Being a hairdresser by day and drag queen performer by night has left Bernard Buys with little to no income for almost five months now.
While grooming and beauty services have since resumed as part of updated lockdown regulations, Buys has not seen an influx of clientele as people still fear that the close contact required during these appointments poses a Covid-19 risk. “It’s affected my income immensely.”
But Buys’s real love is performing for a live audience, something which has been banned in its entirety since mid-March – and there is still growing uncertainty over when the entertainment and nightlife industry will be allowed to fully operate again.
Buys, whose stage name is Betty Bangles, grew accustomed to pulling in crowds of people from all walks of life at least three times a week when he took to the stage at Beefcakes, a popular restaurant and party venue.
With premises in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Pretoria, the establishment used to host birthdays, bachelorette and divorce parties, or even just a fun night out, where sexy waiters would serve meals and beverages while the crowd was entertained by world-class drag acts.
The venue was deemed safe for women and welcoming to the LGBTQ+ community. “I went from three shows a week to nothing,” said Buys. “I miss live audiences so much, I miss the adrenaline and the smile on people’s faces, knowing that I put it there,” said the popular drag queen performer.
The Johannesburg branch that Buys works at is nestled in the cosmopolitan and trendy suburb of Illovo in Sandton and formed part of the City of Gold’s growing party and entertainment scene.
“Joburg had such a fantastic entertainment scene prior to lockdown. We had it all, from clubs, theatres, movies and drag shows to live concerts. Now all those people sit without work.”
While putting her passion on hold for the foreseeable future pains Buys, the financial aspect of not being able to perform at Beefcakes for the foreseeable future has hit the drag queen and colleagues the hardest.
Buys explained that while people could still enjoy the venue’s diner-style meals, including gourmet burgers and onion rings, lockdown regulations had drastically altered their operations.
“Beefcakes is a party venue and because of the liquor ban and the curfew, we can’t operate as usual. Everyone is stressed.” Buys said that while some Beefcakes kitchen staff were able to receive UIF Ters payments as part of the country’s Covid-19 financial relief packages, artists and waiters were freelance workers and not subject to the same benefits of a full-time worker.
In a bid to provide economic relief to all Beefcakes staff and to keep those who are hungry for entertainment satisfied, those at the 1950s-style theatre restaurant have joined forces to raise funds which will be shared among the performers, waiters and cleaning staff.
Buys, as well as her drag queen colleagues LouLou Blu, Charne Churchill, Holly Diamond and Kitana K, will perform in a recorded show, Drag Extravaganza Act 1, which will be available to watch online from the end of the month.
The hour-long drag concert features impersonations of the likes of Celine Dion, Erykah Badu, Tina Turner, Diana Ross and Liza Minnelli.
“We tried to capture as much of the Beefcakes experience in the show as possible and still keep it family friendly, so the whole family can enjoy it together.
“You can lie in bed and watch or you can move some furniture around and sing and dance with us.” Fellow drag queen performer Robin McBroom, whose stage name is LouLou Blu, will also make an appearance on the digital drag show.
“Full glam awaits,” warned McBroom. “Expect high drama, escapism, great music and quite frankly, more sequins than one could ever hope for.”
McBroom added that since the online show was suitable for all ages, it would give parents an opportunity to educate their children about the musical legends of yesteryear and could be a source of relief during these unprecedented times.
“This is family entertainment, so it may be a good time for parents to educate their kids on this amazing art form that is growing every day.
“It’s also a break from the monotonous, from the stresses we are experiencing as a result of the pandemic. It’s light-hearted and fun and it’s convenient to watch a beautiful show in the comfort and safety of your home.”
Beefcakes owners Roberto and Adolf Del Gallo are proud of their drag queens’ initiative and believe the funds raised will go a long way to help their financially distressed staff.
“We think the online show is a fantastic idea to support all our staff in these trying times,” they said. “Not only will it help the staff and their families, but it will also attract new patrons to visit Beefcakes in the future.”
While this show will put the destination venue in the spotlight, the duo are still eagerly awaiting the day they can fully resume their operations. They were not prepared for the Covid-19 lockdown to last as long as it has and were already somewhat shocked to hear about the initial countrywide shutdown in March.
“We bought the business in October last year and we were doing well, paying off loans and covering expenses, but fast-forward five months, the announcement was made for a national curfew.
“We were fully booked in all three branches for the month of March and 50% booked for April. “Refunds were processed, and then the stress and anxiety set in.
“We and the rest of the country thought that the national lockdown would only last three weeks, and once the 21 days were up, we had plans in place to have the Beefcakes experience during the day, if the curfew would stay in place.”
Despite these challenges, the Beefcakes owners are optimistic about being able to one day function as normal. “I honestly believe the entertainment industry will adapt to changes, and once the Covid-19 pandemic is over, people will go out in their numbers to support their local artists, restaurants, bars and local establishments.
“We need to support each other in these trying times, we will get there. “Today is one day closer to the pandemic being a thing of the past.”
Tickets for Drag Extravaganza Act 1 cost R65 a person and are available via TixSA
The Saturday Star