The Sparkle & Wit of Elsa Touche: Drag Queen You Should Know
Meet Elsa Touche a Drag Queen You Should Know
Elsa Touche can bring a room to life with her ever-ready wit and sparkling eyes that are kind enough to let you in on the joke. She arrived in a cloud of pink ruffles and a touch of Sunset Boulevard. On Friday June 16th at the Lookout, she was hosting an event for Fishnets and Film, a wonderful drag show and queer film festival that travels the Bay Area. It’s put on by her good friend Robby Kendall. Elsa was kind enough to share with me some wisdom about drag, drag show etiquette, and becoming. Catch her if you can at one of her many shows.
BAS: Your shows are really funny and I love that Elsa has the ability to create humor out of any situation. What is your background in acting?
Elsa: Well, thank you. That’s very kind. I wanted to be an actor when I was young. I acted in school plays and stuff. I was part of a high school “improv” group that went around to elementary schools and did — excruciating I am sure — little plays about, like, the joys of saying no to drugs. I cringe to imagine: We were called the Harlequins. There may have been green tights involved. (Which may have been a lot of the appeal, for me, actually.) And, side note, meanwhile I was going off and doing LSD in the woods with my friends every weekend, so I doubt that those little plays had much effect on anyone.
But then as a young man, I was discouraged from pursuing acting; this was the 1990s, and I had someone tell me that, in short, I was just too gay to be believable on stage as, like, a human man. Too feminine, too faggy, too girly. And I’d heard this all my life; I’d always been the “class sissy.” So then I heard it from a director in San Francisco, of all places… at a time when I hadn’t worked through my own self-hatred, my own internal homophobia — the poison that so many queer people absorb from their environments. So this critique struck really deep. I believed that theater wasn’t for me. And I spent the next 15 years of my adult life dealing with and discarding all that bullshit and baggage that society had put on me, and dealing with the misogyny and femme-phobia of the gay community as well, before I even got to drag. Where the feminine, faggy parts of my spirit are celebrated.
Where we celebrate and explore the ways that gender bends, breaks, changes … where gender exists on a spectrum or as a sphere but also doesn’t really exist at all, where the words “masculine” and “feminine” lose all meaning, where the so-called girly qualities that got me beaten up in high school are celebrated and loved. Darling, drag is so healing for my fag spirit, every dollar bill handed to me, every shout of approval. I’m so grateful for this, for drag coming into my life and giving me this gift and letting me be on the stage at last … on these tiny, sticky dive-bar stages.
Do you have a day job or are you able to do this full-time?
Elsa: It’s very difficult to make a full-time living from drag! I wish I could. If every month were as booked for me as June and December are, I could keep the lights on solely with drag — I do a good business in corporate Pride parties in June and then holiday parties in December, as well as private parties. And I do really enjoy those gigs! But that’s only two months of the year. The typical nightlife gigs are not lucrative or frequent enough, when you factor in the expense of doing drag. And drag takes a lot of time — we get paid for performing, but when I factor in the two to three hours it takes me to get into drag, the hourly rate isn’t always great.
Let’s talk about it: $300 is a decent amount to take home from a nightclub gig: that’s booking fee plus tips … I’ll say $300 is an above-average night at the club for a local drag artist like me. But that gig requires being at the club for two hours, and you spent at least two hours getting into drag. You may also have to practice the number for at least a couple of hours, so say the gig took a minimum of six hours of your life. Plus you spent $30 on your Lyft to and from the club, and you have to use supplies that need to be purchased or that take time to make: wigs, costumes, makeup, hairspray, tights, and so on. And those above-average gigs are available only on the weekends, and the competition for them is fierce — and even if you get the gig, that $300 includes tips, and those aren’t guaranteed.
No one should get into doing drag in the hopes that it will make them a lot of money! And that’s not why I do it. I do it because I love it. And, you know, like most other drag performers, I have a sick and unquenchable thirst for attention of any kind!
Seriously, I think from the outside, maybe it may seem like drag performers make more than they actually do … because one element of some drag performance is making the cheap look fabulous — creating a diva fantasy with a borrowed wig, a dress from a thrift store, and $15 worth of costume jewelry. That’s the magic of drag. But I still do occasional gigs where if I factor in the cost of my Lyft and supplies, I realize I spent more than I made, honey. I am a co-host and co-producer of a popular weekly bar show, the Monster Show, but there are occasional very slow nights when I’m going into my own pocket to pay our performers. Darling, even Ru Paul is out here fracking to make ends meet! So you know local drag artists are struggling! Look around: Queer nightlife venues are struggling! Queer performance venues are struggling! Things are expensive.
In other words, tip your drag performers, LOL! And go out and support queer venues and artists! Or they’ll all disappear.
I see that you also have written a book, Urban Etiquette: Marvelous Manners for the Modern Metropolis. Do you plan to write more?
Elsa: I’m waiting for some people to die before I can safely write my memoirs, darling.
Joking aside, and continuing from your previous question, by day I’m a writer and editor: that’s my job. I started out working in magazines (another way to not earn enough money to live) and transitioned to corporate marketing content and that type of thing. These days, I do freelance and contract editorial work. Over the years, honestly, wordsmithing for a living has sort of dampened my creativity in that area — if I spend all day writing for work, the last thing I want to do in my free time is write more. And I express my creativity more through drag these days … so I do some writing in the drag arena: writing and co-writing the drag parody shows I’m in, writing monologues, and so on.
Do you have a philosophy or advice for the drag-curious?
Elsa: For me, drag is a very broad idea that’s open to anyone, so my primary advice is this: Figure out what “drag” means to you, and give it a try. You don’t necessarily need a stage — drag artists are working it out on Instagram and YouTube these days, and if you’re in the Bay Area, there are lots of shows that welcome and make space for new performers to break in.
As with anything you try for the first time, you might not be happy with your first efforts. Drag is an art and a craft — or many crafts rolled up into one — and it takes practice. Few people are great at it right away. (Though there are local performers I’ve seen just completely slay from day one, that’s not the norm!) It took me a couple of years of regular performing to really figure things out and start turning in performances I was happy with, to figure out my “character” and get my beat down, such as it is, and build the right kind of confidence. For me, I did a lot of that growing and evolving at smaller bar shows and at fundraisers — getting involved with the Imperial Court System was important in my early drag journey, because it put me on stages and gave me community in my early days of drag. (I have to thank my drag mother, Dusty Pörn, for being an indispensable support during these early years as well.)
I’ll say that drag in real life is nothing like what you see on TV … if your curiosity has been piqued by Drag Race, and I see this a lot, know that many of those performers have spent tens of thousands of dollars on their costumes for the show (if they haven’t spent weeks applying their serious couturier skills to making them). You probably won’t look like that at first, but you don’t need to! I’ll add that Drag Race maybe has given some folks some unrealistic expectations about drag: what it can look like, the business of it on a local level, and so on — so get to some local shows if you can. Get to know your local scene and figure out where you might fit. We’re very blessed here in the Bay Area to have “drag” interpreted in so many ways and varieties.
Where can we find you? Upcoming shows?
Elsa: Follow me on Instagram to stay apprised about my doings: @charlesandelsa. I’m a co-host of the Monster Show — San Francisco’s “most ridiculous drag show” and the Castro’s longest-running drag tradition. It’s every Thursday night at the Edge Bar, show at 10:00-ish. I host a dinner drag show at Vico Cavone, an Italian restaurant in the Castro, the third Wednesday of every month, show at 7:00. I’m working with the R3 Resort in Guerneville again this year on a series of summer shows: the first one is Independence Day weekend, and I’ll be back in Guerneville a few times over the summer.
I have some Pride week things: Thursday the 22nd, I’ll be appearing at the Bay Street Mall in Emeryville from 7:00 to 9:00, and then heading to the Monster Show at the Edge for our Pride show; Friday the 23rd, I’ll be appearing at the Faherty Store on Chestnut Street from 2:00 to 4:00, and then at the Marriott View Lounge downtown from 5:00 to 7:00 for their Drag-tastic happy hour. Pride Sunday, I’m performing in the Golden Girls’ Kitchen brunch show, in SOMA — seatings start at 10:00.
Then I have my shows at the R3 on July 3 and 4. Then I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks. I’ve worked my frickin’ ass off this month.
Find out more: @charlesandelsa
Fishnets and Film: https://sweetnothingproductions.com/fishnets/
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