It was Just JP’s first time performing at All Star Mondays, the popular drag show at the now-shuttered Boston gay bar, Machine. The venue had a big stage with a narrow catwalk that went into the dance floor. Just JP was performing to Christina Aguilera’s “Candy Man,” and their plan was to begin with their back facing the audience and turn around when Aguilera’s voice came over the track.
“When I turned around, I didn’t quite make the 180 degrees,” Just JP, 30, recalled. “So the moment I started walking, when she said, ‘sugar, candy man,’ I walked off stage and fell straight down.”
In the moment, with the rush of adrenaline, Just JP remembered the “wise words of Tyra Banks”: they immediately pulled back their hair and posed and “nobody was the wiser, including myself, that I had two broken toes.”
The toes took a long time to heal, especially because Just JP is a queen who performs in heels. Years later, she still feels that injury, one she says she has learned to live with. They’re not the only drag performer who has been injured on-the-job; drag takes a toll on the bodies of the people who perform it.
Theillustriouspearl, a queen from Brooklyn, once got their toe caught in the door in the green room before a performance, nearly ripping it off. They went on stage with their foot wrapped in gauze and shoved into their shoe. “The number I had to perform was a cover of ‘California Dreamin’ by The Mamas and the Papas,” Theillustriouspearl told VICE. “There was some intense footwork in it, too. And I was thinking, ‘I cannot believe that I'm gushing blood into my Croc right now’ and just trying to pretend like nothing is happening, while maintaining this image of giving a show.” They had to get stitches the next day.
Drag is an art form that is all about illusion or beauty, which can hide an ugly physical reality when it comes to the ways in which it impacts the people who perform it. Doing high kicks, splits, death drops, and dancing in platform boots—the type of performance audiences have increasingly come to expect—plus working in clubs till 4 a.m. (on top of a day job, in many cases) can take a toll on a person's health, especially if they don't have insurance. And while physical injuries from dancing and flipping might be the most obvious way drag performers get injured, there are a lot of other aspects of the job that can impact them—from hairography to adhesive tape burns to negative effects on their mental health. But this is the scenario many drag performers find themselves in.
Even among the upper echelon of drag, this is a problem. RuPaul’s Drag Racegave viewers a glimpse of the dangers of drag firsthand during season 9 when Eureka O’Hara tore their ACL during the “Ultimate Cheer Battle Extravaganza” challenge on Episode 2. They were attempting a split when they heard a pop. Eureka O’Hara wasn’t the only queen injured during that episode; Charlie Hides revealed after the season that she cracked her ribs during the cheerleading challenge and she “was duct-taping [her] ribs up and taking lots of painkillers” for the rest of the competition.
Dancing queens are some of the most visible thanks to shows like Drag Race, but they’re not the only kinds of queens. Drag is an expansive art that is as individual as each performer wants to make it. However, Drag Race has popularized a very specific kind of drag, one that has put pressure on other queens. In trying to live up to the expectations of the public, they may push them to take risks with their body they might otherwise not have.
“Everybody—every body—is different,” said Just JP. “Which means that there is no one universal experience around doing drag. People have different levels of ability. And also, different people make different decisions on how much risk they want to take.”
Just the act of getting into costume can be painful. Tucking often requires literally gluing one’s genitalia to the body. Gluing down eyebrows can make a performer’s skin peel over time, and some of the tapes and adhesive performers use to stick down parts of their costumes can take skin with them when they’re removed. Theillustriuspearl said they were advised as a young queen to use nail glue to adhere their earrings; it burned the top layer of their skin off. Many performers make their own costumes, and wearing headdresses that are too heavy or poorly constructed can strain their necks (as can hairography). Waist cinchers are uncomfortable and can make breathing difficult during a performance, just as binding or taping down the chest can for drag kings (and the long-term impacts of binding are well-documented).
Every performer gets to decide how much they want to put their body through, but those decisions do not exist in a vacuum. A club gig, for example, is going to come with different expectations for outfit and performance than doing storytime at the library will. “I can choose not to cinch and not to tuck and not to wear heels,” Just JP said. “But if I do that and I go to the club, I know that the response from the crowd—which means the amount of money that I'll make —is lower. So I'm making decisions on How much do I want to put my body through? through the lens of How much money do I need to make?”
Many performers are working full-time jobs on top of doing drag on nights and weekends, which leads to burnout and exhaustion, two things that can make people more prone to injury. LÜCHI, a drag duo based in Seattle, Washington, each work day jobs. Lü Noir works in cosmetics, while Chi Noir is a barista (both are 27). They are also House mothers of the Royal House of Noir. Pretty much all of their free time is dedicated to LÜCHI, which has existed for three years. Lü Noir has been performing for four years, while Chi Noir has been doing drag for six years and performing as a dancer for 11.
As much as they love what they do, there’s also a mental toll to all of this. “The mental exhaustion of putting together a performance for individuals to enjoy is a lot,” says Chi Noir. “On top of that, if I want to be a political queen, who puts a political agenda at the forefront of my performances, especially when it deals with queer and trans Black individuals—that is usually my message that I'm trying to get across—the mental exertion that it takes to just think about, Would this be entertaining? Would this actually fit the bill of what I'm trying to say?”
Another part of the mental toll is what Just JP referred to as “trading emotional pain for physical pain.” In their personal lives, drag performers may struggle with not liking their bodies, not feeling pretty, not feeling handsome, not feeling attractive. And they deal with that by changing their proportions, changing their bodies, wearing binders, wearing cinchers, tucking, or using face tape to create a more “snatched” look.
“A lot of us downplay or dismiss the pain that comes from doing drag because by bringing it up, it breaks that illusion for folks, which means that that can mess with our income,” she said. “The truth is that folks will be less likely to tip a performer who whines and complains about the pains that they're feeling compared to another performer who isn't. Our job as a performer is to be the life of the party and offer people an escape. And often that means not sharing the parts of drag that aren't glamorous.”
Some performers have found a way to incorporate that pain into their acts. Hollow Eve, a cast member of Dragula Season 3, has made pain part of their persona. For example, they sometimes use staples around their face to pull their skin, or use other forms of piercing play on stage. It makes the often invisibilized aspects of drag—physical pain, emotional pain—visible.
On top of the physical realities of performance- and binding-related injuries that can plague them, drag kings face a unique mental toll that often differs from the queens’ experiences. As more lesbian bars and queer spaces not designed for cis gay men have closed, many drag kings find themselves performing in a lineup alongside a spate of queens.
“When you spend a lot of time in spaces designed for cis gay men, there's a lot of casual misogyny and there's a lot of really devaluing of what AFAB people contribute,” MT Hart, a 25-year-old drag king from Boston, told VICE. “There's a lot of a lot of ugliness that comes out—especially when AFAB people are drag queens—there's this idea that, as women, they somehow have less of a right to perform this exaggerated femininity than men do.”
Most drag performers are independent contractors who don’t have access to health care through the night clubs or venues where they perform. Not only does this keep them from seeking medical care for injuries or illness, it also means that therapy and other mental health treatment might not be accessible to many of the performers who need it. Without insurance or the sort of financial cushion that would ease the burden of missing performances to tend to their health, some have had to turn to community, crowdfunding their recovery process or medical procedures.
“The only reason I’m doing Drag Race is so I can maybe afford health insurance one day,” Monét X Change said in a deleted scene from season 10 of the show. Queens The Vixen, Monique Heart, and Asia O’Hara joined the conversation, talking about the toll doing drag can take on the body (Monét X Change has bad knees; The Vixen joked that her premium would be higher because she does death drops), and how difficult it is to take care of their bodies on an ongoing basis.
“What’s even worse a lot of times than not having health insurance is not being able to afford to take off of a show to go to the doctor,” Asia O’Hara said. “Paying for the care or whatever is one thing, but when you get sick and you can’t go to work for a whole weekend, that puts you behind for six months.” Monique Heart confirmed this: she performed with a broken arm.
There is no union for drag queens, which Chi Noir believes is “one of the big things holding us back.” And it is the most marginalized performers, and the ones without a platform like Drag Race, who bear the brunt of this.
“As a culture, we are in the business of saying that certain things are only hobbies, or are something you just do on the side,” Chi Noir continued. People ask “and what is your actual job? That whole mentality needs to change first before there’s any room to talk about getting insurance.”
For now, the community continues to take care of itself the best it can. Theillustriouspearl has developed a stretching routine to try to combat the aches and pains they have felt in their body as they’ve gotten older; they said their body is not the same at 29 as it was when they started performing at 20. They also use their obstacles as their strength, which is something disabled performers often do, as well. (Drag artists with physical disabilitiesmay choose to incorporate their mobility devices or unique characteristics into their act).
“Thankfully, the thing about drag is that you have all the creativity in the world to make it work for you and your limitations. And oftentimes, your limitation becomes your trademark,” they said. “Like, I can't dance, right? So I project my poetry and write an essay behind me as I'm singing and stripping slowly into a new outfit.”
But as long as audiences expect to see the athletic moves they’ve grown accustomed to watching on TV, some performers are going to feel the need to push themselves to the limit to get better tips—while also thinking about how they can adapt their art in the years to come.
“Because there is no true security in our bodies with this performance art, we are having to mentally be like, Since we can't really take care of our bodies the way we need to, let's see how we can be flexible in the future,” Chi Noir said.
“My dream is to do less, but get paid more,” she continued. “I want to build an empire and create equity so that I don't have to rely on those show-stopping numbers or that signature high kick into a dip to rake in all those tips. I want to get enough equity that I don't have to do that anymore.”