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Photography Damien Frost, via @harmonyhalo

Drag Syndrome: A collective opening up drag for people with Down’s Syndrome


TextTom Rasmussen

Here, we meet founder Daniel Vais and three of the burgeoning talents from the creative group

As all good things do, Drag Syndrome started life in a basement in East London. Now, a year and a half on, the collective is on a world tour. “So next we're going to North Wales, and then we go to Mexico and then New York, Michigan, Chicago,” the troupe’s founder, Daniel Vais, explains over a crackly Skype call from the collective’s digs in Bologna, where they’ve just done headline Halloween show.

Drag Syndrome is the world's first professional drag company for queens and kings with Down’s syndrome. Before drag, the group of artists had worked together across various dance projects – under the umbrella of Culture Device, which is Daniel’s company, set up to work with artists who have Down’s Syndrome. Some of their accolades include a residency at the Royal Opera House, or their two recent ballets where 22 dancers with Down’s Syndrome collaborated with six dancers from the Royal Ballet. 

“It started because we were invited to perform in a specific space, and there were a couple of drag queens there,” Daniel continues. “One of the artists said, ‘I want to try to do that.’ And then I said, ‘You know, drag is an art form. It’s quite intense and you have to know what you’re doing.’ And then they said this is something that they really want to do. So I came up with the title Drag Syndrome on the spot and we all giggled.”

They started with a one-off show – at Vogue Fabrics in East London – which was packed. From there Drag Syndrome booked more gigs, filled out rooms, got invited to perform internationally and received rave reviews. “It’s very beautiful,” Daniel adds. “It’s a very interesting humane meeting, a reminder that art is very powerful, and art and culture is very important. People with Down’s Syndrome bring the heart to the art. It asks a society of people without Down’s Syndrome to remember heart.”

Drag Syndrome is about phenomenal performance as much as it’s about challenging the landscape of drag. “It’s such a surprise to see people with learning disabilities suddenly becoming masters of the scene. Because Drag Syndrome is amazing, it has phenomenal performers. We focused on quality.”

We caught up with three of the stars of Drag Syndrome – Justin Bond, Gaia Callas, and Horrora Shebang – about what discovering drag means to them, how it makes them feel, how they get ready for a gig, and what the future of drag looks like.

JUSTIN BOND

How did you discover drag?

Justin Bond: RuPaul’s Drag Race! My sister then put me in touch with Culture Device and I started and I loved it. 

Can you tell me about your signature drag aesthetic?

Justin Bond: Sassy, sexy, always on, and always turned on.

What does it feel like to perform being a man?

Justin Bond: So powerful. I love being a man. I’m super bendy and super strong. And I feel good. 

How do you get ready for a show?

Justin Bond: I get into my costume, my Justin Bond clothes. Then Daniel will get a wine or champagne cork and set fire to it to make it black. And that’s what we use to draw on my beard. 

When do you feel most beautiful? Or powerful?

Justin Bond: I feel both in drag. I feel the most amazing I’ve felt in my whole life. Drag is very powerful. Hell fucking yeah!

What is the future of drag?

Justin Bond: Me. Drag Kings being more popular. 

Where does drag syndrome sit on the drag scene?

Justin Bond: Well we are different in many ways, but we are masters of the scene too. We are forward-thinking.

GAIA CALLAS 

Can you tell me about Gaia. Who is Gaia?

Gaia Callas: She’s a diva. She’s very colourful and has a very good sense of humour. 

Does she dance, lip sync?

Gaia Callas: She lip syncs and her thing is getting a whole audience on their feet. 

What’s your favourite look you’ve ever done?

Gaia Callas: One of my best was in Sweden. I wore a neckpiece with lots of Barbies around my neck. Bright, colourful, costume – a gold dress. 

Why is it important that Gaia is colourful?

Gaia Callas: Well she has a big heart and a sense of humour

What about getting ready. 

Gaia Callas: I’m very quiet. I need to be alone. Then I get changed, and do my make-up. 

How do you feel when you come off stage?

Gaia Callas: I feel amazing. I feel like a rockstar. Powerful. 

When do you become Gaia?

Gaia Callas: I feel different when I put on my wig. When I let my hair down, I feel ready to show people what I am. 

HORRORA SHEBANG 

How did you start drag?

Horrora Shebang: Well I was on Snapchat with Daniel, and we were talking and I got very interested and very excited, and we went to a gay club. A queer club. I liked it a lot. I’d never seen drag before I’d done the shows, but I’d done a lot of Shakespeare. There’s a lot of drag in that. 

How is Horrora different to you?

Horrora Shebang: Fearless, sexy, wild, she likes to party. She’s a lip syncer. I’m a dancer too – I burn stages! 

What’s your favourite song to lip sync?

Horrora Shebang: “Got the Glam” by Patrick Starr. 

How do you get into drag?

Horrora Shebang: Make-up, costume, wig. Eyeliner, eyeshadow, and lipstick. 

When does she come out?

Horrora Shebang: Probably after the make-up. She comes alive. 

How do you feel?

Horrora Shebang: I feel like Horrora. In a good way. Very powerful, excited, open-minded. Like an explosion. At a gig recently, I broke a speaker because I was jumping so much.

Do you ever get nervous?

Horrora Shebang: Never. 

Who’s your drag icon?

Horrora Shebang: David Hoyle. We’ve performed together. It was fucking amazing, we created a Christmas show. 

@dragsyndrome

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