Drag as an art form is a global phenomenon and worldwide industry. Queens are now celebrities, with shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race beamed into households across the world. But people with learning disabilities have remained largely shut out of the world of drag. Drag Syndrome—a new drag show featuring drag queens and kings, all of whom have Down’s syndrome—looks to change that.
In December 2017, choreographer Daniel Vais was working with Culture Device Dance Project, a contemporary dance company for dancers with Down’s syndrome. Culture Device had been invited to perform at LimeWharf, a creative space in East London. Vais brought Culture Device performer, actress Sarah Gordy—the first person with Down’s syndrome to be awarded an MBE by the Queen—down to check out the space. At it so happened, the space was hosting a party for drag queens at the time. “Sarah really enjoyed the drag performance,” Vais remembers, “so I asked her, ‘Would you like to try performing drag?’ She looked at me she said, ‘Yes!’”
In the UK, where Drag Syndrome is based, two babies are born every day with Down’s syndrome: 60,000 people currently live with the condition. They typically have learning disabilities, and certain distinctive physical characteristics such as below-average weight and height, and a flat back of head. People with Down’s syndrome are often under-represented in the arts: only around 4 percent of staff in the UK arts and museums workforce self-define as disabled, according to one 2017 report. “People look at people with Down’s syndrome as very angelic, very innocent, [and] very cute,” says Vais. “[They] don't really look for potential in them, or they don't really think, Oh, I wonder what this person with Down’s syndrome can achieve?"
He sees Drag Syndrome as a way to encourage arts organizations and performance troupes to “open up” to people with “learning disabilities, and include them.” But he’s adamant that Drag Syndrome isn’t a charitable project: this is drag it its purest form. “The starting point is the art...people see that actually, disability can be rock'n'roll and avant-garde and then they're accepting it.”
On March 29, Drag Syndrome held its first performance at vFd, an LGBTQ performance space in east London. The sold out show, which featured six performers, was billed as “London’s first ever underground drag event featuring performers, artists, and guests with Down’s Syndrome.” The energy in the room was high, and afterwards, Vais remembers, the performers ecstatic. “All the artists said, ‘we hope this isn’t the only one,’” he says. Since then, another four performers have joined the troupe.
“Drag builds confidence for everyone," says 31-year-old Otto Baxter, also known as Horrora Shebang. Baxter, who has Down's syndrome, is one of Drag Syndrome’s most promising stars. When he was young, Baxter watched Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and now he incorporates them into his routines. He’s even currently working to produce and direct a horror film of his own.
“I love everything about drag—choosing the music, getting ready, getting into character, trying out new moves, and experimenting with makeup,” Baxter tells me. He thinks that everyone should try drag at least once. “It's powerful! Don't let people put you down and tell you drag is only sexual. It's an art form, so be bold and try it for yourself.”
Initially, Vais picked out the music for each performer, but now they’re starting to pick out their own tracks. Drag Syndrome king Justin Bond, real name Ruby Codiroli, loves dancing to “Can’t Stop the Music” by Justin Timberlake. The 20-year-old Hertfordshire resident was first introduced to the art of drag through RuPaul’s Drag Race. When asked about how she approaches her performances, Born says that confidence is never a problem. “When I am on stage, I own it. It's mine! I am a king after all. I am never scared or nervous. I am super-focused.”
Traveling with Down’s syndrome performers is planning and resource-intensive, Vais explains, as people with the condition can become easily fatigued, and often have to be accompanied by carers. “It's like high fashion because you need carers and some of them can’t walk for a long time, so you need to take taxis everywhere,” Vais tells me. But that hasn’t stopped him: last month, Drag Syndrome performed in Norway for the first time, and they have plans for a world tour in 2019. Vais’ hope is that other people with Down’s syndrome will see the show and be inspired to perform or find creative outlets of their own. “Hopefully it will show other people with Down’s syndrome that they can go and do whatever they want,” he says. “They can be part of culture, whether it’s performance, dance, politics, or fashion.”
“We want to show families and parents of people with Down’s syndrome to show that anything is possible really," he goes in. "The world is changing, and the people with Down’s syndrome are changing as well, and now they have more opportunities.”