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Pandemic Profile: During COVID-19, San Diego Drag Queens Search For Ways To Keep Performing

Vivvi Incognito stands behind the counter of her costume, wig and make-up store Whips n Furs, Dec. 16, 2020.
Andrew Bowen
Vivvi Incognito stands behind the counter of her costume, wig and make-up store Whips n Furs, Dec. 16, 2020.
The pandemic has deprived many drag artists of the opportunity to perform in front of live audiences. But one local drag queen says she and others are still finding ways to keep their art alive.

Among the many industries suffering under the COVID-19 pandemic is that of drag performers. Local bars and entertainment venues have been either shut down or severely restricted for nearly a year now.

Vivvi Incognito, who was raised in San Diego and has been doing drag for 10 years, said the abrupt cancellation of drag shows in the spring has impacted her livelihood.

Pandemic Profile: During COVID-19, San Diego Drag Queens Search For Ways To Keep Performing
Listen to this story by Andrew Bowen.

"Prior to COVID I was performing two or three times a week, I was traveling every week up and down the coast," she said. "When this is something that you do full time and your only form of income, it was definitely a scramble to figure out what to do next."

VIDEO: During Pandemic, San Diego Drag Queens Search For Ways To Keep Performing

One outlet many performers have turned to are virtual drag shows. Incognito hosted some of her own such shows via livestream earlier this year. A number of former contestants on Rupaul's Drag Race are hosting a New Year's Eve show with tickets ranging from $49 to $499.

But Incognito said she sees virtual shows dying out because performers can't make nearly as much money as they can in a live performance, and because virtual shows are hardly a substitute for the thrill of being on stage.

"A lot of that energy and excitement does get lost when you're just watching the show on a TV screen or on a computer screen," she said.

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In the absence of opportunities to perform in person, some local drag queens are experiencing depression or creative blockage, Incognito said. Others are taking a break from their drag personas — which Incognito said can be healthy.

In an ongoing series, KPBS takes a look at how San Diegans are coping during the coronavirus pandemic.

But one change she expects to last even after the pandemic is over is a growth in pre-produced videos. The Vivvi Incognito YouTube channel and Instagram account are full of them.

"Most drag performers have learned a new skill," Incognito said. "Not only do we style wigs, style outfits, do our makeup, but now we've had to learn how to record, edit and produce our own music videos — which is a lot of fun."

If the stress of keeping up her drag persona weren't enough, Incognito also took a major leap of faith during the pandemic: She opened up her own costume shop in North Park called Whips n Furs, named after the amateur drag show she hosts.

The storefront used to be a wig shop owned by a woman named Maria, whom Incognito said was a matriarch of the local drag and LGBTQ community. But after months of lost business, she ultimately decided to go out of business.

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Incognito was devastated — not just for the loss of a longtime local business, but also because she had planned on opening a make-up counter within the store. But rather than let the store disappear, she struck a deal with the landlord to take over the space.

"It was a tough decision to open up during the pandemic," Incognito said. "But I've been just kind of doing whatever I can to keep afloat and to keep the store interesting enough to have people coming back."

After the pandemic, she plans on hosting drag-oriented events such as make-up tutorials and hip pad workshops.

Incognito said she cannot wait to get back on stage and has been thinking up ideas for future live performances when they can be done safely. Until then, she said, drag queens will have to keep finding new ways to keep their art alive.

"We all just kind of have to wait it out a little bit," Incognito said. "That way we can all survive this, and we can appreciate being together when this is all over."