It is a Sunday in June, but on Sapphira Cristál’s work schedule, this is her “Friday” — a nonstop day of running around — vocal warm-ups, makeup, wigs, costumes, reuniting with a superfan, packed clubs, and tips through QR codes. But this is the life in the world of a drag queen.
She is preparing for her first full-capacity show in Philadelphia since the pandemic began, a drag brunch, at Fabrika, the Fishtown venue where Sapphira has performed in person since November under strict restrictions. The easing of COVID-19 regulations now means customers and employees in the entertainment industry are no longer required to use masks. There’s optimism for club owners. And there is steady work for Sapphira, 32, who has dazzled crowds in Rochester, N.Y., Boston, New York, Provincetown, Mass., and Philadelphia for 12 years. The Inquirer spent the day with Sapphira as her world reopened.
7:30 a.m.: Who is Sapphira?
Foundation bottles, fake eyelashes, face primers, and “I LOVE YOU” written in lipstick by her partner, Sloan MacDonald, cover Sapphira’s dresser where she prepares for a show day in her home on the border of Fairhill and Kensington.
Out of heels, she is 5-foot-11. She wears her skin proudly with no tattoos. “You don’t put a bumper sticker on a Ferrari,” Sapphira says as she transforms into her stage persona, a high-energy performer flawlessly belting opera or pop-tunes.
Sapphira identifies as nonbinary, using the pronouns she/her and he/him. For her Philly neighbors and family members, he is O’Neill Nichol Haynes, but she prefers to be referred by her drag name in most public situations. “I realized it [being nonbinary] when I didn’t want to be called someone’s ‘boyfriend’,” Sapphira says. “I wanted to be myself in and out of drag.”
“My mom calls me both O’Neill and Sapphira, but for my dad I’m just O’Neill,” she says as she finishes contouring her face. Sapphira’s mom has always supported her in everything she does. Her dad is proud of her, but had not seen her doing drag live ever — until May 22 in Atlantic City.
Sapphira’s dad trains UFC fighters in Texas, and she says he would have never imagined his child becoming a drag queen. However, after he came to see her do drag for the first time, she said he understood how much effort and strength it takes, and said he will always be proud of her.
Born and raised in Houston, Sapphira decided to head east for college, attending Eastman School of Music in Rochester, where she discovered drag and never looked back. She then transferred to Longy School of Music of Bard College in Cambridge, Mass. to study composition and opera, but could not finish her degrees due to anger-management issues that she later controlled with therapy.
She moved to Philly in 2014 with a now ex-partner and her following in the area has expanded.
In late 2019, Sapphira participated for the fourth year in the Miss’d America beauty pageant in Atlantic City and won the 2020 title (and, after COVID-19 restrictions began to ease, also the title for 2021) — one of her biggest achievements. “I would never have called myself a pageant queen, just a queen who does pageants,” she says, applying pink eye shadow on her lids.
She is not a morning person, but Sapphira gets ready — fueled by a smoothie and the notes of her gospel music playlist blasting from her Bluetooth speakers. “I was the only kid in my church choir,” she says, recalling her Sundays attending a Methodist Church “but really just a nondenominational Black church.” She is still religious — in her own way. She always gives 10% of her daily income to God and the church.
“I listened to this song a lot when I was homeless in Boston,” Sapphira says when “Thank You” by Benita Washington came up in her playlist. “Although I’ve been in hard situations, I’ve never been worried.” She says she thankfully was never forced to sleep on the streets, but she couch-surfed with friends a lot and found it very stressful.
Although she was able to host shows in Boston, Sapphira says she experienced many racial microaggressions. “They [other drag queens] accused me of theftery but I was like, ‘Sweetie, I went to music school. Do you know how expensive is that? I’m not stealing no one.’ ” She says that does not happen to her in Philly and admires how much more diversity there is here.
Once she finishes her makeup and warms up her voice for about two hours with gospel music, she rushes to get every wig, piece of clothing, shoe, and accessory ready and packed for Fabrika.
10:40 a.m.: Ready to go
“Bye, bye, Miss Thing,” she says to the street cat that sleeps on her porch as she and MacDonald haul all of her show luggage (one large suitcase and three bags) down the street. With full makeup and comfy clothing she walks two blocks to her grey Chevrolet van.
Sapphira performs at the Tropicana Casino and Hotel in Atlantic City on Saturdays and last night she got a flat tire on the way back. “I have good news and bad news: The good news is that tire now looks fine, the bad news is that my AC is not working,” she says. A van passes next and a passenger screams: “Get the … out of here.” Sapphira nonchalantly says: “You see? They love me here.”
Her first official show at full capacity and with no masks was in late May in Atlantic City. “That scared the hell out of me, actually. The mask mandates are gone, the capacity mandates are gone. It’s all gone,” she says. “And I was there hosting a show with 85 people over probably 90 people and not a big room. … But I put a rule in my shows to have a good time, so I chose to practice what I preach and have a good time. I didn’t choose to be scared. This is my job.”
11:45 a.m.: The Drag Stage
Sapphira is the first drag queen to arrive backstage at Fabrika and uses the time to begin getting ready for the Drag Brunch. To transform her hips and legs, she puts on her shaper wear, four pairs of tights, and one pair of fishnets. For her breasts, she has a stuffed bra.
Her first outfit is a blue dress with three skirts underneath for volume. She then puts on her first wig, tons of hairspray, and large glimmering earrings.
“We had approximately five weeks before the 17th of March, when the announcement was made that all restaurants are due to shut down,” said Michael Sobolewski, the head of operations of Fabrika. The shutdown gave the venue opportunities to reinvent the business model — it transformed from a cabaret to a dinner theater, Sobolewski said.
“When we had the 25% restriction, in the beginning, you couldn’t turn around anywhere without receiving hand sanitizer,” Sobolewski said of the winter and spring reopening of Fabrika. “... All the performers were stuck on the stage, they couldn’t interact with guests in any way, they had to wear face shields and masks, and we tried our best to make sure that every person who came in here felt comfortable and safe.”
When Sobolewski found out that Sunday’s show was sold out, he “backflipped,” he said. This is the first show to sell out at full capacity and the biggest drag show Fabrika has held. This is the first event where customers could shed their masks (except for heading to the restrooms), and there are no capacity restrictions.
2:04 p.m.: Showtime!
The Fabrika audience begins brunch and host Eric Jaffe, who last year suggested the club begin drag shows, soon appears in a multicolor zebra-print dress and wig. It’s showtime.
Tipping is a key part of drag and how the performers get most of their income. At Fabrika they are doing distance tipping, Jaffe explains, using a QR code to do it through Venmo or put cash directly in a cup at each table.
Four performances in (plus an introduction number featuring all the drag queens) Sapphira appears in a pink geisha outfit, singing “Tu, tu piccolo Iddio” from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Singing with her own voice, something rare in the drag world. The audience is speechless.
She transitions to a sped-up version of “Air Mail Special” by Ella Fitzgerald and reveals her second outfit, a pink two-piece with tassels. She tap dances on stage.
Sapphira receives a standing ovation. A first for Sunday’s show, and a ritual banned by previous COVID-19 restrictions.
After an intermission and presentations from other drag queens, Sapphira appears again. She’s in a long red dress, silver heels, and a black wig, and descends the stairs to the stage while “I Have Nothing” by Whitney Houston pounds through the speakers. The audience takes out their phones to record her and sing along. After a small pause, Sapphira looks straight at the crowd, stops lip-syncing, and impeccably begins singing the chorus of “I Will Always Love You.” The audience goes crazy, people scream. As she moves to sing other hits like “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and “How Will I Know?” the crowd begins dancing around the venue.
As soon as Sapphira completes the final act of “Lady Marmalade” with all the other drag queens, she leaves the stage and hugs superfan Debby Randolph, 72, who traveled to Philly by train to watch her perform for the first time since the pandemic began. It’s also her first drag show since the March 2020 shutdown.
Randolph met Sapphira in 2017 when she caught her show in New York City. “I was just struck by her presence and as soon as I saw her perform, I knew I had to see her again,” said Randolph, who lives in New York City’s Washington Heights, with her husband. Sapphira now considers Randolph part of her family.
“She’s an artist in a package that is not conventional,” Randolph says. “If Ella Fitzgerald came to life, she would not be able to dance and lip-sync her own songs as good as her.”
5:43 p.m.: Fully booked
Sapphira receives an unexpected call backstage booking her into another show later that night at the Level Up Bar & Lounge in Center City’s Gayborhood.
The Fabrika audience has left, but the drag queens remain, still counting tips and dividing them equally. All the performers have shed their makeup and outfits — except Sapphira. She keeps her makeup and earrings on, ready for the next show.
6:51 p.m.: Level Up
The Level Up stage is the hallway of the narrow bar. Most in the crowd are maskless, shoulder-to-shoulder, drinking.
“We took over the business seven days before the first shutdown, it was really hard,” says Ken Lowe Jr., one of the co-owners of Level Up. “We tried to still pay our staff while we were in the shutdown, and as soon as the city began being more flexible, we adjusted.” Now, Level Up is open seven days a week — without restrictions.
The audience at Level Up is predominantly Black, as are the drag queens. “This is one of the very few instances when I can perform with and just for my people,” Sapphira says.
7:45 p.m.: The show must go on
This is the hardest part of Sapphira’s day, saying goodbye to Randolph with a long hug, outside Level Up. But the show must go on.
Sapphira has three acts, and each brings a more dazzling outfit. She lip-syncs her songs instead of singing because “this is not the audience for that,” she says. Yet, that and the limited stage space did not prevent her from making her agile dance moves. The audience gives her tips directly — something that could not have happened before the restrictions. She first performs a mix of Cardi B, Rihanna, Missy Elliott and Beyoncé and closes her performance in a silver suit singing “Dreamin’” by Loleatta Holloway.
She finishes at 9:12 p.m. and divides the tips with the other drag queens. She then goes home to eat Wendy’s takeout and count her earnings for the day.
Tomorrow is Monday. Her weekend will begin. And she can finally rest.