Drag Cartel: How A Drag Competition Became A Haven For Drag Addicts

Drag Cartel: How A Drag Competition Became A Haven For Drag Addicts


Drag competitions aren’t just entertaining performances, it has evolved into a visible safe space for the queer community.

Related: Beautiful Transformations: Paolo Ballesteros And The Power Of Drag

Drag’s commercial success is nothing but revolutionary. The breakthrough show, Drag Race, has helped a generation of queer kids to find the confidence to accept and celebrate who they are. Such an extravagant display of self-expression teaches a kind of freedom that fuels young, hungry, and creative minds to the brim. The show also unraveled many layers of LGBTQIA+ identities to an increasingly mainstream audience, making huge strides towards understanding and acceptance among people outside and inside our community. These social changes are significant, but our rainbow-painted road is still long and sometimes dangerous. We are far from the promise of equal justice and opportunity.

This is where visible queer spaces come into play—a place to meet other people within the community and where we can feel safe. To exist in a room where we can openly be ourselves without fear of ridicule or abuse is essential to our lives. 

There is a spot right smack in the middle of BGC where kids who want to pursue drag converge every last Wednesday of the month. Drag Cartel was born out of the need to provide a stage for baby drag queens to feel their fantasies. It had evolved into something more beautiful.

Paulo Castro, Drag Cartel’s head honcho/mother hen, writes, “If I’m proud of anything, it is the friendships, support systems, and chosen families we helped create with Drag Cartel and Poison Wednesdays. We always remind the kids that while there is healthy competition, it is more important to take care of each other. Because while we can bitch around and be shady over each other’s looks and performances inside a competition setting, life for queer people is still very difficult outside our safe spaces. Out there, we need to be united. We’ve seen friendships turn into families. And that is priceless!”

Every competition night has a theme like “Choose Your Fighter Realness,” where Maniqueen destroyed the competition with their back-to-back stunts while dressed as Cammy from Street Fighter, and Santacruzan, where a parade took place at the Fort Strip, complete with arches and all. I’ve seen many things in my life, but nothing quite like this. The talent level (makeup, costume, performance) is sometimes beyond what I can comprehend. Photographer Michael Peralta perfectly captured the moment Voldemort, transfused with Prince’s drag, shot colorful strings out of their hand. During the time of Tala’s resurgence that ultimately cemented its legacy as a gay anthem, queen of camp Candy Whorehol came as a literal star. Mrs. Tan’s performance with pointed political statements was met with thunderous approval and applause from the crowd. It is truly an experience that smells a lot like today’s queer spirit.

In a series of lip-sync performances, judges will select an eventual winner from more than a handful of contestants. Monthly winners will get to compete in Drag Cartel All-Stars—a final round, like a fierce championship gala, to battle for the title. Many queens started their drag journey on the Drag Cartel stage. “I always tell our kids that we respect their art form and that winning or losing is not a measure of the validity of their drag,” Paulo says. “Many who began doing drag here and didn’t win are now regular, professional performers in and outside of Nectar!”

Drag will continue to soar and contribute to groundbreaking conversations; regardless of how accepted our community becomes, havens like Poison Wednesdays and Drag Cartel at Nectar will still be necessary. Paulo adds, “Drag Cartel is entertaining, yes. But the drag artists who participate aren’t just there to entertain. They come because it is a safe and supportive space for them to be themselves.” 

Drag Cartel winners: Minty Fresh (2017), O-A (2018), and Marina Summers (2019).

Drag Cartel came back this year during pride month after a two-year hiatus and is now happening every last Thursday of the month at Nectar in BGC.


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