‘Hello is that Lucy? This is Dave here. My friend told me you are trying to get hold of some drag queens?’
‘Oh, yes, hi Dave! I am writing a book about British subculture you see and –’
‘Oh we’re not a subculture my darling. Oh no. We are an enormous thriving community. The Brighton gay scene is one of the biggest in the world. We’re not some seedy underworld’.
‘Oh no, that’s not what I mean by sub –’
He interrupts. ‘See, when I think of subcultures, I think of homeless people that don’t work… and murderers’.
I manage to squeeze in an explanation of what I mean by the word subculture, and Dave jumps straight back in, continuing my education.
‘Now, there is a big difference between a drag queen and a tranny’ he says matter-of-factly. ‘Lots of pubs pay £30 for men dressed as women to host karaoke nights and crack a few jokes, but they aren’t the real deal. Drag Artists are entertainers you see, comedians in wigs. The big drag queens in the Brighton scene are Davina Sparkle, that’s me darling, then there’s Maisie Trollette who is the oldest drag queen in the country at 81, then there’s Miss Jason, Dave Lynn and Lola Lasagne’.
We agree I should make the trip down to Brighton to see him perform that weekend, so four days later I pack up everything I own that sparkles and head to Legends, ‘Brighton’s Biggest Gay Hotel’. I am a little intimidated and feel out of place walking through the sea of immaculately dressed men on the way to reception. I wonder if they can sense I am not gay and feel relieved that there isn’t some sort of test at check-in.
It isn’t long until Davina is due on stage for her 4pm Cabaret, so I decide to take a seat with a friendly couple called Graham and Kim. They teach me that drag queens are always referred to as ‘she’ when in drag, and often when they’re not as well.
‘We come out to see Davina quite a bit’, Kim tells me. ‘She’s had an operation on her knee recently so we’ve been doing her washing and ironing’.
‘Yeah’, Graham says smiling, ‘cheeky cow!’
With that Davina appears next to the bar in a garish blond wig, exaggerated makeup and a black sequin jacket. Her intro music begins, it’s all show tunes and I instantly relax. I freaking love show tunes.
Davina makes for the stage. ‘Now I do swear a lot. So if anyone is easily offended I suggest you fuck off ‘, she begins.
The set is a riot; an intoxicating blend of observational comedy, filthy jokes and cabaret songs. When it finishes Davina beckons me up to her dressing room (a hotel bedroom) for a chat. I watch her take off her wig, bra and make up; scrubbing away Davina and changing into jeans.
‘Is drag your full time job?’
‘Yes darling, I work as a drag act four to five nights a week. It’s a bit daunting because you have a little bit to drink so you have to watch your health’, she pats her round belly and raises an eyebrow. ‘But I love it. Wouldn’t want to do anything else’.
‘Do you feel different when you take your make up off?’
‘No, I don’t feel any different in drag or out of drag. I used to but not anymore. We don’t dress as women, you see, we dress as drag queens. I look like a parody of a drag queen really, like a pantomime dame’.
‘Do you enjoy dressing in drag?’
‘Not at all. I hate dressing as a woman. Hate it. But I love the show. The gays wouldn’t accept you as a man doing jokes. They want a drag queen. The audience like you being camp with them’ – she winks at me – ‘because we all like a bit ’a camp’.
Now fully Dave again, we head to the Queens arms together to watch Lola Lasagne’s show. Lola has a very powerful, pitch perfect voice and I am continually impressed with the talent of these performers.
The following evening I have a drink with Jason Sutton (alter ego: Miss Jason). He buys me a pint and we sit in the corner for a chat.
‘I’ve been going now for 17 years this August’ he begins.
‘What did you do before drag?’
‘I worked in the House of Lords, as a researcher and constituency officer’ – he makes a bet-you-weren’t-expecting-that face – ‘I was also the youngest county councillor in the country, elected at 21’.
‘The essence of drag is disappearing’, he tells me. ‘The young ‘uns coming up through now are more female impersonators’.
‘Why is it changing?’
‘I think one of the reasons is to do with how much gays have moved on in the last seven or eight years. Now we can go anywhere we like. We can be as camp as we like and get away with it. So our scene is disappearing. And as our community has moved on, it has become more popular on the telly – Graham Norton, Alan Carr, Paul O’Grady – so there is less demand to have the outrageous camp on stage’.
I ask him how he thinks his act will need to evolve for him to stay on top.
‘Well, I’m doing a bit of work as a man soon, stand up comedy. I hope the stand up grows because I am desperate to get on the telly’.
‘Are you nervous about performing as a man?’
‘Yes. I shall wear these glasses (holds up thick framed red glasses), because I won’t have my makeup, the wig, the frock, and the jewellery. It’s all armour you see dear. Emotionally, dressing in drag is fantastic, because it brings me fun. But physically it’s a nuisance – squeezing myself into tights and spanks, tucking my old man away and all that business’.
It’s time for Jason to go up to his dressing room and transform into Miss Jason. I picture yesterday’s experience of Davina’s dressing room in rewind. Before he goes I have time for one last question.
‘Why do you want to be on the TV?’
He pauses for a few seconds and then grins, ‘Because I’m an attention seeking poofter darling!’