Think of military entertainment and what springs to mind? Vera Lynn, probably. Katherine Jenkins, perhaps. Nice-looking ladies singing melancholy songs. Lynn and Jenkins even got together in 2014 to form some kind of forces sweetheart supergroup with a duet of "We'll Meet Again."
Unlikely though, that you imagine a 230 lb male prima ballerina as the go-to choice for an evening's light entertainment in Basra. And yet, as Madame Galina, performer Iestyn Edwards has visited Iraq and Afghanistan four times, taking to the stage in his oversized tutu and ballet shoes to treat the troops to his larger than life drag act.
Comedians have long been called upon to boost morale with the funnies, and many started their careers performing for the military: Harry Secombe, Spike Milligan, Kenneth Williams. In 2006, when Iestyn Edwards first went to Iraq with Combined Services Entertainment (the official provider of live entertainment for the British Armed Forces), he was joined by stand-ups Gina Yashere and Rhod Gilbert—whose careers have since taken off.
Born in London and raised in Wales, a life of performing was always going to be on the cards for Iestyn. From the age of four, he was touring with his parents—mother a psychic, father a singer—singing country and western songs. He's been performing as Madame Galina for the past 30 years, and regularly takes part in London's thriving cabaret scene.
Now, he has written a book—My Tutu Went Awol—about his experiences performing in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the unlikely friendships that he formed while he was there. VICE caught up with him to find out more about his time as a forces sweetheart...
VICE: Can you tell us where the idea of Madame Galina came from?
Iestyn: I used to sell programs at the Royal Opera House when I was studying at Guidhall, and so I'd watch the ballet. I saw Swan Lake for the first time when I was about 20 and was obsessed with it. Stephen Fry once said that when he first read P.G. Wodehouse it was like something he'd once known really well, but had temporarily forgotten and that's exactly what ballet felt like for me—I knew what was coming next, it just all made sense. So I decided I was going to learn the role of the Swan Queen.
You weren't a trained dancer though. How did you go about learning the moves?
An ex-ballerina taught me. I realized the Swan Queen was miming something, so I asked what those mimes meant and started there. Then I added the run on and the ruffle of the feathers. And then gradually I added an arabesque or a little chassey and finally I learned to pirouette. That took me the longest.
And so how did you end up taking Galina on tours in Iraq and Afghanistan?
It started when I got asked to sing on the HMS Victory for the 200th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, in front of her Majesty. Afterwards, I got a letter thanking me for my performance and would I be interested in doing some more military entertainment. So I rang Combined Services Entertainment (CSE) thinking they wanted me to do my more classical numbers for officers mess, but actually they wanted Madame Galina.
They started talking about security and getting down behind the wire with the squaddies and I'm thinking well that sounds exciting!
Were you surprised they wanted to a drag ballerina act out there?
People put themselves forward for some strange things for military entertainment—things like a poetry circle or women who were offering to sit knitting in a corner, just to give off a maternal vibe.
Anyway, they wanted to take drag out there, but they needed to know I had enough gob on me. At that time, I still didn't know I was auditioning to go to Iraq. They started talking about security and getting down behind the wire with the squaddies and I'm thinking well that sounds exciting! And then they started talking about camel spiders in the desert and the insurgents... But I just thought it was an amazing thing to be offered, so I signed on the dotted line.
So I'm guessing you were pretty nervous?
I was terrified out of my brains. I went to Iraq first. When I got the call to tell me I was going, I had a panic attack that lasted six weeks. I remember walking along the road with my stuff to meet the tour manager who was going to drive me over to Oxfordshire to the military base, and I realized I was making a noise that was half a snort and half a scream.
What was it like when you got there?
It was madness from the beginning. I kept setting off the security alarm with my costume because I refused to put it in the hold—I always take it as hand luggage, beautifully folded. In the end the officer came over, reached into my Primark bag, and pulled out my tiara. He looked at me, looked at my tiara, and then to the heavens and just said, "On you go."
There's no color in a warzone and there's this noise and this smell. It's like you've got a lawnmower filled with dirty vaseline going in your living room the whole time—that's the generators. There were desert fires on the horizon because they were burning the oil to stop the infidel from being able to use it. But then we got in a bright orange school bus with dinky gingham curtains to take us to the base and we all sang "One Man Went to Mow." It was bizarre.
Were you the first drag act to go out there?
I was the first real variety turn, and certainly the first drag act. That was the risk. I was promised that my first gig would be in a nice outlying base with some nice young squaddies to help ease in this new format. But instead it was in front of two paras, the Australian Army, and the Royal Marines. Afterwards, the boss of CSE told me that she thought it was about to go horribly wrong and she'd lose her job.
Did you get any bad feeling from anyone?
Not really. Some of them were never going to get it. I watched a showreel back and the audience had been filmed—you can see that most of them are laughing but there were one or two who not only aren't laughing themselves, but they're looking at their colleagues as if to say, "why are you finding this funny?" You can see their look of disbelief.
It's not just about performing—you have to be around to entertain 24/7. I assume you weren't in character the whole time?
No, I wasn't in character the whole time, but you are supposed to be a presence there. You are with them all the time—you eat with them, hang out in the welfare center, cheat at table football with them. I used to sit sewing my ballet shoes and the soldiers, whoever wasn't on duty, would come and sit with me and start telling their stories.
What kind of stuff would they talk to you about?
Why they signed up, fear, their families—lots of different things. They'd just start talking. I remember one guy, used to be a hairdresser on the Wirral and had stopped that to sign up. He wished he hadn't. Then there was one utterly stunning bloke in the 9th Regiment. He told me how he'd got in debt and had become a stripper, then a porn actor. He sewed my shoes for me because he was better at it.
Did anything frightening happen while you were on tour?
There was a rocket attack in Kandahar on the way to Camp Bastion [Afghanistan]. I was standing behind a wire and was so mesmerized by it—it felt like it was on the news. Then the marine behind me said, "Mate I wouldn't stand there waiting for another one, you'll get your arse blown off." And that's when I realized I didn't know where my tutu was—hence the name of my book. When Stacks [the Royal Marines Commando who would liaise with the entertainment tours] found out I was running around looking for it, he went apeshit at me. When I got back to my barracks, him and his mates had taken all of my stuff out—all my make-up, shoes, everything—and wrapped it in miles and miles of cling film and left a note: "You will keep a reasonable amount of fear about you at all times." It took me hours to get it all unwrapped. That was my lesson learned.
You've stopped going out there now. Why?
I went our four times and stopped because the shock value had gone. They knew what I was going to do, they were coming at me with requests. The reason I was sent out there was to remove their mind from whatever they'd seen in the war.