It’s time for the main acts at RuPaul’s DragCon, the biggest drag queen event London has seen, and 8000 people have gathered around the main stage to see something exceptional. The crowd has already spent hours ogling a parade of the world’s top drag stars in the cavernous west London convention centre, but in an art form that revels in outrage, the next show is the most contentious of all. As the air fills with vibrant dance music, two drag queens who are shorter and stouter than the earlier performers strut out from behind the curtain.
Horrora Shebang has a vivid red wig and a purple beret sprouting a dozen small Hello Kitty dolls that jiggle violently as she prances across the stage, lip-synching to the music. Miss Gaia Callas has huge splashes of pink eyeshadow that match the lace and sequins of her dress, and a hat topped by a small unicorn.
For most of the audience, this is their first glimpse of Drag Syndrome, the world’s only drag queen troupe whose members were all born with the chromosomal disorder Down syndrome. The London-based group has been performing on stages from Milan to Mexico for almost two years, winning fans in venues ranging from small London gay bars to the sprawling Southbank Centre on the banks of the Thames.
“It’s infectious,” beams the young man next to me in the crowd, who is whooping and dancing on the spot. “You can tell they are just loving expressing themselves and it makes you so happy to join in.”
As the sound track swings to Madonna’s Like a Virgin, three more artists charge onto the stage, and when the divas end the show by inviting people onto the stage, there is a minor invasion and a euphoric final ovation.
Jane Adams, another fan in the crowd, has a three-year-old son with Down syndrome and says the show is inspiring for people with disabilities and educational for everyone else. “When you see them up there, you see their talent and their personalities, not just their disability,” she says. “Believe me, that is unusual for people with Down syndrome.”
It is also controversial.
In September, the troupe’s American debut in Grand Rapids, Michigan had to be relocated when a theatre owner banned the show, saying Down syndrome people should be “protected like children”. Other American critics deride Drag Syndrome as “a sexually exploitative nightmare that is equivalent to a turn-of-the-century freak show”. Celebrating Drag Syndrome is “the same as supporting and celebrating Down syndrome sex work”, said one Christian activist.
The question becomes whether society is ready to recognise the right of the disabled to make their own “adult” decisions.
The furore underlines how effectively Drag Syndrome has stuck a size 10 stiletto into the stereotype that adults with learning disabilities are incapable of a sex life, let alone doing things like marrying, identifying as gay or expressing themselves through cross-dressing. Yet at a time when personal identity and gender boundaries are being stretched to new lengths, the question becomes whether society is ready to recognise the right of the disabled to make their own “adult” decisions.
The scene backstage after the DragCon performance is a mix of relief, triumph and a little disappointment. Danny Smith, aka Miss Gaia Callas, is upset that his unicorn headpiece fell off early in the routine, distracting him for the rest of the show.
“I was not perfect,” he mutters miserably as he sits alone on a big couch. David Simpson, whose stage name is Davina Starr, is ebullient, refusing to change out of his red dress and yellow wig and declaring, “I’m not going home, I want to party.”
Several assistants fuss over the five performers but this is the third show at which I have been backstage with Drag Syndrome, so I know that the emotional core of the group is its creative director, Daniel Vais. The gently-spoken, Israeli-born choreographer moves from one performer to the next, telling them they have been brilliant and that their performance was a big step in their career.
Now 48, Vais was based at an arts centre in Limerick, Ireland in 2007 when he first worked with intellectually disabled people by offering to give a dance class at a daycare centre.
“What I saw was amazing,” he says. “They moved like professional dancers. Not technically, but it’s from the same place of complete freedom and complete connection with the body outside and beyond. I saw straight away that these people were natural performers, with this powerful urge to give and to express themselves.”
“I don’t want any concessions or pity. They should be treated like any other professional performers.”
Daniel Vais, creative director with Drag Syndrome
Vais was not the first to notice that drive to perform. In the 1860s, when the British physician John Langdon Down first identified the condition that would take his name, he listed a sense of theatricality and love of dance and drama as one its defining traits, along with characteristic facial features, physical growth delays and learning disabilities that range enormously in their severity. Down even built a theatre in the asylum he established south-west of London.
“That is why my work is very easy,” says Vais. “Their extra chromosome is a gift.”
In Ireland, Vais set up a contemporary dance troupe of learning-disabled dancers called The Love Spotters, which was initially rejected by local festival directors “because people judged them without even seeing them”.
“So I said, ‘Okay, we will go to Europe.’ I took a loan from a bank and I took them twice to London, twice to Germany, and it was a huge success because the audiences really got it.”
When he moved to London in 2010, Vais set up a similar group called Culture Device, which he funded with more bank loans and a lot of “couch-surfing, babysitting and working in bars”. Culture Device is still operating and has performed Shakespeare, collaborated with the Royal Ballet and branched into projects such as Radical Beauty, in which people with Down syndrome are photographed in high-end fashion shoots.
The best-known member of Culture Device is the actor Sarah Gordy, whose many screen credits – including the BBC period drama Call the Midwife – have seen her become the first woman with Down syndrome to be made an MBE. In 2017, she and Vais were at a Christmas party where there happened to be a drag show.
“We both loved it – and I asked Sarah if she would like to try it,” says Vais. “She said she would love to and on the spot I said, ‘We can call it Drag Syndrome!’ We were both just giggling, then she said, ‘That is actually a good title.’ ”
Vais had never had anything to do with drag but when he asked the other members of Culture Device if they wanted to try it, “they were all super-excited.” Vais explained drag to the performers, who then developed their own personas, costumes and dance styles by doing online research.
Not all of the members can read and write but they can all use smartphones, which Vais says have liberated the learning disabled by allowing them to pursue their own interests without relying on parents and carers. “They know 100 per cent more than me about drag culture and every performer in the world,” he says.
One of the first recruits was Otto Baxter, 31, who has performed in Shakespeare plays as well as productions like Waiting for Godot, and has written and directed his own films. Baxter developed Horrora Shebang because of his passion for horror films. Horrora, he tells me backstage at DragCon, is “ferocious and she always goes off with a bang”. She often wears a black latex jumpsuit with a huge necklace that looks more like a chandelier than a piece of bling.
When I ask why he is so hooked on horror films, he pauses. “My life has been a horror story,” he then says quietly. “My birth parents gave me away and I have health problems and bad knees … And I have Down syndrome, too.”
Baxter has a cheeky sense of humour, occasionally to Vais’s discomfort. When one American radio interviewer asked Baxter what the performers do after a show, he said, “Oh, we just get a little cocaine.”
“He was joking,” says Vais, “but afterwards I had to tell him that he was getting me into trouble, because people would think I was giving him drugs. He thought it was hilarious. The truth is that after a show they are more likely to just say, ‘Can we eat now?’ and, ‘I want to get into my pyjamas.’”
While Horrora thrives on being “ferocious” and provocative, the flirtatious Davina Starr was inspired by David Simpson’s love of 1940s musicals and Hollywood starlets, while Gaia Callas, the creation of 44-year-old Danny Smith, is feminine in a more delicate way.
“Gaia is loving and colourful like a rainbow but very naughty, naughty,” says Smith, who lives in a share house in Oxford. He has a serious stammer but the words seem to come more easily when he is talking about Miss Callas.
“I am normally shy but Gaia is not, she’s a pussycat but also a hard-core lady,” he says. “I have been bullied before but Gaia would never stand for that. She would pour champagne down your neck! She is part of me.”
Once the Drag Syndrome members had developed their personas, Vais began taking bookings for small venues. “Like anyone else, you have to build a name by performing in shitty places with five people in the audience and dirty dressing rooms and filthy dance floors,” he says. “We haven’t had outside support and never played the charity or disability card because I want to get forward on artistic merit. I don’t want any concessions or pity. They should be treated like any other professional performers.”
Yet logistics and funding can be a challenge. The troupe travels with at least one carer, and its members cannot walk long distances and must eat properly and regularly, “not just crackers and hummus like other up-and-coming artists”, says Vais. “They are expensive, like working with haute couture models.”
Vais’ work has left him outraged at the way the learning-disabled are treated. “Even in our society they are rejected and bullied, but in other parts of the world, such as Ghana, they are locked away and abused more than any other vulnerable group.”
Because of recent advances in pre-natal testing, the abortion rate for Down syndrome pregnancies has soared so much that some activists claim people with the condition are becoming “an endangered species”. The support group Down Syndrome Australia estimates that the rising termination rate in Australia means only about one in 1100 babies are born with the condition here, compared to a global average closer to one in 700.
“We treat them like they are half-human or broken or something to be eradicated, when they are actually the perfect human beings,” Vais says. “They are kind and loving and gentle and funny, but somehow we are in the process of wiping them out.”
Vais himself would be wiped out if American religious activist Anna Bohach had her way. In a posting to her online followers last year, she described him as a “gay rights activist” and “drag performer” who exploited and “groomed” Drag Syndrome’s innocent members into cross-dressing. This was news to the performers and their parents.
Pip McKerrow, a retired school teacher whose 35-year-old son, Nick, performs as Nikita Gold, laughs at the suggestion that Vais or anybody else pushed her son into cross-dressing. “From the age of about seven, I couldn’t keep him out of my wardrobe or my make-up,” she tells me in the kitchen of their home in the London suburb of Wandsworth.
McKerrow, who has an MBE for her services to Girl Guides, says her son, a part-time barista, has as much right as anybody to identify as gay and to express his feminine side. “Why would having a learning disability affect whether someone is gay? Not everyone in Drag Syndrome is gay but some are, and frankly that is nobody else’s business.”
“A lot of people with Down syndrome have contacted me, saying, ‘Please help, my parents or carers won’t let me be gay or have a sex life. Can I come and perform with you?’”
Carina Carlsen, Norwegian cabaret promoter
Vais waves away the attacks. “For a start, I am not a gay activist and I have never performed in drag. I don’t even consider myself a disability activist, really. I am just an artist, and so are my performers.” Yet even Drag Syndrome supporters admit to having been uncertain about the pioneering group.
At the end of 2018, the troupe got its first international break when Carina Carlsen, a Norwegian cabaret promoter, saw them online and booked them for a gay nightclub in Norway’s capital, Oslo. Carlsen, a behavioural science nurse who works with gay people who have learning disabilities, says she initially questioned the ethics of the performance.
“You want to be sure they are doing this of their own volition,” she says. “I was nervous, but as soon as Horrora Shebang came out in black latex lip-synching I’m So Beautiful by Divine, you just knew she wanted to be out there. The crowd went crazy.”
Carlsen has since received emails from the families of people with Down syndrome saying they found the group inspiring, but Vais says he often gets more depressing emails. “A lot of people with Down syndrome have contacted me, saying, ‘Please help, my parents or carers won’t let me be gay or have a sex life. Can I come and perform with you?’ It is heartbreaking. These people have rights, but what can I do?”
After Norway came shows in Italy, Sweden and Germany, a disability conference in Mexico and an appearance at Montreal Pride in front of 15,000 people. Celebrity fans such as the Australian drag queen Courtney Act have lent their support. Scottish singer-songwriter and activist Annie Lennox has said she loves the group “because it melts away limiting social norms in the most empowering, liberating, innovative, fun and fabulous kind of way”.
The troupe’s profile is growing rapidly. It will tour Europe and the US this year and was invited to appear at the prestigious South by Southwest festival in Texas until the event was cancelled due to coronavirus. A 10-second video posted on the social media app TikTok soon after the DragCon show gained 7.6 million views and 1.2 million likes in two days.
Yet a row in Michigan in September shows support is far from universal. Supermarket heir Peter Meijer, a Republican Congressional candidate, happened to own the theatre in Grand Rapids where a local disabled arts group, DisArt, had invited Drag Syndrome to perform.
Meijer cancelled the event, saying he was not convinced the performers were capable of giving informed consent. “The differently-abled are among the most special souls in our community,” he said in a statement, “and I believe they, like children and other vulnerable populations, should be protected.”
That infuriated 20-year-old Ruby Codiroli, Drag Syndrome’s youngest regular member and only drag “king”, whose stage name is Justin Bond (she loves both Justin Bieber and James Bond). “I wasn’t sad, I was pissed off. What right do they have to stop us doing what we want, even if we are disabled? We don’t need to be protected. We have families and supporters who look out for us,” she says. Codiroli, who is studying for a degree in performing arts, says being Justin Bond makes her feel “strong and amazing”.
“I am doing exactly what I want and this is how I want to live. I want to be a drag superstar and don’t you try to stop me!”
“I am doing exactly what I want and this is how I want to live. I want to be a drag superstar and don’t you try to stop me!”
Ruby Codiroli, Drag Syndrome’s youngest regular member and only drag “king”, whose stage name is Justin Bond
Dr Christopher Smit, a DisArt co-director, says anyone who spends time with Codiroli and her colleagues “knows they are in control of their lives … For the first 30 seconds of their show, you think, ‘Is this going to be all right?’ Then they come out and take you to a different world, where everyone has rights and agency. You can feel stereotypes melting away. They are one of the most important disabled acts of the last 25 years.”
Smit believes Meijer was trying to appeal to his conservative political base, “which unfortunately means an antiquated and paternalistic understanding of the rights of disabled adults”.
Smit, whose own muscular dystrophy confines him to a wheelchair, says the Michigan incident became an ugly culture clash. “At the time I was a professor of media studies at a Christian college and there was a big campaign to get me fired, including a half-page ad in the local newspaper calling for my job.”
When Smit’s employers told him he would need to make “a Biblical justification for what I was doing”, he resigned his job of 18 years. The 45-year-old now works full-time with DisArt, which has helped to arrange a six-state US tour for Drag Syndrome this year and will hold educational events around those shows.
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a discrimination complaint against Meijer, saying it wants “to send a message that you can’t infantilise adults with learning disabilities”.
Two months after the row in Michigan, David Simpson, in the glittering dress of Davina Starr, grabbed the microphone at the end of a Drag Syndrome performance at London’s Southbank Centre to say, “Rebecca, I love you … will you marry me?”
Standing at the back of the audience, his 49-year-old girlfriend, Rebecca Blackwell, who also has Down syndrome, nodded emphatically, bringing a delighted roar from the crowd.
A few minutes later David’s mother, Lorraine, rolled her eyes about the chances of a wedding. “David actually leans a bit the other way,” she says. Rebecca’s mother, Elisabeth, has similar doubts about the orientation of her supposed future son-in-law.
“But Rebecca loves the attention and he is a romantic: this is not the first time he’s proposed,” Elisabeth says. “We went out for dinner the other week and when I came back from the bathroom, the whole restaurant was standing and applauding, and David was down on one knee in front of Rebecca.”
David and Rebecca have indeed called off the wedding but Kieran Duffy, another dancer on the stage that night at Southbank, has no doubts at all about the biggest romantic decision of his life. Last August, 26-year-old Duffy married his girlfriend Emmie, 22, and they now live in a flat above his parents’ home outside Maidstone, south-east of London.
The young couple love dancing and theatre but Kieran is a bit too “blokey” for full-on drag, so he wore a Tweety Bird outfit of yellow feathers to perform with Drag Syndrome. “My wife is my No. 1 person,” he says at a Maidstone cafe. “All I want to do is make her happy.”
Kieran’s mother, Tessa Branch, was a UK government adviser on Down syndrome long before Kieran’s birth and has always been determined that he live as full a life as possible.
“A big part of that is the totally normal urge to have adult relationships, whether they be straight, gay, married, single, or whatever,” she says. “We have to start out by assuming Kieran and other adults have the capacity to do anything in life unless there is very clear evidence to the contrary, instead of assuming we can make all their decisions for them.”
A part of that, says Branch, is the right to make even unwise decisions. “A young man without a learning disability might decide to sit and get drunk every night. That is not a great decision but everyone accepts it is his decision to make. So why can’t these performers dress and perform the way they like, which hurts nobody and gives them a lot of joy?”