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How did I make it big? I auditioned for the show! I auditioned and they liked me, and now here I am on Canada’s Drag Race.
I have the “I made it” moment over and over. I’m on a show where I’m constantly being judged, so it’s still, even 14 years into my career, up and down. I am thankful for the longevity of my career, but I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I truly made it, no matter what the amount of money or level of success is.
Drag Race is often referred to as the Olympics of drag – it is something that a lot of queens aim to do. It opens you up to a worldwide audience and lots of opportunities – touring, DragCon conventions, etc. — of course, all of that is in flux right now because of Covid-19. More than “making it,” what I’m concerned about is sustainability and relevance in terms of talent. So I have to keep my body right and continuously work on my performances. There are always new girls coming up. If I get too comfortable there’s always another person ready to take my spot. I’m very aware of that.
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Money has never been the main factor in me continuing to work in this industry. But I have moments where I worry about finances. Even if you’re working five days a week, it can be hard to make enough money. Monthly expenses for Sheldon (Tynomi Banks is Sheldon McIntosh's stage name) differ month to month, but generally I would say I try to keep it around $1,250 for the essentials — groceries (well, take-out and groceries), rent, personal travel, phone, utilities, savings, personal expenses like haircuts. This is different from expenses for Tynomi, which can range — $800 a month would be a good estimate — for wigs, outfits, makeup, travel to and from jobs. Since Covid-19, there have been less jobs, so the past few months I have definitely spent less than usual. I wouldn’t say those are typical costs, it really depends on the drag queen. I find that the community doesn’t really talk about money, so I often don’t have a good sense of what other queens “at my level” spend.
I am thankful for the longevity of my career, but I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I truly made it, no matter what the amount of money or level of success is.
I didn’t have a financial guide or role model until later in life. My mom was generally a source of financial guidance. She was a victim of abuse. She made changes very quickly to remove us from that situation. When we left, she didn’t have anything. We went to a shelter and stayed there one night. She told me and my brother, “You will never sleep in a shelter again. I will take care of you.” The next day she went out and started the journey of getting on her feet. She worked very hard. My mother taught me to hustle: You have all these jobs and pay things off and that’s just how the world works. You pay your student loan, credit cards, rent, etc., and live off the rest. She set the example and I’m forever grateful.
But who wants to listen to their mother all the time?
After I graduated from Durham College (where one of my teachers told me I would never make it in my studied field of PR), I worked in public relations/event planning at the Learning Annex, in Toronto. In that job, I was able to travel, meet interesting people, and tackle a new challenge with every project. That was really an amazing job even though I didn’t make a lot of money. After four years, the Learning Annex closed shop in Toronto and moved to the U.S. I moved to working in a hotel as a sales coordinator and I absolutely hated it. It wasn’t creative, my desk was in a dungeon-like area, and I had to wear a suit every day. I reported to three managers and put together contracts for the events they sold. I had a realization that I would have to commit to a position like this for ten-plus years in order to travel and make any kind of decent money.
Eventually, one of my managers told me that this was not the job for me, and I was destined for other things. It was the nicest thing she could have said. I was let go, and I was very happy about it.
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After that, I just wanted to do things that made me happy, so I joined a dance troupe called Next Level. I was dancing in shows part time and working minimum wage jobs part time – I worked in retail at a shoe store called Little Burgundy, the clothing store Club Monaco, and then Mr. Greenjeans. I had to budget for everything. I did lean on my parents financially. If I’m remembering correctly, I think they helped me with rent and my phone bill for the first two months while I figured out how to make things work. I also borrowed from friends when I needed to, but paid them back very quickly.
At Mr. Greenjeans, my boss was so flexible that he covered for me any time I needed to audition. To date, he is the most caring boss I have ever had, and he really encouraged me to pursue dance. It was about that time when I started dabbling in drag. One of my friends needed a backup dancer so I agreed to do one show, and now here we are 14 years later.
With drag becoming more mainstream (a lot of that having to do with the Drag Race franchise), we’re now considered for more corporate gigs and sponsorships as well. Before the pandemic, I was splitting my time between performing in clubs and corporate jobs.
I’m only recently realizing that financial struggle has deeper roots within the black community because the systems are not equal for everyone. Even in drag there’s a hierarchy that I didn’t notice myself. In the past few months I have been realizing that I’ve been treated more harshly than some other queens who are white. For example, I was once late for a gig. When I did show up, I apologized and was then yelled at and given a three-week suspension. When the same thing happened to a fellow queen who was white, she was let off the hook.
I’ve also found that some veteran queens who are white tend to give out advice to queens who are not white. It’s almost like they need to humble you. This has happened to me numerous times. I haven’t found this an issue on billings necessarily but there is currently a petition going around the Toronto drag community about inequality, specifically about black queens getting paid less. I didn’t really see this before, but now I hear about it all the time. I’ve also witnessed a lot of white queens getting more of a reaction to a Beyoncé song than a black queen performing, at the same level, to the same song. I’ve seen this numerous times and it’s, let’s say, noteworthy.
I’ve also been passed over for jobs white queens received even though I have a bigger following (at clubs and online). And, if I’m being honest, a lot of these jobs were better suited for me than the queen who was hired. If I ask about it, I’m always told they “assumed I was busy.”
Still, being my own boss is the best reward. The only person who gives me a three-month performance review is myself and the only approval chain I have to go through is me. I love being my own boss. It feels very freeing.
I have a friend named Alexander who works in finance. At one point, we were roommates, so we know each other really well. He got me thinking about the future and set me up with a savings plan. Together we established my financial plan – low-interest credit cards, the right types of accounts, etc. He calls from time to time and checks in to see how I’m doing and suggests products or options that can save me money. I feel really good with him in my corner.
The way I think about it is that I have to make sure I am always the best at what I do. If I am, then I can demand a good rate and stay relevant in the industry. My mom always told me “know your worth,” so I am consistently professional, I look good, and I give my all during performances. I took what my mom said and brought those lessons into adulthood. If I look the part, then the money will come without question.
July Westhale is an essayist, translator, and award-winning author. She runs a digital publishing company, PULP Magazine, as a day job.