‘I could lose everything’: Dallas drag performers say Texas bills could impact their jobs
On the dance floor of Dallas’ The Round-Up Saloon and Dance Hall, Daphne Rio lip syncs and struts to Selena Gomez’s “Hands to Myself.” Rio wears auburn pigtails, bold red lipstick, glittery makeup and clear high heels for the show.
Wednesday is The Round-Up’s weekly game show night. Colorful lights and the glow of a revolving disco ball shine down on the performer as the music blasts and audience members sip on drinks.
Rio is passionate about drag as an art form that’s a mix of costuming, makeup, drama, comedy. It’s also Rio’s profession.
Lawmakers in the Texas Legislature have recently proposed bills regulating drag shows. Rep. Nate Schatzline, R-Fort Worth, proposed House Bill 1266 which would require any business that hosts drag shows to pay additional taxes and face licensing restrictions because it would be classified as a “sexually-oriented business.”
Schatzline did not respond to an interview request. However, in February he spoke out after a video surfaced on social media of him wearing a dress for a school project as a teenager. Schatzline tweeted “that’s not a sexually explicit drag show.” He also posted a video response on his Twitter account in March, saying his legislation aims to “ban sexually explicit drag shows and preserve the innocence of the next generation in Texas.”
HB 1266 has been referred to the House State Affairs Committee. To pass, the bill needs to be approved by the Texas House of Representatives and Senate and be signed by the governor to become law. Opponents of this bill and legislation like it believe it could lead businesses to cut shows and threaten how drag performers make a living.
“For a lot of us, this is our job,” Rio said. “So that's going to be one of the... ways it's going to hit us in the pocketbook for sure.”
North Texas businesses that host drag performances could also be affected. Waylon Tate, a spokesperson for the North Texas LGBT Chamber of Commerce, said the organization found over 30 businesses in Dallas offer drag shows. Tate is a publicist for several such businesses that host drag shows and he owns Drag Star Diva, an event and production company in Dallas.
“These venues will absolutely suffer as well as the queens,” Tate said. “Because when you think about what is the core principle of anything that has to do with hospitality, it is the coming together of people to celebrate. Through that, they purchase food and beverage and in this case would be participating in an entertainment activity.”
While some drag performers are amateurs with day jobs, others earn a living from the art form. For them, the legislation is especially concerning.
Raquel Blake’s sole income is made performing drag at venues like The Rose Room and The Round-Up. Blake, who uses plural pronouns, also co-owns the event company A Side of Drag.
“It's really frightening to me to know I could lose everything if they pass these bills,” Blake said. “My career, everything. My income, you know. Some people don't think that this is a real job, but it is. I built my life off of it.”
Rio, who also uses plural pronouns, is worried about how the bills might threaten their ability to make ends meet.
“I have a certain number of bookings that I have to do per month to be able to come up with money to pay my bills,” Rio said.
Rio’s drag performances cover monthly expenses such as rent and insurance, which total around $1,500-$2,000. As a side hustle, Rio also makes about $300-$500 a month sewing costumes for other performers.
Rio is worried about how the legislation could affect the extra money earned from sewing costumes, which they use to supplement their income.
“Obviously when the money's up, people spend frivolously,” Rio said. “So it most definitely will affect anything on the side — sewing, hair. I have friends that do hair, people who do makeup.”
In addition to being working artists, drag performers are part of the gig economy who largely make money through contracts rather than full-time salaried positions.
Rio performs at least 10 gigs a month, including game show night on Wednesdays at the Round-Up and drag brunches at BuzzBrews Kitchen. Rio’s booking fee per show is about $150-$250 and the performer can make anywhere from $50-100 in tips per show.
Blake said they make around $150-$200 a show and tips can range from $75-$300 per show.
“I always say that I work nine days a week, but I'm on like an eight day workweek right now,” Blake said. “With those, I could have two to three shows in a day, especially on the weekends if we have brunch and other pop-up events or private gigs, plus whatever we do on our regular shows as well.”
The Art of Drag
Unlike other gig economy workers such as Uber drivers or tutors, Rio and Blake see drag as much more than their job.
“We’re literally our own canvas and we're painting a portrait on ourselves,” Blake said. “I think it's a beautiful art form on all spectrums of what drag is.”
Blake, who specializes in comedy, enjoys making the audience laugh and lip syncing to songs like Taylor Dayne’s ’90s hit “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love.”
“I love making people laugh. I love telling stories,” they said. “My performances are all lip sync, a mix of comedy and kind of top 40.”
Like many art forms, Rio said, drag is “an expensive craft.” Just getting ready for a single show can cost a performer hundreds of dollars.
Rio estimates expenses for one show can cost about $75-$100 in makeup with wigs costing up to $300. Not to mention, the cost of costumes, undergarments, nails and jewelry.
“If it's like an event that I'm getting ready for and I'm trying to be immaculate and make sure that everything's tip-top, I definitely could easily spend over a thousand,” Rio said.
That’s why for many drag performers, a significant amount of the money they make goes back into their work.
“I'm doing my taxes now and it always scares me. I see how much money I spend on it, but it’s what I love to do,” Blake said.
As drag performers across Texas nervously track the bills going through the Legislature, some may ask: Why not leave the state and find work in drag-friendly places?
“It would cost just as much as one month's rent, probably just to begin to move,” Rio said. “But also not even that. You know, I have my whole life here.”
Rio said joining other industries presents unique challenges for drag performers.
“There's always that fear behind that of what happens at that employer. If someone's not okay with me doing drag and then how are they going to spin this … that's always going to be in the back of the head,” Rio said.
Rio said many of their friends worry about not being accepted in public, which can be an added mental stressor.
“So it's easy for them to go on stage for five minutes and then sit back in the dressing room for the rest of the time,” Rio said. “It's not as easy for them to work retail because of their social anxiety.”
Blake said they don’t want to leave Dallas. The performer has considered returning to doing makeup if they can’t support themselves solely through drag.
“There is an option of me to [move away], but just my heart is here. So I'd stay and fight and just suck it up and figure out what to do and make people look beautiful anyway.”
They lean on their drag family for support and community. Blake has been talking with their drag sisters and brothers about the proposed bills and what they might do in the future.
“I think we just all kind of want to give ourselves a game plan or even see where we are mentally with the whole thing too because some of us might not handle this as well as others,” Blake said. “So it's more kind of doing like mental health check-ins, too. Where are we at? What do we want to do? Like, what's our game plan?”
For Rio, it’s frustrating.
“I've been doing this for almost 20 years now, and it's weird to think that we've gotten to a place where a job, a literal job for somebody could just be banned because some people are uncomfortable with it,” they said.
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