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
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
IMAGE SIMON PHIPPS