Milwaukee's Drag Scene Goes Virtual: Online Performances And Social Media Help Audience Grow
On a Friday night, at This is It! in downtown Milwaukee, the bar is packed with people waiting for the night's drag show to begin.
It's a big change from how the local drag scene ran just a few months ago. When the city shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many local gay bars went from hosting in-person drag performances to running virtual shows.
George Schneider is co-owner of This is It!. He said running virtual shows was a lot of work for performers and staff, but they helped some drag queens continue to earn an income.
"We filmed performers individually and stitched those previously recorded performances with a live host," Schneider said. "It was a lot of production and a lot of editing – so very different from a live drag show, but we got good at it and had a lot of fun doing it as well."
The combination of virtual drag shows and a rise in social media use helped keep audience members engaged and introduce drag culture to more people.
Juan Mejia performs as drag queen Setareh Ouellet. Mejia said he noticed more drag queens becoming active on social media by doing makeup tutorials and online performances during the pandemic.
Mejia began to gain more followers on Instagram and now uses social media to promote his shows. When the city announced that bars could reopen after initial COVID-19 closures, fans were eager to show their support, including at Hamburger Mary's, a restaurant in Walkers Point where he works.
"The main nights for them are like Friday and Saturday. Those nights have always been sold out ever since there was a green light for people to come out," Mejia said. "That's amazing because people are more appreciative about the art."
While drag culture has become more mainstream on social media, Bjorn Nasett, who performs as longtime drag queen BJ Daniels, said it's a big change from how Milwaukee's drag scene used to be. When Nasett was starting in the 1980s, he said the focus was on performing. Now, he worries about social media's impact on the quality of Milwaukee's drag scene.
"There was no video. There was no social media. The only way somebody would know who you were was to come and see you," Nasett said. "Now I feel like it has been diluted in some ways because it's like add a YouTube video, some makeup tips, a wig, and an Amazon costume, stir, and you're now a drag queen."
Nasett said social media has helped more people start out as drag queens and has made the scene more accessible despite his concerns. He appreciates the diversity of artists who are now part of Milwaukee's local drag scene. Still, Nasett wants to see younger drag queens hold themselves to a high standard.
"My advice to young people always is, find out who you are in drag, and stick to it. Polish it to the nth degree, 'til it's just so polished that people are just, they can't believe it. That's the difference," Nasett said.
The pandemic has changed how some drag queens work in Milwaukee, but the local scene continues to evolve despite setbacks.
Michail Takach is a curator of the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project. Takach said drag fans across the country might not associate Milwaukee with drag culture. Still, the city has produced a couple of drag superstars, including Trixie Mattel and Jaida Essence Hall. He said it's only a matter of time before the local scene becomes an epicenter for drag.
"There are so many odds against it, but it's also all of the things that are a breeding ground for drag talent and drag creativity," Takach said. "Had we not entered the COVID-19 pandemic, I think Milwaukee was positioned for another golden age of Milwaukee drag. The talent that you see today is really vibrant and colorful, and you have people who are not just doing this for a night, but doing this for a career."
Takach said many local drag queens are creating a lasting legacy for Milwaukee, both in-person and online.