When Claire Gates started picking up bars in college, she always left the shows wishing she had been born a boy. With her background in acting, she knew quirky performances and lip-synching would be no problem for a performer like her, but the idea that girls didn’t do drag held her back.
It wasn’t until she began to discover dozens of other cisgender women and people designated female at birth (AFAB) trolling on social media that she decided enough was enough. to stay seated away from the shows. She was ready to take center stage as drag queen Sweet Pickles.
Like many other AFAB performers, Gates knew she had to make her drag unique or risk not achieving the same level of illusion that her male peers display in wigs and heels. “I didn’t want to come across as a woman or even as a human being,” says Sweet Pickles. “I wanted to look like a walking art project. So I ended up stumbling upon making my wigs out of unconventional materials. Yarn is not expensive, especially if you have a loyalty card.
From gift-wrapping ribbons to yarn and rubber toys, Gates has proven its prowess in creating wigs from aisle clearance items for nearly four years. Her weird and whimsical style with explosions of color and a multitude of silhouettes could be described as a technicolor troll doll.
“I like to say to people, ‘Think about your favorite doll you had when you were a kid. Well, she grew up to be a whore,’ explains Sweet Pickles. “I’m your favorite cartoon that came to life and took a bunch of molly [MDMA].”
Gates credits the delicious craze of early 2000s children’s entertainment with inspiring the Sweet Pickles style. Its streak name, however, actually derives from a series of 1980s children’s books about lovable animals that get into silly situations, or “pickles,” and learn a lesson.
Growing up, Gates’ father gave her and her sister nicknames and alter egos to play. When she was looking for a drag name, one of those nicknames stuck with her: Sweet Pickles. It wasn’t until later that she heard about the series of books that inspired her father’s nickname.
Consciously or not, the success of Sweet Pickles often relies on the memories of the collective unconscious of our culture.
“I play along to a lot of throwbacks and songs that I was listening to on my iPod Nano on the college bus ride,” Gates says. “I love tapping into that nostalgia and that part of people’s brains where they store all the things they love but haven’t thought of in a while – and then add a twist.”
Many of Sweet Pickles’ best looks pillage the cultural cache of Millennial and Gen Z childhoods to deliver top-notch drag. Characters ranging from secretary to slugs Roz in “Monsters, Inc.” to Cynthia, the almost bald doll of the “Rugrats”, are likely to appear in a performance. Gates once dressed up as “Finding Nemo” brat Darla and performed a suite of shake-themed songs with a clownfish doll submerged in a plastic bag of fish from Petsmart. During a performance as Sid of “Toy Story”, she nearly burned down her apartment by setting Buzz Lightyear on fire with a hairspray can and a lighter.
These iconic performances turned Sweet Pickles into something of an online sensation. Unable to perform in person during the dark days of the pandemic, Gates turned to the internet to continue honing her craft. With nearly 38,000 followers on Instagram and more than 46,000 followers on TikTok, Sweet Pickles is by far Richmond’s most famous queen. Despite its high number of subscribers, neither platform really pays the bills. As is the case with most drag queens, Sweet Pickles’ in-person performances are what earn her the most money.
On the third Monday of every month, you can find Sweet Pickles leading their own show, “Out of the Jar,” in Fallout. With a theme that Gates describes as “whatever makes you happy,” performances can range from Layla Monroe’s eight-minute System of a Down dancefloor destruction to Chicki Parm doing pull-ups from the rafters to Dua Lipa.
Sweet Pickles’ second show will launch next month at Fuzzy Cactus on May 10th. The name of the show originated from an autocorrect error by Northside’s Grace Wetpants when the title of her monthly show – “What If The Theme Was Sluts?” – accidentally became “What if the theme was slots?” Although the entire cast is now non-binary with the exception of Sweet Pickles, next month’s premier will be Richmond’s first AFAB drag show. If audience participation is good, the show can become a series regular.
As one of the few full-time drag queens in town, Sweet Pickles lives off the financial support of her many fans. Although money or tips via Venmo are preferred, her fans have been known to throw yarn at her midriff as a show of support.
“It takes several bundles to make my wigs,” says Gates. “So if you bring me wool, you’ll have to bring me some. Don’t come to my shows or throw me a bundle of beige or gray yarn. Give me these fun colors of Sweet Pickles.