Pittsburgh drag scene adjusts to new normal

Dan+Minkel%2C+a+North+Huntingdon+resident%2C+performs+as+a+drag+queen+in+Pittsburgh+under+the+name+Scarlet+Fairweather.+

Courtesy of Dan Minkel

Dan Minkel, a North Huntingdon resident, performs as a drag queen in Pittsburgh under the name Scarlet Fairweather.

By Charlie Taylor, Culture Editor

Dan Minkel’s Zoom calls don’t involve budget meetings or tedious team-building exercises. Instead, he goes into Zoom meetings dressed as Isabelle, the friendly dog mayor from the popular “Animal Crossing” video game, and lip syncs with other performers.

Most drag queens and kings earn money and practice their craft by performing at bars, which closed March 15 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the City’s drag scene has far from disappeared. Performers like Minkel are hosting online shows throughout the shutdown — including one this Friday — and with Allegheny County currently in the green phase of reopening, some are now reentering bars under new social distancing guidelines.

Minkel, a North Huntingdon resident who performs in the City under the name Scarlet Fairweather, said he started setting up Instagram Live and Zoom shows with other performers — including Pittsburgh queens Lucille LoveGood and Calipso, as well as New York-based Erika Klash — a few weeks into the shutdown. Fans can message any of the performers in a given show on social media to get a link to their Zoom calls.

These shows are based on pop culture topics, which Minkel said usually inspire his drag. The show this Friday is Pokemon-themed, while a May 9 show called “It Takes a Villager” took inspiration from the new “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” game. Minkel said he and many others used “Animal Crossing” in particular to cope with the quarantine.

“Most of my shows in-person are themed, nerdy-style events, so we started doing those kinds of shows on mediums like Zoom and Instagram,” Minkel said. “[‘It Takes a Villager’] was right after ‘Animal Crossing’ came out on the Switch and everyone was doing that. I loved it, and it was a really good quarantine coping mechanism.”

According to Minkel, performers still make money from virtual shows by allowing viewers to leave tips via platforms such as Cashapp and Venmo. They don’t receive as much money as they would from a bar show, but Minkel said he thinks these shows are still important because they allow artists to keep doing what they love.

“For most of us, the money’s great, but it’s a lot more about being out, making art and making people laugh or think, and that makes up for whatever we’re missing in money,” Minkel said.

But Minkel said he recognized that he has struggled less than other entertainers, since he makes most of his money from his day job as an essential worker in customer service.

“I do know that [the lack of money] has been harder for people that had drag as their one income or their main income,” Minkel added.

Brooklyn Barbie Way, who asked to be referred to by their drag name, played the raccoon landlord character Tom Nook in Minkel’s “Animal Crossing” show. They said although they enjoy being able to continue doing drag virtually, they miss the energy that comes from interacting with an audience.

“I’m a stage entertainer. I feed off the crowd’s energy, so it’s been weird,” Way said. “I’ve still been able to perform, but there’s nothing like being in front of a crowd.”

As bars in the City reopen, Way has also started performing in-person again. They did shows at P Town in Bloomfield and Brewer’s Bar in Lower Lawrenceville last Friday night, and although crowd sizes were reduced to ensure social distancing, they said drag shows feel similar to the way they felt before the shutdown.

“I would say as of right now [the energy is the same], just because everyone’s happy to get out of the house and back into the bar. We haven’t seen people in forever,” Way said.

Way, who works in a restaurant during the day, also said the money they earn from drag goes back into funding their drag, so they appreciate being able to earn more from tips at bar shows.

“I really had to start pinching my pennies once the bars closed down,” Way said. “I’m happy things are going back to normal now.”

But Minkel said he has yet to book any in-person shows. He said because he’s close with his parents and grandparents, he doesn’t want to spend too much time in public, for fear that he might spread the coronavirus to them. Instead, he’s working with the Blue Moon Bar in Lawrenceville — where, as its reigning Miss Blue Moon Pageant winner, he’s responsible for putting on monthly shows — to develop a virtual show.

“I’m staying inside until the pandemic gets more manageable. I don’t want to risk anything,” Minkel said. “Blue Moon has been very understanding about that.”

The shutdown has also postponed major Pride Month celebrations in Pittsburgh. Minkel said he and other performers tend to book a large number of gigs during Pride Month, something missing this June.

“For drag, we normally book a lot during Pride, and it’s exhausting and sweaty,” Minkel said. “We end up looking very bad at the end of the day, but it’s worth it.”

Although he can’t do parades or shows this year, Minkel pointed out that Pride started at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 as a protest against police brutality. With protests occurring across Pittsburgh demanding justice for the death of Black people at the hands of the police, Minkel said Pride feels more authentic than usual this year.

“We’ve come to this impasse where Pride is this safe, happy, corporate, capitalist moment. Right now, we’re in Pride Month and it’s protests,” Minkel said. “It’s sticking up for communities that have been there for you, and you’ve got to be there for them. I’m very happy about that.”

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