Phillip Brown wanted to throw out all the tricks when opening at The Manor for Symone, the season 13 winner of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
The energetic drag queen knew that a 360 jump split, which requires him to leap in the air, make a full turn and land in a split, would win over the crowd that the headliner had attracted to the gay restaurant and lounge in Mount Vernon. Brown, whose drag name is Bambi Ferrah, had performed the trick in more than a dozen past performances.
But something about that day last June was awry. He knew it in midair, when a patron stepped into his landing area.
“I didn’t feel anything immediately,” said Brown. “I didn’t know that I broke my wrist. I went to go grab a dollar with my left hand and my left hand wouldn’t close.” When he rolled up a sleeve of his rhinestone-encrusted, pink and black catsuit, he saw his arm had been mangled into a “W” shape. He soon lost consciousness.
Brown could not perform for three months. He estimates he lost out on more than $10,000 in bookings and tips. Brown, who lives in Westminster, also could not work at his day job as a hairdresser in Bethesda. And he still feels the injury’s effects.
“My mobility is too limited for someone who is 35,” he explained. “I don’t have full rotation. I can’t bend my wrist back or down.” He planned to undergo surgery to graft a piece of his left tibia into his left wrist to help repair the injury.
For drag queens, such injuries are a reality of the craft they love. Dangers range from the severe injury to wear-and-tear, such as hair loss due to the use of wig glue and skin damage from excess makeup and substances used with fake nails.
What’s more, the industry is not set up to support injured workers. Venues do not provide health insurance, as performers are not employees. For those who depend on performing for income, it is a game of roulette. Some have money set aside for medical costs and lost wages. Others, like Brown, say they are lucky to be covered by a partner’s insurance.
‘It took about four months to recover. I couldn’t move’
The injuries that drag queens can sustain also expose a hierarchy in the industry. “Local girls,” drag queens who have not appeared on shows such as VH1′s “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and thus do not command the fees that can hover around $10,000 per performance, rely on tips and a percentage of a venue’s cover charge.
That can create a vicious cycle. Performers whose routines include dazzling stunts are usually showered with cash. And acrobatic tricks popularized by contestants on “Drag Race” push local performers to raise the stakes.
Drag has been made further hazardous with the influx of vogueing, a high-energy dance originated by the Black LGBTQ community during the ball scene of the 1980s and depicted in the documentary “Paris Is Burning” and the Emmy Award-winning drama “Pose.”
Scott Murdock, 37, of Odenton, performs as Shaunda Leer, a 6-foot-10-inch glamazonian in heels. Murdock thinks it is only a matter of time before pushing the envelope could lead to death.
“With the influences, it’s scary to think about what will happen as people up the ante. It will eventually lead to something scary,” Murdock said.
During a Gay Pride Month party in June at the Baltimore Eagle, Murdock tore a hamstring performing a running split.
“I have done it several times before,” Murdock recalled. “I got through the number and after I got up the stairs, I could feel it. I thought, ‘This is not good.’ It took about four months to recover. I couldn’t move.”
He’s also suffered abrasions from tights that cut into his abdomen and thighs. There’s turf toe from years of squeezing his size 15 feet into stiletto heels. Countless times, he’s gotten weave glue in his eyes from attaching double lashes.
“I have health insurance. I have a 9 to 5 [job],” explained Murdock, who works for a health care company. “For these girls who are doing it full time, they might not have the ability to get care. They need to take that into account.”
The injuries are consistent with those of dancers, cheerleaders, and gymnasts, according to Dr. Geoffrey Dreher, osteopathic physician and assistant professor of orthopedic surgery in the division of sports medicine of the Johns Hopkins Department of Orthopedic Surgery. Additionally, many drag performers do stunts and routines in heels on surfaces that have little to no padding, he said.
“It ups the ante a good amount,” he said of performing in high heels. “It changes your center of gravity and puts your ankle and lower extremities in more danger.”
The lower the heel is in relation to the toes in footwear decreases the risk of injury. Strengthening the body’s core, distributing the body’s weight while landing, and having proper nutrition and enough sleep also help, according to Dreher.
‘I have to choose between my health and the crowd’
As Druex Sidora, 28-year-old Delonte Simpkins of Bladensburg is one of the most daring performers in the region, doing flips, running splits and death drops in 6-inch stiletto heels.
“Momma likes a little height,” he said with a laugh.
Simpkins has been dancing for more than 20 years and was named Best Dancing Queen of Baltimore 2021 for the Baltimore Drag Awards.
“Being a dancing queen, everyone is expecting you to do the tricks — and more,” said Simpkins. “Do they pay more? Absolutely. Can this put your body in danger? Absolutely. I have to choose between my health and the crowd.”
Simpkins hurls his body into the air and lands in splits or bounces off his buttocks into a middle split. He’s avoided serious injury so far with practice and plenty of stretching.
Also, “I have a lot of body,” he said, explaining that the padding he wears gives him feminine curves but also absorbs the impact of landing. “I don’t really feel it. This Ikea cushion makes sure I don’t feel it. I do go home and take a few a good Epsom salt baths.”
Achieving a feminine look can also prove problematic. The use of heavy makeup, wig glue, artificial nails, tape, and other tools of the trade with chemicals put performers at risk for skin injuries and trauma, according to Sara Lamb, assistant professor in the department of dermatology at Johns Hopkins University.
“Repeated exposures could put you at risk,” she said. “Some allergens react with sun exposure, and intense light exposure. It can make the allergic reactions more pronounced.”
Factors such as sweat can cause additional damage.
“It [sweat] can help absorb the chemicals more,” she said. “If you are reapplying makeup, all of those conditions are not ideal. If the skin is broken, it can trigger an allergy if you are not careful.”
Many of the types of skin damage drag queens suffer are like those experienced by hairstylists and nail technicians, according to Lamb.
Lamb recommends limiting exposure — especially over long periods — to chemicals that may irritate the skin. She also recommends using makeup with as few ingredients as possible, as well as allergy testing.
“I don’t think we have too many prevention strategies other than avoidance, which can be hard,” she said.
Tape can tear skin or cause a rash when it’s used in the practice of tucking, in which a performer tapes their genitals to give them a female appearance.
Kyle Sharp, 28, of Waverly, is a popular drag performer who goes by the stage name of Washington Heights. He believes tricks aren’t necessary to be a successful drag queen. He relies on wit, charm, showmanship and comedic abilities to earn tips.
“You don’t have to do the big ‘wow’ factors to get money from people,” he said. “If you emote or feel the music, people will want to tip you more.”
Sharp, who has medical coverage through Medicaid, said that as drag has become more mainstream, there has been talk in the drag community about a need to unionize. But a lack of organization has prevented that from happening.
“Make sure your entertainers are paid properly and that if there is an injury, then there should be some type of compensation and a contract signed. There needs to be some kind of plan set, so that you aren’t stuck with paying the money on your own,” Sharp suggested.
The rush of being able to perform in front of others keeps Sharp dedicated to the craft — potential injuries and all.
“I have always grown up with entertainment. My grandfather was a magician. My dad was a wrestler,” he said. “I want myself or my show to help you forget your problems. It’s the entertainment of making people’s lives better two hours a week. That keeps me going.”