"I'm going on holiday and I'm happy to say there's no drag in the bag," says East London DJ and drag queen John Sizzle, who is finally giving himself a week off. We're sitting in The Glory, a gay pub in east London co-run by John and fellow performer Jonny Woo. It's lunchtime, and the bar is empty. I was here last Friday night, though, and the room was wall to wall with gays. At a time when London's drag pubs are rapidly closing, The Glory is a success story. But then, that's to be expected—John and Jonny are hard working queens; they might do drag for fun, but they've also built decade-long careers out of it.
These careers are documented in a new film about their lives called Dressed As a Girl. The "frockumentary"—directed by Colin Rothbart—follows six London drag queens: Jonny and John, along with Holestar, Pia, Amber, and the controversial (he once spat a milkshake on Nick Grimshaw) Scottee. With a reality TV aesthetic and episodic structure, it ploughs through personal stories of John's HIV diagnosis, Holestar's clinical depression, and Jonny's alcoholism, through to their individual "coming out" moments and Amber's gender transition. It does leave you with the feeling that all drag queens' lives are plagued with negative drama, but despite that, it's still a brilliantly camp and amusing documentary, which captures a critical moment in London's drag history on camera.
When the group decided to start filming in the mid-to-late 2000s, what they couldn't foresee was that drag was on the brink of exploding. In many ways, what was once a fringe art form has now permeated the mainstream. Last week, Channel 4 aired Muslim Drag Queens—a documentary about gay Asian drag performers in the UK; almost every big, commercial festival in the UK over the last few years has had some kind of drag troop on the line up, including Glastonbury, Bestival, and LoveBox; and some of London's most popular nights are now themed around drag—from Sink the Pink to Savage. At these nights, it's evident that a lot of young men are trying their hand at drag and—judging by their walk in heels—probably for the first time.
One of the most poignant moments of Dressed as a Girl, for me, sums this up. It's when London-based drag act, performance artist, and writer Scottee turns to the camera, and says, wistfully, "The scene's fucked up at the moment. Everyone's got this feeling that there's only one golden ticket." He's talking about how the rising popularity of drag in recent years has brought with it an ever-increasing number of drag queens vying for the limelight. It's almost like London's drag circuit has become an episode of RuPaul's Drag Race: one big competition. Not everyone will get the attention they crave and—depending on their act—the attention they deserve. Nor will they all get paid for it.
"You've got to a point now with kids, where you think, Where's drag going?" says Holestar—who self-describes as a "tranny with a fanny" and who has joined us in The Glory. I ask how the landscape of the scene has changed over the six-year period in which they filmed Dressed As a Girl. "The look is very polished and American now" she continues, "It's about looking and behaving in a certain way—a pageant. Think Drag Race. I'm kind of over it. It's very generic: everything looks the same."
John Sizzle agrees: "It's very pop video now, isn't it?" He says, speaking of a younger generation of queens. "They've all grown up with, like, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, so they like to act a particular type of flashy, sexy, teenage girl. That's their whole schtick, so you don't get much variation. Whereas our generation was kind of more disturbing, a bit more of a mixed bag. It was more personality-led than look-led. A lot of people that we know, the look would be deliberately DIY and more post-modern."
In Dressed As a Girl you get a sense of this. The guys and girls are often looking a little ropey, never too choreographed. Dry humping each other on stage. Falling off the stage and getting carted off in an ambulance. That kind of thing. Amber puts on a striptease party to fund her top surgery. Jonny Woo sits on people's faces at his Gay Bingo night. And everyone gets naked, a lot. "A sense of humor would be appreciated now," says John, "and self deprecation—young queens need to realize it's OK to laugh at yourself… because drag is ridiculous."
Holestar picks up: "Some people are taking it very seriously, and thinking they can make a career out of it. You can't have longevity just being a face, you need some sort of talent behind it. It's like, the only person who's made a career out of that in the club world is Amanda Lepore." She exhales: "Personally, rather than someone who looked beautiful and gorgeous and elegant but just useless, I'd like to see someone who looks like shit on stage but can perform. I'd rather see blood and tears and passion and sweat."
It seems that, like most art forms, the aesthetic trends within drag go through phases. In the 1960s, South London boozer Royal Vauxhall Tavern hosted fairly masculine drag queens who would dance along the bar. That was about parody over passing. Then there have been more avant–garde phases, with organized pageants like Andrew Logan's Alternative Miss World attracting artists like Derek Jarman, Grayson Perry, and Leigh Bowery as entrants in the 70s and early 80s, before, in the mid-80s, came the iconic and high fashion drag nights like Kinky Gerlinky, which was held at Blitz in Covent Garden, and later in the West End. In the 90s and onwards, there was a trashy Soho moment, which centered around drag parties like Trannyshack UK at Madame JoJo's, or Fruit Machine at Heaven.
London's history of drag is obviously too long, potted and contested to truly recount here. But there can be no doubt that, when it came to the Noughties, Jonny Woo was instrumental in bringing drag performances to major London arts venues like the Royal Opera House. Woo can also be credited with helping to set up The NYC Downlow stage at Glastonbury, as well as starting up London's long-running Gay Bingo (which is exactly what it sounds like)—all of which we see footage of in Dressed As a Girl.
"It's all swings and roundabouts," reflects Holestar. "If you look at the history of drag, especially British drag—and also with the gay scene—things ebb and flow. Drag is having a moment right now, then it will go out again, then we will reclaim it. Similarly, if you look at the gay scene over the last 30 years, everyone was in Earl's Court—there's no one in Earl's Court now—then everyone moved to Soho, then Islington, then Vauxhall. It's always moved about and it always will. I've lost a lot of work because of certain venues being closed, but we're moving on, The Glory's now here, we've now got Bloc Bar in Camden. I'm getting work there."
"It's like in pop music," John adds. "It might be indie for five years and then later it'll be all electronic. And what I've noticed is it's slowly moving again from this glamor drag, like RuPaul-style hyper-femininity, to people doing creatures now, there's people doing trees and sexy lobsters! So I think that—within a saturated scene—there's always individuals morphing and changing and moving things on. With Facebook and camera phones, everyone can create an image and the people able to cut through that will be more transgressive. The people who really want to show off will find a way."
According to Holestar, this is the whole point of Dressed As a Girl: to show people what drag can be about and inspire young people that if they really do want a platform to show off then there are still avenues. "When we decided to make the film six years ago, we wanted to access young queer people who are dealing with whatever they're dealing with, and are not sure who they are, and feel forced into wearing tight pants, and going to the gym, and taking lots of drugs, and just saying to them, 'You don't have to do that, there is an alternative. You can be whatever you want to be.'"
Now, it seems that the movement of drag into a more mainstream space doesn't have to make it any less subversive a practice, so long as you're creative and find new ways to push boundaries. Equally, the proliferation of young boys and girls trying out drag doesn't necessarily mean you can't make a career out of it. "I think there's loads of work now that drag crosses over into the mainstream more," says John. "But you need to do something more than just stand there and simper and lip-sync; you need to be able to DJ; you need to be able to stand your ground; you need to be able to entertain people."
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Dressed As a Girl is premiering this Sunday September 6 in Soho in London. Get tickets here. Check out other screenings around the UK here. DRESSED AS A GIRL is being released through Peccadillo Pictures and the DVD is released in December.