No matter what you do in life, nothing makes your mum quite so proud as appearing on EastEnders. On the morning of the 34-year-old soap’s first ever Pride episode, which aired on July 5th, my phone rang. It was my mum in floods of tears. She heaved between sobs: “Someone from EastEnders has just been on This Morning and they said you were brilliant!”
I asked her why she was crying. She couldn’t really answer but she told me later over WhatsApp – with a message where all punctuation had been replaced with kisses, a classic gorj mum text – “just so proud xx relieved too xxx happy mama x a special queen xxxxx.”
For me — a non-binary, fat northern drag queen – a message like this means more to me than appearing on EastEnders. But for my mum, who’s spent 15 years terrified that I’ll be hurt for being who I am, this was huge. Appearing on a Pride-themed soap episode is not the most radical, progressive step out there. But for my mum, this was a signal that if something as iconic and institutional as EastEnders could spotlight this Special Queen (lol), then that might mean a different kind of acceptance for people like me. Even if just for a second. So she let her relief out as tears.
For me, a jobbing queen, it was a job. When I got the call asking if I would be the headline act at Walford Pride (mood), I checked the fee and then I, of course, agreed. But as any drag performer who’s been booked for a gig where drag isn’t usually on the menu knows, you become accustomed to being promised the world, until you show up and are tossed into an overflowing loo to get ready in and given a few drinks tokens and a phone number that never seems to work when they’re six months late on payment. Sure, this was the Beeb, but you expect a certain level of corporate idiocy wherever you go in drags.
But EastEnders was different. I had a taxi – no, not a taxi, a goddamn Addison Lee – to pick me up and drop me off. I had a dressing room, a makeup artist, a wig person, and the second AD even briefed the whole cast and crew on my pronouns (“they” and “them” by the way) before I arrived on set. That’s glamour.
Most queers I know have a way of making every scenario iconic – whether it’s seeing someone take a dump on the floor of a night bus or getting dumped via Twitter DM – and there’s not much we can’t turn into the ultimate, glorious escapade. And that’s what I’d done with EastEnders, made the whole thing ‘iconic’, perhaps because all of queers are also aware that Pride is problematic and this was their Pride episode.
But when I stepped, snakeskin-kitten-heel first, onto Albert Square, my cynical slant faded and my breath was truly taken away. I was stood on the spot where Kat had told Zoe she was her mother, even though in my head I’d rewritten the story to one in which I was returning to reveal that it was actually me, Crystal Rasmussen-Slater who bore sweet, naive Zoe. That’s history – my nearly broken heels teetering on actual history – one which has been loved by millions and millions of people, one which has formed the ritual of countless families who sit and eat their tea, crammed onto sofas, shouting at each other because someone’s fucking talking over Steve-with-the-bum-chin-who-runs-E20 as he threatens yet another Mitchell brother.
Sure, I only got six new Instagram followers and quite an intense handwritten fan letter (I loved it, obviously) but all my irony wore off the minute I went on set. I was sincerely moved to be with a bunch of queers – there were loads of us on set for the episode – incorporated into this historic show.
On day two of filming I met two market stall holders (well, actors who play market stall holders), who had been selling their wares on the square for 30 years – one selling wigs, the other underwear, both very me. We hit it off instantly: they loved a queen, and so did I, and so they took me on a special tour of the square. “That’s the house where Nick murdered Reg!” they pointed to number 23; “that’s where Janine killed husband number three,” and so on, recounting endless murders as if we were gossipers on this fake square built from scratch, where even the buildings are made of canvas. In that moment, it was all very real.
Working a lot around middle class London, it’s rare to be with a whole team of people who come from backgrounds like your own. It felt unusual, in a good way, and super comfortable, as the cast all vaped and I smoked between takes, them explaining to me that the role changed their life – they love their job. EastEnders is entertainment for people like me and mine, it’s a celebration of a part of culture that’s not usually uplifted as culture: the gossip, the community, the outrage, the moving moments, the murders – all the blood that courses though a community of working people.
That’s our culture, and it’s made on a makeshift set in north London. When renderings of working class stories often move into the territory of poverty porn, EastEnders still captures the highlights and lowlights of what it’s like to live in a working class community.
And if Walford can throw a Pride, then maybe that means more communities like this can, too. As for my return to the show, I can’t reveal anything — but if my predictions are correct, they’re looking for a new landlady for the Queen Vic and I think I’m down to the final two. Fingers crossed!
You can catch Crystal at the Edinburgh Fringe with her show Crystal Rasmussen Presents the Bible 2 (plus a cure for shame, violence, betrayal & athlete’s foot) LIVE! throughout August.