5 Portland Drag Queens Reflect on a Year without an Audience

Poison Waters, Carla Rossi, and others share how they’re emerging from the pandemic.

With Reina Harwood, Marty Patail, Margaret Seiler, and Conner Reed June 3, 2021 Published in the Summer 2021 issue of Portland Monthly

Carla Rossi

Superpower: Whitest woman this side of Lake Oswego (where she lives, in a castle)

Claim to Fame: Portland’s premier drag clown, Queer Horror host at Hollywood Theatre

“I’ve done drag maybe five times since we went into lockdown. I’m only doing digital stuff if it’s for Tribes or for causes I really care about. Carla is a trickster, she’s a troll, and like unto Donald Trump, that troll is activated by an audience. When you walk out onstage, it’s like the fool card of the tarot: you just step off the cliff, and you’re there with the audience, it’s like skydiving. On Zoom ... it’s like performing for the abyss, the void—who really is my ideal audience. But it doesn’t feel the same.

I found that I was overworking and breaking myself for the benefit of others’ entertainment. I was part of a scheme that takes advantage of [performers] and overworks us. I said ‘no’ to a lot of things this year.... It’s gonna be a really slow act of reintroducing myself to the world. I have shifted away from doing every single little gig. I’m focusing on larger projects that are going to happen in little islands of time.”

Coco Jem Holiday

Superpower: The ability to spin like Wonder Woman, but instead of putting on clothes she ends up naked

Claims to fame: Event manager and Masked Sing-along host at Local Lounge, Camp Wannakiki season 2

“Life didn’t change for me completely. What it did was give me the opportunity to be more creative. I’m a singing queen. I learned a bunch of new songs. For the sing-along/karaoke-esque experience [at the Local], we have microphone condoms now, which we’ll probably keep even after COVID’s a little more under control. If you think about what karaoke was before, everybody sharing the same microphone for three hours—I was like, huh, that never really occurred to me. I also started an online show called Introvert for five months with one of my best friends—one of the few prerecorded and live drag shows in Oregon. It was a lot of fun to do, and it gave opportunities for people who have kids or people who are sober to experience this life. But the production quality was such a long process. We couldn’t justify it, really, with the bars reopening.”

Flawless Shade

Superpower: Levitating, so she can carry her drag bag and wig

Claims to fame:  Former Miss Gay Oregon

“When you work in entertainment, it’s not over, it’s coming up with creative ways to make yourself relevant and put yourself out there. It’s more than just going to a bar and looking pretty and feeling pretty and being tall. Now it’s, how are you marketing yourself online? How are businesses seeing that? I genuinely feel that businesses are looking at what drag entertainers have done during the summer with nothing, and those will be the people the businesses will book.

I’m an advocate for paying the entertainer. There’s no excuse for a business not to pay entertainers, and before the pandemic, Portland gay bars were very much like that.... We worked hard for years for these queer clubs, and when it all ended we got nothing. There’s no account for them to give us money, and I didn’t get a single paycheck from the government for eight months. And I’m like, ‘Well, for all that free work you were willing to do, did it work in the long run?’”

Poison Waters

Superpower: Fastest quip in the Northwest

Claims to fame: Legend at Darcelle XV; bus sponsor for TriMet

“2020 was going to be my biggest financial year and it all went down to zero in the middle of March. But by mid-April I was back on with virtual Drag Queen Bingo—I’m getting close to doing 300 in less than a year. I feel like I’m busier than I would have been otherwise, which is funny to say. It was a big transition for me. I’m not a technical person. I had to have a lot of help in the beginning, but now I got it. Rarely is there just one a day.

Almost every day I’m getting another message from someone that says, ‘We were having a crappy week, you really brought us all up.’ Drag queens by nature, we’re kind of egotistical. But I do tend to be more humble when it comes to that sort of thing ... it made me realize, ‘Hey, don’t take for granted what you have to offer and know the value and be proud that you’re helping people turn their sourness around.’ I didn’t really give much weight to that until this last year.”

Saint Syndrome

Superpower: Gender confounding siren songstress

Claims to fame: Saintly Sundays at Speakeasy on Salem’s Southside; classically trained pianist

“When everything shut down, I felt like, ‘I can’t miss a Saintly Sunday, I’m not going to let the fact that we can’t do this normally stop me.’ I’ve been learning a lot about streaming shows on Facebook and Twitch. I’m always learning new music and trying new arrangements of songs. I go back and watch and improve myself. It can feel empty at the end of the night when you’ve poured your soul into a camera.

[But] it’s been really cool to have performances seen by my students. In the future, I’m going to continue to livestream. Getting to hear people laugh when I’m telling a joke, is—yeah, I really miss that. I’m missing the live energy. I go back and read through the comments to remind myself that it’s worth it, that’s helped me imagine the crowd that’s there.”

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