The Economics of Drag in Downtown St. John’s

The Indy shadowed some local queens to learn just how much it costs—materially, physically, and emotionally—to do drag in downtown St. John’s.

RuPaul’s Drag Race brought the discussion about drag economics to the mainstream. After all, some contestants showcase the most expensive and high-fashion gowns on day one. Other queens come onto the show with make-up bags bursting with sponsored products, the spoils that come with creating a massive Instagram following. We, the viewers, have come to understand that queens with a robust economic base behind them might have the ability to go further. 

It’s worth considering that since Drag Race has made drag art more mainstream, more straight people are occupying and enjoying queer spaces. But are they respecting the art form? Are they supporting the local drag scene and the effort put forth by local queens?

More importantly: are straight people tipping?

“It was the worst at Christmas when office parties came out to shows, and they had never been to see drag before,” Shavonne, a popular drag queen in St. John’s who has performed for about a year, told The Independent. “It’s not cruelty. I just don’t think some straight audiences understand that tipping is part of drag.”

Shavonne and I decided on a little experiment. We’d calculate precisely how much money goes into each drag performance—measuring the make-up cost on her face, the outfits, the wigs, and all the hidden sunk expenses people don’t know about would help us showcase how expensive drag can be.

Our other secret mission? To see if straight people are tipping less at drag shows.

The Material Costs

Drag costs a lot of money. That much is obvious. Shavonne estimates she wears about $15-20 dollars of make-up per show. She begins each night by gluing down her brows.

“I burn through Elmer’s glue. It’s tough to find the purple brand you need because every drag queen in the city is haunting Walmart looking for it too,” she explained. “I go through five sticks of glue in six months.”

Next is a layer of primer and foundation stick, and the eyebrows get blocked and blended out. Then it’s more concealer: “I burn through concealer too. This tube is about twenty-five dollars, and it’ll last me about six weeks.”

Eyebrow blocking is one of the earliest steps in the drag make-up process. (Photo: Andie Bulman.)

Shavonne sets every layer of make-up with setting powder: “Every liquid layer gets a layer of setting powder; you’ll look gross and mucky without it.”

Then it’s time for contouring. This includes powdered and creamy products and scotch tape.

“I use so much scotch tape–it gives me nice, crisp lines on my cheeks,” Shavonne continued. “And I buy this more expensive Fenti Beauty product for contouring because you have to support Black business. Rihanna is an ally to drag artists; we stan and support back.”

Final make-up steps include eye shadow, highlighter, fake lashes, lips, and setting spray. Shavonne estimates that her drag prep takes about 2-3 hours.

“Two hours by myself, three hours if I’m kikiing with other drag artists,” she said. “The average is 2.5 hours, so if I were to pay myself minimum wage and count the make-up cost, I already need to make 54 dollars in tips tonight to break even—and we haven’t talked about outfits or wigs yet.”

Drag artists need way more outfits than most people realize.

“We change outfits and wigs up to four or five times in a single show, and if you bring the same stuff all the time, that does get negatively reflected in your tips,” Shavonne explained. “I repeat outfits frequently, but I try to present things differently.”

Shopping for clothes is more expensive if you’re a plus-sized queen like Shavonne.

“I’m a big girl, so I order some custom-made clothes,” she told The Independent. “That comes to over a thousand a year. I understand the value of local fashion and want to support local makers. Still, clothing for a big body is pricier, so occasionally, I have to order online and buy fast fashion.” 

“I spent about $3000 on clothes for Shavonne a year, so when we divide that by my performances per year (4 per month or 48 a year), it comes to about $62.50 per performance.”

For folks keeping track, so far Shavonne needs to make at least $116.50 in tips tonight to break even. Then we’re on to wigs and body-shaping. 

“My cheaper wigs cost $60-$70,” our queen explained. “Medium quality wigs (usually pre-plucked lace/hairline, custom-made) can run from $110-$130, and I have a single human hair wig that ran me about $300. Styling can run from $40-$100. I think we can safely add $20 bucks to our running total from wigs alone.”

Shavonne will bring four or five wigs to the club tonight. Next, she pulls on her tights (several pairs) and a bodysuit, and her friend Ophelia Delight helps her put on the hip pads. Ophelia explains how they are made.

Ophelia Delight/Mitchell helps Shavonne get into her hip pads. (Photo: Andie Bulman.)

“I bought a memory foam sleeper mattress, about 100 dollars,” Ophelia told The Independent. “Then another queen and I cut that mattress to make hip pads. Shavonne just needs hip pads because she was blessed with a waist and booty, but I corset and have hip pads that go all the way around. Add at least ten dollars per performance to your running tally for shapewear.”

Finally, there’s the cost of gas or cab fare to get to shows, and parking, which Shavonne and Ophelia both estimate to be around twenty dollars.

Without adding in our physical costs, labour costs for the practice time, or mental costs, Shavonne needs to make about $166 in tips to break even. 

The Physical Costs

The physical costs of drag can add up too. This article is about a week behind schedule because Shavonne spent last Saturday in the ER with a bad back. We rescheduled, and she spent 9 hours waiting for treatment. 

Ophelia Delight, who I mentioned above, is another new queen; she’s been performing for about a year and says that there are hidden physical costs most people don’t realize.

“I wear seven pairs of tights a show,” she explained. “This creates a smooth leg, but I wear them because I cut my knees open doing death drops, and I’ll only bleed through the first two pairs of tights. I don’t know how to put a price on my busted knees.”

Ophelia’s back frequently hurts from the corset, and her legs ache after shows.

“Some queens like Shavonne are amazing at self-care and get massages, but I always shrug it off and think, eh, I’m twenty,” Ophelia said. “I’ll deal with the consequences some other time.”

Ophelia Delight performs regularly in St. John’s. (Photo: Andie Bulman.)

Shavonne recently saw a podiatrist, who told her that she couldn’t wear skinny heels.

“I only wear chunky heels now because I’m a good girly, listening to the doctor,” she explained. “I’m privileged to have a day job with benefits, so I can afford to take care of my physical body, but lots of queens don’t have coverage, so I think we need to put twenty dollars a show into the overall cost.”

Ophelia says she has trouble treating her boy self to things.

“It’s hard for me to spend money on Mitchell or Mitchell’s self-care because I think, oh, that should probably go to buying Ophelia some new heels,” she said. “I’ve had to kind of learn that it’s okay for Mitchell to get dinner.”

Finally, there’s the time involved in prepping. Both queens practice a lot for shows, working on new routines and getting their lip-syncs down.

“You can rely on your old showstoppers,” Ophelia explained. “But to elevate your drag, you need to learn new songs and work on your routines. That takes time. Again, I’m not sure how to calculate that.”

Our total now is $186.50 per show to break even. We have not landed on a number for labour costs.

The Mental Costs

First, there are safety concerns associated with being a drag queen or drag artist, which Shavonne talks about as she parks in the downtown parking garage.

“I have some major anxiety right now. I always do before a gig that’s not Velvet.” She paused. “This part of George Street is just unfriendly to queens, and walking to a gig in costume, you can feel like a target. Some people have been harassed and even attacked.”

Sure enough, Shavonne gets stares, and a few people say things in loud voices that can’t be understood over the wheels of her luggage.

“It makes you wonder if this piece should be about the economics of drag or the dangers of George Street, huh,” she joked as we wheel her outfits and wigs into Bridie Molloy’s. 

Beyond the safety concerns, there’s a mental cost when straight people attempt to take over queer spaces, Shavonne explained.

“There are tons of great allies who understand they are the guests; they are lovely, tip, and appreciate what we do. But there are straight people who feel threatened and try to take over queer spaces. They talk louder. They hit on us or hit on girls in the audience. That’s stressful.” 

“My high school bully approached me at a club and asked me about my gender identity,” she continued. “That had a high emotional cost for sure. I cried myself to sleep over that.”

The Payoff

Both Shavonne and Ophelia stress that the benefits of drag far outweigh the costs. 

“I have always been bigger than boys and girls my age. Drag has given me confidence in my shape,” Shavonne said. “The size of my body doesn’t determine my worth anymore. Instead, I have friends; I have volunteer work, good thoughts, and great jumpsuits.”

Ophelia agrees and says that drag has given them a sense of community.

“I made so many of my friends and mentors through drag,” she said. “Fashionista Jones is a queen that’s taught me and made space for me. I try to come out to other people’s shows, and they come out to ours. There’s a lot of respect in our community for our fellow queens.” 

Barbara Bardot is a drag artist that both Ophelia and Shavonne admire.

“She just creates opportunities, volunteers and shows up for the community, and is just an amazing performer,” Shavonne gushed. “Having these types of friendships is important. I didn’t have a ton of queer friends before.”

Barbara Bardot is one of the most popular queens in the city. (Photo: Andie Bulman.)

How Much Should You Tip a Drag Artist? And How Should You Behave at a Drag Show?

In the end, the show is a hit. 

Bridie Molloy’s is packed. A grinning bartender tells me that drag is a welcome respite from the relentless Irish pub music. Barbara Bardot is hosting, and she’s nailing it. She banters, jokes, dances, and in between sets, she’s out on George Street convincing people to come and watch a drag show. I watch her cajole a whole crowd of bewildered people through the door. They stay and seem to have a great time. 

The audience can be divided into a few categories. There are off-duty drag artists here to support their friends, a queer audience that follows drag wherever it goes, a straight audience that tips and supports and loves the queens, and finally, there are people who have never been to a drag show before. These groups tip and express enthusiasm in more or less this order. 

Everyone respects the queens. I see no groping, no weird behaviour towards them from the audience. A man in a fedora and vest is being gross and grabby with a group of young women. A bouncer sees him out. Good riddance. Mostly, the audience seems thrilled to be here.

In the end, Shavonne walks away with $270 in tips. We’ve estimated that $186.00 dollars goes into performing. We have not included the labour costs (practice time) and we couldn’t put a price on the mental costs either. Otherwise, Shavonne has made a profit of $84.00.

She’s pretty happy with that.

“Not all tips are monetary,” she noted. “I would consider sharing about your favorite artists on social media to be tipping too. Or, chatting and learning about drag, that’s awesome too. I don’t want to discourage straight people from coming to shows. I just want people to understand and appreciate how much effort we put into this art.” 

“Try to tip the performers! Be respectful! Have fun,” Shavonne finished. “Those are the rules.”

Follow Andie on Twitter.

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