Before the pandemic, San Francisco drag performer Cash Monet spent nights and weekends performing in clubs and teaching dance. (Graham Holoch)
June is typically the month drag performers are booked and busy, lip-syncing at clubs, emceeing patio parties, raising money for LGBTQ+ organizations and strutting their stuff on the Pride stage.
But this year, those rituals were completely upended. During the last weekend of June, San Francisco Pride took place online. The city’s gay bars, typically alight with events all month, sat quietly boarded up—most notably its oldest one, The Stud. (Its owners decided to cut their losses and reopen in a new location when the pandemic ends.)
Like many drag performers in San Francisco, Cash Monet, the stage name of Patrick Santos, has found herself facing a sizable drop in income since the Bay Area started sheltering in place.
“It was a little different this year. There were no Pride gigs. And the one Pride gig I got paid for was the first time in a long time I paid for my own costumes and wigs,” she says, adding that her earnings from Pride month ended up at around $2,000 after subtracting the $1,000 she spent on new looks. In a typical year, she’d pocket $5,000—enough to cover several months of rent.
A lot has changed for Monet since March. Pre-pandemic, a typical week consisted of work at her day job as the social media manager for Rock M. Sakura, Monet’s friend and a contestant on the latest season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Monet would go to Sakura’s place to shoot and edit content for her popular Instagram account and YouTube channel. But after the Bay Area announced its shelter-in-place orders, visiting Sakura every day was no longer an option. (They’ve since resumed working together but with a modified schedule to minimize in-person contact.)
On nights and weekends, Monet filled her time with club gigs at places like Moby Dick, where she threw a cosplay drag party, Pastel Gore (her minimum rate for a club appearance was $100). She also taught a biweekly K-pop dance class, K-Pop Up at Levy Studio, which usually brought in an extra $200 a week.
After shelter in place began, gigs disappeared overnight for Monet and her two housemates, the drag performers Mary Vice and God’s Little Princess. “All of our money came in through the bars,” Monet says. “It was really scary because that was all of our income.”
Already accustomed to sharing wigs and other resources, the trio got creative. Video games, anime and nerd culture are big inspirations for Monet’s candy-colored style of drag. She already had an account on the streaming site Twitch, popular among gamers and a newly important platform for the drag community during the pandemic. The roommates teamed up to create a lineup of virtual programming, curating a calendar of in-home, livestreamed drag shows, video-game streams (Spongebob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom has been a favorite), drag makeup and video editing tutorials and even interviews with public figures like congressional hopeful Shahid Buttar, the Democratic Socialist running to unseat Nancy Pelosi in the 2020 election.
From the get-go, the crew’s approach to livestreaming has been playful and tongue-in-cheek. “Our first stream was called ‘Watch Mary Paint,’ and it was supposed to be a play on ‘Watch Mary Paint Her Face,’” says Monet, adding that the audience expected a drag makeup tutorial. “But it was literally, watch Mary Vice paint her room purple.”
The Twitch channel has over 1,800 subscribers, and about 100 of them pay at least $4.99 a month. But after the platform takes its cut, the three performers only take home a collective $200 a month. Fortunately, viewers often tip via Venmo, especially during the Monday night drag show, which brings in an average of $50 in tips per person every week. Though her take-home pay from the channel hasn’t been huge, Monet has hosted several streams for good causes, raising hundreds of dollars for Black Lives Matter protesters’ bail funds, Trans Lifeline and the Marsha P. Johnson Institute.
Monet says streaming on Twitch often requires her to think on her feet and multitask—not unlike running her own show at a club. “Drag performers and producers have to be a jack of all trades because not only are you performing in drag, but you have be a video editor, videographer and maybe you have to do lighting and sound editing on top of that,” she says. “If you’re performing at a show, people don’t realize you’re stage managing, lighting directing, music mixing. Is it good? Eh, questionable. But I’m making it work.”
Modesty aside, others are clearly taking note of Monet’s streaming savvy. For Pride, the Center for Cultural Power contracted her to produce their drag show, which required her to be the web master, virtual stage manager and emcee all at once. “It felt like I was back in an actual job because I had meetings and Google docs,” she says.
While Monet has been working hard to continue doing drag in the digital space, the combined earnings of all her projects add up to little more than her rent, which is $1,200 a month. Social media managing for Sakura, which pays about $700–$1,000 a month, is a big chunk of that. Unfortunately, she hasn’t been able to get unemployment benefits because so much of her work prior to the pandemic wasn’t formally documented. But she did receive two COVID-relief artist grants of $500 each.
Despite the uncertainty, Monet remains undeterred, and encourages other performing artists to experiment with ways to continue their craft in the era of social distancing—even if it’s a bit glitchy at first. “The more you do something, the more you learn,” she says. “If you make a mistake on your stream and the microphone wasn’t working and it looks bad, use that as part of your learning process.”
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