RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The COVID-19 pandemic shut down most of the entertainment industry in 2020, causing clubs and venues to adapt to the times or close their doors for good. One group of performers not only survived the storm but thrived — the Richmond drag scene.
Brandon Horton, a local drag queen whose stage name is Michelle Livigne, performs in shows and saw his livelihood affected when the entertainment industry all but shut down.
“Everyone was kind of hurting across the city,” Horton said. “All of our entertainers were in the situation where they were literally going every day … ‘How are we making rent? How are we going to pay bills this month?'”
Horton said during the beginning of the shutdown in Spring 2020, some performers started putting on virtual drag shows, but those eventually fizzled out.
Then one day he was sitting in his living room talking about how cool it would be to go on a nationwide tour, performing from club to club and make a web series about the experience.
“And it hit me with this idea. I was thinking Arby’s 100 light bulbs went off,” Horton said.
He posted on Facebook — how great would it be if queens got together by the van full on weekends and did shows in people’s front yards?
“It went wild,” Horton said.
Driveway Drag Show was born.
Within a couple of days of putting together a flyer, he booked drag shows at more than 40 homes.
For everyone involved, the apparent “boom” in the scene isn’t necessarily that there are more drag shows than before, but now they’re advertised more online and at more mainstream spots.
Now, with more than 700 shows performed, Driveway Drag Show has grown, increased prices and expanded the types of performances people can choose from when they book a show.
“I kept changing the prices and people kept going for the biggest private package,” he said. “So, I was like ‘OK, let me see what I really can do.”
Horton’s shows now include up to four entertainers and virtual bingo. He said Capital One is their most frequent customer with law firms coming close behind them. He added many families and groups of friends book their services as well.
Quin Lippmann is a repeat customer of Driveway Drag Show. She’s booked the show four times so far for special events and sometimes “Just because we need a drag show.” She’s got a fifth show booked for later this month.
Lippman said she originally saw a performance at a friend’s house and her daughter loved it so much they decided to book them for her daughter’s 12th birthday party.
“We decided this is a great thing to do while we’re at home and can’t do much else and so it’s been a big hit with all our neighbors as well,” she said.
Lippmann said there’s a lot of stigma about drag, but Driveway Drag makes it approachable. She said one of her favorite parts of the shows is seeing neighbors, who would have never gone to a traditional drag show, enjoy the performance and come back for every show.
“Just in a way introducing people to a culture they may not have known much about and may have stereotypes about and just a way to bring different types of people together,” Lippman said.
Horton said Driveway Drag Show has been an exciting experience that allowed him to do drag full time, travel and perform with friends. He says it’s also been fun while helping a lot of queens during the pandemic.
“Sweet Pickles [a drag queen] told me like she’s literally making her rent by doing this,” Horton said.
Sweet Pickles said Driveway Drag Show became a full-time venture and gave her and other local drag queens an opportunity to make a living from what they love to do. She said shows were usually put on by her, Horton and two helpers.
“The four of us kind of building this connection and this sort of teamwork going from house to house staying on this tight schedule and really working to make these shows happen was definitely my favorite part of it,” Sweet Pickles said.
James Millner II, program director for Virginia Pride and Diversity Richmond, pointed out that drag performances have been around for decades — there was an evolution that began in the 1960s and 70s that tracked along with the LGBTQ civil rights movement. But drag shows have become a business in recent years. They bring in customers to events and businesses that offer more than drag.
Chicki Parm, another local performer who works full time as a drag queen, said she didn’t really enjoy performing in front of a computer screen on Zoom. When clubs opened back up, she went right back into performing, bringing “Extra Cheese Drag & Comedy Show” to Fallout RVA in September of 2020.
“And the only reason I did is because the bar needed it,” she said. “There was no option, it had to come back or the bar closes. It was that level.”
The Extra Cheese show has ended and Chicki now works with Hard Candy, a producer from Louisville, Kentucky, to bring drag performers from the cable show “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and streaming show “Dragula” to Richmond for performances at local venues.
According to Chicki, they’ve been packing the house and sometimes selling out local shows.
In addition to the business side of drag, Millner said it is a huge source of philanthropy in the LGBTQ community. He said queens have raised thousands of dollars for a variety of causes, including Virginia Pride. They’ve also raised funds for members of the community who needed help paying for medical bills.
“I don’t want people to ever just simply think drag is something that is just a gay man, or anybody frankly for that matter … putting on a wig and a dress and dancing to a fancy song,” he said. “It is so much more than that. The drag community has a distinct culture.”
Millner said he believes drag queens have also become ambassadors for LGBTQ equality, reaching people in mainstream restaurants and bars.
“That’s important work, and it’s work frankly nobody else could do,” he said.
Horton said that’s his favorite part of his work with Driveway Drag Show is bringing families together. He said sometimes parents book his performances to help show they accept their child who has recently come out to them.
“And then by the end of the show, they’ll come up and pull you over to the side like, ‘I’ve never seen my child so happy. I’ve never seen them have so much fun. I think I haven’t seen that smile on their face for months,” Horton said.