Being a performing drag queen is a job and good artists can make a living out of hosting a variety of events as well as performing their own drag acts. Very good artists can become minor celebrities within the community, or major celebrities in the wider world – as evidenced by the parade of mega dames churned out via Ru Paul’s Drag Race.
Chris Collins has been performing as his ultra ego, Hannah Conda for about 10 years and he considers it his full-time job.
“What you find is, while there is a lot of people coming out and doing drag, there’s only a few that kinda stick to it. Because it is a commitment and you have to have grit, you have to have perseverance because times get tough. You have to be smart with how you build…because you’re building a brand and you’re building a business. So, Hannah is my business.”
Collins was born and raised in Perth and debuted his drag persona one night during a popular drag contest. Wearing a dress he borrowed from his sister, he mouthed Sugababes’ “Wear My Kiss” to victory. It led to a regular Friday night gig and ultimately a role as entertainment manager – all while he was still a tender, inexperienced 18 year old.
“I had no idea how to do this, had no idea how to choreograph a show, had no idea how to produce a show.”
The first two years were hell; there was a lot of pressure and an overwhelming amount of work, physically, mentally and creatively. It was exhausting and Collins knew he had to make a decision: quite or go full throttle.
“You have to accept the place you’re in and do the best with the opportunities you’re given.” So, he turned a chore into a business opportunity.
The show became a huge success, as did Hannah Conda. Collins’ ambition needed more room to uncoil than Perth would allow, so he packed his wigs and moved to Sydney.
It was already a familiar landscape for Collins as he had been coming to Sydney for Mardi Gras and Diva Awards for a number of years. He was able to transfer with his day job at Sunglasses Hut, giving him some financial stability while he established himself. And that he did, digging his stiletto heels deep and gaining cred as one of the city’s most popular and successful drag queens.
Goodbye Sunglasses Hut and hello regular paid work as a hostess, performer, speaker, and storytime reader.
Collins could secure solid bookings six nights a week, plus various daytime and one-off gigs. It was rewarding but also grueling. Apart from the stamina required to don high heels, a voluminous dress, a wig the size of a small mammal, and eyelashes so big they created a draft with every blink, there was also the business aspect. You have to constantly come up with new creative ideas, promote, negotiate, and keep building your brand.
“[You] have to invest your money in the right places in terms of getting the right costumes and look. Because you’re building your arsenal. All your costumes and wigs and everything, that’s your weaponry. And you prepare to get out into the big wide world and that’s where the war is.”
That war analogy was auspicious, given the unexpected and challenging circumstances the world is currently experiencing.
People in the creative arts industry and many other fields who have been impacted by the coronavirus shutdowns are already using resourcefulness and imagination to find new ways to continue.
“You need to be crafty and understand that when one door closes, the other one will open, and if it doesn’t you pry it open and make your own opportunities,” says Collins.
Hannah Conda, along with sisters who are part of Sydney Drag Royalty, have planned a series of activities including live streaming events, workshops, and merchandise sales, becoming part of a new wave online economy.
Collins is not about to let some ol’ virus dampen his determination.
“One of my goals is just to leave a positive stamp on the world for myself. And I feel like elevating drag to a higher level, be that via television, or social media, or whatever it is…I just wanna keep spreading love and kindness.”