In NerdWallet’s Money/Makers Q&A series, we talk with innovators and artists about their money moves. The lessons they learned along the way can help other career-builders succeed.
Chicago-based drag artist Shea Couleé, who made it to the finals of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” has navigated money struggles including chipping away at student loans.
Drag artists can become the epitome of high glamour — sequins down to the floor, fake lashes flaring around a contoured face, adoring fans raining dollar bills down upon them on stage — but they don’t often start that way.
Like anyone hustling to realize career ambitions, performers’ scrappy beginnings come with financial challenges and life lessons.
“Even now, even with the success I’ve had financially, I would say that my cost of living has only gone up about $600 a month over the past few years,”
Many drag queens start by crafting together gowns with hot glue, or just throwing on the best Party City has to offer. The hours performing at clubs are often long and late, with little cash to show for it. Passion for the art of illusion and gender performance is enough to keep many going.
But the rewards can be fabulous for those who make it big. Win some drag pageants or land on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” and you can earn thousands of dollars for a single gig.
Chicago-based drag artist Shea Couleé has lived that journey. Starting out, she’d sometimes make $60 a night, but making it to the finals of “Drag Race” helped lift her into the big leagues. She now travels the world performing and boasts over 800,000 followers on Instagram. Along the way, she navigated money struggles: bargaining for more money from nightclubs, cutting deals with costume designers, firing a longtime manager and chipping away at student loans.
Couleé recently talked with NerdWallet about managing money while building a career. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What sort of money education did you get growing up?
Couleé: The majority of my money education came from my parents. My parents were the product of their parents, who had lived through the Great Depression. Even though my parents had good jobs, they were still extremely frugal people and they believed a dollar saved isn’t a dollar spent.
Growing up, there was always a lot of emphasis on trying to save a buck, be smart, save energy, turn the lights off when you leave the room, don’t leave the water running. They wanted me to learn how to be smart with money, but also just to be conscious about how to not be wasteful.
Q: How did that translate to your early career?
I had to be really resourceful. And I have to attribute some of this to what I learned while in school at Columbia College in Chicago for theater costume design.
For the first few years in the program when we would be doing student shows, the student shows were given a budget of $100, which is absolutely nothing. I really had to be as clever as possible.
Shea Couleé, center, at New York Fashion Week, Sept. 7, 2019.
When I got into drag, I really did have to apply that same sensibility of just how to save a dollar. In the early parts of my career, I would always set a budget for myself for about $30 for a look. Because oftentimes I was maybe only making $60 per gig, and so I would think back to something my mom said which was, “Try to never spend more than half of what you’re making.”
Q: How do you manage your money? Monthly budgeting? A financial planner? A mattress full of cash?
I obviously look at what I need to cover my necessary monthly expenses — rent, utilities, phone, travel — and I make sure that what I’m bringing in is at least two to three times that, so I always have some left over.
But I’ve stayed frugal. Even now, even with the success I’ve had financially, I would say that my cost of living has only gone up about $600 a month over the past few years.
I’m in a bigger apartment, but still in Chicago. I wanted to make sure it was still cheap. Tons of girls, after the season [of “RuPaul’s”] ends and they start getting more gigs, they run out and start paying $3,000 a month for rent.
My thinking was, why spend more? I’m comfortable, my space is fine, I liked where I lived. So there was no reason for me to all of a sudden spend more, because I have student loans that I have to pay off. I used the money I was making after being on the show as an opportunity to take a big chunk out of my student loans.
NerdWallet tip: The 50/30/20 budget is an easy way to sort your money by breaking out what you’ll spend on needs, wants, and savings and debt payments.
Q: What is your student loan situation like?
Well, when I took them out, I was so young, I was 18 years old, and I didn’t quite understand what I was doing. My mom always told me to make sure I was getting a fixed interest rate.
Well, that didn’t happen. I have one loan with a variable interest rate, and the interest on that has continually gone up over and over, even though I’ve never defaulted.
NerdWallet tip: While you’ll typically need good credit to qualify, refinancing private student loans can help you save money.
Q: What do you wish you knew about managing money when you first started?
One thing that I’ve realized is that it’s important to ask other people how much they’re getting paid. Because sometimes you’ll find that there are discrepancies there.
I think it’s really important to have transparency on this, always, always. Because I want to make sure that I’m not getting the short end of the deal and that I’m being paid fairly in comparison to the other people.
Q: How do you get paid for gigs?
When it comes to the breakdown of how payouts are done for gigs and appearances, my boyfriend, Dan, who manages me, will go through the contract, and we keep them pretty tight in scope. We have a time frame when we have to have a 50% deposit. So we have that in the calendar. And then on the day of the gig, that’s when the remainder of the balance is due.
With payment, I tend to get the 50% deposit electronically then the other 50% paid in cash from the nightclub. I keep the 50% deposit, put that into my business checking, and then the second half of the balance goes into my own personal account. As drag queens, we make tips during our performances … so I keep those all tallied up and save them for a rainy day.
Q: How do you or club promoters think about what you as a performer are worth? Here I’m thinking about things like your talent, reputation, the quality of your costumes, all of that.
One thing that’s really important to promoters is your social media following. Those numbers speak to volume, those numbers equate money. When we promote the event on social media, that’s more people that hear about it and for them, that’s a larger chance that they’ll get more butts in the club.
Another thing that I consider is talent level. What kind of a performer am I compared to other people who I may be in the show with? There are some queens who are more visual queens — but maybe they don’t have a history of performance like I do. … So it does affect what we decide to ask for.
Q: What is a unique money challenge that you have faced in your career as a professional drag queen?
Probably how much I invest in costumes.
I’m in a unique position where I have a following and a platform that allows me to work a lot and get a lot more money than I used to. And that allows me to invest more into my drag wardrobe, which is really important because drag is a very visual art form.
But what I’ve discovered is that a lot of designers assume that we drag queens don’t know much about the basic cost of making a garment, so a lot of times they want to overcharge. However, my background being in costume design, I know how much on the market silk is by the yard. I know how much taffeta is by the yard. I make sure to ask for itemized receipts.
And if I’m spending money on a costume, I think of that costume as a way that I can bring in income, because I wear that during a number and that’s how I get paid. I do the math and think, “If I wear this costume this many times, then it’s already paid for because of how much money I’ve made on this costume.”
Then when it gets to a point — because we’re all on social media and people always see what we’re wearing — where I can’t wear a costume anymore I’ll resell it to another drag queen. That brings in money I can then invest into the next costume.
NerdWallet tip: Selling unwanted clothes and household items online can be a fast and easy way to make some extra cash.
Q: What is the most expensive garment you own?
I would say the most expensive garment I have is this larger than life duster inspired by one Bob Mackey had made for Donna Summer. There are maybe about 100 yards of ostrich feathers in an ombre from white to light blue to cerulean at the bottom. I would say that, including labor and materials, that duster is probably worth about $2,800.
Q: What’s something about managing money that’s gotten easier over time?
One thing that has gotten easier has been just asking for financial favors. Costumes are a good example of this.
Sometimes I’ll talk with designers and they’ll quote me something expensive and I’ll say, “OK, here’s what we’ll do. I will pay this full amount, if you would like — but if I do pay the full amount, there will be no credit given on social media. But if you cut me a deal and you take some of this money off, then I will credit you on social media and that’s advertising for you to my 800,000 followers.”
Q: What’s something that’s gotten harder?
I think one thing that has gotten more challenging over time has been to manage all of the different outlets, invoices — and make sure that my money is going exactly where it needs to go.
[Having to fire a manager] taught me to be more hands-on with managing my accounts and what’s going where. But actually taking back control of all that from him and managing in house with my boyfriend has made it a lot easier.
NerdWallet tip: Managing taxes as a contractor or freelancer can be a pain. But you have options to make it less of a hassle.
Q: If you could impart one money lesson to your fans, what would your advice be?
Know your worth — and charge double.
We as queer people need to look out for our wallets, because it’s very common that people will take advantage of us. It’s really important for us to say, “This is how much I deserved to be paid.”
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Sean Pyles is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @SeanPyles.