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What Happened To LA's Hot Donna's Clubhouse? In LGBTQ+ Spaces, A Tale Of Dreams, Ghosting And Change

A crowd of people, many femme presenting folks with medium and light skin tones, sit around a table as a person stands with their back to the camera to talk. The group is outside and smiling, and the tables are covered by umbrellas.
Attendees at a pole dancing night at The Virgil.
(Courtesy of Julia Kinkela)
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Where are all the lesbian bars? That question comes up often in discussions about LGBTQ+ spaces, because gay men’s bars are the lion’s share. There are only a handful of permanent places designed for lesbians and trans folks.

When Hot Donna’s Clubhouse, a startup intended for women and gender-expansive people, came on the scene two years ago, it seemed like it had a real shot at filling this dearth in Los Angeles County.

Its rotating events were incredibly popular, with hundreds, if not thousands attending them. You could dance at The Virgil for Pride, shop queer-owned and BIPOC vendors at a market in Elysian Park, or just lounge with your friends while watching a drag king show at Sorry Not Sorry in West L.A.

When I covered Hot Donna’s first pop-up event for Q Voice News in Pan Pacific Park in July 2021, more than 500 people showed up. Founder Lauren Richer told me: “We are fundraising so we can open a brick-and-mortar space. I just wanted to collect as many queer women and gender expansive people in one space because that’s the whole point of Hot Donna’s Clubhouse — to make a home for all the people who don’t have a home at the moment.”

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People were excited at her vision, with Richer planning to find investors and crowdsource funds. But then the events stopped, and Hot Donna’s Clubhouse went dark. Some speculated that Richer had disappeared with much of the money that had been raised (LAist was not able to verify this).

Many who put in their time volunteering and supporting the endeavor — and many who just wanted a space where they felt seen and safe — felt abandoned and betrayed. What happened?

I wanted to find out and began reaching out. While Richer did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls requesting an interview, I did speak to others at the center. This is what I’ve learned.

Why Hot Donna’s was so hot

A crowd of people close together indoors. In the center of the photo are two people with light skin tones hugging and smiling. The person facing the camera has blue-green hair, a rainbow wristband and their arm in the air.
A Hot Donna's drag brunch event at Sorry Not Sorry.
(Courtesy of Julia Kinkela)

Lauren Richer is a casting director who worked on TV series and movies, such as Succession and Ford v Ferrari, according to IMDb. Her LinkedIn profile says she was an events volunteer for the L.A. LGBT Center. Folks I interviewed said Richer was a newcomer, at least in the nightlife side of the LGBTQ+ events space.

Her dream for Hot Donna’s Clubhouse is what set it apart. Most LGBTQ+ events focus on gatherings in one-off spaces, but Richer wanted Hot Donna’s to eventually become a brick-and-mortar location. She was the main face of the Hot Donna’s brand, but people believed in her vision so strongly that they volunteered their time and labor.

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People knew she needed to raise cash to attract investors, so many happily donated money to help bring the vision into reality. Numerous volunteers ran more than a dozen dance nights, drag brunches, and other pop-ups to help build a following. Performers gave their time — some unpaid and others at a discounted rate — to make this dream a reality.

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One of the core folks behind the business was operations lead Angelica Castellanos, a first-generation Mexicana and lesbian. She was introduced to Richer through a mutual friend, a connection that made sense because of Castellanos’ experience in real estate and LGBTQ+ event planning in L.A. These kinds of gatherings, Castellanos said, have more significance in the community than people realize.

“I know to some people that they're probably just like, ‘Oh, it's just a bunch of parties, who cares?’'” Castellanos said. “Folks don’t understand. This is how we find our community, our group, our collective.”

I know to some people that they're probably just like, ‘Oh, it's just a bunch of parties, who cares?’ Folks don’t understand. This is how we find our community, our group, our collective.
— Angelica Castellanos, business operations lead for Hot Donna's Clubhouse

So when the prospect of partnering with Hot Donna’s came up, Castellanos was on board. But she was firm about one thing — while Richer was white, she wanted to make sure queer, transgender, Black, and Indigenous people of color, often marginalized even within the LGBTQ+ community, should be the focus at every turn. It worked — for the next year, the clubhouse’s events, performers and often parts of the clientele were full of folks from these communities.

To some extent, the events raked in cash. Their pop-up in the park brought in more than $20,000 and a GoFundMe raised more than $7,000 alone. But this is L.A. — startups need hundreds of thousands, if not more, to open a location.

Castellanos says they aimed to keep their cost of goods low.

“That way we were getting really great returns on the investment for the event,” Castellanos said. “We were hoping that money would be part of the nest egg to show to a landlord that we had not only an operating business, but that we already had cash reserves.”

How bridges get burned

In June 2022, when Hot Donna’s social media went dark for months, and no events were planned, concern started building.

Where was Richer? And where was all the money she’d raised? Rumors started swirling.

No one knew what was going on.

“Everyone kept questioning what was happening, and no one heard anything,” said Ignacio Daddy, one of Hot Donna’s regular drag king performers. “I texted [Richer] a couple times to check in and see if she was OK. And I have had no response. So, I was naive. I didn't realize it was happening.”

Before she disappeared, however, Richer had already left a trail of bad feelings.

A view of Ignacio in mid performance. They are a drag king with a medium skin tone, beard makeup and gold chains. They're in front of a smiling crowd of masculine and feminine people with light and medium skin tones.
Daddy performing at one of their shows.
(Courtesy of Ignacio Daddy)

First, there was some resentment. Hot Donna’s was the fresh kid on the block, getting a lot of attention. Some LGBTQ+ parties, especially ones geared for trans folks and people of color, had gone on for years without getting the kind of coverage it had been getting.

Parties like Gay Asstrology, which has just passed five years, and Dyke Day LA — an annual Pride event — now in its 15th year, and Them Fatale Drag Kings, going on five years. Even event producers like Anna Goodman have spent years building a community through blood, sweat and tears.

Castellanos had worked to build relationships between Hot Donna’s and these other long-standing events groups.

“I've talked to a lot of these folks and they were just like, ‘We really felt like the brand was trying to ride our coattails,’” Castellanos said. “I'm not gonna dismiss that at all … I wanted to share that and kind of bring all of these people that were creating space already back to the center.”

Some partnerships went well. Other attempts to collaborate, such as with Cuties L.A., didn’t pan out.

Castellanos says she’d have to mend fences because of how meetings for possible deals would go. Castellanos wouldn’t go into details, but Richer being a white person trying to connect with spaces for Black and brown people was an issue to some groups. The LGBTQ+ events space is a tight community, so when one bridge is burned, it can affect other relationships.

Then in January 2023, Lilly Brown, a popular L.A. content creator and co-founder of LGBTQ+ events group Queer Field Day, posted a video compiling what she knew about Hot Donna’s disappearance. According to her video, some folks said they were ghosted, while others were told the business wasn’t viable.

Brown was clear: Richer’s poor communication was hurting people. Many community members wanted to know where the money raised had gone — and what had been the outcome of all the time they’d spent volunteering.

After Brown’s TikTok called out Richer, the floodgates opened, and performers and event organizers reacted online.

Finally, on Jan. 10, a statement was posted on Hot Donna’s social media account, presumably helmed by Richer since the volunteers were gone. It apologized for the lack of communication and ensuing distrust.

“The truth is simply that the business model we built about the brick-and-mortar bar proved itself to not be viable,” the statement read. “... legally 100% of the funds were spent in attempts to make the business viable.”

What happened to the money?

Many past performers went on social media to share how they felt taken advantage of and the desire for transparency.

Drag king Ignacio Daddy was often part of the show and background of Hot Donna’s. They helped manage the calendar for Hot Donna’s website — time they willingly volunteered.

“I offered to help and then said that I would let [Richer] know if it was ever beyond my capacity,” Daddy said. “Some of the times we had to help set up because things were just falling behind.”

While the statement mentioned spending money to invest in talent, among other things, it’s unclear who or how much went to folks. Both Daddy and drag king Mauro Cuchi both say they were compensated about $50 for about five to six hours at an event.

“The community was footing the bill. The community was providing the tips. The community was showing up for us,” Cuchi said in their video, noting that they would be paid to perform two numbers.

None of the volunteers, including Castellanos, were privy to the overall profit numbers. So, the clubhouse’s final statement of “not being viable” is what folks are left with.

“I really do feel like it was taking advantage of a community that is historically marginalized and pushed to the fringes of society,” Cuchi said in an interview. “It was a consistent thing that we were doing, not just like a one-off pop-up event. And a lot of it came from the labor of Black and brown queer people too.”

While there’s the optics of a young, white-owned business saying it’s supporting marginalized communities, coming in and quietly leaving without much explanation, the reality paints a more complicated picture — one where Castellanos and other LGBTQ+ people of color were deeply involved, working behind the scenes to build an inclusive and permanent place.

Where Hot Donna’s volunteers are going next

A drag king with a medium skin tone stands on a stage holding a microphone. They have a cowboy hat on, a see-through top, and black cut off shorts. In the background is the sign for Hot Donna's Clubhouse.
Drag king Mauro Cuchi talks to a crowd at the Virgil.
(Courtesy of Julia Kinkela)

Before Hot Donna’s, Castellanos was the person in the background who’d help LGBTQ+ events find the right spaces. And after, that’s where her heart still is. She’s currently helping Fan Girl Cafe find a spot and just recently worked the door for Girls Gays & Theys.

“I'm hoping that we can heal and move forward together,” Castellanos said. “I really wanna be of service to this community still.”

Once Fan Girl Cafe opens, it will join a small list of women and trans-focused places creating space in L.A. The Ruby Fruit and Honey’s at Star Love (a residency for now) are two of the newest places in L.A. County that managed to make brick-and-mortar work. And maybe Lucky’s Lounge will return this year after its one-night sellout.

There’s plenty of standing clubs, gatherings, and sober events that folks can find in L.A. County. The Instagram account Being Queer in LA is one of the most comprehensive accounts to find things to do.

The drag king performers and DJs have moved on to other spaces, too. There’s Casa Cuchi (from Mauro Cuchi), who performs with a lineup of other drag kings at bars like Redline in downtown L.A.

Daddy performs regularly at Precinct in downtown where they can continue building their early drag career and meet other people who share the same interests.

“It’s kind of sad that it’s gone because there was nothing really like it,” Daddy said. “It was a good time.”

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