Culture Editor Jeevan Farthing sits down with Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK finalist Ella Vaday, and Anna Bradford of the Glasgow Uni Boob Team, to discuss their campaigns on breast cancer awareness.
“I’m going to do the same makeup that I’ve got on so we can be twins”.
Ella Vaday is putting her mum, Donna, into drag. It’s a staple feature of Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK for contestants to wheel their family members out onto the runway, but Covid-19 meant this didn’t happen in Ella’s season. Donna’s makeover can instead be found in a video for CoppaFeel!, a breast cancer awareness charity that focuses on early detection in young people.
Ella described her mum as “the one woman in my life that’s been there my whole life”. She has had cancer twice: the first time was thyroid cancer at least ten years ago, and the second occasion was while Ella’s season of drag race was still airing, around this time last year. I started by asking Ella about her mum’s journey to getting a diagnosis: “She had some concerns; one of her nipples had inverted and her skin was dry, but she has a dry skin condition anyway and thought nothing of it. Then, without telling the rest of the family, she went to the doctor and got a diagnosis that it was breast cancer. She admitted it to us eventually, but didn’t want to worry me as drag race was airing.”
“You should’ve told me”, Ella recalled telling her mum off, half joking now. But there is still a stigma surrounding breast cancer, whether that be putting off getting any concerns checked out, or not wanting to tell your loved ones bad news. This is especially apparent among young people, and Ella agreed that “as a young person you think you’re invincible and nothing can happen to you”. That’s why, as part of CoppaFeel!’s emphasis on reaching young people, there exists Uni Boob Teams all around the country which volunteer for the charity. Anna Bradford is the president of the Glasgow Uni Boob Team (GUBT), and when I asked her to sum up what they do on campus, she said that the “key phrase is raising awareness”. “That’s the main aim of CoppaFeel!, not so much to do with research or treatment, but addressing the misconception that younger people are not affected.”
Both Anna and Ella had much praise for CoppaFeel!. I asked Anna how she works with the national charity, and if there are any logistical difficulties running a team in Scotland for an organisation based in London. She reassured me that there is “a person who connects all the boob teams and every Uni Boob Team leader from the whole of the UK on a WhatsApp group, and she organises meetings with us every few weeks”. Ensuring no part of the UK is left behind sits well with CoppaFeel!’s ethos of inclusivity, which Ella cited as the main reason why she chose to work with them: “What I love about CoppaFeel! is that they want to talk to everyone, whether you identify as male, female, or anything in the whole spectrum of genders. Often when we talk about breast cancer it’s seen as a female thing, but actually it can affect men and everyone. As a younger generation we’re so much more forward thinking about everything, we can’t leave anyone out.”
Ella would mention CoppaFeel! unprompted, even when answering questions not really to do with the work of the charity. Her enthusiasm for their inclusivity approach was clear, but I couldn’t help noticing that the GUBT committee is entirely female, and mostly made up of medical students. Indeed, when I asked Anna about collaborating with other societies on campus, the first two events she mentioned were with the Obstetrics and Gynaecology Society and the Feminist Society. She admitted off her own back that to reach everyone affected “it is very important to reach out to societies that are not ‘female’ dominated as such”, and expressed frustration that “sometimes with the resources CoppaFeel! gives us everything is pink…when we were at the welcome fair holding giant blow up boobs some people perhaps think we’re a ‘free the nipple’ society because of that.”
It’s a tough balance to strike: our continued association of the colour pink with femininity – and the fact that it is still mostly women who are affected – means that its ubiquity in CoppaFeel!’s literature seems almost inevitable. However, CoppaFeel! are unwavering on the inclusivity of their language, and I asked whether Ella agreed that this was an inherently good thing. “100%. I was on the CoppaFeel! self-checkout tool and one of the first things they ask is whether you prefer the term breast, pecs, boobs or chest, so you instantly feel included depending on what you want to refer to your body as. I think we need inclusive language everywhere, it has gotten better recently but there’s always more we can do.” Anna also agreed when asked, saying that the language is very much that “breast cancer can affect anyone at any age.”
Getting the language right feels all the more important when one of CoppaFeel!’s main strategies is checking your body regularly. For a younger generation increasingly engaged in body positivity movements – whether that be through Instagram or TikTok – I wondered whether some sort of overlap exists between the two campaigns. As a drag queen, and someone who trained as dancer, Ella knows her body very well: “I actually trained as a dancer so I’ve literally been staring at myself in the mirror since I was 12, in fact I’m sick of looking at myself, but I can see or feel any changes in my body straight away.” This won’t be the case for everyone, though, and “what’s great about CoppaFeel! is that they offer so many services. You can get a free text reminder to check yourself – which is great when you’re a student or you’re busy like myself or my mum – and they also give you some pointers on when would be a good time to do it, such as when you’re in the shower, putting on fake tan, or moisturising. Especially among young people, it is so important to be at one with yourself and not avoid looking at yourself or touching yourself.”
On reaching younger people directly, while Ella does not have the advantage of a university campus to promote her activities, she described her Instagram following of over 300,000 as not only “so diverse, but a real variation of ages, genders and locations”. Such a following is largely due to Drag Race, and I asked about the importance of the show in facilitating such a platform. “I don’t want to just use my platform to do nothing. Having something that I feel so strongly and passionately about like breast cancer, and it affecting the most important person in your life – the ability to give back in this way to charity means a lot.”
The show itself has undoubtedly helped so many people just by giving its contestants a voice: the frank and emotional conversation between Bimini Bon Boulash and Ginny Lemon about being non-binary on season 2, or Charity Kase opening up their HIV status on season 3, immediately spring to mind. While Ella emphasised that because episodes are only an hour “there’s so much more of my story that you didn’t see”, “what drag race does really well is open up to a family audience. I meet so many mums and dads who come along with their kids and I learn so much from listening to their stories. We forget that drag is much more mainstream now and that’s what’s great about it. There’s not so many taboos. What’s so great about the show is seeing people talk openly – when I was a kid no one talked openly about anything – and hopefully by doing a video like this with my mum talking so honestly, young people will listen.”
Lacking a large digital following, or a slot on BBC iPlayer, GUBT has to be especially inventive in their strategies of reaching out to students. Anna described that they’ve “basically had to build our new society from scratch so it has been quite a slow start, and it’s been quite tough getting things like SRC affiliation, but during breast cancer awareness month we contacted sports team in the uni and asked them to wear pink – there’s a really lovely photo of the Badminton team which we put on our social media. We also did MapmyBaps – getting sports team to run in the shape of boobs and reposting them on our story, while we made posters around the QMU and GUU saying who we are and promoting a text sign up, so if you text UBTGLA to 82228 you get a free monthly reminder to check yourself.”
After my two conversations with Ella and Anna it was striking just how enjoyable these campaigns are for them. Ella said that her mum “had the best day ever” filming for CoppaFeel! and getting into drag – “it really cheered her up” – while so many of the events GUBT put on are completely silly and fun, with Anna describing a “face paint and glitter night” they hope to have in HIVE next semester.
Behind the smiles and laughs is such an important cause, and every contribution helps, no matter how big or small. Anna described that GUBT have scaled down their scope recently, their aim no longer being to raise money: “now we just focus on raising awareness, because some smaller unis really struggled to have these big fundraising events and we were being compared”. But there is still clearly much work to do just in raising awareness, and it was refreshing to speak to two people from such different walks of life united behind the same cause.
With GUBT you have medical students applying the knowledge they have from their degree to help other students, maybe even their friends, while Ella’s perspective as a drag queen, who is “sometimes pretending to be a woman but myself a man”, is invaluable for a campaign so laser focused on reaching everyone affected. Whether you sell out arenas across the country and have a PR team managing your diary, or you’re just another student being interviewed in the canteen on level three of the library, each person campaigning could help somebody. Anna summed it up best when she said “if we could even reach one person to do regular checking, that’s still such a good thing”. When it’s something as serious and scary as detecting breast cancer, it’s especially hard not to agree.
Advice and support on detecting breast cancer is available on CoppaFeel!’s website.