Life After 'RuPaul's Drag Race': How Music, Merch & More Can Add Up to Six Figures
RuPaul’s Drag Race is a cultural juggernaut. Up for eight Emmy nominations this year, the show has provided a platform for over a hundred drag queens across its nine seasons. But just how lucrative is life after Drag Race? According to Jacob Slane, Partner and Associate Manager at Producer Entertainment Group (PEG), “When touring, recording, merchandise and endorsements are factored in, top queens are earning in the low to mid-six figures annually. Some even higher. Having an experienced team behind them to cultivate the best deals makes a big difference, obviously."
Slane partners alongside PEG founder David Charpentier, and their roster is impressive: Alaska Thunderfuck, Bob the Drag Queen, Jinkx Monsoon, Katya, Sharon Needles, Peppermint and Willam are just a sampling of the queens they represent. They’ve watched their clients go from the sidelines of pop culture to household names. Both have seen this breakthrough coming.
“The larger industry is just starting to catch up and see the entertainment value and commercial value of these artists,” Slane noted. Charpentier added, “When [PEG] was starting, nobody in the industry was taking them seriously. I remember music meetings where we would take artists in to meet with a label or a radio promotion company and they would say, ‘This music is great. But can you release it as boy or not in drag?’ This wasn’t very long ago. It was probably only two or three years ago.”
Now, the queens are everywhere: “Just the other day, Bob The Drag Queen, landed in New York early in the morning, had a shoot photoshoot, a round of interviews, performed later that night, only to hit the road again the following day,” said Andre Morris, owner of Varran Media, a publicity agency which partners with PEG.
Several Drag Race alumni have made impressions across various Billboard charts. Most recently, season 7 standout Trixie Mattel’s Two Birds made its way to No. 6 on the Independent Albums chart -- and No. 68 on the Billboard 200. Alaska, Sharon Needles and Adore Delano have seen their albums clock in on the upper tier of the Dance/Electronic Albums chart -- with the later topping it with his sophomore offering, 2016’s After Party.
The show has also allowed for queens to trade dive bar stages for sold out theaters across the globe. When asked about how Drag Race has impacted touring, Slane explained, “A top drag performer in today’s market is working in mid-sized venues around the world, between 2,000-5,000 capacity, up to six nights a week. For group tours it can be bigger. Anyone familiar with the touring industry can do the math: drag has become a viable, lucrative entertainment career path. However, it is still crucial for an artist to have professional, qualified representation that understands this very specialized market.”
Charpentier continued, “It’s great for the queens because they have a much bigger stage that they can present their art on. And much higher quality in terms of sound and lighting and video and everything. It’s a much better platform for them.”
While Drag Race alumni are topping charts and touring the world, nothing has proved the mainstream viability of these queens like their merchandise sales. In 2014, American Apparel released limited edition t-shirts featuring Alaska, Courtney Act and Willam. Unsurprisingly, the shirts sold out, leaving fans hungry for more merch. Now, thanks to New York City queen BibleGirl666, fans across the globe can access the merchandise queens dream up on DragQueenMerch.com. The company also begun collaborating with teen mallrat favorite Hot Topic. After the test run in select stores sold at an unprecedented rate, Hot Topic agreed to expand drag merchandise to almost every store in America.
While large crowds and desired merchandise may not come as a shock, the people wearing the shirts and filling the seats might: teenage girls. From the Beatles to Bieber, teen girls have always proved to be a devoted market.
Klinton Porter, part of the staff at the Laurie Beechman Theatre in NYC, has seen audiences for drag performers change from mostly gay men to a surprising amount of young women. “It depends on the queen, but I would have to say that 80 percent of fans that come are girls, younger girls.” These girls aren’t casual fans either. Porter discussed the new drag fandom: “It’s like they’re popstars. It’s a different level of fandom.” Season 8 winner Bob the Drag Queen, doesn’t find the teenage fandom too surprising. “It makes perfect sense of teenage girls to be obsessed with drag. It’s big hair, it’s bright colors, it’s silly jokes. It’s dress up. It makes perfect sense.”
With newfound fans come new fan stories. In the case of season 8 fav Kim Chi, references from the show means lots of tasty treats. “On the show, I quoted 'donut come for me' -- so this past year, I’ve gotten dozens and dozens of donuts.” According to Porter, many fans bring gifts for the queens. “People knit things. They make dolls, make clothes. When Jinxx Monsoon and Major Scales were doing Bringing Up Baby, a fan made baby clothes modeled after their costumes and gave it to them at the meet and greet.” When Courtney Act was playing the Laurie Beechman, Porter saw gifts beyond the homemade. “This group of girls knew that Courtney is kind of a health nut and takes a lot of vitamins, and they brought her an expensive pill box, from Saks or something like that, engraved with his initials on it.”
While most interactions are pleasant, sometimes Drag Race fans can get a bit carried away. Porter has seen it all at the Beechman: “When Courtney was here, there were these fans who came at 3pm. The show wasn’t until 7pm, but they wanted to see the theater and stand on the stage where she was going to be.
Season 4’s Jiggly Caliente also shared a bizarre fan interaction: “I was in Atlanta, in a bathroom at the airport. I was in a stall, sitting down, and all of the sudden I hear ‘May I call you Jiggly?’ It’s like, damn, can I take a piss in peace?”
However, Jiggly has seen the benefits of the Drag Race fandom: “A year or two ago Phi Phi O’Hara and I were at a gig in Boston, and our flights got delayed. Phi Phi had to leave no later than 6 AM, and we couldn’t change our flights. We didn’t know what to do. A fan overheard us freaking out, and offered to drive Phi Phi to New York. In my head I was like, you are insane if you take this. That’s how you get cut up into little pieces. And I wasn’t going to let her go alone. I was like, if we’re gonna die, we’re gonna die together. This fan is a friend of ours now. A drive from Boston to New York City is four, five hours. She didn’t ask for gas money, not a dime out of us. She got us back to New York safely. She is so, so sweet. There are fans that get a little crazy, get a little extra, but it’s great to know that there are fans that are super sweet like that.”
With the help of RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag has certainly broken through into the mainstream, but many people in the community feel this is only the beginning. “As big as drag feels right now, we still have a long way to go,” said Charpentier. "The plan for us and a lot of these queens is global domination.” Slane chimed in, “Our whole philosophy is that drag, as an entertainment form, has as much commercial value as other established areas of entertainment. It’s an art form that we have been celebrating for awhile. It’s really nice to see the entertainment industry, which overall is still pretty conservative, slowly, over time realize the commercial value of these artists.”
Jiggly feels similarly, “In the last five years, drag has made leaps and bounds in the mainstream. Now they know we’re not a joke. We’re not just freaks in nightlife. We’re real, raw human beings just like everybody else.”