be very financially comfortable and able to move out of my mum’s house to start a life with my boyfriend. But I’ve still not been paid for 90 per cent of the gigs I’ve done this year,” she posted.

Other performers began sharing similar experiences, with Miss Peaches then writing (in a tweet viewed over 500,000 times): “Still not been paid for a show I did for Klub Kids LAST Halloween…not be doing that again my luv. [sic]”

In a quote tweet, RuPaul’s Drag Race UK season two winner Lawrence Chaney then added: “You opened for me October 2022 and haven’t been paid???!” In response, Klub Kids, which was responsible for a large portion of the UK’s drag scene performances, acknowledged that they “owed funds to some of our artists” and had “made some poor decisions” at the time, adding that things had “gone a bit wrong.” They also urged further performers to get in contact if they were owed money. Cosmopolitan UK has reached out to Klub Kids for comment.

While this might have come as a surprise to devoted fans who pay to see their favourite queens doing what they do best, for many in the drag industry, this is just the tip of a diamanté encrusted iceberg. The reality is that performers have felt mistreated, disrespected and underpaid for years, with some artists claiming wages came in the form of sexual favours or a pint of lager in the early days.

In 2024, queens at the beginning of their career can expect to be paid around £60 to £90 for a performance at a drag brunch. Seasoned artists can charge just about double that. Factor in the amount of money required to create showstopping outfits, in a bid to keep up with ever increasing competition, and queens often make a loss when they take to the stage. Lydia L’Scabies, a Brighton-based drag artist, also notes how the majority of gigs haven't increased their prices in line with inflation, telling Cosmopolitan UK, "I don't really notice fees getting any better to meet the cost of living.

“The amount of drag performers that I've spoken to in the last couple of months that are hustling double, just to make ends meet, is crazy," she explained. "And when you do pipe up to ask for more, you’re met with [criticism, or a response to say] 'you’re rude, demanding and ungrateful. You should be happy to be working here and having a platform'."

Compare this with other freelance performers such as wedding singers who can earn anything from £750 to £1,000 per event, or DJs who are earning £250 to £500 per gig, and it’s clear drag artists and their talent are being taken for granted.

When performers do get on stage, there’s often a worrying level of harassment to contend with. A 2023 study, spearheaded by drag queen Chimaera, discovered that of the 141 drag artists across the US and Canada interviewed, 80 per cent had experienced verbal harassment while working, and a third had experienced physical violence. "I’ve seen drag queens grabbed by the throat," Linda Gold, a drag artist and owner of drag events company Funny Boyz casually says over the phone."We used to do drag queen bar crawls. It was so much fun, until one of the queens and one person from a hen [party] got beaten to a pulp by a homophobic group.”

And it doesn't end there. Even with supposed drag fans, overstepping boundaries can feel common. "The notion of consent at a lot of drag brunches [isn't there]. Some of these hen [parties] get so handsy," Lydia explains. "And particularly if you're padded, you won't necessarily realise. And you turn around and someone is just there cupping your bum. It’s no longer people going to celebrate the art form. It’s literally like a zoo. It's just 'ooh look at the silly drag queen, tug their hair, see if it's real'."

Sadly, this level of abuse is somewhat normalised, with many performers receiving no support from their employers. Linda, who runs a zero tolerance for harassment policy at her events, reveals it’s not the same at all venues, adding that employment can feel so scarce that artists often feel forced to overlook it. "If they [a drag artist] got harassed in a bar, there are so few jobs that most of them would just tackle [the problem] themselves,” she admits. “Drag queens have to shut up or they feel they’ll be fired, and might never get work again." Chimaera agrees, telling me over Zoom: "When it's verbal harassment, or sexual advances like catcalling, nothing really gets done."

So, why are drag performers still being treated like this? The drag scene has changed a lot over the last 20 years. While drag was once confined to gay bars, with the rare exception of Lily Savage popping up on TV, it’s now everywhere. Thanks in part to the mega success of RuPaul's Drag Race (which just celebrated its 15th anniversary), drag artists are no longer just seen as a unique art form celebrated by a passionate community. Instead, it’s gone mainstream - from brunches, to reality shows, to local library story time and prime time TV slots.

And with this drag explosion, naturally comes more drag artists. Linda Gold estimates there to be around 40,000 in the UK, leading drag queens to undercut each other and fight for coveted jobs that barely pay the bills. "There are thousands of drag performers and only a couple of 100 venues that employ them,” she explains. “So it's a desperate situation. There’s a constant fight for work. If a spot ever comes up at one of the gay bars, everybody wants it. They'll stab each other in the back and fight for it.”

Linda argues that the lack of venues booking drag queens is often due to bar owners not wanting to alienate their drinking market. Despite a huge surge in popularity, it’s still only a small percent of the population wanting to see drag shows, with hen parties making up a big part of paying customers.

And of the events that do run, some have been targeted by protestors, with at least 57 all-ages drag events in the UK from June 2022 to May 2023, many at Drag Queen Story Hour, being disrupted in some way, Gay Times reported in June last year. And of course let’s not forget the current political landscape is not hardly the most supportive to those in the LGBTQIA+ community.

The rising awareness of drag (in part thanks to Drag Race) has also meant the level of what audiences expect from each performance has changed, and queens often end up spending double what they're paid for a gig in order to stay "relevant".

"You're probably thinking 'Well, why would you do all that if you know you're not making that money back?'," Miss Peaches says, referencing her own Halloween performance. "But we have to take into account what people expect from queens [like me] who have been doing it all these years. It would be far worse [for my reputation] in the local scene if I had shown up in a bodysuit that costs £12. It's that constant need to reinvent yourself, and reestablish yourself."

Some promoters take advantage of this. They know fully well that they are in control of coveted positions, and so can underpay artists who are so desperate to show off the art they've worked so hard to create.

Thankfully, there is a silver lining to this growing awareness of the poor treatment within the industry. Many drag performers like Miss Peaches now make the majority of their earnings from private bookings and have more control over their income, creating prices that cover the cost of their looks, transport and accommodation. As she puts it, “Drag artists are now almost exclusively doing events, like birthdays and weddings, where they know they're being paid their worth. The only thing I've not done is a funeral.”

And for those that do want to stick to more traditional drag shows, there are thankfully companies committed to working just as other ‘traditional companies’ would. Linda Gold's Funny Boyz is based in Liverpool and all her performers are "on a contract, they’re doing PAYE, and they're all paying taxes. They've all got pension schemes and they all get an Uber ride home at the end of the evening. And they get a proper reference [when they leave].”

But more definitely needs to be done within the drag community. For Chimaera, after seeing the results of her study, it’s simple: "We need consistent compensation, equitable treatment, and better workplace and employment protections. The people who do this work deserve respect and safety."

While getting there may be more of a struggle than other parts of the entertainment industry, it's arguably even more important. As Linda puts it: Drag isn’t “like any other's just the way you're born."

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