Bosco is ascending. RuPaul and her friends were gushing about the Seattle-based drag queen on national TV recently, on a little show called RuPaul’s Drag Race, where Bosco is currently competing for this season's crown and $100,000 prize. “She’s willing to express herself in a bunch of different ways,” said RPDR judge Ross Matthews, “which, by the way, is how you go really far in this competition.”
The 28-year-old queen, often seen performing at Capitol Hill’s Queer Bar, has become a frontrunner on the show, currently mid-season. She won a “maxi” challenge during episode 5, when the contestants had to create a spoof commercial about former RPDR queens, and last week, she won the show’s most famous mini challenge, Reading Is Fundamental.
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Before landing a spot at "the Olympics of Drag," Bosco came up through Seattle's drag scene. She got her start back-up dancing at Julia’s on Broadway, then developed her character by attending drag performer Arson Nicki’s Rapture party at Timbre Room. Eventually, she landed a cast spot at Queer Bar, which became her home base until Ru picked up the phone. Now, Bosco’s giving back—the city's drag community, excited to see its first performer on RPDR since former R Place host Robbie Turner got on in 2016, has been reenergized by her national success.
“Having Bosco on the show has been a huge accomplishment for our cast,” Bosco’s Queer Bar castmate Kennedy Colby tells us over the phone. “It really has helped light a fire under my butt to really push the gear and go.”
That fire seems to be lit all over the city, as the scene undergoes a sort of springtime resurgence. There are not one but two 10-week-long drag competitions happening right now. The first, 10s Across the Board at Queer Bar, just wrapped up its third week, with queens competing for $10,000 in prizes. The second, So You Think You Can Drag, returned for its third "season" a few weeks ago at The Comeback, which is shelling out $5,000 to its winner. And those competitions are in addition to others around the city, like the long-running Art Haus competition series at Kremwerk.
“The local scene here is incredible,” Bosco told us before she premiered on TV, “there are so many people here who are ready and so capable of doing the show.”
And those people are ready to prove it.
A breakthrough moment for the scene
It was the inaugural night of So You Think You Can Drag, and we had to move fast to avoid getting splattered in blood. Stage blood, sure, but it still leaves a stain.
Tinashea Monét was charging around the floor at The Comeback, the new gay-sports-dance bar in SoDo that evolved out of Capitol Hill’s now-shuttered R Place. This ten-week drag competition, hosted by Cookie Couture, offers thousands of dollars in prizes, and the performers were out for blood.
For the final performance of the night, the audience’s top two favorite queens had to lip sync for their legacies. (For now, the prize for winning a lip sync is extra credit; but as the competition advances, bottom-ranked queens will be eliminated.) As performer Rita LaRue writhed onstage in spiked bondage gear, Tinashea, clad in a neon green tiger-striped leotard, bounded toward the go-go box where we'd found what we thought was an unobtrusive seat. We dodged to the side and she swung over the bar, downed a waiting cup of red-dyed fluid, and let loose with an explosion of movement and stage blood that ran down her costume to the screams of the audience.
Intense? Sure. But there’s $5,000 at stake — a cash prize that for many performers is a make-or-break opportunity for their career, to transform the local drag scene, to obtain medical care, and even to have a place to live off the street.
After the show, we ask Tinashea how she would spend the grand prize if she were to win. She begins by emphasizing the word “once” as if to correct our use of “if.”
“Once I make it all the way through and after I receive my cash money,” she says, “there’s so many good choices — I could say new car, new apartment, I’m gonna replace this bed I’ve been sleeping on since 2019. That’s why people think I’m a bitch, is because I’m not getting the sleep I deserve with this hard-ass box spring!”
Turning serious for just a moment, she adds, “of course, get some new drag. Maybe some gender affirmation surgery too. That would be fab.”
The grand prize could be life-changing for Rita as well. “I live in homeless transitional housing,” she says. With five thousand dollars, she says, “I’d be able to put it toward my drag, and probably move into a new place.”
Performing and stability go hand-in-hand for LaRue, who’s dealt with housing instability since she was fourteen years old. “I’d had a lot of people walk on me in my life,” she says, but ever since seeing a drag show at Lambert House a few years back, “drag is so important to me. It’s something that I’ve been able to create for myself and by myself. It’s something I have control over.”
“I wanted to do something that was a stunt”
Drag contests with huge cash prizes have been lifelines for other local performers. Miss Texas 1988 won So You Think You Can Drag at R Place in 2019, allowing her to pay off several thousand dollars in medical debt after a hospital stay. Looking back on the competition, she says, she can remember thinking not just “I could win this,” but also “I NEED to win this.”
That level of pressure can take its toll. “I had started losing hair from the anxiety,” says Irene DuBois, who won the competition in 2018. It was a grueling experience for her: “You had to get stronger and stronger every week, despite getting tireder every week.”
Irene at least had some help — she took a chance and went into debt, buying the best dresses and wigs she could find in the hopes that she could pay off the expense after winning. She spent $1,500 just on her finale number, which included two $300 outfits, confetti cannons, back-up dancers, and a moment in which dancers dumped eight hundred real dollar bills over her.
“I wanted to do something that was a stunt,” she says, noting that she was also careful to choreograph money-retrieving moves for her dancers.
The stunt paid off with a $5,000 win. Of that, $1,500 went to paying off the debt she accrued for the finale, another $600 went to getting new wigs for future numbers, and the rest “went right to the bank and sat there as a safety net,” a move that proved shrewd in 2020.
Miss Texas’s win the next year also required some strategic spending. “I spent many sleepless nights hot gluing, sewing, frantically practicing lip syncs,” she says. “Any money I got from the competition, I'd put into the next week's look. On weeks I won, I could get nicer things. And other weeks I had to be more frugal.”
Her victory allowed her to pay off debt and quit her day job in a kitchen, moving into drag full time. “Not having that debt was crucial,” she says.
Irene also made the jump to full-time after her win. “I no longer had anxiety about bills, which allowed me to create art less from a place of necessity and more from a place of joy,” she says. “I don’t know how to say this without sounding corny, but it was literally my dream come true.”
Doing it for Kaleena
“How the FUCK are we feeling Queer BaaaaAAAaaR!?”
It was the second night of competing at Queer Bar’s 10s Across the Boards competition, and the lubricated audience roared affirmatively. The crowd had packed out Queer Bar’s narrow space to watch Seattle drag queen and scene stalwart Kaleena Markos host the event. Folks stood two rows deep just to witness queens serve looks and do high kicks.
Like The Comeback, the setup of the 10s Across the Board strays a bit from the tried-and-true Drag Race formula. Here, there are no critiques, no eliminations, no themes. Just ten of Seattle’s most “legendary” drag queens doing one runway look and one lip sync performance every week for ten straight weeks—for $10,000 in prizes. The winner will take home $7,500, with second and third place nabbing $2,500 and $500 respectively. The audience, forced to vote for only one queen each week, determines those final positions, but nobody will know where the queens stand in the competition until the very end.
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During the contest’s second performance, the queens turned out a slew of rowdy performances. Issa Man quite literally dove across the stage, narrowly missing a wooden pillar while still giving a sexy, tight performance. Monday Mourning did an absurd and hilarious reenactment of the Pacer Test, running out of Queer Bar and around the whole block. Jane Don’t roasted the entire cast, including Kaleena, to both the horror and delight of the audience. Michete came out tightly wrapped in a pillowcase and made the crowd pelt her with ones. We broke out into a nervous sweat trying to assess who did the best.
In a recent phone interview with Kaleena—the big brain behind the competition—the overarching theme we hear from her is that the competition is meant to be friendly. As a former competitor herself, Kaleena says being critiqued and cut was the worst aspect of competing.
“The way that we're thinking about it is more along the lines of [RuPaul’s Drag Race] All Stars, where the rules are different from regular competitions and it’s invitation-only,” Kaleena explains. Instead of having an open call for performers, Kaleena invited ten competitors who are all relatively well-known in the scene. Additionally, 10s Across the Board implements a door split, meaning the $5 entry the venue collects is split between performers.
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Kaleena knows a thing or two about competitions. In 2012, she kicked off her drag career as a competitor at Julia’s on Broadway, back when there was no compensation, only the promise of exposure and a cast spot for whoever won. In the years since, Kaleena has established herself as one of the most respected queens in the scene. She’s perhaps best known for her perfect wigs. (“I love, I live for Kaleena,” Jane gushes to us.) Wigs and hair are an interest that started in high school, which led her to make wigs for people with alopecia and cancer. Now, she also makes them for drag queens on TV. She sculpted the fluffy, blonde piece Bosco wore when she took home her first win on RPDR.
Many of the competitors we speak with say they agreed to compete because it meant spending more time with Kaleena. “Not many queens, in recent times, can say that they have shared the stage with Kaleena Marcos because she does it so rarely now,” competitor and rave queen Rowan Ruthless says of Kaleena, who she says sparked her interest in drag. “And to have her on stage for ten weeks and to share that stage with her is not something everybody can say [they’ve done].”
The cost of looking good
“There's this expectation of constant novelty, and there's an expectation of things being constantly new,” Queer Bar competitor Jane Don’t tells us while pinning together a dress at her apartment. That expectation of newness can take up a lot of space: Piles of fabric, wigs, and shoes fill her home. Closets overflow with clothes.
Jane debuted during Pride 2019, but she went full-time as bars and clubs started to reopen last summer. As a full-time performer, much of the money she makes goes right back into her job. So to keep costs low, she’s learned how to make garments and wigs, shaping vintage fabrics into dresses and cheap Amazon wigs into elaborate headpieces.
“It used to be that you could do drag and you could own four or five dresses,” she says. “But now we also live in this post-Drag Race thing where audiences have a very inflated sense of what is and isn't possible for a lot of drag performers.”
Kennedy Colby, another full-time queen and competitor at 10s Across the Board, spends a similar amount on drag—around thirty to forty percent of her income. Over the phone, she says she plans on “refurbishing iconic numbers I’ve already done throughout the year and reimagining them,” which means she gets to save a little.
As a seamstress with a degree in theater, she’s also able to skirt around buying garments right off the rack, making her costumes herself. “Most of my costumes I make on my own or I have them commissioned or made,” she says. “I was raised in a drag family—the House of Colby—to not wear store-bought drag. You don't wanna see anybody out there with something similar to what you have.”
That doesn’t mean all the queens are in self-made fits. On a call with Kylie Mooncakes, another Queer Bar competitor, she tells us she generally likes to keep her outfits simple and emphasizes styling her pieces together rather than making them from scratch. When she does shell out, it’s to smaller designers who are just getting their start.
She says her long-time goal is to get good at making her own clothes. She bought a sewing machine from Target three years ago that has remained unopened. "I told myself I would open it this year," she laughs. "I'm still trying to speak it into existence."
Regardless, Kylie, who's been doing drag for four years and ballroom for even longer, has rocked several excellent looks so far. On the third round of the competition, she wore a silky patterned matching set with a flower crown. "I like to feel like I'm living out a story when I'm performing," she says, "whether anyone else gets it or not."
Everyone in the current competition boasts a unique skill or two. Over at The Comeback, Mona Real is a master of eccentric vintage fashion; Vincent Milay exudes swagger and panache; Vivienne Duchanne belts live; Diamond Lil has a starlet's charm.
And at Queer Bar, the queens are neck and neck. Anita Spritzer also sings live (and has belted out a somehow-gayer rendition of “All That Jazz”); Aria Kane stomps and splits down the runway like no other; Issa commands the lip sync; Arrietty’s head-to-toe looks are playful and stunning; Jane’s hair is big and full of secrets.
Whatever a performer’s skill is, “you’ve gotta be prepared,” Tinashea says, her mind laser-focused on The Comeback’s grand prize. “If it’s $5,000, you gotta make sure you look, sound, taste, and smell like $5,000.”
Snagging that prize — and the opportunities that come with it — will take every talent and trick the performers can muster. For the next two months, Seattle's competitors will throw everything they’ve got into their contests with full-steam-ahead intensity. “This,” Rita says, “is really what I want to do with my life.”
Here's where you can follow the competitors
So You Think You Can Drag
10s Across the Board
- Kylie Mooncakes
- Kennedy Colby
- Aria Kane
- Monday Mourning
- Rowan Ruthless
- Jane Don't
- Issa Man
- Anita Spritzer