Austin drag queens adapt to pandemic performances, prepare to return to stage soon

Chloe Young

Austin’s drag queens are preparing to return to the main stage with renewed purpose and strength after venues continue to loosen COVID-19 capacity limits.

Drag queens in Austin have found innovative ways to connect with audiences during a year of isolation by doing socially-distanced shows and performing online. But navigating drag during the pandemic has been only one of the many challenges the community has faced.

“Adapting is what drag queens do,” said Nadine Hughes, a native Austin queen and show director at Rain on 4th Street, an Austin gay bar.

After coming down with a bad case of pneumonia induced by COVID-19, Hughes was admitted into the ICU at Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin in December, where she remained in a coma for over a month.

“They basically told my mom there was nothing else they could do and to start preparing things for me to not be here,” Hughes said. “And four days later, I woke up.”

After returning home from a two-month hospitalization, Hughes said she was overwhelmed by the support of the Austin drag queen community. Austinites had rallied to raise support for Hughes through benefit shows, designing and selling special t-shirts and a GoFundMe account.

“I was just so blown away,” Hughes said. “Not just at the support for me but the support they were giving my mom.”

The family-like bond among drag queens is what led Cynthia Lee Fontaine, RuPaul’s Drag Race season eight and nine star, to move to Texas from Puerto Rico in 2008.

“I’ve been to Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and so many cities here in Texas,” Fontaine said. “But the support that I’ve found here in Austin is a really beautiful connection.”

As a survivor of liver cancer, Fontaine also hasn’t been able to perform in-person since the pandemic. Yet whether performing shows online or writing opera music, Fontaine said she accepted the change in pace with enthusiasm.

“When it comes to my career, I adapted myself to the situation,” Fontaine said. “I’ve been working everything digital, but, at the same time, I get the opportunity here at home to start creating new things.”

At a drive-in-drag show hosted by The Q Austin in September 2020, Austin queen Celia Light performed live for the first time since March.

Light made her big break by competing in season 13 of Drag Survivor in 2019, a drag competition at Austin’s oldest gay bar, Oilcan Harry’s. Through talent shows and Rupaul’s Drag Race dress-up nights for students at Dobie, Light said she fell in love with the craft.

“I didn’t realize that there were other (students) who wanted to do it, too,” Light said. “And when that happened, I was like, ‘Oh, well like let’s all do it together.’ Because it’s more fun for there to be a bunch of drag queens than there just be one.”

After Dobie restarted shows in October 2020, Light said she was shocked at the growing response from the UT community. Still, many Austin drag queens said they aren’t ready to return to work yet.

“This is something I’ve been waiting for for so long,” Fontaine said. “And I know there are so many entertainers who are waiting till this moment when finally we can perform again.”

The return to work might also have to be postponed for Hughes, who is still recovering from her time in the ICU. But she expressed a deep longing to reconnect with her Austin drag family.

“We’re gonna do what we need to do to get back to being able to show unconditional love without being behind a wall,” Hughes said.