Mashable is celebrating Pride Month by exploring the modern LGBTQ world, from the people who make up the community to the spaces where they congregate, both online and off.
To say these last few months have been a hard time for performers would be an understatement.
As the coronavirus pandemic really took hold around March, and government-mandated lockdowns saw businesses shuttered, artists and performers took a big hit. Musicians found their tours cancelled. Art exhibitions were postponed. And drag queens found themselves without a stage.
So, like many performers during this time, some took it online, including Atlanta-born, Los Angeles-based drag queen and Dragula Season 2 winner Biqtch Puddin’, who ran the first ever digital drag show on Twitch in late March.
Around 20 drag performers joined the show, including RuPaul’s Drag Race stars Alaska Thunderfuck and Rock M. Sakura, with a suggested $10 donation and any tips to be sent through to each queen’s chosen payment platform, whether Venmo or PayPal. Four months later, Biqtch Puddin’ is still streaming weekly shows every Friday night on Twitch from her home in Studio City, Los Angeles, which is still under California’s government lockdown.
Just before lockdown rolled out, and queer clubs would start to close, Biqtch Puddin’ was performing a show (a Trixie Mattel-inspired country music tribute, um hell yes) with friends and drag stars Alaska and Willam when they realised it could be their last performance for a while. “I think it was two days before they shut all the bars down in the Los Angeles area,” she tells Mashable. “It was jokingly said backstage, ‘Oh my god, this is gonna be like our last gig before stuff hits the fan.’ We were all touching up our makeup being like, ‘Hope not!’ And lo and behold, it got real serious real fast, and the bars got shut down.”
Later, talking to her roommates, Biqtch Puddin’ wasn’t sure what to do. “I was like, what are we going to do, digital drag?” she says. “And then my co-producer, Megan, came out of her bedroom really quietly, and she’s like, ‘I really like that idea.'”
So, she got to work, immediately thinking of online streaming giant Twitch, a platform Biqtch Puddin’ had already been keen to break into. But performing in different Californian cities like San Francisco or Los Angeles during the week or non-stop touring with Dragula had made it hard to get a regular streaming show going. “I’ve been trying to be a part of Twitch for a very long time,” she says. “I know to be successful on Twitch, you need to have a consistent schedule. I stream off and on here and there. But when [lockdown] happened, I was like, OK, I think we can actually do it on Twitch. I’ve been familiar with the platform and I know they’re accepting of LGBTQI content creators.”
And she did it. Biqtch Puddin’ launched the very first digital drag show on Twitch, and has since run a show every Friday at 7 p.m. ET for the last 12 weeks.
How to put on a digital drag show
So, how do you actually put on a drag show on Twitch? In Biqtch Puddin’s case, she had some ready secret weapons on her doorstep: roommates, including her co-producer Megan and drag mother Kiara, and another friend, videographer Brent Bailey.
Having already considered streaming, Biqtch Puddin’ had been slowly investing in equipment from Elgato (a company that makes hardware and software for content creators, like game capture cards and Stream Deck controllers), and was familiar with OBS (Open Broadcaster Software), which is free and open source software used for video recording and live streaming on platforms. That being said, she also found Twitch responsive to questions, and asked her fellow queens who were already streaming.
“The community is really supportive. Like, if you’re a new drag queen and you just DM one of the drag queens that already stream on the platform or even a content creator that you really like, it’s a very supportive and helpful community,” she says.
Putting on a live drag show is no easy task, and its technical, many-plates-spinning nature was replicated in the online version. Biqtch Puddin’s shows are highly involved — there’s a DJ set, live and pre-recorded performances, commercial breaks, and Biqtch Puddin’ herself live hosting the whole thing. And like an IRL drag show, it’s produced live, with all the potential hiccups and triumphs that comes with it.
“We’re trying to give you that whole experience that you would get in a bar, online.”
“We’re trying to give you that whole experience that you would get in a bar, online,” she says. “I reminded myself halfway through, that’s what makes a drag show great is that it is live — a girl’s eyelash might fall off, or her wig might fall off, but she does a cartwheel and then the performance is now 1000 times better because she rolled with the punches.
“The first show, I was kind of embarrassed by some of the technical stuff that happened, but we were doing something that had never been tried before,” she adds. “We started at Charmander, now I feel like we’re almost at a Charizard, you know what I mean? We’re evolving each and every day.”
The team leaves the digital drag show up over the weekend until the following Monday morning, so if people miss it live on Friday, they can still watch the show in its entirety (some bits are muted due to copyright, like lip synching performances). Plus, they’re open to all queer talent, so any burlesque dancers, rappers, singers, or drag artists interested in performing can check out digitaldrag.net to apply (that’s also where queer businesses can apply to showcase commercials, too).
Don’t call it an overnight success
Notably, drag didn’t just wake up like this on Twitch three months ago. In fact, it’s been bubbling for years, something that can significantly be attributed to drag queen Deere, a founding member of the drag scene on Twitch in 2016, five years after the platform’s launch in 2011. Deere started a core group called The Stream Queens in 2019, when she was made America’s first ever drag queen Twitch Partner — this means you can create your own Stream Team, which can easily cross-promote to build audiences. Building a safe, supportive, collective space for drag queens on Twitch, the Stream Queens now has 45 members, including Biqtch Puddin’.
The rise of drag on Twitch during the pandemic comes as no surprise to the platform itself, either. In May 2020, Twitch actively grew their drag creator base, launching the Twitch Drag Community Development Program, run by the platform’s director of community and creator marketing, Erin Wayne (a prolific streamer herself, who goes by Aureylian).
Creators, Wayne says, are usually experts in their fields, so they have the content down — whether you’re gaming, Just Chatting, or putting on a drag show — but might not know how to use the platform tools to develop an audience. The program trained creators up in things like how to make a “Go Live” notification to let people know you’re streaming, how to use tags, and how to share audiences, collaborate and do a “raid,” in which streamers send their viewers to another live channel at the end of their stream to introduce their audience to another streamer’s content.
Another really important element of the program is helping creators monetize content (running ads, promoting subscriptions and bids, setting up donation links), which is crucial when your weekly performance income has evaporated thanks to closed venues. Plus, Twitch adds creators that are part of the program to the homepage, which is good for creators wanting to find a general audience, and good for Twitch to show the diversity of its creator base.
“Representation is important, right?” says Wayne. “There’s also this component that is really important to us, aside from the numbers game — because numbers are helpful when we want them to grow and that’s obviously important to us and to them — but I think there’s also something to be said for being able to come to Twitch and see very diverse types of content on the front page … It’s a very powerful message, especially to the LGBTQI community or to the drag community to say like, ‘Oh, wow, I came to Twitch, and I saw somebody like me on the front page.'”
Twitch’s core has traditionally been gaming, and many drag queens stream everything from Overwatch to Dead by Daylight, sometimes in full drag, sometimes not. Wayne says one of the first types of content drag queens were creating on the platform was a makeup transformation combined with a gaming stream, or just skipping straight to games. But with the platform’s gradual expansion into non-gaming categories, drag artists have been streaming all kinds of content.
There’s Donatarte, who hosts a weekly drag baking show called “Dona Bakes”. There’s Elix9, who is obsessed with horror games. There’s DragTrashly, who usually starts her stream with a makeup transformation and then plays a lot of GTA Online and Dead by Daylight (including this session with her fellow drag queens, it’s a good time). There’s Pokket, a cosplay specialist who started streaming massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) nine years ago and then moved into a variety of games as well as chatting and cosplay makeup videos.
“Just like gamers are multifaceted, drag queens and drag kings are multifaceted — they do not want to play games every day.”
“Just like gamers are multifaceted, drag queens and drag kings are multifaceted — they do not want to play games every day. They want to have big special events. They want to be able to do Just Chatting. They want to be able to cook in their homes,” says Wayne.
Beauty and makeup tutorials have become popular on video platforms across the board, notably on YouTube, and that’s actually one of the best parts of drag on Twitch — it’s long, live, and unedited. Sure, we get to take a quick peek into the laborious process on Drag Race in the workroom ahead of a runway, but to actually sit with a drag artist and watch those hours of work is something else.
Drag queens including Willam, Jasmine Masters, and Soju have been creating content including makeup tutorials on YouTube for almost a decade now — Rolling Stone recently took a look into the short history of drag on YouTube — with the platform offering a means for drag artists to find an engaged audience with makeup transformation, general chat videos, music videos, and everything in between.
“YouTube is a way to get your stuff seen by bypassing traditional gatekeepers who would probably keep you off of mainstream TV shows, keep you from getting cast because you’re too heavy, too crazy, too outspoken, too far on the right, too far on the left,” legendary drag queen Lady Bunny told Rolling Stone. “It’s a way to have you upload your own content, which can then start to reach a lot of people if there’s a buzz generated from it. So, in that sense, it has traditionally been a very democratic way to be like, ‘Here’s the artist; here’s the art.’”
When Biqtch Puddin’ started doing drag about six-and-half years ago, she says it was a different story with online resources. “There was a couple of YouTube videos here and there, but it’s not like now where you can look up something. But even with a video that’s pre-recorded, it’s not live so you can’t see a question in real time and actually answer it and walk through someone’s process and be like, this is how I glue it.”
Biqtch Puddin’ often joins her drag queen friends, including Abhora, Deere, and Louisiana Purchase, for Twitch makeup sessions. “We do makeup together, we’re looking at the chat, and I’m answering all the questions that are happening. So it’s not only an interview but it’s also an educational makeup tutorial,” she says. “Seriously, the first stream I did with that, the makeup process, I literally got on camera, I had not shaved, I had not glued down my brows and for the first 40 minutes you see that tedious process.”
“You do get a different side, right?” says Wayne. “Because when we watch these shows on TV, or we watch YouTube series, it’s a very edited version of what we see. And so a lot of those small moments that give you insight into who these drag queens and drag kings are as people, or as characters, we miss. It’s very nuanced, and you lose that because they’re edited only to show you the very best parts. But there is beauty in seeing the quieter moments.”
It’s all about community
It sucks that we still have to consider this, but drag queens and kings, like many streamers online, are not impervious to trolls laying down harassment and offensive trash talk in the chat. But it’s not just online — Elix9, a member of the Stream Queens, told Vice about her terrible ordeal with an online troll who was targeting LGBTQ streamers, which turned to offline harassment and stalking.
“I almost quit streaming when it happened,” she told the publisher, “but I thought of my community and how much of an impact I’ve been making to some people. It took me so long to accept who I was that I will not allow someone to censor me. I’m not gonna let that happen.”
After Twitch loosened its restrictions on non-gaming content to general culture videos in 2018, the platform and targeted harassment both on and off the platform, declaring at the time, “Hate simply has no place in the Twitch community.” Twitch has pretty robust , as well a full suite of moderation tools, and they employ human moderators to respond to user reports. Plus, streamers themselves can set chat rules and ban specific words (or if necessary, individuals) from their chat, enlist their own human moderators, or use the machine learning AutoMod tool to identify and block inappropriate content.
However, Biqtch Puddin’ says the community tuning into her streams has been nothing but positive and full of support — something that surprised Twitch, apparently. “Our audience is so beyond supportive, our chat is always really positive,” she says. “And I know that Twitch was really surprised by that because of how positive it was. Because they were worried because, you know, drag is on the platform, but the community came and it’s just been a really beautiful experience.”
When we’re back up in the clurrb (sorry), what then?
And now the big question: What happens when everything goes back to “normal”? When lockdowns are lifted and beloved clubs like Precinct reopen, will digital drag shows like Biqtch Puddin’s keep happening on Twitch? Wayne says the platform will inevitably see a reduction in events, like the platform has seen over the last three months as shows return to the stage. But, she says, it’s more important to consider what the platform has provided during this time, rather than what’s up next.
“I’m sure that the number of those types of special events and one-offs may decline after lockdown is done, and people are no longer staying at home. But I do expect that people have a greater awareness into what Twitch is, right?” she says. “People are now aware that there is a tool that they have in their toolbox that they can use, not just because they’re in lockdown.”
As for Biqtch Puddin’, she sees an opportunity for balance after lockdown is lifted — when you’ve got all the gear, why not? “I think I want to switch up how I do things in the future,” she says. “Before I was touring non-stop and that took a real huge toll on my body. I’m still excited for the future of combining streaming as well as performing, ideally, with the digital drag show.
“Once COVID has lifted, I want people to go support queer businesses and queer bars. I will still be streaming of course on Fridays as well, but I just want to switch the digital drag show to a monthly show at that point.”
Biqtch Puddin’ says she wants to find a physical space, and set up multiple cameras so the show could be streamed live — two birds, one stone. “My goal is to literally like have a live drag show that’s streamed and we have multiple camera angles, a live studio audience, maybe a co-host with me,” she says. “That’s kind of what I’ve been really excited about is once COVID is over and lifted, how to elevate what we’ve already been doing successfully and fleshing it out to this full show.
“I’ve always wanted to have a show.”