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Backstage pass: Airbnb offers SF drag queen ‘experience’

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Bartenders mix drinks behind the counter at Beaux nightclub in the Castro District, one of the many stops along drag queen Carnie Asada’s Airbnb “Experience.” (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Life as a drag queen ain’t easy.

There’s makeup to apply, beautifully. There’s a wig to primp, expertly.

And, importantly, an indisputable sense of humor and ease that helps a six-foot-tall sparkling queen in abnormally high pumps command a room, with style.

Shrugging off life’s worries to drink vodka-soda in fishnets is part of the experience local drag queen Carnie Asada brings to people from as far away as Singapore, or as close as Petaluma, in a relatively new tech “innovation” — the Airbnb Experience.

San Francisco-based Airbnb, a tech company known for disrupting hotels, quietly launched a product last year where people can pay to craft macarons with local chefs, or go on walking tours of historic neighborhoods, essentially serving as a go-between for offbeat guides and their customers. The activities don’t typically involve overnight stays.

One of those “experiences,” however, is led by a San Francisco Pride emcee, Asada, and as The City flies its rainbow flags proudly this weekend, is poised to show newcomers a peek behind the curtain in the life of one San Francisco drag queen.

“Maybe you want to meet the community and don’t know where to start — here’s where to start,” Asada told the San Francisco Examiner in a recent interview in the Castro.

For $150, drag queen Carnie Asada will give you a first-hand tour of San Francisco that includes a guided walk through the Castro, a spa day and a champagne brunch. (Courtesy Gooch)

She sat at the balcony of “The Lookout,” a longtime Castro District bar at the corner of 16th and Market streets and the location of her drag brunches, one of many stops along the way for her three-day, $150-per-person experience.

Asada, 30, whose birth name is Doran Rivera, originally hails from Maine and came to San Francisco in 2008 as an artist to attend the San Francisco Art Institute.

“I’m a dude, I’m a guy,” he said when asked which pronoun to use, as he sat makeup-less in a spiked leather jacket and hat on a recent Wednesday. But once the wig is on, the pronoun becomes “she.”

(Editor’s note: Though the Examiner interviewed Rivera outside of the Carnie Asada persona, they will be referred to using the pronoun “she.”)

Doran Rivera, who performs as drag queen Carnie Asada, lounges on a couch at Beaux nightclub. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

One night while working in the tech world, Asada decided to don drag and do a show as a party joke.
“That night I got my first show, somebody offered me a performance spot,” Asada said. “I said, ‘It’s kind of a joke, it’s not my thing.’”

But perform she did, at Aunt Charlie’s in the Tenderloin, at its famous Dream Queen Revue show.

“People showed up,” Asada said with an air of surprise. She’s been performing ever since.

Now, through Airbnb, she can bring people into her world. A look at the itinerary shows a whirlwind tour: Day one is a guided Castro walk, drinks and a dance party; day two is pampering at a local spa and a rooftop sunset with champagne, and day three is a “stylish drag queen brunch” and champagne.

Asada said she’s led the “experience” with about 60 people since late last year. Each guest nets their own drag name, and Asada dresses them up with flourishes from her special “drag chest.”

At the Lookout, the “experience” with Asada is not only about attending a show. People wielding drinks frequently lean over to give her a kiss, or wave hello as they walk by. At nearby bar Beaux, another stop on the tour, Asada can’t walk five feet under multicolored lights without running into someone she knows.

To spend time with her through Airbnb, then, isn’t just a performance — it’s a “backstage pass” to an entire community.

“You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in dragology to do this,” Asada said. Still, there’s a delicate balance she tries to strike to ensure the tour is about authentically experiencing parts of the Castro. A lot of that comes down to how many people come along for the ride, she said.

“If you exceed more than six people, it’s not an experience, it’s a field trip,” she said. “I don’t want it to feel artificial because it’s not.”

Artificial or not, the “experience” as a cultural tour may be somewhat controversial. Airbnb has had a dicey relationship with San Francisco, and has been accused of evading taxes, as well as serving as an enticing carrot for landlords to evict tenants, who stand to make more money renting from Airbnb than from a monthly renter.

The Airbnb Experience — particularly ones that involve aspects of the LGBT community — has drawn criticism for financially capitalizing on a community without actually supporting it. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Former Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, also a former comrade of the late Supervisor Harvey Milk, drew comparisons with the frequent complaints that tech was “taking over” the SF Pride parade at the expense of longtime San Franciscans.

“It seems to be endemic to the gay march, and the criticisms of the corporatization,” he said. “Does everything have to be monetized?”

He also worried it was a way for Airbnb to show it supports the LGBT community in name only, without taking care of LGBT members who may suffer from evictions. “It’s lipstick on a pig.”

“Not the drag queen — we honor her,” Ammiano clarified. “The corporation is the pig.”

Airbnb was not immediately available for comment.

Not all politicians who have expressed criticisms of Airbnb shared that sentiment. Former Supervisor David Campos said, “Let’s just have responsible rules to regulate [Airbnb]. But good for Carnie Asada, if she’s making money off of that, good for her.”

Sister Roma, a fellow drag queen and member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, told the Examiner, “Why not? I think it’s fun. Drag is bigger than ever. People want the real authentic experience.”

For Asada’s part, she said the experience is about more than making a buck.

“Don’t get me wrong. I love money,” she said. “But I’m not buying a Ferrari tomorrow.”

Instead, she said, she hopes to reach people’s hearts and minds. She recalled one young woman from Singapore who stayed with her. This woman, Asada said, wasn’t allowed by her “strict” parents to enjoy drag — but secretly, she was a “drag hoarder” at home, and snuck views of the TV show “RuPaul’s Drag Race” when she wouldn’t be caught.

The young woman told Carnie that she was new to “an understanding” of drag, but was hopeful to learn more.

By the end of the experience, “she was in a big blue wig, eating fried food, drinking a vodka-soda and having the time of her life,” Asada said.

The girl lived out a dream — to be a drag queen, just for a day.

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