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Chicago’s ‘Digital Drag’ Shows Give Performers Online Stage For LGBTQ Artistry And Activism

Chicago's drag performers are reaching new audiences by creating MTV-quality lip synch videos for livestreamed digital drag shows.

Bambi Banks-Couleé and Khloe Couleé film a digital drag video for The Vixen's "Black Girl Magic."
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CHICAGO — When drag queen and bartender Jo MaMa was left jobless by the coronavirus pandemic in March, she took her skills online to survive.

Jo MaMa started presenting “The Joe Show” every night on Facebook Live, using the platform to teach themed mixology classes using her bartending skills and extensive drag closet. She had hundreds of cosplays, drag looks and other costumes to choose from.

“I wanted to keep giving people continuity during these uncertain times and it took care of my mental wellness by giving me something to do every day,” she said.

Jo MaMa was pioneering a new era of “digital drag” brought on by the coronavirus pandemic — one that’s led to recurring livestreamed shows featuring music video-quality lip synchs directed by Chicago’s eclectic drag performers. Fans tip through apps like Venmo.

Jo MaMa continued the daily “Joe Show” up until May 25 when George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officers. That’s when she poured her energy into organizing June’s “Drag March For Change,” which brought thousands of protesters to Boystown demanding racial justice for Black people.

Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago
Jo MaMa (in blue) leads protesters during the “Drag March For Change” protest.

Since then, Jo MaMa has incorporated her newfound activism into her digital platform by creating PSAs advocating for people to wear masks and vote in the upcoming election.

According to Khloe Couleé, a member of the local drag collective The Unfriendly Black Hotties, the digital drag shows have grown into something that drag performers can see existing beyond the pandemic.

“I see this sticking after covid because digital shows reach so much further than we’re used to in Chicago bars,” Khloe said.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CDbr6hzh1vN/

Khloe said her collective’s digital shows, which have created visual albums for beloved albums like Rihanna’s “Anti” with imaginative lip synch videos, have attracted audiences that match the crowds in nightclubs.

She said the success of the digital era has encouraged the Chicago Black Drag Council’s movement for racial justice that arose from June’s protests.

“The digital drag world gives you a chance to be your own boss, set your own rules and you don’t have to worry about those extra things or obstacles we face in the bars,” Khloe Couleé said.

Another artist who has leaned into the digital era is Miss Toto, a drag performer who moved to Chicago from Miami. They have recorded 27 digital drag performances since the pandemic began in March.

Miss Toto said they are “adapting to the times” because they don’t feel comfortable encouraging people to gather in clubs while coronavirus cases are rising.

Drag queen Miss Toto marches during Sunday's Drag March for Change. | Jake Wittich/Block Club ChicagoCredit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago
Drag queen Miss Toto marches during the Drag March For Change.

Miss Toto said there was a learning curve adapting to the online platforms, but the challenge has pushed them to think more creatively.

“There’s so much more editing, planning, costuming and production in these than live shows,” Miss Toto said. “It’s expanded my creativity and I don’t know what I’d be doing with my time without these shows.”

Anya, who has supported Chicago’s drag scene since the ’90s, said the online shows are her “escapism” while her wedding photography business is slow. She helps promote the shows on fansite “Chicago Drag Love” with two friends and has helped a few queens film their drag videos.

“The digital shows are so vital to the entire community while we’re struggling to survive during the covid economic downturn,” Anya said. “As horrible as the pandemic is, the silver lining resides in the explosion of creativity we’re seeing in online drag.”

Where to support these queens and other drag performers this weekend:

“The Crystal Thems 2” – 9 p.m. CST Thursday

Miss Toto and Ramona Slick are bringing back their drag tribute to the “Steven Universe” series after the cartoon’s creators watched their first show and tipped performers.

“‘Steven Universe’ is a powerful queer cartoon with this overarching storyline about love and acceptance,” Miss Toto said. “Our love for it shows in the amazing product we’ve created.”

Thursday’s show features Jo Mama among several other performers from Chicago and other cities. It will be streamed on Miss Toto’s Twitch channel.

“Ungodly Hour” – 8 p.m. CST Friday

The Unfriendly Black Hotties team up with other Chicago drag performers to pay tribute to R&B duo Chloe X Halle’s recent album, “Ungodly Hour.”

“We are Chloe X Halle fans and that album is absolutely sickening, so we had to create a party that was a visual album presentation for it like we did with Rihanna,” Khloe Couleé said.

Miss Toto said the show’s cast exclusively features Black drag performers in Chicago as a statement about casting in drag shows.

“Chicago Black drag has been very loud in the movement for national reparations, so I think it’s really important for other cities to see what we’re doing and bring that to their own cities,” Miss Toto said.

The show will be livestreamed on the Unfriendly Black Hotties’ Twitch channel.

“GeekHaus: Sailor Moon-iversary” – 10 p.m. CST Friday

Queer nerd collective GeekHaus celebrates its fourth anniversary with a digital drag tribute to the “Sailor Moon” anime.

“Our very first show as a collective was ‘Sailor Moon’-themed,” Jo Mama said. “The show is very near and dear to our hearts in the geek fandom.”

The “Sailor Moon-iversary” streams 10 p.m. Friday on GeekHaus’ Twitch channel.

“Xtra” – 8 p.m. CST Saturday

Nightlife collective A Queer Pride presents “Xtra,” hosted by local performers Khloe Coulee and Abhijeet with guest Boomer Banks.

The live digital drag show will feature Angele Anang, winner of “Drag Race Thailand,” drag star Detox and Louisianna Purchase of “Dragula.” The lineup includes several Chicago-based performers.

“Xtra” will stream on A Queer Pride’s Twitch channel.

Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.

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