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Jonny Woo Thinks East London's Still Got It

Despite it's closing venues and influx of wankers, drag legend Jonny Woo maintains that the area still has a lot to offer – particularly for LGBT people.

by Argy Sapountzakis
26 November 2014, 5:18pm

Jonny Woo performing

I met Jonny Woo years ago in a basement bar in Dalston. He seemed like a local celebrity, out and about with an in your face personality and with a big loud mouth to boot. I asked a friend, "Who the fuck is he?" 

"He's the queen of drag Queens, it's Jonny Woo," she replied.

In the beginning I didn't like him. But by watching his shows and listening to his humour I started to find him very interesting and funny. Jonny was everywhere! Shows, parties, festivals. Everywhere. Not just an alt-drag but a talented comedian and actor, presenter and writer. A showman.

East London has been going through changes at lightning speed recently. I moved here in 2005 because of the energy and also, importantly, the affordable rent. Now gentrification of the whole area has brought expensive restaurants, chi-chi members clubs and a huge increase in housing and rent prices. 

As a result, treasured bars like The Joiners Arms are being ​priced out, and making way for bullshit pop ups like a ​death row themed restaurant. It's in danger of becoming a cultural desert, the polar opposite of what it used to be. In defiance of these fast-paced, economically driven changes, can it retain what made it so unique in the first place? 

Jonny Woo has lived in East London since the 90's. His upcoming show East London Lectures talks about how the whole scene began. We asked him where it's going. 

VICE: Tell us about East London Lectures? Is this Jonny Woo's version of a Ted Talk?
Jonny Woo: Perhaps. I did a performance for TED Hackney recently and did a lecture for Lost Lectures on how I got into drag so lectures are in the air right now. It is a lecture format, which I play with throughout the performance as I take on the role of lecturer and characters who I interviewed as part of the process of making the show.

Jonny Woo posing as lecturer for East London Lectures

How long have you been working on the show? Was there anything in particular that inspired you?
I first started working on this show three years ago and it has been dormant for about two years. Then I applied for funding, which made this stage possible. It is still in development really although when it's being presented it does feel complete. 

I basically wanted to do a show that celebrates seemingly throwaway moments or superficial scenes and treats them as moments in social history. When I started doing this show three years ago, the East London landscape wasn't as developed and attitudes about the area were different. The subject of the show, i.e. Shoreditch in the 1990s, has provoked mixed reactions from people thinking, 'Great!', to people thinking, 'What a twat, get over it!' I like that aspect.

How did you cast for your characters? What were you looking for?
The main characters are friends who were central to the scene, which revolved around the Bricklayers Arms pub. I have also interviewed many other local residents, new and older, and it was by chance that I met two others whose perspective on the area provided a good balance to the central story. The central ones were old friends the others were chance acquaintances and introductions.

Are you nostalgic about East London? Do you think that the scene has evolved, or died and being replaced with something different, or just become more mainstream?
This is a total nostalgia piece. I have lived in East London for almost 20 years and I feel very connected to the area. It is my home. I was 23 years old when I moved here, so of course I am nostalgic. It's a coming of age story, and I look back on it totally with rose tinted spectacles. 

But I am always trying to push myself forward and challenge myself. The scene changes and new people come, but really it all stays the same. People go out, drink and dance, and trends in music and fashion change but people are always looking for the same thing. The area is so much more than what's in fashion at any one time and I think the longer you stay the more apparent that is.

Surely we can't deny that Shoreditch has lost its edge with it becoming a popular destination for hen and stag parties. How do you feel when you hear people say that Shoreditch has lost its cool?
Oh god, no area stays cool for more than a couple of years. It had a moment when it was considered cool two decades ago. I think Shoreditch had a pretty great run and keeps coming back. I think it's great actually that East London is for everyone and is still synonymous with new ideas and alternatives. Even if they are mainstream. 

I think people who say Shoreditch has lost it's cool should take a fucking hike. Live a little. If you are always looking for the next "cool" thing you really have missed the point of living in a city as diverse as London. There is a whole city beyond what some magazine define as "cool". As soon as something becomes consciously 'cool' it becomes naff. East London is full of great stuff and lots of naff stuff but also full of lots of people trying stuff out and loads of new businesses opening, which should be applauded.

Living costs are frightening and unbelievable in the area and still increasing. Why do regular people still choose to stay here?
Where else are they going to go? Fulham?

Obviously the area still retains something for you as you have chosen to open a new bar in Haggerston. Did you consider somewhere else or was it always going to be here?
The area is full of people and they are still pouring in. Having lived here 20 years I know that a lot of my friends are going to stay and I have worked hard at doing stuff and thankfully have people who are interested in what I do, so this is the perfect place.

Plus the three partners, Colin, Zoe and John are all deeply rooted here. It's our home and we have loads of mates and know that people are crying out for something a bit different. It wouldn't make sense for us to do something in Walthamstow just now, just because The Evening Standard lists it as cool central. We love it here. We love the venue. We think it's the perfect spot. Finding a place like this is close to impossible.

Tell us about your bar. How is your bar going to offer something new to the area?
We're sandwiched between Shoreditch and Dalston, closer to Shoreditch really. I think the area has some really strong queer venues. We love Superstore and East Bloc, The George and Dragon and The Nelsons'. Ours is a pub with late drinking and home for our brand of drag. There are no great stages and ours will be a place to see new talent grow and be fostered. Nice drinks in cosy surrounds, with the chance to chat. It's called The Glory and it has a basement club and it's dancing 'till late and it's black brick and mirrors and smoke and flashing lights and all sorts of stuff.

Many people are worried that there aren't anymore affordable areas in London for artists and creatives. How do you see the next five years in East London going?
Artists will find space. Who knows where it is? It's not for me to find. East London is going to see a massive increase in population and perhaps it will resemble West London in that it has pretty mainstream commerce, probably the city's biggest nightlife and costly housing.

It will always have a big social housing sector though, and from the interviews I've done I found that the residents are pretty pleased that a once-deprived area is becoming the place to be. It's the newbies renting privately who are going to feel the squeeze. East London has an amazing history and character and those who embrace it will really enjoy it. For those who don't already know this: dirty and run down does not equal "cool"; authenticity and integrity does and, if we can see past the clichés and the superficial trappings, I think we'll see that East London has bags of it.

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