Welcome to Drag Me To Hell, a new column in which VICE writer and queen of terror Ben Smoke will be your guide through the UK's many messy, spectacular and diverse drag scenes.
It’s a drizzly Friday evening in Manchester and a bald, chiselled drag queen named Cheddar Gorgeous is regaling me with tales of the city’s queer history. “Most people know about Canal Street from Queer as Folk,” she says, referring to the 90s TV series chronicling the lives of three friends living in the gay village, “but the scene here is so much richer than just that.”
Cheddar leads Manchester-based collective the Family Gorgeous, who are currently the centre of Channel 4’s Drag SOS. Essentially Queer Eye with drag queens, the TV show ships them around country to delve into the lives of various strangers, helping them gain confidence and experience freedom through the magic of drag. As a mainstream offering, it’s almost unique in its lack of competition, but its sense of magic doesn’t come from the format – it comes from the source. The resilience and sense of community inherent to Manchester’s drag scene is what makes Drag SOS so enjoyable, and the same can be said of the city’s queer nightlife, which Cheddar has graciously agreed to give us a guided tour of.
Originally from Birmingham, Cheddar has lived in Manchester for 12 years and considers it home. She tells me this while guiding us towards the first stop on our itinerary, Albert’s Schloss: a straight venue in the middle of the city’s affluent Deansgate area that describes itself as “Manchester’s first Bohemian pleasure palace.”
Two bouncers greet Cheddar warmly as we arrive and we’re ushered through a large room of rowdy heterosexuals enjoying craft lager. On the floor above, we pass an obnoxious novelty bingo night. It seems like a strange choice of venue to begin a queer history tour with, but Cheddar enlightens me: “Albert’s has changed the game. They pay incredibly well and have invested in the scene and the performers.”
Weave deeper into the venue and the detritus of drag begins to appear. The corridors leading to the dressing rooms are heaving with costumes, bowers, headpieces and shoes, packing you in tighter and tighter the higher you ascend the stairs. Finally, in a room on the top floor, we find Joe Spencer – one of the venue’s promoters – chatting with queens who are dashing around, preparing to entertain the masses.
Joe is a stalwart of the Manchester scene and is one of the people responsible for injecting drag into the venue. “Sophie [head of events at the venue], has created this incredible space for us to curate and book the best of Manchester within.” It’s interesting to hear Joe talk, as memories of the floors below have barely faded from my mind. Everything I saw in the floors below chimed of a quintessentially contemporary straight, alternative (with a lowercase ‘a’) venue. The ‘zany’ bingo, the overpriced lager and audacious light fittings all point towards a certain audience, a certain aesthetic, and a certain set of values.
Recent years have seen drag nights, drag brunches, drag bingos and a contoured, cinched variation on pretty much every other activity sprout up in ‘edgy’ venues across the UK. The quens I meet tonight maintain that Albert’s is different. They talk about ‘bills gigs’ and ‘art gigs’ – the former are ones you do to keep the lights on; the latter are the ones where you really get to lean into the art of drag.
“As a plus sized performer, I get to do some really risque shit at Alberts,” Joe tells me. “And the thing is, you’re not preaching to the converted – you’re challenging your audience, and that feels good.”
Joe moved to Manchester from Liverpool when he was younger after hearing about a club night called Bollox, whose reputation reaches far beyond the M60. The night started in the early 2000s at Legends, a cavernous space just outside the Gay Village that closed in 2012. Now Bollox operates out of the Deaf Institute, a three-floor venue just next to Manchester Metropolitan University.
“It was unlike anything that had been on the scene,” Joe says. “A place where you could go and listen to riot grrl and alternative music. It’s where I met everyone, where a lot of the [Manchester] community began to form.”
Manchester is world-famous for its cultural exports – between the Hacienda and The 1975, the city punches far beyond its weight. Its queer scene is no different. That being said, it’s seen its peaks and troughs. “After the heyday of the 90s, the scene stagnated a little,” Cheddar tells me. It wasn’t until alternative clubs and movements like Bollox came along that it started to rejuvenate.
Floating around various clubs on the fringes of the Village after the Legends closure, Bollox became the home for established queens like Marilyn Misandry, Lill (also of the Family Gorgeous) and so many others. Ultimately, it was Bollox and its ramshackle nature that inspired Joe, his partner Niall, Cheddar and others to start their own night called Tranarchy in 2009.
“I liked that it was really unpolished, really messy and that everyone was learning,” Joe says. “We made no money from it, but it felt necessary.”
There’s a tendency to try to summarise any cultural scene, but there is no ‘quintessential’ view of Manchester drag. “Unlike London,” Cheddar tells me, “where everything is quite separate, Bollox and latterly Tranarchy changed the entire scene, and the more ‘traditional’ clubs in the Village started to do more alternative and boundary pushing things once they saw how popular those nights were.”
From that first contemporary alternative scene sprung Cha Cha Boudoir, a sweaty, chaotic and rebellious night run by Cheddar and the Family Gorgeous that gave birth to many of the queens working in the city today. Nights like Fatty Acid and Body Horror followed, cementing Manchester’s position as a place in which drag thrived in all of its forms.
Far from the days of legendary queen Foo Foo Lamar, who opened the iconic Foo Foo’s in the 1970s and put the city on the map as a gay destination, the drag and club nights that have erupted in the city in the last 15 years are indicative of a scene rich and full of extraordinary talent. Albert’s Schloss is the next generation of that scene, taking the talent from within it and showcasing it to a bigger audience than ever before – for better or worse.
“The view of drag outside of London is that we could somehow sum it up in one scene or one night,” Cheddar says, “when the reality is so much more complicated and complex.”
Joe adds: “The general Manchester attitude, in and out of the drag scene, is that we don’t compete. There’s a lot of heart in the community, so even if you’re in different circles you cross over and look after each other. You turn up.”
Next on our tour is Richmond Tea Rooms, which used to be on Richmond Street – hence the name – and has now relocated to a different building just round the corner. “It’s still fun and camp!” Cheddar promises me.
The venue is beautiful – wisteria lit by fairy lights is draped over the doorway, fake topiary trails the edges of the indoor seating – but it has the same vibe as an sanitised, upmarket Covent Garden cocktail bar. As we arrive, an Alice in Wonderland-themed night patronised mainly by straight women is just finishing up. Liquorice Black, the resident seamstress in Drag SOS, is taking part dressed as the White Rabbit.
Richmond Tea Rooms is fun and camp, but both of those qualities are brought to it through the presence of performers from the LGBTQ community. As a venue, it’s unarguably dulled by its obvious need to cater to a wider audience, which isn’t unusual based on our exploration of the city. The history and heritage that are woven deep into the fabric of Manchester feels absent from much for what’s on offer in the city centre, which serves up either venues catering for straight audiences like Richmond Tea Rooms, or club after club that, to the untrained eye, look like any venue to be found in any gay district in the country.
That is, of course, unless you know what you’re looking for. Next, we descend into the bowels of Bar Pop, a chintzy multi-floored bar/club, where we’re confronted by a proper old school drag show. While modern drag is often focused on either passing or pushing the boundaries of gender and art, the queens here are your archetypal 'men in wigs' making crude, borderline misogynistic jokes, creeping on straight men in the audience and firing cheap shots at lesbians. As we watch, enjoying their incredible voices and grimacing at the uncomfortable attempts at comedy, Cheddar leans across the bar and proffers some typically astute analysis.
“The thing about the Manchester scene is that it’s all on top of each other,” she begins. “In London you go specific places – east for mess, north for weird – but here the Village is so small that everything is laid on top of each other, and that’s what makes it special. Down here you have traditional drag catering to a mainly straight crowd, and above it is a classic gay bar full of punters. A few doors along can be experimental cabaret in an attic bar, while four floors underneath it is a bar dedicated to musicals. A few streets over is a sex club exclusively for men next to a mural of the city’s drag icons.”
The Molly House Mural is just a few streets back from the canal, painted on the side of building opposite a sign protesting the sterilisation of the Gay Village. It includes the good and great of Manchester history, including Foo Foo Lamar, Anna Phylatic (also of The Family Gorgeous), suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, The Naked Civil Servant author Quentin Crisp and WW2 codebreaker Alan Turing.
“I helped judge it and we wanted something that reflected everything about Manchester,” Cheddar tells me. “The past, the present and the future, the hope and the grit of the place.”
We end the night at Cruz 101, almost back where we started. We stand outside as Cheddar tells us about its founders – old school ravers who used to park their car in the centre of the village and party through to Monday, occasionally stopping to pop to their boot and throw on a change of clothes. It’s a quiet start and the dance floor is mostly empty, but Liquorice Black – wig and makeup quick changed from her Alice in Wonderland get-up earlier this evening – still works the room.
Like so many cities, the queer spaces in Manchester have been gentrified by straight people. Queer venues in the Village can’t survive without heterosexual patronage – the LGBTQ community isn’t big enough to support its incredible array of clubs and bars and nights, and you get the sense that for many, particularly at the fringes of the scene, this is a difficult reality to accept. Though they pay well, you can’t help but wonder about the effect that places like Albert’s Schloss and venues like it has on queer spaces in the city.
That being said, it’s hard to escape the fact that most places in the Gay Village were decidedly quiet on the Friday night we visited, aside from the one or two drag shows open to drop-ins. It speaks volumes that the majority of the scene, on that night, was playing out in either straight venues or to straight audiences. I guess Manchester isn’t the type of place you can just turn up to and hope to see something – it requires knowledge, planning and intent.
Still, even on a rainy and quiet night, amid the commercialisation and the stag-dos, you get the sense that the streets hum with something special. Manchester is a city drenched in history. It’s where so many great cultural, political and social movements have begun, including the Peterloo Massacre, the founding of the Guardian newspaper, and the acid house and rave scene that sprung from the Hacienda.
Here, in a small network of streets in the middle of the city, lies a drag scene full of people deeply in love with the art form and everything it inspires them to do. Manchester’s queer nightlife may be relatively small in terms of the actual ground it covers, but there’s no end to the things you can stumble across if you know where to look.
UPDATE 16/08/19: A punctuation error in an earlier version of this piece misattributed quotes to Cheddar Gorgeous. The article has now been updated.