Drag from home: How Toronto’s drag queens survived the pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Toronto’s drag bars, the city’s queens found a new way to keep their reign

Regina Gently in her Toronto home, from where she livestreams on Twitch. COURTESY Regina Gently

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Toronto’s drag bars, the city’s queens found a new way to keep their reign.

“I didn’t even know what Twitch was, but I’m a performer and I can’t just not perform for a year,” drag queen Regina Gently said about the online platform. “I’m not the most tech-savvy person, so it was a lot of work to figure out how to use Twitch. Once I did, I loved it.”

Gently had worked as a drag queen for 10 years before debuting her Twitch channel in September 2020.  Pre-pandemic she made most of her income by DJing and was planning to release and promote her new album Don’t Wait to Love Me and revive her one-woman show in 2020.

“Everything was cancelled and it was in March, when I started booking my Pride gigs,” Gently said. “Instead of booking them, I was erasing them. I have not done an in-person DJing gig since the pandemic started.”   

Twitch is a platform designed for video gamers to livestream their game play or watch other gamers play.  According to the Verge, between March and April 2020, Twitch users watched five billion total hours of content, an increase of 50 per cent from 2020’s first quarter and a 60 per cent increase from those same three months in 2019.

Gently turned to Twitch out of necessity.

“I started it to keep busy and keep getting into drag and practising DJing,” Gently said. “From that, people started hiring me to DJ birthday parties or dance parties. Their friends are in all their homes. They tell what music to want, and it’s turned into an actual paying job which is mind-blowing.”

Twitch isn’t all about video games. The platform is also used to host to arts and crafts channels, musicians, journalists, podcasters, and now drag queens.  

“For me, it was trying to make a communal space very quickly, and that a community and audience I really care about still had a space and something to do,” said Allysin Chaynes, a drag queen who garnered success on Twitch.

“The medium has such boundless potential, as long as you’re willing to learn — and there’s been a lot of learning.”

– Allysin Chaynes

Chaynes has been a full-time drag queen for the last four to five years.  Last year, she starred in CBC Gem’s Queens, and she performed at and hosted events all over Toronto, including a popular RuPaul’s Drag Race watch party at the Gladstone Hotel.

“We didn’t waste any time,” Chaynes said. “I needed to work.” 

When the March 2020 lockdown began, it took three days for Chaynes, and her friend and collaborator Lizzy Renaud, to start their Twitch channel. Speakeasy Channel now hosts multiple live streams a week, where Chaynes has collaborated with other queens to produce original game shows, interviews, commentaries, and more.    

“The medium has such boundless potential,” Chaynes said. “As long as you’re willing to learn — and there’s been a lot of learning.”

Twitch users can interact through comments and chat functions, and they can subscribe and reward their favourite streamers using Twitch’s point system. They can also sell merchandise through the platform. 

Twitch allows Gently to perform for friends as far away as Vancouver and Minneapolis.

“I have friends who tune into my shows who’d never go to a dance club,” Gently said. “Some people don’t go to clubs, bars, or don’t drink, so this is a cool alternative.”

Last New Year’s Eve, Gently hosted a stream that turned into her biggest yet.   

“A few hundred people tuned in throughout the night,” Gently said. “Afterward, I felt exhausted, like I DJed a New Year’s Eve Party. There’s a chat function. People are sending me tips. There’s different ways of exchanging emotions, financial support, words, chatting, all those things you get in a club.”

Chaynes is excited by Twitch’s interactivity and how it’s digitized the club experience.

“The best drag is a collaboration between the audience and the performer; it’s mutual collective energy,” Chaynes said. “I feel like a lot of our audience’s interactivity makes it feel really live, like we’re performing for lots of people and not for a computer in our room.”   

Not every drag queen has found a new home online.  

Alice Starr is Canada’s only drag queen pro wrestler, and she’s found that Twitch and other online platforms aren’t suitable replacements for arenas and gyms.   

“As a wrestler, there’s not a lot you can do online,” Starr said. “It’s difficult to develop things that are up to my standard.” 

A promo pic of Alice Starr, Canada’s only pro-wrestler drag queen. COURTESY/ Alice Starr.

Starr debuted in 2019 and has wrestled at shows in Canada and the United States.  Before the pandemic, Starr was in talks to join the large-scale promotion, Impact Wrestling, and was pitching a TV show about her life to CBC, Crave, and OUTtv. 

“COVID shut that down,” Starr said. “It meant wrestling wasn’t happening and productions weren’t happening. It’s been on hold ever since.”

Out of drag and the wrestling ring, Starr has made ends meet with her job as a marketing manager, but COVID-19 hasn’t finished her wrestling ambitions.

“I’ve viewed the pandemic as an opportunity to hone my skills as a drag queen,” she said. “I’m trying new looks, developing new outfits, and using the opportunity to step back and figure out how I want the future to go.”

Starr also trains five to six days a week with help from wrestling stars Anthony Carelli (aka Santino Marella in the WWE) and Yuki Isikawa.

“I’m making sure I’m in shape,” Starr said. “So if the pandemic ends tomorrow I’m ring-ready.”

Starr has faced homophobia in the heavily masculine and heterosexual wrestling world, but she’s determined to get back into the spotlight once wrestling venues can open.

“Alice is a bubblegum, bravado bitch,” Starr declared. “I’m not outrageous and in-your-face, but I’m confident. If anything, my persona is about hope and inclusion. I’m just a drag queen who wrestles. I’m not trying to start a moment, I’m trying to be who I am.”

For the drag queens who’ve moved to Twitch, they plan to make the profitable platform and its widespread audience permanent.

“Hopefully I’ll get DJ gigs again,” Gently said. “But once things are back to normal, whatever that means, I’ll probably continue to DJ on Twitch.”

According to Chaynes, in-person gigs and livestreaming are two mediums through which she can perform drag, and she’s not going to stop either.

“All my goals right now are with Speakeasy and the channel,” Chaynes said. “I’m looking forward to doing things in person as well, it’s just one’s not a replacement for the other. They’re both gonna work in a beautiful tandem with my life, and I look forward to that.”

Drag queens are happy they’ve found it within themselves and their communities to innovate and push through COVID-19.  

“It was nice to know that during the pandemic, I was able to throw a party every Friday night,” Chaynes laughed.

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Posted: Jun 18 2021 1:09 pm
Filed under: Shift to Online Spotlight On Small Biz