The conversation of whether Drag as an art form can be a part of the mainstream is one that has been going around for quite some time now. While some people will argue that our extremely heteronormative society is simply not prepared to see people of different parts of the gender spectrum express themselves in such eccentric ways, others will show you Taylor Swift’s music video for her smash hit ‘You Need To Calm Down’ or pictures from the 2016 MTV VMAs red carpet to prove the opposite. Nonetheless, drag is a thing of the past, the present, and the future — and those who incursion in this expression of art are constantly reinventing themselves, finding new ways to entertain, and setting the bar high for artists of any kind, everywhere.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit our world and turned it upside down, we’ve been able to witness endless damage everywhere. Financially wise, artists have been particularly affected, since they’re currently unable to show their work to the world in bars, concerts, clubs, and similar outlets — which for many also means they will not be able to pay the bills. This narrative includes drag queens, who may depend on tips or club promoters to sustain their living while keeping a job they enjoy and excel at.
In Argentina, 450.000 people — roughly 1% of the population — are expected to lose their jobs as a consequence of the pandemic. The economic situation of this country has not been ideal for a long time now — and while the media surely will pick up on the upcoming unemployment and inflation issues, there are some whose influence is everywhere in our culture but are rarely given the spotlight.
For this report, I reached out to some of the most talented, prominent and outspoken drag artists of Buenos Aires, in order to find out more about how they’re dealing with this unique situation in which they’ll have to reinvent themselves to keep exposing their art to the world. May I present to you, Gia Palermo, Lady Nada, Petra, Prism, and Shampein.
A STEP INTO THE BUENOS AIRES DRAG SCENE
Prism, whose birth name is Tomás, is one of the most creative and prolific drag artists in Argentina. Currently clocking in at over 9.6K followers on her Instagram account, she has managed to use social media to portray her creativity through a carefully curated, colorful, and breathtaking feed. Her style finds its source in every aspect of pop culture: video games, fashion, and art — besides being a drag queen, one of her hobbies is drawing, as she enjoys seeing her creations come to life through this character.
Tomás was born in Venezuela and lived some years in Panamá before arriving to Buenos Aires, where his Drag persona would start taking shape after some time of thinking and planning. “I always tell people Prism is Argentinian. This is the place where I first started creating, and where I’ve received the most support.”
The influx of immigrants to Argentina due to the political, social and economic crisis in Venezuela in the past few years has seen an unprecedented increasement: in 2018, 70.531 Venezuelans arrived to the country in search of a better life — a number that is over twice as big as the one from the previous year. While xenophobic sentiment usually accompanies these influxes, Prism says that it has not been reflected on her experience while doing drag in Buenos Aires: “I’m so happy about the support I’ve received here, I’ve always been greeted with kindness. Everyone I’ve worked with has been respectful and open-minded.”
THE TOUGH ROAD TO STARDOM
If you know anything about the Buenos Aires drag scene, you’ve heard of Lady Nada. With an aesthetic that draws from K-Pop, anime, video games and anything bright and explosive, her art is able to capture anyone’s attention. Originally a cosplayer, she dived into drag circa 2014 to create a character that could be the result of her own ideas while staying in a similar artistic lane.
From that moment, she’s risen to prominence and currently communicates with her audience through a YouTube channel with over 24,000 subscribers in which she does makeup tutorials, music reviews, and overall entertainment for her audience, and a TikTok account with over 260,000 followers. While she is undoubtedly a social media star, she’s also used to showing up on stage and delivering explosive performances that include lip-syncing and dancing.
In regards to the scene, she believes it’s extremely solid due to the variety of performers and entertainments — but it’s lacking in spaces. “Doing drag should be profitable. There are very few places where we can get booked to do our shows — and when we do, club promoters very rarely pay us enough,” she says. “If you’re doing this, it’s because you love it, not because you can live off of it.”
While she has been a part of the Buenos Aires drag scene for less than three years, Petra surely knows how to leave her mark. This queen initially shaped her persona around the Drag Race universe, citing fan-favorite Tatianna as one of her main inspirations, to later dive deeper into her character and turn it into a versatile show-stopper who knows how to deliver when it comes to performing a killer lip-sync or doing live comedy. Petra takes her name after the city from Jordania that was literally carved out of desert cliffs — a perfect metaphor for the way she was created.
Her comments agree with Lady Nada’s, and she believes there’s a long way to go: “Our drag scene has grown a lot in the past two years — but we still need more inclusion and diversity in clubs and bars, and that should not be limited to LGBTQ+ spaces. Our art should be showcased everywhere,” she explains. “I believe we should be able to put on a show for any age group, even family-oriented ones.”
THE ART OF DOING DRAG IN QUARANTINE
Gia Palermo is Buenos Aires’ very own Miss Venezuela: beauty, opulence, and elegance personified into a fierce drag queen. You can find her at your local bar or club serving the most gorgeous looks and makeup while maintaining her characteristic grace. Gia is part of one of the lesser represented groups in drag, identifying as a trans woman — with her art, she wants to communicate that empowering beauty for the audience to interpret as they desire.
Argentina officially started quarantine as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 20th, and with over 90 days of confinement, it has now become one of the longest, most restrictive in the world. Needless to say, everyone has been thoroughly affected by it at different levels, and artists are not exempt from that. When asked about how this unique situation has affected her creativity and her art, Gia said: “I continue to be active on social media, sharing content I believe will be interesting — but due to my daily job and the difficulties of organizing myself in this context, my artistic work has undeniably dropped.”
On the other hand, Petra says she has used this difficult moment to put the focus on her drag: “I try to perfect my art every day, in every sense: makeup, poses, looks…” she commented. “I took advantage of confinement and I’m making decisions to both kill some time and also take my work to the next level.”
Although drag artists shine for their versatility and social media has proven to be an extremely useful tool when it comes to communicating their charisma and talent, live shows are an integral part of their work — whether it’s a comedy routine, a lip-sync performance or a dancing number, it’s the one moment they have to prove the world they’re here to entertain. In the middle of quarantine, that is simply not possible — therefore, some artists have taken their shows to the virtual world through Zoom, Twitch or Instagram Live.
On May 23rd, Lady Nada took over the Chilean Lemon Lab‘s Instagram account to do a live transmission in which she creatively interviewed herself on real-time using a pre-recorded video of herself answering questions, to later perform to a K-Pop track without leaving aside her comedic bits that come out completely natural to the viewers. “I find it to be super experimental and fun,” she told Affinity. “Everything in the entertainment world is gonna be completely reinvented, particularly in social media —and we have to start getting used to it.” Her advice to other queens? Don’t resist, start going digital.
Prism shares the experience, having done two live virtual shows herself, but she believes the digital experience is far from ideal. “It will never be the same. While online shows are fun and give you more control over the whole situation, and you have lots of people supporting you, the live experience is unbeatable. The vibe is completely different.”
WHEN A QUEEN GETS HER PLATFORM
If there’s something undeniable about Shampein, it’s her star power. With a total of eight years in the Buenos Aires drag scene, she has positioned herself as one of the most exciting artists to watch in the city. Her persona was created in the world of fashion and style, and it has taken her to some of the best stages: theaters, television shows, Youtube, clubs, bars, you name it.
In the past few years, drag has slowly but surely started making its way into our mainstream media, with queens showing up to previously unexplored areas. “I completely celebrate the visibilization of drag in the media, I love to see it in a completely different way than it was portrayed before,” passionately says Shampein. “In the past, when drag was shown on TV, it was used for mockery or humiliation. I would’ve loved to see it showcased on a positive light when I was young. Discrimination is still very much present, but seeing it normalized helps lots of people.” In the same manner, Gia Palermo echoes that statement: “I wanna see more trans people get bigger platforms, people need to see minorities in the media.”
While Lady Nada definitely agrees with the need for more exposition of drag artists, she believes some issues should be fixed first: “I believe that sometimes the conversation around drag is very limited, people should know that our art is not just a matter of ‘man to woman’ — but at the same time, I understand that some people need more time to take things in.” In the meantime, she wants to see local drag get celebrated more inside of the LGBTQ+ community as well, citing the Chilean scene as an example to follow.
The art of Drag is certainly not new in Argentina, or anywhere else — but it has been expanded beyond any forecast and it’s attracting the eyes of people of every background due to its infectious energy and constant reinvention, pushing boundaries as it questions some of the most ingrained mindsets in our society. While RuPaul’s Drag Race has been extremely successful at giving Drag the spotlight, there’s still a long way to go: from setting up spaces for new types of talent to be celebrated, to letting go of the prejudice that doesn’t allow this beautifully diverse art form to shine in every corner of the world.
Queer artists have been a part of our society for countless years, and they have shaped our culture in endless ways. It’s time to give credit where credit is due.
The interviews in this article have been translated from Spanish and edited for clarity.