How a Pop Star Lip-Sync Showdown Is Paying Out Big for Local Queens

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Rihanna attends the launch of her first visual autobiography, "Rihanna" at Guggenheim Museum on Oct. 11, 2019 in New York City. 

Read My Lips aims to prop up rising talent in an increasingly celebrity-oriented field.

As RuPaul's Drag Race continues to take over culture, the art form can seem increasingly like a celebritized field. Hell, the latest iteration of the show is RuPaul's Celebrity Drag Race. For a culture that's traditionally existed underground, that can sometimes feel a little strange. After all, local queens might perform seven days a week to modest crowds for hard-earned one-dollar tips, but a Drag Race contestant can roll into town, pack a bar and trot away with hundreds.

"People focus so much on a visiting dignitary from the show who’s in town for a second, rather than propping up the stellar local talent," says New York queen Nicky Ottav.

To help level the playing field, Ottav and her fellow NYC queen Blake Deadly started ongoing series of lip-sync competitions in Brooklyn called Read My Lips – and they're putting their money where their lipstick-caked mouths are. While plenty of local drag competitions crown winners for various titles year-round, the person who rises to the top of Read My Lips walks away with $1,000 that night.

"I'm into instant gratification," Ottav smiles. "There are a lot of great drag competitions that happen, but not as many where the stakes are this high in a single night."

And it's not just the competitors putting their necks on the line. While Blake and Nicky secured a sponsor for the first two editions of Read My Lips (themed around Britney Spears and Lady Gaga), concerns over logistics and creative control lead them to take on the economic onus moving forward. Under their current model, the door fee ostensibly pays for the winner's cash prize, but if the total comes up short, they're stuck footing the bill. "It’s risk and reward for us too," Nicky laughs. "We're cautious optimists," Blake adds.

And what a difference 1K makes. That cash reward changed the tone of Brooklyn drag drastically on Thursday (Oct. 24) night when a Rihanna-themed Read My Lips went down at Bushwick's 3 Dollar Bill (hey, someone has to perform her music if she's not going to). While the borough's drag has long been a hotspot for innovative stunts and outfits, the cash prize turned each queen into an absolute killer hellbent on taking out their opponent via idiosyncratic stunts (multiple mask reveals! Breastplate piercings!) and eye-popping acrobatics.

A normal lip sync might have one or two 'Gram-worthy moments, but it was a parade of gags as 12 queens faced off against each other bracket-style for the top prize. During a lip sync to Rih's dancehall jam "Rude Boy," there was a moment where one competitor, Jax, was doing endless backflips while the other, Zavaleta, was dangling above the stage and pulling off a sickening wig reveal – it was practically impossible to decide who to lock your eyes on. One competitor, Vena Cava, spurted fake blood on her bare chest and proceeded to slap dollar bills all over it – and while the crowd went bananas, that wasn't even enough to push her toward the applause-based win.

Speaking of which, the competition was so close that the intended finale – a three-way lip sync – became the penultimate performance, because the crowd couldn't decide and demanded an unscripted follow-up. A final lip sync to "Where Have You Been" left Jax the winner; taking the crown, the victor proved she was truly a queen of the people by telling the audience, "Get on Seamless and make sure you order chicken fingers and mozzarella sticks for me."

"These are people who could easily be on the [Drag Race] down the line," Nicky told Billboard prior to the show -- and the evening's talent easily validated that claim. Then again, the need to make that comparison speaks to the show's ubiquity, which Blake was quick to point out. "Even that framing, we're now conditioned to say, 'pay attention to these queens, they might be on the show,'" she said. "Not that it’s a bad thing to be on the show, but it’s changed everything [in drag] and the way we talk about it."

Even so, with events like Read My Lips, it's clear local drag queens still have plenty of tricks under their wigs.