Newly crowned RuPaul’s Drag Race queen Yvie Oddly went into Season 11 as an obvious fierce frontrunner, but it wasn’t until she pushed herself too hard and injured her ankle, during the “Draglympics” dance challenge, that viewers found out that she was living with an invisible disability and near-constant pain.
The 25-year-old punk-rock drag performer, whose real name is Jovan Bridges, had been battling chronic pain throughout the competition, and throughout her entire life, because of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome type 3, or hypermobile EDS (hEDS) — an incurable connective tissue disease that causes hyper-flexibility due to a lack of collagen production, and affects the skin, bones, blood vessels, and many organs.
"I don't produce a whole lot of collagen, so I have extra skin everywhere," Yvie explained to Drag Race producers, demonstratively stretching the loose skin on her scalp and face. "And I'm prone to dislocating my knees and things like that. But it's not going to hold me back in this competition."
Yvie wasn’t at all ashamed of her EDS, but she was discreet about it at first, due to the tendency of many ableists, and possibly even her fellow contestants, to dismiss those suffering from invisible disabilities. But eventually, her EDS was, ironically, an asset in the competition: The former teen gymnast was able to contort her super-flexible body into dramatic, Gumby-like shapes, particularly during the finale lip-sync to Lady Gaga’s aptly titled “Edge of Glory” that secured her victory.
Still, Yvie is sadly aware that she won’t be able to perform like this for much longer. In a recent essay for Out.com, she wrote, "I know eventually I'm going to have to stop doing all of my crazy exhaustive acrobatic performances,” and during one poignant moment on Drag Race she noted that some people with EDS III eventually have to use wheelchairs, often while they are still very young.
But Yvie assures Yahoo Entertainment that nothing is going to prevent her from pursuing her career full-force. It’s the kickoff to Pride Month, and she has a lot to be proud of. She just released a music video for her debut single “Dolla Store,” and she’s “still turning out an amazing product and still following my dreams within my body's capability.” As she puts it, “I want to make sure I'm still living.”
Yahoo Entertainment: Have you gotten any feedback from fans, who are suffering from chronic pain or invisible disabilities, saying they’ve been inspired by your story?
Yvie Oddly: It's crazy, because everywhere I go, I'm meeting people that I didn't think existed before, because I refused to ever talk about it within myself or talk about how this disease was affecting my life. I never knew that there were other people out there who are going through the same or similar struggles. And now I feel like everywhere I go, there’s somebody else who understands what it's like to have to fight through this chronic pain. I feel like I've cried almost everywhere I go; I have a breakdown with somebody who tells me that they're really appreciative of me speaking out. And I'm so glad I did too now, because otherwise I just would have gone my whole life dealing with this pain alone.
Had you not planned to bring it up when you were on the show, or were you reluctant to bring it up? Or did you go on with the intention of creating awareness for EDS and similar conditions?
I mean, much like everything else on the show, I wanted to be honest and talk about it if it came up, like if there were issues. But I also was really hoping that there wouldn't be, because I didn't want my journey to be defined by my health, or by whether or not my body was working with me that day. I thought of it as this point of weakness — instead of as this point of strength in that yes, despite the fact that I am working through this invisible pain, I'm still turning out an amazing product and still following my dreams within my body's capability.
What was biggest physical challenge for you when competing on Drag Race?
It was that Olympic week, because we had just gotten done with like a bunch of physical movement and my body was already not at tip-top shape. And in general, it's been kind of that same challenge: having to tell myself that I don't have to throw out every trick in the book and that I don't have to break my body down just because I want an audience to have a good night.
This may be a weird question, but is your condition sometimes an unexpected asset? Because obviously one of the trademarks of your performances, including the lip-sync that won you the crown, is your bendy-ness. You can do things with your body that most people cannot.
The really hard part is if my doctor saw my lip-sync [on the finale], he'd chew me out! So, I know that I'm doing things that I still shouldn't be doing. And that's why it's smart, because I have to find that balance. But for me, it's so much more important to make the art and live the life that you can, while you can still live that. Of course I want to live long and healthy and I want my body to be here — um, if I don't have my body, then I don't have the platform to do my art. But I also really badly just want to make that statement, and it's been so amazing, the things I can do with my body. It's been amazing using all of those skills to get here and to shock people in a new way. That being said, now that everybody knows I can do these backbends, I need to find new skills.
Tell me why, exactly, your doctor would be upset to see your stunt-filled performances.
People with EDS really, actually aren't supposed to be active. Period. I remember I had to pull out of gymnastics when I was a teenager because the pain was just getting too bad. And the doctor just recommended, outside of physical therapy, living a pretty sedentary lifestyle. And I'm just not good at that!
What do you do for self-care?
I've been listening to the calls of my body a lot more and not pushing it past the limit. When I'm feeling something [painful], I have to respond. I've started drinking a lot more water than I ever thought I would in my life. I do get massages and take plenty of baths, but I also have started taking a bunch of different vitamin supplements, all these things that are suggested for people with chronic pain, like glucosamine, which is good for your joints. I'm just trying to do the little things I can, while I can.
I remember you saying something on the show about how your career in drag might be cut short because of EDS. What exactly is your prognosis?
The thing is, I don't know what my time limit is. It's not like one day I'll be doing it and the next day I won’t. Over the years. I've lost a lot of the skills that I used to be able to do, because my body is in a lot more pain or it can't handle the wear and tear. I know that as I continue to do drag, there's going to be less and less performance-wise that I'm going to be able to do. That's been really hard to sort of wrap my mind around. But I also know, thanks to all of my friends and loved ones, that I'm much more than just my backbends. I've got a good brain too. So, even if I won't be performing, or won't be performing in the same way, that doesn't mean there isn't a future for me.
You have an edgy, alternative, unpolished aesthetic. Is that at all related to feeling like an outsider all your life, and embracing and owning that feeling?
I've always just really liked pushing boundaries. That's what I'm here for. I’ve really appreciated some of the diverse, crazy representation I've seen on the show, but I always think there can be more. I always think that more can be done, and that's what drives me. That's what drove me to get there, and now that I did my thing, I'm excited to see if anyone goes even crazier [in future Drag Race seasons].
You were described as having a “steely exterior” and “sharp edges” on the show. Were you bullied as a kid for being different, for your EDS?
I wasn't, like, dramatically bullied. … That's the thing, [doctors] didn't really diagnose me until I was in my teenage years. I've just always dealt with the pain. I'd always experienced the pain. We just never really understood why. We thought it was maybe growing pains; we just didn't honestly explore any of that. So I got to have like a full, rich, rounded childhood, and then as I've grown into my adulthood, I've just had the tone down the activities that I do.
What are the things you want to do next with your career, while you can?
I honestly just want to explore. I want to see what I can do now that I've got this platform. I want to try all this different art. I want to make magic across all these different mediums. I want to scare myself. I want to make sure I'm still living.
Do you feel an increased sense of urgency to get it all done now?
No, actually what's crazy is my whole career up until now, I'd been working with this sense of urgency, knowing that I'm losing skills, losing the cool things to show people on Drag Race. And now that I got on and now that I've won, I feel like that rush of urgency has kind of left my body, because I've gotten to show the best of what I can do. And so now, I just get to explore what those doors have opened for me. I feel probably the calmest I've ever felt in my life.
That’s great! Last question: What lessons or message do you want people to glean from your RuPaul’s Drag Race success, if they're struggling with something similar and feeling discouraged?
I would say, speak up. Nobody in the world will know you're hurting if you don't speak up. And know that it's not your fault that other people don't understand or might not believe you. But if you don't even try, then you're just suffering in silence alone. The second one is super-corny, so Disney, but here it is: You can do anything. I know we have limits on our bodies and limits on what we're able to pull off as human beings, but if I can make it through the whole of Drag Race in heels for those long-ass judges’ critiques, then you can push yourself to do amazing, beautiful things! Just as long as you work hard and take care of yourself.
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