Entertainment ethics and modern drag

Industry professionals discuss duties and nuance

Drag entertainment has exploded in popularity in recent years, but the transition from niche market to international industry hasn’t been entirely smooth. Professionals across the board disagree on ethical issues in drag, and even its very purpose as an art form. There are definite advantages to the growing legitimacy of drag performance, as agency owner Michael-David Carpenter knows well after founding Asheville-based Michael-David Entertainment.

“Drag has historically been a taboo underground art form, and is now being recognized with respect,” Carpenter told qnotes. It warms my heart that my clients’ hard work and talent isn’t limited to the small stage of a nightclub, but is now being enjoyed on the main stages of city festivals and on television.”

The growth of the industry presents new opportunities; some drag performers seek to make their art a full-time career, and Carpenter works to enable this goal. However, as qnotes columnist and resident queen Buff Faye reflects, the history behind drag performance has little to do with financial gain.

“I don’t see drag as just a job or a hobby for that matter,” said Faye, whose off-stage name is Shane Windmeyer. “It is a way of activism: to send a message, stand up, to act, to inspire, to lead and to create change. That is what drag queens have done throughout history. I worry that is getting lost in the mainstreaming of drag.”

Windmeyer himself performs frequently in various venues, but by day works as executive director of Charlotte, N.C.-based non-profit Campus Pride. Windmeyer is particularly passionate about one ethical issue within the drag industry: contracts and explicit terms.

“Contracts are mutual agreements between the entertainer and the venue, meant to ensure the common investment on both sides,” Carpenter explains. “All sides need proper communication and protection.”

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This communication and protection isn’t common practice, according to Windmeyer. In his experience, most local venues do not use formal contracts signed by management and entertainers in mutual agreement. Except for pageant winners contracted to promoters, most performers receive “nothing in writing, and [restrictions] by word of mouth.”

“The only place in North Carolina where I know has written contracts is Legends [a nightclub in Raleigh, N.C.],” Windmeyer told qnotes. “The biggest problem is that a club that has restrictions needs to put those in writing…What happens is that a club books an entertainer and then tells her after the fact that she can’t do X, Y and Z.”

The advantage of written contracts is that the terms are clearly laid out to prevent miscommunication between the parties. This makes it easier for everyone to avoid breaching contract terms — and easier to avoid unfortunate ramifications.

“If an entertainer breaches contract, for whatever reason, they could lose payment, lose future bookings at that venue (and others depending on reasoning), gain negative reputation and can include unseen consequences, including legal issues,” Carpenter explained.

These consequences become complicated when the contract is oral as opposed to written — a common practice, according to Windmeyer’s experience. A particular conflict arose in past years surrounding entertainer exclusivity, the requirement that performers cannot serve a venue’s competitors.

The business logic behind entertainer exclusivity is to preserve a venue’s unique appeal; if a specific performer has many fans and can only perform in one local place, then the venue with exclusive rights financially benefits from that entertainer’s fame. However, ethical problems and outright conflicts can arise without these terms being clearly set in writing.

The flexibility of verbal agreements allows for frequently changing terms — a feature that may cause confusion, miscommunication and ethical breaches leading to negative repercussions.

Another ethical issue for drag professionals is compensation. Carpenter notes that in decades past, venues customarily invested in the material costs of an entertainer’s show. Now, conflicts arise when performers often spend more money preparing for a show than they receive to perform it.

“Any respectable entertainer has a small fortune invested into pantyhose and nails alone,” Carpenter said. “I’ve had to educate venues on fees and why they are what they are. Drag is very expensive art form. Club owners consider the entertainer as an independent contractor and have stopped investing, but are still expecting the same outdated standard, causing a lot of negativity between certain venues and entertainers…this rule is no longer acceptable or ethical.”

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The financial issue can be a complex one, particularly for venues with pre-determined budgets and for drag entertainers who seek a legitimate career in the industry. Without a livable level of pay from venues (particularly ones that require exclusivity), performers receive the short end of the stick.

“I don’t know any drag queen in Charlotte who has successfully made drag a full-time career,” Windmeyer said. “The queens at Legends who have written contracts do make good money, but I believe they also have day jobs.”

For the entertainers who do want to make drag a career, what terms are fair and ethical to require in a contract? Carpenter’s clients have the resource of an agent who draws firm lines in terms of what is fair, as well as one who has worked on all sides of the industry and knows its nuance.

“Unless the club is willing to invest in the art of the entertainer, the entertainer is independent and free to seek bookings wherever they wish,” Carpenter believes. “Club owners also need to understand that the more an entertainer works, the more they will build a fan base and the more patrons they bring to the venue when booked, resulting in more sales.”

The agent’s argument against exclusivity claims that all parties benefit from entertainers who perform in many locations, even at local competitors. For example, a queen who stuns the crowd at a one-night appearance for one club tends to bring those new fans to her home club, where she may appear weekly or in regular rotation. That queen has the benefit of extra booking income, and the contracted venue draws new visitors from her diverse fanbase.

Of course, performers themselves may behave unethically in many ways as well. One performer’s bad experience with a venue can have very different results; if handled gracefully, the performer may continue in an upwardly mobile career. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case.

“I’ve seen entertainers turn on club owners due to disagreements, and post videos to vilify the establishments,” Carpenter said. “Professionalism is the key to getting booked, so an entertainer should always reflect a positive nature and refrain from any negativity.”

The unspoken law of success in the entertainment industry often comes down to reputation. News of unethical behavior spreads like a virus, souring both current and prospective business relationships. Awareness of these common ethical issues is the key to a successful career in drag, whether part-time or full-time, whether entertainer, agent or venue. In the words of the immortal Ru Paul:

“True wealth is having the knowledge to maneuver and navigate the mental obstacles that inhibit your ability to soar.”

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