On September 11, at the most recent Creative Arts Emmys, RuPaul received his first Emmy, for Best Reality Show Host for RuPaul’s Drag Race. It was a moment of triumph for the world’s most successful and famous drag queen, endowing one of hiscatchphrases—”you better work”—with a double meaning: You better serve it on the runway, but to get paid the way Ru does, you better work really, really hard, too.
On the second season of Drag Race All-Stars, which is currently airing, queens like Alaska Thunderfuck 5000 and Alyssa Edwards compete for a prize of $100,000, an outrageous sum in an industry where most queens perform in bars for dollar bills. We asked four of them—an energetic young queen in Brooklyn, an American making a name for herself in Berlin, a San Francisco legend, and one of Mama Ru’s all-stars herself—how they graduated (or are trying to graduate) from amateur tips to professional wages. They spoke to the ways in which drag necessitates hustling to survive and establish one’s name—but even with financial success, at the end of the day, the will to perform comes from nowhere but the heart.