Articles - 13th September 2019

How to be a performer: Tips from a drag artist

Words by Virgin Xtravaganzah
Illustration by Jon McCormack

So. You want a be a drag queen? Well. There are some things you’ll need to learn first…

First of all, let me introduce myself. My name is Andrew Burt, I am the person behind Virgin Xtravaganzah. I have been working in drag and cabaret for 5 years now, and in that time I have travelled all over the world as a drag performer, worked extensively in London and the whole of the UK. I have worked everywhere from The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, to fetish nights such as Torture Garden, and Antichrist. As I write this, I am preparing to go on a tour of India with nightclub Kitty Su, where I will be performing. By and large, I know my shit when it comes to being a boss ass bitch as a drag queen, and somehow, I’ve been able to make this work for me as a legitimate and financially lucrative freelance career. And I’ve never been on a reality TV show.

As a solo freelance performer, I had to learn a lot of things the hard way. I went to drama school, but no one really prepares you for this stuff until you get there yourself. 

First things first: Save all your receipts! If you’re serious about being a performer as a career, you’ll need to register as self-employed and file a tax return each year. You have to keep records of all equipment/items you purchase to assist you in your career so that you can file them as expenses on your tax return. Boring tip, I know, but believe me- I wish I had someone tell me that when I first started! Makeup, wigs, costume, lashes, even cabs to and from venues- everything you buy for your performance work needs to be recorded. Be organised!

In terms of your drag act, find your character. It’s easy to think of drag as purely aesthetic, which of course it can be, but it’s also important to know how to perform. Are you a live singer, or lip syncher? Maybe you do neither, but you dance! Whatever your skill is, find a character that goes along with it. This can also determine how you decide to look- Virgin is the mother of God, so of course she wears a halo, for example. She is bound by the church, so she never shows any skin. Aspects of her character inform how she looks, all characters can be approached in a similar fashion.

When you’re coming up with your look/aesthetic, be original. Because drag is enjoying a lot of mainstream success right now, people are approaching drag in a very prescriptive manner.  They watch makeup tutorials of famous drag stars, and simply adopt their way of doing things. But copying someone else does not an artist make! I figured out how to do my face by trial and error. I made a lot of mistakes and lord knows those mistakes are still visible, deep in the recesses of my facebook. But because I figured things out for myself, I created something original and my makeup/look is my own and not something duplicated from someone else. 

When you start gigging, it’s important to figure out what your niche is. Are you a group performer, or solo performer? This is an important distinction, as drag queens tend to fall into those two groups. There are the packs, and the lone wolves. Personally, I am the latter as I know I work best by myself and for myself. But a lot of drag queens thrive in group settings. The only thing to be careful of in working this way, is clique mentality. It’s very easy for groups to become exclusive and cliquey, and this doesn’t bode well for a personal career in the long run. Work in groups if that’s what works for you, but don’t allow yourself to become part of a clique or else other people, outside of the clique, may become reluctant to work with you.

My final bit of advice is the most important: give 0 fu*%s. As an artist, it’s very easy to do what is trendy, to feel like you have to mould yourself into what is marketable/popular. It’s very easy to pander to people’s opinions of you. As an artist, it is necessary to pander from time to time, but it should never be necessary to change yourself in a way that doesn’t feel right to you. This is where artistic intuition comes in. You have to know yourself, know what you are comfortable with and what you are not. Know what is truthful to you, and what isn’t. By having frequent conversations with your art, you develop a relationship with it that is objective and not overly personal. In this way, you can understand what you want vs what your art wants, and you’ll be surprised to know it’s not always the same things. There have been opportunities I have missed because although the money was good, the client wanted me to do something (such as change my name) that didn’t feel right to Virgin. So she told me “Bitch, we can find money somewhere else, don’t you dare take away my name and all that we have established on our own!” And that was that! Basically, to thine own self be true and to thine own drag be true as well. If that happens, you’ll both have a fantastic career ahead of you.

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