Six drag queens take the stage at Señor Frog’s in Times Square every Sunday.
One sparkles when walking, wearing a long purple gown whose sleeves are studded with rhinestones. She slowly struts toward the crowd and gracefully extends her arms as audience members hand her dollar bills. Another is clad in long silver boots and an exotic-print black-and-white coat with a glitter hem. She sits onstage and does the splits. Patrons scream.
The last drag queen, named Sugga Pie Koko, is plus-size, wearing a dress emblazoned with hot dogs wearing black sneakers, and toting a large purse. She casually walks past the stage, lip syncing “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” the “Dreamgirls” show-stopper. She grabs a wine bottle out of her bag and takes a gulp. She walks into the crowd, sips from someone’s drink and snatches a few fries. People hand her bills, which she holds up to the light as if to see if they’re real. The crowd laughs and claps. When the song ends, she flings her wig into the audience as people stuff money into her purse.
“I don’t have to have the glitz,” said David Burgess, 44, the man behind Sugga Pie Koko. “I don’t have to have the glamor. I don’t have to have the sparkly dress. I can go just based on talent.”
Sugga (pronounced “Shuggah”) Pie Koko is a character the drag community calls “campy,” or comedic. Mr. Burgess goes for the laughs; his outfits might include dresses with Coca-Cola or Mr. Goodbar themes. A lot of the comedy, he said, plays off his weight.
“I’m a big girl, but I can do a split, I can do kicks and all that stuff, but it’s just I play on me being big,” he said. “I’m trying to let you know that it’s okay if you’re not the best dressed. You can still make it, and with this character, I must say, I have made it full time.”
Mr. Burgess, who has been a professional drag queen for 16 years, said he got the idea for Sugga Pie Koko after participating in a drag pageant that didn’t turn out as he expected, despite his rhinestone-studded dress, earrings and “beautiful heels.” When he took the stage, people laughed. But since drag has no written rules, he said, he quickly took a new approach.
“I said ‘You know what, let me turn this whole thing around,’” he said. “They want something to laugh about. I’m giving them something to laugh about.”
Now he works at least four times a week, performing at private events and making club appearances. He has a regular gig at Señor Frog’s drag brunch every Sunday, and he hosts at Loft 142, a Harlem club with drag events, on Mondays. He said the Loft is one of the few clubs in Harlem that hosts drag events, but the scene has since expanded outside the neighborhood.
“I could think of a couple of places, like one or two places, for drag shows in Harlem, but that’s about it,” Mr. Burgess said. “Drag shows are not just stuck in one area. They could be anywhere these days.”
He said drag queens can earn anywhere from $25 to $1000 per show, though in New York they are paid somewhere between $50 to $250, not including tips. He said he has saved $4,000 since January from tips alone. His drag-queen work has been his only employment since he went full time in 2001.
“In order for me to make money, I can’t go as David,” he said. “In order for me to make money, I have to go as Sugga Pie. David is a very quiet person. David keeps to himself. Sugga Pie is outgoing, she’s just fun. She pays the bills. David is lazy. David doesn’t work.”
Rebeca Mejia, the manager of Señor Frog’s, said the tourist-friendly restaurant’s partnership with the drag events’ promoter has proved so successful that similar drag shows are now held at the chain’s Miami and Las Vegas locations.
“Our revenue has been better than before,” she said. “We’re not closed for any opportunity to increase our sales.”
And Sugga Pie Koko? “She is something,” Ms. Mejia said. “If she wasn’t in the show, it would be a little bit more serious. But with her, she just makes everybody laugh.”
Mr. Burgess said he identifies as a gay man, and that his family has always accepted him. In fact, he said, his grandmother was his biggest fan before she died in 2006. He attributes his family’s acceptance to a late uncle who was transgender and “opened the doors for everything.”
His cousin, Michelle Brown, said their grandmother embraced his career choices.
“Granny was one of his champion supporters to the day she passed,” she said. “He would be practicing and she would give him certain things she had in her wardrobe.”
She said their Uncle Tony, who “didn’t let anybody tell him how he should be,” had already helped the family welcome the lifestyle Mr. Burgess chose.
“I’m a working drag queen,” he said. “I dress up as a woman, I do a show, and then I take it off. I never felt like I was a woman. I never felt like I was trapped in the wrong body. I’m a guy that is gay, that does drag for a living.”