Can’t drag us down
As numerous US states make moves to ban live drag performances, Werq the World, the official RuPaul’s Drag Race tour, is defiant in its success. Lisa Henderson speaks to the pioneers behind the multimillion-dollar world tour, as well as some of the drag promoters working outside of the RuPaul world.
With 380,000 tickets sold and more than 100 shows booked, Werq the World 2023 is the largest drag tour to ever take place. Launched in 2017, the annual outing showcases a medley of drag queens from Ru-Paul’s Drag Race, the smash-hit reality TV series in which queens compete to become America’s next drag superstar. The award-winning show, which has launched spinoffs in several other countries, sees drag icon RuPaul and a roll call of guest judges critique the queens on runway walks, lip-sync battles, and impersonations. Since the TV show launched in 2009, it has racked up 16 seasons and become a global phenomenon. With the TV show producing a fresh conveyor belt of talent and hordes of new fans each year, an annual companion tour was a no-brainer for Werq the World producer Voss Events.
“Someone like Beyoncé or Lady Gaga has to make a whole album before they tour – which could – and does – take years,” says Voss Events CEO, Brandon Voss. “Instead of making an album, we make a TV show that comes out every single year, so the numbers are a lot bigger than you might think because we’re constantly touring. We’re doing 4,000-6,000-capacity venues in the US and 8,000-seaters in Europe – which are big numbers in and of themselves, but we’re doing it annually, too. As soon as this tour wraps, we’re planning the next one with a new batch of queens that are on season 16 [of RuPaul’s Drag Race] right now.”
This self-perpetuating cycle – along with the increasing popularity of the TV show – perhaps explains how Werq the World has snowballed from selling 30,000 tickets to 380,000 in just five years. This autumn, the multimillion-dollar production is visiting arenas and large theatres in 23 countries across five continents, with some markets welcoming drag acts for the first time ever. But, as Voss points out, his company became a purveyor of drag entertainment long before it was popular or lucrative…
“The tour, like the TV show, has grown tremendously”
Start your engines
When RuPaul’s Drag Race launched in the late noughties, the prize for the winning drag queen was significantly more modest than this year’s $200,000 jackpot and a spot on the Werq the World tour. The initial bounty was a PR package that included the opportunity to perform in New York nightclubs, then owned by Brandon Voss – a former investment banker turned night-life impresario, and a longtime fan of drag. “At that stage of drag, performing at one of our clubs was considered a big deal because we had the biggest parties in the city,” says Voss.
After hosting and promoting the crowning events of Drag Race season one and two winners, BeBe Zahara Benet and Tyra Sanchez, Voss was hired by RuPaul’s Drag Race producer, World of Wonder, to start producing mini tours as a means to promote viewership and to grow the show. “So, these events were actually more like marketing tools,” explains Voss. “We’d call them Meet the Queens, and we’d take the cast out to about eight cities and perform in small music venues – under 1,000-cap – and then it grew from there.”
Meet the Queens became Werq the World in 2017 and, in partnership with World of Wonder and Viacom, shifted 30,000 tickets. The year after that, it sold 100,000. 2019 marked the tour’s graduation from small clubs to theatres – a decision that paid in kind, with 185,000 tickets sold. While 2020 and 2021 were null and void due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Werq the World bounced back with its best-ever year in 2022; 230,000 tickets sold. “The tour, like the TV show, has grown tremendously,” notes Voss.
But the success of the CAA-represented tour shouldn’t be quantified by numbers alone. As Voss tells IQ, his company is the first to bring drag queens to many markets. “We were the first to enter Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen, Warsaw, Finland, Italy – and we’re getting farther into Europe,” he says. “Asia was a really impressive one for us, this year. We sold out all those dates in ten minutes – and there was a 3,500-cap in Tokyo.”
“The cast changes from leg to leg throughout the tour, which naturally requires a large amount of time invested in rehearsals to ensure smooth rotation”
Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve & Talent
With mammoth glitter-encrusted chains, pyro, confetti blasts, aerialists, elevators, hidden turntables, and endless costume changes, Werq the World 2023 could give Cirque du Soleil a run for its money. And if that wasn’t entertainment enough, all the glitz and glamour is tied together by this year’s theme: The Matrix.
“All the queens are trapped in this simulated reality, and they have to use their Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent – an acronym used on the TV show – to free themselves from the network of evil machines that have tracked them,” explains Voss. “It’s a concert format but with a storyline, and we have custom music in the show – which is different from our competitors. Plus, creative control is shared between producers and queens – it’s collaborative.”
Tour manager Simon Parkinson adds: “It’s a wild show. The show itself never loses its intensity from beginning to end. The queens, dancers, and aerialists perform full tilt for over two hours. Each dancer has about ten costume changes, and the main cast has around five. Even this year’s props are a whole new monster – literally! For this tour, we have huge eight-foot, four-legged stilt creatures created by Synthesys LLC in Brooklyn.”
But of course, it’s the queens that are the crowning glory of this production, and with a rotating cast of 22 performers, there’s no shortage of talent. Werq the World 2023 includes Jaida Essence Hall, Angeria, Aquaria, Bosco, Daya Betty, Kandy Muse, Rosé, and Ginger Minj – queens spanning seasons 10 to 14 of Drag Race. “The cast changes from leg to leg throughout the tour, which naturally requires a large amount of time invested in rehearsals to ensure smooth rotation,” explains Parkinson. “Coordinating the logistics for the new cast turnover is challenging at times, but it ultimately pays off by keeping the show fresh all the way around the world. Showcasing different queens in territories they may not have performed in before adds a level of excitement.”
“We have a crew of 25 people. We have two to three tour buses. It’s big. I mean it’s a multimillion-dollar production”
Working with a large, rotating cast, as well as a bumper production has presented unique tests for Celine Royer, lighting designer and programmer for Werq the World. “The first challenge for me is trying to fit lighting in the set and not block zones or areas where queens and props need to come in and out from the stage. The second challenge is the lighting itself, which is more complex than lighting up a band playing on stage; there are activities, movement on stage, a story to tell, and a lot of numbers are also medley songs, which makes it more complex to programme with more lighting cues.”
It’ll come as no surprise that talent is by far Voss’s biggest cost – and it’s not cheap to transport hordes of queens and their wardrobes either. “It’s very expensive,” says Voss. “In Europe, the trucks are smaller, so it’s a five-truck tour. In the US, it’s three or four trucks. We have a crew of 25 people. We have two to three tour buses. It’s big. I mean it’s a multimillion-dollar production.”
Phoenix Bussing was enlisted in 2022 to cover a handful of dates during their busy summer period. Since then, the company has served two tours (September 2022 and April 2023) and is now gearing up for the UK and Europe legs of the forthcoming Werq the World tour.
“The company will provide one sleeper bus for the artists and one sleeper bus for the crew, both in 16-berth formation, and one with a trailer for extra luggage,” explains Phoenix’s Andy Gray.
“The live entertainment industry is a happier place to work in than it was ten years ago. Change is happening, and it’s so rewarding to be a part of that movement”
“Luggage would be the biggest challenge for the driver. Other than that, no real challenges so to speak; the Voss team are great and dealing with [tour manager] Simon Parkinson is so easy. And the queens and crew are all great for the drivers to work with.”
Parkinson can testify to Gray’s praise of the crew, adding: “Behind the scenes, we have a talented technical crew and incredible assistants who quick-change, zip, spray, towel down, and tuck the performers… okay, maybe not tuck, but you get it!
“Our current cast and crew for this tour is roughly 80% LGBTQIA+. This number blows my mind. Both Voss Events and I strive to employ and train as many young, keen talented people so the next generation of touring personnel is more diverse and colourful. The live entertainment industry is a happier place to work in than it was ten years ago. Change is happening, and it’s so rewarding to be a part of that movement. Werq The World is trailblazing that change to happen. I’m so proud to be a part of it.”
You better work
Up until 2019, Voss Events promoted the Werq the World tours entirely in-house, in addition to managing the routing, ticketing, marketing, and booking. Even the artist management of the queens was happening under the same roof, through Voss Management, and still does today. The company also owns a slate of other touring properties including the Drag Race Vegas residency, which is formatted as a live version of the TV show, and international tours in countries including Australia, Mexico, Brazil, Canada, and France. Now, there are eight to ten people working at the New York offices of Voss Events, and the company has finally started to enlist the support of promoters around the world.
“We do some direct buys with theatres, some AEG shows, some Live Nation shows, we work with local promoters, and we still self-promote if we don’t get the offer we want”
“It wasn’t because we needed their promotional power,” Voss explains. “It was more that we didn’t have the bandwidth in-house to route and market 100 shows… we had to bring in extra people to scale it. Now, we do some direct buys with theatres, some AEG shows, some Live Nation shows, we work with local promoters, and we still self-promote if we don’t get the offer we want.”
On Werq the World 2023, Live Nation is responsible for numerous dates, some of which are promoted via the behemoth’s subsidiaries such as Cuffe and Taylor.
Washington DC-based Charlee Vasiliadis, from Live Nation, has worked with Voss on two editions of Werq the World as well as the company’s Night of the Living Drag tours. “Following the success of the first show we did with Voss in 2021, [Voss senior producer] Jon Norris and I collaborated on exploring options in other markets with Live Nation in the northeast, south, and west,” she says. “As a DC buyer primarily, it’s exciting to be part of the conversation around bringing shows to other markets where I can contribute to the growth of this genre nationally and help foster new relationships.”
“I’ve loved developing Live Nation’s partnership with Voss Events and collaborating together on these shows. Since they’re promoters themselves, we speak the same language. They pay attention to detail and understand the nuances, which I genuinely appreciate.”
“A lot of economies are in the dumps right now, so I don’t know if people have $100 to spend on a drag show. But we can’t do it for less because expenses have doubled”
While this year’s tour is expected to be another sell-out success, Voss, like many other promoters, have had to deal with some pushback from fans about raising their ticket prices. “We’ve raised our ticket prices 20-30% this year and now people think it’s too expensive,” says Voss. “There are a lot of larger macro issues at play. A lot of economies are in the dumps right now, so I don’t know if people have $100 to spend on a drag show. But we can’t do it for less because expenses have doubled. We couldn’t operate without substantially raising our prices but that has made sales harder so it’s a Catch-22.
“We get a lot of grief about it because our fans are very price-conscious, but our top-tier tickets are around $100. Look at any other touring artists, like Beyoncé, she’s selling tickets for $5,000. I just saw Janet Jackson; her tickets were $800. I’m seeing Madonna next week; I paid $900. They all have fans in marginalised communities, too.”
While Voss is no different to other promoters in experiencing rocketing expenses and pushback on ticket price increases, one of their challenges is not so universal. In the last few months, Republican states such as Florida, Montana, and Tennessee have introduced or proposed legislation designed to restrict drag performances in public. The new laws prompted a raft of rebuttals from artists including Madonna, Lizzo, Paramore’s Hayley Williams, Sheryl Crow, and Maren Morris – many of whom performed at protest concerts or invite drag queens onstage for their own shows. Civil rights groups, meanwhile, criticised the laws as a violation of free speech.
While Voss says its shows are continuing as normal, the new laws have left the company with little choice but to raise the age limit of the US leg. “Some venues, namely in Florida, are apprehensive to host us unless the show is restricted to adults only,” explains Voss senior producer, Jonathan Norris. “While we consider our show all-ages, we’ve opted to make the show 18+ nationwide this year, which is upsetting for a lot of our younger fans. Other smaller shows in certain states have been subject to protests and even threats because they allow children in. We don’t want to subject our fans, cast, or crew to that type of negativity.”
“Drag isn’t going anywhere regardless of how much they attempt to denigrate the drag entertainers across the United States and beyond”
Parkinson is similarly concerned with the safety of the cast, crew, and fans, adding that anti-drag culture in the US is becoming “an increasing challenge”. “It’s upsetting to have meetings in some states with police and security personnel to discuss bomb and gun threats, as well as protest lines, and what to do in the event that a serious incident unfolds,” he says.
“This is a new confrontation that I haven’t experienced in my 20 years in the industry. It is a shame that a beautiful and historic art form is getting so much negative coverage by small groups of conservative individuals. A great deal of love goes into what we do.”
Drag promoters outside of the Werq the World tour are similarly anxious about upcoming dates in some US states. “We’ve had some problems along the route, from picketed events to abuse being hurled at us,” says Nathan Stone, CEO of UK-based LGBTQ+ talent management company, Gallos Group. “In July/Aug 2023, we have dates in Texas, so we shall have to see how the impending drag bans and tensions play out. We have a great North American promoter (Five Senses Reeling/Obsessed) that is very knowledgeable in this niche, so security is everyone’s top priority.”
Norris is defiant in his message to the US law-makers: “They should understand that drag isn’t going anywhere regardless of how much they attempt to denigrate the drag entertainers across the United States and beyond. Therefore, we call on the lawmakers in our corner to VOTE NO on any anti-LGBTQ+ legislation; they also should be educating their family, friends, and circles on the experiences of LGBTQ+ folks and our history, as well as elevating the initiatives and organisations that keep trans people and the LGBTQ+ community at large safe.”
Drag entertainment isn’t exclusive to the Drag Race brand, nor is it limited to drag queens
Werqing outside the world
It’s safe to say that what RuPaul’s Drag Race and Werq the World have done for the awareness and acceptance of drag queens is unrivalled, but it’s important to note that drag entertainment isn’t exclusive to the Drag Race brand, nor is it limited to drag queens.
Juno Birch, an English drag queen, sculptor, and YouTuber with 460,000 followers, is a shining example of an artist that has built an impressive career outside of RuPaul’s world. Alongside her unique drag aesthetic, which features pastel “alien skin,” yellow hair, dishwashing gloves, and retro sunglasses, Birch is known for her eccentric YouTube videos, which range from makeup tutorials to Sims play-alongs.
“She’s got such an amazing following that I think she’s one of the few [queens] that doesn’t need to go on the show,” says AEG Presents’ Eliza-Jane Oliver, who promoted Birch’s most recent UK tour.
Birch’s manager, Nathan Stone from Gallos Group, adds: “She fared well from the lockdowns, with her YouTube presence and socials skyrocketing with her incredibly clever harnessing of pop culture and character creation. Within a few months of signing her, we put a key focus on the first world tour once the restrictions were lifted, which we were happy to complete with a 45-date tour of the UK, Australia, and North America in 2022. Each outing – whether that be a concert, a convention, or a brand partnership – is documented.”
“Not everyone can be [one of Ru-Paul’s best-known drag queens] Bianca or Trixie or Katya, but there’s a lot of room for queens to establish themselves at a theatre level and make a really nice career of it”
Birch recently completed a UK tour promoted by AEG Presents, which encompassed four venues ranging from 1,000- to 1,500-capacity. While it didn’t sell out, Oliver is sympathetic to fans’ tightened purse strings, as well as a dip in consumer confidence.
“There’s still a lot of ground to be made up in the drag live industry,” says Oliver. “I know there are queens that have not been paid for their work, and there are still shows getting cancelled at the last minute, which has caused a lack of faith among fans. We need to make sure the shows happen and that they’re good quality, and I think people will respond to that in time.”
Voss testifies: “You see a lot of promoters and producers that aren’t there for what it truly is, which is a great drag show. Some are looking to make a quick buck from these queens. They see something that is successful, and they try and take advantage of it.”
Despite these challenges, Oliver is optimistic about the growth of the drag market, across all levels. “Werq the World and the UK Drag Race tour are doing great guns with taking drag to the next level, but what I’m really excited about and primarily interested in is the mid-range theatre/ big-club level – I think there’s a lot of growth in that part of it. Not everyone can be [one of Ru-Paul’s best-known drag queens] Bianca or Trixie or Katya, but there’s a lot of room for queens to establish themselves at a theatre level and make a really nice career of it. I think there’s a lot of room for growth in the drag market, and I think it’s going to be really exciting to see how it goes in the next 12–18 months.”
Get more stories like this in your inbox by signing up for IQ Index, IQ’s free email digest of essential live music industry news.