Behind Drag Syndrome: The performers with Down’s syndrome expanding the art of drag culture
Since forming a year and a half ago in the basement of an avant-garde club in east London, Drag Syndrome – the UK’s first Down’s syndrome drag night – has exponentially grown to become a team of artists who are currently zigzagging across the world as part of the organisation’s first global tour.
Made up of award-winning artists and performers, Drag Syndrome began as a one-off event between artists experimenting with drag personas for the first time. Growing from the club to performances at venues such as the Tate Modern and Royal Festival Hall, the group of performers are rapidly expanding the parameters of drag culture – and as a result, the perception of individuals with Down’s syndrome – with their artistry.
Following their packed-out show at the Southbank Centre, we caught up with Artistic Director Daniel Vais, who’s also the mastermind behind Radical Beauty Project. We talk activism, performance art and how, despite never intending to change drag culture, the group may have actually ended up doing so anyway.
How did Drag Syndrome begin?
We didn’t make this project with a vision for the future, we just wanted to do a one-off [event] to experiment, to see how we feel, to see how the artists feel, because it was the first time these artists were doing drag. We did the first event not knowing what was going to happen, not knowing who was going to come. It was packed and the response was incredible.
And then we did it again a couple of months after in the same place – it was rammed. There was really no space. We were like, that’s a project we can continue and the artists really loved it. They are incredible performers, so it was not a surprise for me [that] they were incredible drag artists. They are wild in their being, they are very free in their creativity so it was kind of obvious that they could do drag really, really well. They add something to drag, they bring a different niche because drag is now expanding.
© Jasper Jones
How did people respond to Drag Syndrome?
It’s just fascinating to see how the drag scene really embraced us and we have drag queens that are huge fans of ours, big followers and it’s really nice to see drag as an art form expanding. Usually, all the interviews I’m doing now, they think we have a message, they think we are here to change something and it’s not the case. The starting point is art, the starting point is performance skills, and then I know from the world – when you see someone with learning disabilities or anything, when you see them doing well – it’s really inspiring and in a way you are becoming an advocate for change. We wanted to perform and to do it really, really well and travel the world and meet people and entertain them.
Do you see Drag Syndrome as a form of activism?
We are aware of the change that we bring and we are expanding minds of not only the drag scene and performance scene, but society and people with learning disabilities and their families and the media. I explained to [the team] the consequences of their work and how it is really bringing awareness and change, and they were not really bothered. One of them said, “I don’t care if people like me or not, or if I change anything. I want to do what I want to do.” A lot of people say, “Daniel what you do is great! You’re such an angel.” I’m focused on good art and good performance art. In interviews they want me to say how they’re very empowered and they have a lot of confidence and you get it wrong because they were really powerful, confident and talented before we started. I haven’t taken people with no confidence and given them confidence, that’s not the case.
This generation of people with Down’s syndrome are completely different to the generation before, like us and our parents, but they are not included in this conversation and I think the more we are out there, people start questioning it and wanting to know more. The message is coming from the art.
I know that what we do is now sinking into other people with disabilities who are coming to see us and are now thinking, oh my god I can be a performer, I can be a drag artist, I can do anything, I can be wild, I can talk dirty, I can do whatever I want. So I see that it’s really empowering other people that society or their family, or their carers, try to keep ‘cute’ or ‘sweet’.
But in the beginning they were inspiring; I think they are genius artists and that’s why I am working with them. Then I see that other people don’t know. This is why I’m becoming an activist, I kind of shout out a little bit louder and knock on doors a bit harder. Now it’s changing because we’re starting to have mainstream success and it’s working by itself, but there is still a lot of work to be done; there are a lot of countries with people with learning disabilities being treated very badly, being abused and neglected – so that’s a priority.
What do you see for the future of Drag Syndrome?
I always said I must include every person with Down’s syndrome in the world. I am getting a lot of hate messages about blackfacing because I had a black drag queen with Down’s syndrome, and people think I blackfaced her. They don’t comprehend that some people with Down’s syndrome are black!
I had a Chinese artist with Down’s syndrome; people thought I had taken a white person and tried to force them to look Asian. So you have to understand that I have to deal with people who are so misinformed that they don’t comprehend that anyone in the world can have Down’s syndrome. That’s why it’s very important to spread the message to other countries.
Introduction by Isobel Trott
Interview by Vivian Yeung