Story by Meg Fair
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
In one wild night, Princess Jafar lip syncs to the debut of a brand new saccharine pop tune called “Gummi Girl;” dance duo and nonbinary entity slowdanger emerges from behind tulle to electronic cacophony; absolute drag powerhouse Maxi Pad brings a tear to the audience’s eyes with a heartwrenching lip sync of “Dangerously In Love” by Beyoncé; multimedia artist and drag performer Gia Fagnelli serves cult-exploding alienness; and that’s just scratching the surface of the “Princess Jafar and Friends Easter Eggstravaganza.”
Usually this kind of performance takes place in a club or a theater, but because of the stay-at-home orders and quarantine surrounding the COVID-19 Pandemic, it took place over Zoom with screen-shares and a live chat, strangers and friends and performers interacting and virtually cheering on and tipping the performers.
Princess Jafar’s highly produced events, like prior Princess Jafar and Friends variety shows, usually happen three to four times a year, and require months of preparation. “My drag is performance art, and it’s a stage show, and it’s written and produced by a team,” Jafar says. “It’s like if I were to produce a movie and that was my art.”
After spending four to five months preparing the Princess Jafar game show that was canceled, it was a tough realization for the “Disney villain-princess-for-good” that probably more events would be canceled.
“So now, how do I make sense of myself not just a drag performer, but as a performance artist, as a stage producer, as an event producer that produces events for audiences from 100 to 250 people?” asks Princess Jafar. “So I had to remember, you know, ‘Remember who you are,’ like Mufasa says and I really started writing. I started writing the treatments for a bunch of online shows.”
Princess Jafar is one of many performance artists and drag stars who are trying to entertain in spite of the quarantine and stay-at-home orders. Performers are using platforms like Facebook Live, Instagram Live, Twitch, Zoom, and YouTube to keep active. Some performers are pre-recording and uploading content, while others are doing live numbers on streams or curating shows. But it’s not easy to take such an interactive art form and put it into the digital world.
“Taking drag digital is heartbreaking for those of us who thrive off of the special magic that is created by the community when they show up to interact with drag. The energy and risk of performing to a live audience is thrilling, and any imperfections in my opinion can add to the grit and improvisation of the whole thing,” explains performer Moon Baby, one of the performers featured on the Princess Jafar and Friends Eggstravaganza, absolutely SERVING “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” out of their window.
“Livestream type shows where the main risk is that your wifi might cut out, well, that’s just miserable. I have been using it as an opportunity to create strong visuals. The silver lining is that I’m not at a bar, so I can perform on my roof or through a window or in my bathtub–it’s an opportunity to elevate forms,” says Moon Baby.
Scene queen Venus Doom (@thevenusdoom on Instagram) is the co-host of Element’s open stage, but right now she’s working 40+ hours a week at Rite-Aid. On her days off and after work Venus Doom gets into drag and films numbers as a way to keep busy and entertain people despite the quarantine.
“But it’s very exhausting,” explains Doom. “I never thought being behind a camera would be so tough compared to entertaining an entire room full of people drinking.”
Doom is not alone in feeling the strain of a medium shift. Pissy Mattress also has been learning what it’s like to perform for a camera instead of people.
“Being comfortable going live and being entertaining in that [digital] sphere is a cool challenge I am facing. I like having something to bounce off of, whether a co-host like my drag sister Maxi Pad or an audience,” explains Ms. Mattress. “That is how I feel my comedy works best. I am starting to learn to trust my comedy and my craft without direct audience involvement.”
“And as far as shows…okay, yo. Performing in your basement is a 180 from the usual drag business. I kind of feel like a young gay kid again dancing and performing in private but trying not to be too loud. I miss having space to run around, people to laugh with, and microphones,” says Ms. Mattress.
“If you have ever been to one of my shows I do a lot of bouncing off the audience. I feed the kids and the kids feed me. On the flip side I would call myself somewhat of a social media queen,” says scene queen and electric performer Bambi. “So while navigating how to host a show, from my living room, on my iPhone is just as challenging as it sounds…digital drag isn’t a reach. Just need some time to finetune and fuck up.”
For Doom, keeping up with other performers with more resources can be a challenge. “I only have my phone to record, edit and share. I’m lucky to have a roommate who has helped film a couple of my numbers so far,” says Doom.
Venus Doom is not alone, and it’s something Princess Jafar is aware of and working towards changing.
“Some artists can’t do live, they don’t have the Wi-Fi, so maybe they can do a pre-recorded video. But some artists can’t do live or a video because they don’t have phones that have that quality, or they don’t have the lighting, or they don’t even have one clean or presentable space in their house because of the conditions they have to live in,” explains Princess Jafar. “One performer had to say no because they’re living with their parents during this and they’re closeted again.”
Princess Jafar is currently figuring out how to get ring lights and recording equipment to those who don’t have access to it.
“Hopefully we can get these people involved because it’s really unfair. It’s really going to be disproportionate which queens have access to [digital performance.] I saw a drag brunch happening on Sunday and it really broke my heart because it had the same five white cis male queens that are at every drag brunch every week,” says Princess Jafar. “I felt like it was a really wasted opportunity to expand and bring people in. It’s just interesting what we can do together online.”
Some queens believe that access to the digital sphere and glossier performances can be a total game-changer for smaller performers.
“I think before the quarantine, performers with strong followings really ruled social media,” says Doom, “But it has been interesting because there is a slight shift happening where performers with fewer followers are shining in digital shows and on Twitch and TikTok, so the playing field is kind of opening for newer people to shine, which I love.”
If you’re looking for ways to help queens and performance artists, try The Pittsburgh Artist Emergency Fund, started by Julie Mallis, Sarah Huny Young and Josh Orange and now assisted by the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, is one fund to donate to that is helping all artists including performance artists and drag artists. So far 90 artists total have received compensation through the fund, and 50 more artists are slated to receive aid. The fund ceiling was raised to accommodate the number of incoming requests being made.
Tipping is also always an option. “Follow [performers] online and see what their situation is. If they’re producing content for tips, tip the dolls. If they’re not in a position to create and are struggling, tip the dolls,” says Bambi.
Princess Jafar Redubs The Movies: Home Alone. Sat. April 18th, 9 p.m. EST See @princessjafar on Instagram for more details.
The Dope Show: A Digital Drag Show hosted by Virus Eleganja and Saliva Godiva. Fri. April 17. 9 p.m. (hosted via Virus Eleganja’s YouTube and Instagram, Venus Doom is a featured performer)
BROAD DAYLIGHT – A Digital Drag Matinee w/ Pissy Mattress on FRIDAY APRIL 24TH @ 3PM. Find @pissy.mattress on IG for details.