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'Anything Can Be Filtered Through The Lens Of Drag,' And That Includes The Coronavirus Pandemic

Tarah Cards (left) and Laveau Contraire pose for a snapshot on Zoom. April 2020.

In normal times, New Orleans’ lavish drag queen scene isn’t exactly hard to come by. You could catch a drag show in the French Quarter, or get your fix at a drag brunch, drag queen storytime at your local library — even drag wrestling.

But in the era of the coronavirus, you can now find the city’s queens — like everyone else — online.

Take a viral video released by local drag queen Tarah Cards when the city’s stay-at-home order was just beginning to weigh on us. As the video begins, she’s head-to-toe in pink topped with an electric green wig, singing as she parades down an empty street in the Marigny while her neighbors spray Lysol at her from their porches (social distancing maintained throughout).

The music is familiar — Sweet Caroline — but the words she’s belting out, less so. “Hands, washing hands. Don’t reach out! Don’t touch me! I won’t touch you! Sweet quarantine!”

Rhyme quarantine with Caroline and you’ve got just a taste of how drag queens have gone digital during the pandemic. That is to say: tongue super-glued into cheek.

“I definitely feel like we're working as hard, if not harder at our craft,” Cards (Cate Swan) said.

Cards and fellow queen Laveau Contraire (Kevyn Miller) are the founders of New Orleans’ first online drag festival, created from the ashes of canceled gigs and emptied calendars after the state went into lockdown in mid-March.

“We were like, ‘Oh, God, literally everything has been canceled for the unforeseeable future,’” Laveau said.

Cyber Distancing, which runs April 23 to 25, is a chance to amplify the way their community is adapting to the pandemic by getting online.

Tarah Cards

Being a queen in quarantine has forced their colleagues to get creative to keep working. Many are producing full-fledged videos from home, mixing up camera angles and editing on their computers — a technical adaptation that Cards said she hadn’t quite expected to face.

“When I bought my computer, it was for email and watching Netflix,” she said.

The festival’s promo video is rife with the kind of parody that we probably all need right now:

“Tired of brushing your hair, looking into the mirror and crying?” Cards asks.

“Tired of sitting on the toilet, looking in the mirror and crying?” Laveau counters.

Yes, yes we are. And something about their magical musical mash-up of pandemic-theme covers feels a bit like medicine. As Laveau says, “Anything can be filtered through the lens of drag.”

Contraire does a riff on Lady Gaga’s “The Cure” that might make you wish you had a better supply of disinfectant: “If I can’t find the Purell, I’ll spray you with Lysol. No matter what you know I’ll douse you with alcohol. And if you say you’re OK, I’m gonna spray you anyway. Promise I won’t go outside until they find a cure.”

Cards re-makes another Gaga hit — “Stupid Love” — by switching the title for “latex gloves.”

The festival, which first ran in March and is returning for round two later this month, will feature dozens of artists who’ve had to figure out what it means to perform drag — an art that thrives off in-person interaction — without a physical audience.

“How to interact with people in the same way, because you're not touching them, you're not having a drink with them at the bar,” Contraire said.

Queens are taking to Facebook and Instagram to perform live shows or post videos. Chats have become the new applause. And homes have become the new stages.

“They found ways to incorporate what they're doing in the kitchen with quarantine, or performing ‘All By Myself’ in their bedroom, all by themselves,” Contraire said. “We had one queen perform for our shows where she literally used every single room in her house and went from room to room to the bathroom and pretended to take a shower. It was amazing.”

Online drag gives artists a chance to reach a new array of national, even global fans, people who might not be able to head to the popular drag bar the Golden Lantern in the French Quarter on a Friday night.

It’s not clear that digital gigs and Venmo tip jars will be able to make up for the lost booking fees and regular gigs that many New Orleans drag queens rely on. But Cards says the pandemic has brought the community closer together.

Laveau Contraire

“We have queens that are sewing masks for each other. We have people, you know, helping each other with grocery runs and things like that,” she said. And it’s “important to have some humor in the face of all of this tragedy. We don't take this situation lightly. But, you know, part of drag is infusing things with humor and kind of exposing the ironies of life.”

Contraire said she still wants people to get a sense of joy and relief from the craziness.

“So it's kind of like, ‘We're gonna laugh at this,” she said. All the sadness, the fear, “everything that's going on in the media, like, this is your break from that. We're gonna throw some art in your face, and you're gonna love it, you know?”

You can find more details about the Cyber Distancing online drag queen festival by following @cyberdistancing on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


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Rosemary Westwood is the public and reproductive health reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.

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