Owner of The Ku Group

- ku- bar. co. uk Words & photograph­y Markus Bidaux

Ku Group’s Gary Henshaw

As a young man, Gary Henshaw discovered that his calling was to give the LGBTQ community a place to party. He worked his way up at various gay venues in Copenhagen, Ibiza and London before opening a bar of his own. His empire includes Ku Bar, Ku Klub, Little Ku, The Light Lounge and She Soho.

What was it like growing up in Ireland?

I was born in Dublin in 1964 and it was presumed that I would just become a butcher for my father’s business. Even at school, I would tell career guidance people that I wanted to be a vet or I had dreams.

They’d reply: “Your father is a very successful businessma­n, you’re going to be a butcher and should be very proud.” I hated being a butcher. In 1983, when I was 20, I called the gay community Hirschfeld Centre and went to talk to somebody and that was my coming out experience. Being gay was still illegal in Ireland then and it was horrific for me. I was bullied at school, I was bullied at work, pig’s ears in my pockets all the time, even though my dad was the owner of the business. Some of them knew I was gay before I did. When I found there was actually an illegal, but thriving, gay scene I was amazed. But I had to weigh that up with coming out at the exact same time as an explosion of the “gay plague”. So, it was a bit of a mixed bag, coming to the scene while being scared by what was going on in it.

How did you get out of the butcher business?

I got involved in politics and had a trip to Europe funded. Once I found Oslo and saw gay people walking around holding hands, that was it. In those days, flying was still very expensive so I took a train and I got as far as Copenhagen and fell in love with a Danish boy. I worked for Burger King for a few days and hated it but I was running out of money. I went to a gay bar called Pan Club visibly upset. The owner came up to talk to me, then offered me a job. I started working in the nightclub in 1985. I fell in love with the business.

How long did you stay in Copenhagen?

Copenhagen was cold and after being there for about a year and a bit, I needed sunshine again. I had earned a lot of money, so I splurged around southern Europe having a ball, discoverin­g all these fantastic gay scenes. In 1987, I ended up in a Ibiza and took over a little gay bar called Catwalk. I was a 23, I was king of the world.

How did you end up in London?

I spent three years living in Ibiza and was returning to Dublin via London. I was in the Hippodrome, which was gay on Monday nights, and was introduced to Gordon Lewis, a businessma­n who wanted to open a gay bar. We agreed that a new concept was needed: a very liberal bar, different to all of the traditiona­l gay bars in London. We opened Village West

One in 1990. It had a continenta­l cafe style and we interviewe­d good- looking sexy guys for jobs, which hadn’t been done before. It was an instant success, and within a year, we transferre­d to the Village. That was a gamechange­r in London’s gay scene.

How many bars do you own now?

I’ve got two sites, divided into five units. Ku Bar, Ku Club and the Light Lounge in one unit and across the road, Little Ku and She Soho, London’s only dedicated full- time lesbian bar.

What does Ku mean?

When I lived in Ibiza, there was a big club called Ku. I asked the Brazilian owner what it meant and he said it was Portuguese for arse.

What are the biggest challenges when opening your own bar?

Finances are a challenge. To get people to believe in you is a challenge, to get people to lend you money is a challenge. It’s as if you have to be successful to get them to help you.

How do you create a good atmosphere in a bar?

It’s all about the team. This is an industry that if you’re not happy in it, you shouldn’t be in it. We have constant meetings with the staff to make sure they are happy and want to be here.

What’s been the craziest night in your bars?

The closing night of the original Ku Bar on Charing Cross Road. We had announced that we were moving to a new venue but people had been coming there for a long time. It was a very emotional night, we ended with Goodbye, by the Spice Girls, and everyone was in tears.

How do you keep your bars thriving?

You have to keep up with the changing times and find your spot in the market. I see Ku Bar as quite an upmarket bar and we’ve introduced a kind of hetero- friendline­ss without losing our gayness. It’s important to get that balance right, in this day and age kids hang out with their friends: LGBTQ, straight, it’s irrelevant to them. The only one that doesn’t work on those rules is She Soho, where any man has to be the guest of a woman to get in.

What do you do for the LGBTQ community?

Given the generation I’m from, I am interested in anything to do with HIV/ Aids. Our World Aids auction is famous in Ku Bar, we have raised tens of thousands of pounds over the years for HIV charities. We do sexual- health testing in Little Ku every Saturday. We’ve invested in the arts, putting money into independen­t LGBTQ theatre production­s. And we also give our spaces to queer community groups free of charge when they are available.

What’s the best part of your job?

You get into this business because you like seeing people happy. Then it comes to fruition when I’m invited to two staff members’ wedding or I’ll look at a Facebook post of a group of people in Brazil and know they met at, or worked for, Ku. Five years ago, we had the 20th anniversar­y, and about a hundred staff from over the years attended.

What’s the worst part of the job?

Rapidly rising rates and rents, which affect all LGBTQ venues. There’s also a litigation culture that’s starting to have an effect on our insurance. If people have an accident at our venues now, it’s a sue, sue, sue situation.

What else is in the pipeline?

It’s my ambition to bring Chinatown into London Pride. I’m only in early- stage talks but I attend a bi- monthly Chinese and residents’ associatio­n meeting. Everyone has been very favourable about getting involved in Pride. We’re talking about things like having rainbow lanterns in Chinatown next year.

“There were tears on the closing night of the original Ku Bar”

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