during the big lockdown, people turned to the arts for comfort. But for those creators used to entertaining live audiences, how did they express their creativity? And how did other creatives not let that wave of sadness that the pandemic brought stifle their imaginations?
An episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (‘Metalhead’ - the one set after a catastrophic future event, where robotic dogs are ravaging society) might not seem like the obvious reference point for a drag queen photoshoot, but for photographer Babs Daly it felt correct.
After all, Babs was shooting Veda in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic, and an apocalyptic aesthetic proved to be a timely source of inspiration. “The shoot happened towards the end of lockdown, and I wanted to pay tribute to the fact that the world felt like it was ending. I saw that there was this garage near Islandbridge that was abandoned, and we decided to head there. We shot it to make it look like there was no one else around.”
Babs looks back on the portraits with an enormous sense of pride: “They make me feel how I felt at the time.”
Babs’ photos of Veda were part of a series of drag portraits taken in the summer of 2020. When the restrictions were first imposed, Babs asked herself, “Well what can I do? How can I make something out of this really strange situation?”
As it turned out, the answer was (literally) just around the corner: “I’m in a lucky position where I have these incredible neighbours who are drag queens. When I saw that the girls were doing drag shows from home, I thought why not do a shoot?”
Joining Veda for their own safe and socially distant photoshoot was drag queen Victoria Secret. Babs shot Victoria quite regularly throughout lockdown, at a time when Dublin’s streets were empty, and morale was generally quite low. “I wanted to create something completely different. I thought that a drag queen photoshoot would be a nice breath of fresh air.”
The photographer’s instincts were correct, and as they shared the pictures on Instagram, the positive support from the online community started rolling in. “The feedback I got has been so lovely. People got in touch and told me how they looked forward to the weekly updates on Instagram, which is great.”
Babs talks about photography the same way anyone else might talk about breathing air. It’s something she cannot go without. Taking a break from it simply wasn’t an option - the only thing she could do was adapt. Moreover, this passion fuelled her throughout lockdown, as she continued to create art in creative and safe ways: “Had I not been able to take photos during lockdown, it would have been a very different story.
When I talk to Veda, she recalls how the arrival of COVID-19 to Irish shores caused her to stop and reflect on how lucky she truly is. “My club and my performance just didn’t seem hugely important in the bigger picture. I just felt really lucky to have what I have, and that my family are okay.”
What followed was a long period of self-reflection. “For the first time in over 20 years, I took a break from drag. I’m genuinely passionate about drag. It’s what I live for. But when you take Veda out of the picture, Enda has a chance to step up.”
With the world on lockdown, Veda was able to explore her identity on a deeper level, and the photoshoot captured that exploration. “The idea was to do something that was more me - Enda - as opposed to it being about Veda. It was more about the things I love and wear, that aren’t necessarily costumes.”
While the pandemic offered a much-needed break from drag, within a month, the queen was eager to perform again. Their iconic night - Witchy Wednesdays - saw a rebirth on Instagram Live, and with it, a chance to reconnect with fellow performers, as well as those tuning in. “(Before the pandemic) we connected with our supporters through the show, and it felt kind of sad to let that connection go, especially at a time when people are feeling vulnerable and isolated.” And so, Veda adapted to new circumstances and Instagram Witchy Wednesdays became a staple for many. “I really appreciated the diversity in the people watching. It was a place where we could all come together.”
As restrictions eased, Veda went back to performing live, delivering cabaret nights at Opium in a new, socially distanced way. “It was a little bit stressful at the start, having to adjust to this new reality, but I don’t want to take any risks at all. Nobody does.”
While the reopening of queer spaces in Ireland remains up in the air, Veda takes things as they come. She remains cautiously optimistic about the return of live performances, adding that the key is take things week by week: “Right now,” she tells me, “it’s all we can do.”
Veda wears designs by Adam Entwisle at Human Error Store, Hastings. Mask by Cyane Kingston.
“It was the weirdest feeling of relief. In every imagining of how my drag career could come to a halt, I never contemplated a pandemic.”
In early March 2019, Victoria Secret had over 80 gigs in the pipeline. Within the space of 24 hours, the world went on lockdown and COVID-19 restrictions saw that number dwindle to zero. Her first instinct wasn’t to think of her imminent loss of income, but something else. “I was nervous about having that much free time. I don’t do well without structure. I love work.”
Not one to wait around, she shifted her focus to Petty Little Things, the podcast she hosts with Davina Devine. They decided to take it to the next level, and host a live podcast, and they knew exactly how to get their fans to tune in: celebrity gossip. “We told listeners that we’d share things on the show that they couldn’t hear on the regular podcast or anywhere else - and it worked! God bless Irish people for being nosy.”
Fresh off the success of Petty Little Things live, the queens decided to host a pageant - Queen Of Captivity -where up and coming performers could compete from their own homes. “It all happened very accidentally. There was no major plan to do 15 weeks on the trot. Week by week, it was a case of asking ’what’s next’?”
The pageant culminated in a grand finale, where the winner scooped up a cash prize of €1,000. As well as giving drag artists a chance to compete and showcase their work, the live shows offered something of a lifeline to the LGBT+ community, with viewers from up and down the country tuning in week after week to connect during an otherwise frightening and challenging time.
Victoria punctuated quarantine with podcast recordings, corporate Zoom gigs, and a considerable amount of technical up-skilling to rise to the challenge of online shows. Crucially, the summer of 2020 saw Victoria do something rare: take time for herself. For the first time in a long time, the queen came off work-mode.
As Dublin’s nightlife makes a slow and cautious return, Victoria looks forward, but with a sense of trepidation. “I’m nervous! I spent the last six months in runners in my sitting room. Half the time I didn’t have to tuck.”
As her first few gigs approach, Victoria embraces the challenge of adapting to a new reality: “Everyone now has to learn how to enjoy shows in a thoughtful, careful way. But they’ll still be able to enjoy themselves as well.”
"I was nervous about having that much free time. I don’t do well without structure. I love work.”