Jonny Woo

We got a lit­tle motto, al­ways sees us through, when you’re good to Mama, Mama’s good to you... And the Mama – sorry, daddy – we’re talk­ing about in this in­stance is ac­claimed drag star, cabaret per­former ex­traor­di­naire, and ma­tri­arch of Lon­don’s queer sce

Gay Times Magazine - - Contents - WORDS ryan butcher

The Royal Va­ri­ety is your strand for main­stream en­ter­tain­ment, so I thought it would be nice to do an al­ter­na­tive for that! What you wouldn’t show the Queen.

Al­though it’s not about pro­duc­ing stuff that’s of­fen­sive or be­ing like, ‘Oh, let’s just fuck­ing show our ar­se­holes’ – be­cause you wouldn’t show that to the Queen! But more like queer, po­lit­i­cal and provoca­tive stuff.

With the first Un-Royal Va­ri­ety last year, it was just go­ing to be my pals and I thought, oh, Myra Dubois! David Mills! Ga­teux Cho­co­lat! What a great va­ri­ety show – that’ll be bril­liant. And then the Euro­pean Union ref­er­en­dum hap­pened and I was like, ‘Oh fuck.’ Ev­ery­one got re­ally an­noyed and pissed off, so the show had to be po­lit­i­cal. So last year, given the na­ture of the cli­mate we were in, it had a po­lit­i­cal vibe to it.

2016 was – ac­cord­ing to ev­ery­body – the worst year ever. I don’t think it was quite the worst year ever, but there were a few things that hap­pened – and 2017 is it’s big, bad, ugly sis­ter! So there’s plenty of ma­te­rial and stuff hap­pen­ing that’s feed­ing into the nar­ra­tive of this year. There’s stuff I’m playing around with like, ‘How do I, as the host, cre­ate orig­i­nal ma­te­rial around all these ideas, but still keep it up­beat, ex­cit­ing and fun?’ Ob­vi­ously we’ve got all the artists bring­ing stuff to the ta­ble, and I’m not dic­tat­ing to them, but by the very na­ture of the work they do, there’ll be some kind of po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary.

The Un-Royal Va­ri­ety isn’t a safe space, though – it’s an un­safe space! I don’t like this phrase ‘safe space’ though. I’ve got a bit of a prob­lem with it. Only be­cause grow­ing up int he 80s and then go­ing out in the 90s, go­ing out was al­ways about go­ing to re­ally dan­ger­ous places. And a lot of it at the time was about drugs for me as well. OK, maybe the Un-Royal Va­ri­ety is a bit of a safe space. But a safe, un-safe space.

This en­vi­ron­ment we’re in – East Lon­don– it’s ex­cit­ing and frus­trat­ing all at the same time.

It’s ex­cit­ing be­cause we’re at the fore­front of these con­ver­sa­tions about gen­der and race, but it’s frus­trat­ing be­cause there’s a lot of po­lit­i­cal in­cor­rect di­a­logue hap­pen­ing, which can be dis­abling some­times. But it can also be pos­i­tive, be­cause it makes you re­ally ques­tion what you’re do­ing. You have to re­ally think about it, but some­times you have just, like, lighten up.

I was hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with a friend re­cently and it was about a com­ment in the film Dressed as a Girl that is made about HIV – and it was a re­ally flip­pant com­ment about HIV, the kind that we’d make at The Glory [Jonny’s pub and cabaret bar in East Lon­don] some­times. And it’s like, yeah, we can say those com­ments ac­tu­ally be­cause we’re liv­ing with that shit – our friends, our­selves, what

have you. We have a right to ad­dress things head on. Some­times there’s a sen­si­tiv­ity around things and it stops progress from mov­ing for­wards. The Un-Royal Va­ri­ety, be­ing in Hack­ney, is right in the heart of East Lon­don – and it’s a re­ally ex­cit­ing scene to have these con­ver­sa­tions. Ob­vi­ously the race con­ver­sa­tion is one that we’re go­ing to have, be­cause we’ve all seen the storm around Mun­roe Bergdorf and ev­ery­thing that’s hap­pened with her. I think we’re very lucky and very chal­lenged all at the same time, but it’s good to keep pushing and pro­vok­ing, and not cen­sor­ing in si­lence.

Some­times though, a lot of the con­ver­sa­tions we’re hav­ing don’t get as far as out­side of the com­mu­nity. I’ve got straight friends who I’ve known for years, who all have kids, and I say to them, ‘What od you think of this “All white peo­ple are racist” thing?’ And they’re like, ‘What’re you talk­ing about?!’ It’s be­cause we’re on our Twit­ter feeds all the time and we only hear from the peo­ple we fol­low. So a lot of the con­ver­sa­tions we’re hav­ing feel like an in­ter­nal thing. The queer scene now feels very in­te­grated, but in some ways it feels re­ally sep­a­rate. It’s very tribal. There’s this whole thing about drag queens not be­ing able to get bear clubs – it’s re­ally weird. What’s that all about? I get that some guys want to hang around other guys, but if a fuck­ing drag queen comes into a club you’re hardly go­ing to lose your boner, are you? These con­ver­sa­tions can put al­lies against al­lies; they can make en­e­mies out of al­lies.

I do try and lis­ten to what peo­ple say­ing though, like the con­ver­sa­tions that are had around the ‘t’ word. I don’t’ par­tic­u­larly agree with the en­tire con­ver­sa­tion, but I will change my out­ward lan­guage around other peo­ple be­cause it might be of­fen­sive. How I choose to speak among my im­me­di­ate peers though might be some­thing else. [Lon­don-based trans drag queen] Miss Kim­berly has no qualms what­so­ever about us­ing the ‘t’ word – she sings about it! But then an­other trans­gen­der per­son might dis­agree. So I’m not go­ing to shout it from the rooftops, cer­tainly, but I’ll choose as to how and where I might use it.

And I’ve lis­tened to the race con­ver­sa­tion, too

– I’ve lis­tened to that. We’ve tried to in­cor­po­rate that into our pro­gramme at The Glory by speak­ing to black artists and Asian per­form­ers. And yeah, we have to make more of an ef­fort. But some­times there’s a bit of hos­til­ity that comes with it. I think some more op­pressed mem­bers of the com­mu­nity are feel­ing em­pow­ered at the moment, so they’re shout­ing loudly, and I think the more priv­i­leged mem­bers of our com­mu­nity don’t like it when they get called out, or their lan­guage gets crushed or their be­hav­iour gets ques­tioned.

I re­mem­ber when po­lit­i­cal came round the first time at the end of the 80s and be­gin­ning of the

90s – when al­ter­na­tive com­edy came in. Al­ter­na­tive com­edy was all about not putting other peo­ple down on race, on sex, on all these dif­fer­ent things. So you had things like French and Saun­ders and The Young Ones – all stupid hu­mour. It was ir­rev­er­ent hu­mour. It was po­lit­i­cal hu­mour. And re­ally, we’ve just come full cir­cle. It’s just hap­pen­ing again.

There seems to be a dis­as­so­ci­a­tion with the new gen­er­a­tions that are com­ing in, though. There’s all this talk about mil­len­ni­als, but there feels like a dis­tance – it’s al­most like we of the older gen­er­a­tions are talk­ing a dif­fer­ent lan­guage. It’s like, ‘Do you un­der­stand why cot­tag­ing ex­isted or why that kind of sex­ual be­hav­iour be­tween men ac­tu­ally hap­pened?’ Or, ‘Do you un­der­stand the trauma we’ve been through to get where we are to­day?’ It’s not even like, ‘Pitty us.’ Just ap­pre­ci­ate that we’ve come into a world where not all our rights and not all our le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion has been in place. It’s a pretty fuck­ing amaz­ing thing that all that is in place now. But when you’ve grown up un­der Sec­tion 28, not been able to have sex un­til you’re 21, and you get through and and bowl through it and it’s all fun and mad, but there’s a lot of pain in there as well.

So when you look at why we used the ‘t’ word? For us, it was a sis­ter­hood thing. When I first started do­ing drag, it wasn’t be­cause I wanted to be a drag queen, be­cause we didn’t re­late to the tra­di­tional style of drag. I didn’t want to be a drag queen, so we didn’t use that word. We were more fas­ci­nated by

trans­ves­tites and it felt like what we were do­ing was more cross-dresser-y. And that’s where our di­a­logue came from.

Now, I just call my­self a per­former. And if any­one asks me what kind of per­former, that’s when you have to go, like, ‘Drag…’ What our women’s clothes, any­way? You just put them on! What’s a dress? A dress hasn’t got a gen­der, it’s just some­thing that’s mar­keted to women. That’s all. I’ve put on heels and they make you move dif­fer­ently and you feel dif­fer­ent on stage, but does that make me a drag queen? It just means I’ve got heels on! I’m just a per­former, I think. But I take my clothes off just as much as I put them on. Espe­cially since I’ve been go­ing to the gym all the time…

I started per­form­ing in 2000 in New York City. Af­ter three years of do­ing the NYC stuff, I came back and started do­ing stuff in East Lon­don – the Ge­orge and Dragon, mad par­ties, things like that. Just throw­ing ideas around and chuck­ing stuff out there. Gay Bingo – we did that! It was highly sex­u­alised and I was highly off my head. Those early days of the East Lon­don gay scene form­ing were re­ally ex­cit­ing.

When [busi­ness part­ner] Colin and I were look­ing for places to open The Glory, we looked at a pub in Hack­ney, but we didn’t want to put a bid on the place be­cause it was clearly an East Lon­don boozer and had its own com­mu­nity around it. I felt more OK about the place we ac­tu­ally opened

The Glory though be­cause it was just a dor­mant pub – there was noth­ing there. It had this re­ally chequered past, so if any­thing we’ve breathed new life into a venue. The pub that I passed on that I just men­tioned is a hip­ster bar now. There’s a lot of work­ing class com­mu­nity spa­ces that are clos­ing down as the eco­nomic mi­grants come flood­ing in and bull­doze over ev­ery­thing. This city changes.

The Glory though has grown into some­thing big­ger than I ever ex­pected. I think it has an im­por­tance that’s out­grown its walls. I feel like I need to serve some­thing that has an ex­is­tence big­ger than what I thought it would be. It’s be­come a space that peo­ple come to – a lot of per­form­ers, com­ing to try stuff out. We’ve got a stage, and there are a lot of per­form­ers out there who need a stage. We get loads of new peo­ple com­ing through, peo­ple with ideas, throw­ing knives. Even as a pub, there aren’t re­ally any gay pubs any­more where you can just go and grab a pint. We’ve got a lot of com­mu­nity-es­que events hap­pen­ing along­side the club nights, and we have ev­ery­thing from a non-bi­nary crowd to a South Asian night. We even have an LGBT+ Turk­ish night com­ing up. And we do a Jewish night. And an Ir­ish night. And a Span­ish night – Gayspa­cho! Even that’s too big for The Glory now, so we have to do it some­where else.

I do get bored though, and that’s why I don’t re­ally re­peat shows. Like the Brexit mu­si­cal I did last year. It cost me a shit load of money and a lot of work­ing went into it, but I’m al­ways mov­ing on to the next thing. There are some amaz­ing songs in that mu­si­cal and it needs to get per­former more, be­cause it was a re­ally well-writ­ten show. We did a re­ally good com­men­tary about the ref­er­en­dum and what it said about our­selves, but we moved on to the next thing. I’m con­stantly work­ing. I’m a cre­ative per­son, so if I’m not cre­ative then I get de­pressed.

Do I feel like a bit of a mother hen for Lon­don’s queers? I’m 45 now! I’m a daddy! But I do en­joy nur­tur­ing new per­form­ers, I en­joy see­ing them come through and giv­ing them the ben­e­fit of my dis­as­ters. But I’m al­ways striv­ing to be a star too. Kind of. Re­luc­tantly.

In like 2005, 2006, I had a TV con­tract and ev­ery­thing. Gay Bingo was go­ing to be a TV show and I to­tally screwed that up. I was do­ing lots of drugs and drink­ing. Drink­ing and drug tak­ing got in the way of me be­ing able to seize op­por­tu­ni­ties that were right in front of my face. But now I’m in a place where I can de­liver a show and re­ally think about what I’m try­ing to do – and also cre­ate a prod­uct that I want to cre­ate. The first thing I want to do when I have a mi­cro­phone in my hand though is take off all my clothes, roll around and say some­thing hideous. I do think the Un-Royal Va­ri­ety should be on TV though – I think it would be a great one off thing. Like when the Se­cret Po­lice­man’s

Ball used to be on TV. TV pro­gram­ming these days though is so dif­fer­ent – it’s so dull. Celebrity cul­ture is so painfully, te­diously soul de­stroy­ing and I have no in­ter­est in that what­so­ever. To gen­uinely get to do some­thing that’s purely cre­ative – like I’m do­ing now – is enough for me.

“Just ap­pre­ci­ate that we’ve come into a world where not all our rights and not all our le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion has been in place. When you’ve grown up un­der Sec­tion 28, you bowl through it and it’s mad, but there’s a lot of pain as well.”

Jonny Woo’s Un-Royal Va­ri­ety takes place at the Hack­ney Em­pire, Lon­don, on 3-4 Novem­ber, hack­neyem­pire.co.uk. To keep up to date with what’s go­ing on at The Glory, in Kings­land Road, visit the­glory.co or fol­low The Glory on Twit­ter at @the­glo­ry­lon­don. And fi­nally, keep up to date with Jonny and his many, many on­go­ing projects by fol­low­ing him on Twit­ter at @jon­ny­woouk

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