Let’s Unpack That

How drag developed a drink problem: ‘Everyone expects us to be loud and wasted’

The world of drag has always tangled with excess, with punters expecting performers to be at least a little bit sozzled and venues often offering queens free drinks along with their performance fees. For some queens, however, this can spiral into a serious problem. Jordan Page dives into one of drag’s biggest taboos

Saturday 06 April 2024 06:00 BST
‘Many performers have this ego where it’s like, “I’m a drag queen so I’m completely invincible”’
‘Many performers have this ego where it’s like, “I’m a drag queen so I’m completely invincible”’ (iStock)

When the Australian drag veteran Heidi Liscious first moved to London in 2006, she found a job as a hostess at a gay club in Vauxhall. She was taken aback by what her employer did next. “They gave me a bag of cocaine and said, ‘Have a good time, and make sure that everyone else is, too’.”

Drugs and alcohol are probably not the first things you think of when you think of drag. You think the humour. The make-up. The heels. But it’s a facet of the drag world that often goes unspoken, addiction entangled with the lives and careers of many of our hardest-working queens. “I couldn’t leave the drugs at the party,” said RuPaul’s Drag Race UK champion The Vivienne while appearing on the show. “It was constant for me.”

The drag of today blossomed in underground bars and clubs hidden from the harsh glare of a homophobic society. And although the craft has evolved and long gone mainstream, the spaces in which it flourishes are still somewhere you can buy a cocktail. The bars and clubs are now bigger, and bottomless drag brunches are the new norm. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent that, for some, working in these environments can be a slippery slope into addiction.

“From the start, we are always encouraged to drink,” Heidi says, adding that alcohol “is just part and parcel” of being in a gay bar – whether she’s won free tabs in talent competitions or been encouraged by club managers to facilitate the sale of booze to punters. Her early work in London led to a storm of heavy drinking – she recalls benders that lasted more than 48 hours at a time – as well as experimentation with increasingly hard and dangerous drugs. “I never thought I had a problem,” she says. “I thought it was quite normal what I was doing. Many performers have this ego where it’s like, ‘I’m a drag queen so I’m completely invincible’.”

Then, in 2016, Heidi nearly lost her life. “It took collapsing on the floor and being taken to hospital with heart failure for me to realise there was a problem,” she says. Heidi has been sober ever since. She considers herself one of the lucky ones. “Nobody thinks about the ramifications. Everyone expects us to be loud, raucous and wasted. It’s just kind of accepted.”

Based in Nottingham, Nana Arthole has been performing her “ridiculous, rancid and beautiful” drag since 2013, and has been doing it sober since February 2023. Before, it would be common for her to wake up with no memory of hosting a night. She once found herself covered in mystery bruises, cuts and burns – she had fallen over drunk and sat in cigarette butts and broken glass without realising. “Everyone just laughed it off, so I carried on,” she says. “Particularly with drugs, it became an endurance test to see how far I could push myself. How long can I stay awake? How many parties can I go to?”

Let’s say half an audience is sober and drinking £1.60 lime and sodas rather than £5 pints. How would we possibly repair that without saying to everyone, ‘let’s do some shots?’

Nana Arthole

Since shifting her lifestyle, Nana believes her hosting, lip-syncs and stand-up routines have all improved: “I can actually remember the punchline now.” Despite this, she’s aware of the long-standing traditions in the drag scene that can contribute to developing alcohol dependence. “We call it ‘putting your personality on’ when a queen’s getting ready and having a drink,” she explains. “Then of course, you’ve got the punters who want to buy you drinks at the shows. They want to take a shot with the drag queen. You want to be a good time had by all.”

During residencies in clubs and bars, Nana says it’s common for performers to have their pay for the night boosted with free drinks. “Doing it full-time, the more work I got, the more I drank, and the more hungover I was,” she recalls. “Then I’d drink the next night to get over the hangover. It’s dangerous when it’s so accessible.” She stresses something that many forget: drag is a profession, not just a hobby or form of entertainment. “If I worked in a call centre and went in s***-faced, everyone would say I’m an alcoholic.”

DJ, singer and drag artist Mars Montana, 27, began their career in Dublin in 2016, and agrees with Nana’s point. “When you work in nightlife, business and pleasure become very, very blurred,” they say. “It becomes messy and difficult to ascertain your boundaries.” After realising they were dependent on alcohol, Mars started taking on sober stints in their early twenties before they stopped drinking altogether. They recall hitting it hard one night and talking to one of the most established performers in the city. “She asked if I was free to do a show that week, but I knew I couldn’t because it’d take me days to recover. I was kicking myself.” Mars believes going sober was a game-changer for their career and the opportunities that came their way. “Life changes when you don’t have a hangover anymore.”

Although Mars, Nana and Heidi may be thriving as sober performers, what about the thousands of others – from industry babies to seasoned acts – who could be struggling with alcohol, drugs or both? Those who do drink or take drugs of course shouldn’t be shamed, but support needs to be available if their lifestyle becomes a problem. However, at the time of writing, there are no official organisations or support services in the UK or US that provide specialised support to performers. “We’re forced to rely on each other and others in the community,” Nana explains. “It’s like our own peer review network or sisterhood.”

‘Drag Race’ star The Vivienne has spoken about her struggles with addiction (Getty)

A 2021 study by University College London found that LGBTQ+ people are significantly more likely to report alcohol and drug misuse than heterosexual people. Operated by queer wellbeing service London Friend, Antidote has provided alcohol and drug support to the UK’s LGBTQ+ population since 2002. “When we look at the factors that can contribute to higher levels of drinking or drug use – isolation, poor self-esteem, low confidence or poor mental health – we know that these are all more common among LGBTQ+ people too,” Monty Moncrieff MBE, the service’s chief executive says. “Queer people are more likely to experience harassment, prejudice and discrimination, and this too can contribute to drinking or using drugs, almost like a form of self-medication.”

Although Antidote doesn’t have any specific statistics about the drag performers that have used the service, Moncrieff sees how their working environments can make them susceptible to developing alcohol and drug problems. “Most people there are on their downtime, relaxing after work, but drag performers are doing their jobs. Many venues will want to be generous to their performers and offer free drinks as a genuine act of kindness. But do they let their bar staff drink while they’re working?”

It’s key to note that queer venues have provided a safe place for the LGBTQ+ community to meet, socialise and express themselves when quite literally nowhere else has. The point, then, isn’t to criticise these spaces, but to instead think of how they can evolve to fit wider needs, and to uplift the wellbeing of their performers.

Steps are, at least, being taken to offer the queer community and performers alcohol-free events, from sober Pride parties to sober drag walking tours and shows. But Nana says that these events are difficult to market and, from the perspective of most venues, tricky to justify based on the money that comes in. “Let’s say half an audience is sober and drinking £1.60 lime and sodas rather than £5 pints,” she says. “How would we possibly repair that without saying to everyone, ‘let’s do some shots?’”.

‘Punters want to buy you drinks at the shows. They want to take a shot with the drag queen’ (iStock)

Although sober spaces are growing, Moncrieff says that traditional bars and clubs – that are already closing at an alarming rate in the UK (more than half closed between 2006 and 2022) – are still the preferred option for many. “Alcohol and drugs are right there all around us as we take our first steps to build our queer friendships and communities,” he says. “That’s not the case for non-LGBTQ+ people.”

Two things are clear: the way the community talks about alcohol needs to change, and representation, as always, matters. “I think there needs to be more tact and consideration when it comes to our language around drinking,” Mars says. “I’ve had people shove drinks in my face and persistently tell me to have some. When I’ve told them I don’t drink, I’ve been asked why, which is an unbelievable question to ask someone.” They add that there is sometimes a feeling in the drag scene that to not join in the chaos is to be a bit of a killjoy.

Awareness that drag and sobriety don’t have to be mutually exclusive is also paramount. Heidi tells me she previously worked as a “sober angel” at the popular London queer party Feel It, where it was her job to ensure the comfort of clubbers who weren’t drinking or taking drugs. “It was great, I had a lot of conversations with young people,” she says. “It felt like something that hadn’t been done before.”

Nana, too, regularly updates her online following about normalising being sober in the scene – and hopes that it makes a difference.

“It’s important for your peers,” she says, “to know that there’s going to be others in the room that also aren’t absolutely off their face.”

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