She is said to have started the Stonewall Riots by throwing a shot glass at a mirror.
It has been called ‘The Shot Glass Heard Round The World’.
Marsha P. Johnson.
When a judge asked her what the P stood for, she replied: ‘Pay It No Mind’.
Marsha P. Johnson.
Drag Queen, queer activist, sex worker, Saint of Christopher Street, performer with The Hot Peaches, mental health survivor, co-founder (with Sylvia Rey Rivera) of S.T.A.R. – Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries – and ran a house for homeless trans youth, and gave out food, blankets and clothes to the trans kids who were largely ignored and marginalised by the larger gay activist community.
Marsha P. Johnson.
Found dead in the Hudson River. Either an accidental drowning (she believed her father was Neptune, that he lived in the bottom of the Hudson, and she would frequently throw offerings – such as all her clothes and the clothes of anyone else passing by if she could grab them off of them – into the water) or – more likely – she was murdered (she was seen being harassed at that spot, earlier that day. She had just marched in the Pride parade).
When I see pictures of her, I get lost in her face. I am altered. I am lit. I am glad to have the privilege to gaze upon her beautiful image. I am absorbed. Head festooned by flowers or fairy lights or feathers, gowns bought for a few dollars from the thrift store, makeup applied to her own Marsha P. style. She grins, she shines. Her smile is everything. She is more than just one of the most important figures from our history, a transformer of our culture. She is Marsha P. Johnson. Lucky were those she passed by and greeted with a cheery hello in the street. Chastened were those who catcalled and got the brunt of her response – she spoke back, she didn’t ignore the hate: she faced it head on. Shot, beaten, she rose above the shit she faced every single day. She bore the scars – and a bullet lodged near her spine – and still she smiled. She changed all who crossed her path.
Marsha P. Johnson. Know her name.
Marsha P. Johnson. See her.
She would not be ignored. She will not be ignored.
Marsha P. Johnson. Pay it no mind.
Written with love by Corinna P. Tomrley
Watch ‘Pay It No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson’, a film by Frameline Voices
I love sissies, always have. Seeing sissies like Edward Everett Horton in Fred and Ginger movies, darlings, gave me such a thrill as a kid. I adored his girlyboy best friend characters and would rather have hung out with him than boring old Fred any day. How I’d like to fraternise with Miss Ginger is perhaps the sordid subject for another blog post, another day… (With Miss Ginger Rogers, I’m a big fan of her early work and her later wigs…)
Back to the sissies.
In gay and queer culture there is a troubling anti-sissy stance that I abhor. I am so very, very glad that there are girlyboys out there who are queenie and perrrrrrrroud! And I welcome with big, fabulous open arms that there is a movement to reclaim sissiness. Think, ‘sissy that walk’ in drag. Glory at Alex Creep’s Nancy Zine, just for a coupla references off the tops of my campy head.
So to celebrate all things sissy, I’m gonna take you on a history tour of two points in the past where sissies were celebrated and found a home and a place to shine: The Macaroni Club and The Pansy Craze.
Oh the screeching cry of a thousand ice cream vans! That childhood rhyme, shrilly yelled at playtime! But wait – called it macaroni?!?!?!?!?!? What the what now?
Well. Here’s a lil bit of trivia for ya. Yankee Doodle is a sissy. That’s right. Actually, he’s a buffoon and a sissy, the Doodle part being a dumbass. But we’ll ignore that part because we’re far more interested in the fact that this fella on a horse is a big ole sissyboy. Why? Well that’s where the macaroni comes in. Because the feather in his hat and his naming said bird bit Macaroni is a reference to the Macaroni fashion and The Macaroni Club, ways ways back in the 1700s. Oh my but that’s the olden times, ain’t it? Macaroni’s were dandys. Dandy, of course, is another name for a sissy. But a well-put-together, spiffing sissy. In 1772 a periodical was published called The Maccaroni Magazine: Or Monthly Intelligence of the Fashions and Diversions. Oh to have a subscription. There was the Macaroni fashion, especially very, very tall wigs and small hats atop very, very tall wigs. Actually this tricorn hat atop a wig was the actual Macaroni. The feather was just added flare. So Yankee Doodle called his hat Macaroni because he sissied it up with the feather. Other elements of Macaroni fashion included feathers (natch), flowers, multiple buckles, high-heeled shoes, handkerchiefs and smelling bottles. Those were some sharp sissies. In London there was The Macaroni club. More the collective (often derogative) name for the dandies in the capital it was never an actual fraternity or location. Pity. However, whatever: I’m opening a club and calling it The Macaroni Club. Free feather for your hat on entry.
My favourite sissies are probably the Pansies. The Pansy Craze at the Pansy Clubs was The In Thing for a short while in the 20s and 30s in the US, most specifically in New York, San Francisco and LA.
Pansy clubs were cabaret that was explicitly queer, with sissies, drag kings and queens entertaining gay and straight audiences with their comedy and song. These cats were cool and super gloriously talented. Just the thought of them makes this queer gal swoon! Known as ‘Lavender Spots’, ‘Queer Clubs’ or Panze Joints’, Pansy clubs were openly written about in the entertainment press: gives us some idea of the crossover these sissies (and kings and queens) had. Some of the more famous Pansy club performers were
and Karyl Norman
‘The Pansy Craze’ referred not so much to the performers themselves – they did their acts before and after the craze rose and fell – instead it referred mainly to the fashionable attraction to these joints by a straight audience. Het punters were drawn to the exotica of the queer performers, who were letting them into their world for a night. But what I love about the Craze is that the Pansy performers had all the power, often insulting any patrons who expressed outrage (sound familiar?) and dazzling those who appreciated the fabulous wit and expertise of the Pansy star. Their tunes were love songs to another boy or girl or, for drag performers like Rae Bourbon, were about being trans. They were pioneers of out, in your face queerness. Prior to the Pansy Craze, to be queer was to be hidden and to only socialise in secret with your own. The Pansy Craze temporarily allowed queer performers to be out and celebrated, expressing themselves in a way previously unheard of.
As if you needed another reason to love ‘em, another aspect of the Pansy scene were drag balls. Again attended by a mix of gay and straight patrons, the drag balls were an outright celebration of queerness. Where in the Pansy clubs the drag and cabaret was presented as pure entertainment and usually always comedy-based, drag balls were an elegant party, a space for queers to be explicitly queer in a fancy place at a fancy party celebrating THEM. And these balls were fancy schmancy, darlings. They were based on cotillions or debutante balls which are, of course, also known as ‘coming out’ balls. And – get this sister – there would be a parade on a stage. But these parades weren’t a cabaret act. These were displays parading pure fabulousness, honey. But alas the parade was just for the queens. Where in the Pansy clubs women patrons in drag would sit in the audience watching the drag king performers on stage, at drag balls women in drag only appeared as party revellers – as far as I can tell, drag kings did not parade. Drag balls’ loss!
These are – of course – only a couple of examples of sissy history, culture and fabulousness but they are pretty rad examples, yes? Now. The only question is: as host of The Pansy Craze Ball at The Macaroni Club am I going to go as a dandy flaneur sissy or as a hot, dapper drag king? Decisions, decisions, darlings.
Written, darlings, by Corinna Pansy Tomrley
Read more about LA’s Pansy scene in Willam J Mann’s sublime and vital Behind The Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood
This is an interesting time for music, pop, gay and queer* culture. Interesting times don’t always mean ‘good’ – while there are some exciting acts out there, there’s also a safe stagnation to some aspects of pop culture. But this is mainly in the mainstream. Interesting can simultaneously mean very good. We all know that ‘online’ has long been the thing. And DIY – with its roots in alternative cultures – is an active and powerful way to get stuff out there that is ignored or marginalised elsewhere. A lot of this work has a very queer bent (pardon le pun). It is prolific, it is diverse, it is thriving and it is quite often very exciting. While the gay and pop press that relies on revenue and circulation figures is suffering (think the recent demise of the LGBT section in the print version of Time Out London), online and offline, self-published and self-started is a positive and increasingly successful way to go. The creativity out there is astounding and promising. But that should be no surprise – we have quite the history of being super resourceful and making our own kind of music when pushed to the corners. One very lovely example of this has come to our glittering eagle-eyed attention: The Back Building. A blog collecting the work and points of interest of one Michael Turnbull, The Back Building is a giddy compilation of gay pop culture from a very determined and enthusiastic source. We mightily encourage you to take a wander round The Back Building and soak up the atmosphere; take a pew here and eaves drop on our chat-ette to find out all about TBB’s author and curator.
What is The Back Building?
Well, I’ve written for several publications over the years and I really wanted somewhere to act as an online portfolio. But I also got frustrated as there were so many people I wanted to interview but every time I pitched them I got knocked back. So I thought, ‘Fuck it, I actually want these interviews for myself.’ These are what I love most on The Back Building.
I’d like to think my blog is not determined by sexuality, but I think I’d be kidding myself. Looking at my stats and the popularity of photos of near naked men, my demographics are nearly all men in their mid to late 20s and in their 30s. There are also a few in their 60s which I get a kick out of.
The Back Building has actually inspired another project which is well under way, but it’s top secret for now….
Tease. You describe TBB as ‘Music, Men, and more’, and your posts are mainly pop and beefcake related – how do these food groups intersect for you? What criteria do you have for your ‘mores’?
Well, I’m not going to lie, I was just going for alliteration there… haha…. it sounded good and I couldn’t think of any other Ms, hence ‘More’.
I do interview a lot of porn stars and the men are ‘beefcakes’, but the thing is I don’t see those kind of men as real. I love them. These kind of gods that get worshipped, stalked, obsessed over for their bodies and the way they use them. But they’re like cartoon characters to me. So visual. We rarely get their personality. In interviewing them I am giving them some depth I guess, but normally they are just 2D characters. So for me, pop music and porn stars kind of work on some kind of parallel. If we’re talking food groups then both are candy.
What is queer pop culture to you?
Queer to me has always involved some kind of political stance. But then the idea of ‘pop’ culture cancels that out. Ha. I studied Film at Uni and I always loved Postmodernism the most. The idea of throwing everything in the mix, ripping up the rulebook (terrible cliche, sorry), it’s that clash that always excites me and something I see in being Queer. It’s an idealism, not something based around sexuality. Unlike Gay pop culture.
Being shallow for a second, I also think Queer Pop Culture is like a narrowed down hipster version of Gay Pop Culture. It’s less Kylie and more Hedwig…
You’ve interviewed tons of important queers – Who have been your faves?
Hmm….I have a few. There’s Andy Butler from Hercules & Love Affair, we bonded over musicals and he suggested a movie date. Two years later I’m still waiting for him to call back and arrange. RuPaul was pretty special. She offered me advice about how to deal with reading at my Grandma’s funeral the next day. Sia is another big one for me. I’ve loved her since her first album. So when we hung out and got to chat that was very special. Then discovering she was bi, part of the LGBT club, was even better. I’m not really a Pet Shop Boys fan, sorry, but Neil and Chris were so great. I kind of forgot to interview them and we just talked pop music. Oh and Peter Tatchell too because going to his flat, meeting him face to face was a real experience. He is a personal hero for sure.
Who would be your DREAM interview?
Well that would be a no holds barred interview with Mariah. I spoke to her once when I worked at her record label. I asked her about her new album. It was very businessy. I would want to ask about Tommy, her early demos that sound like Madonna, that JLO story…so much juicy stuff in there.
You’ve mentioned in your work that there’s a certain dislike-of/fear-of-camp in some areas of queer/gay culture – where do you think this comes from? And what are your thoughts on camp?
Great question. I came out very late – aged 25. One reason was I was scared of getting HIV, the other was that I was scared of becoming super camp like the TV hosts and soap characters I was being presented with. Obviously I became better educated on the former as soon as I came out. But the latter has taken a little longer to be at peace with.
Only in the last year – I am 33 now – am I truly comfortable with being camp and who I am. Sometimes it comes out, sometimes it doesn’t. It depends on the situation. I know it is part of me and I embrace that, but like most characteristics they come out depending who I am talking to. I now find camp guys attractive as it shows to me that they have the strength to be who they are.
There is definite ‘campophobia’ in our community and the idea of ‘straight acting’ disgusts me. I think what we need to realise is that being gay does not define a person. There are many different types of gay and that is fine. You wouldn’t say straight people are all butch, so it seems crazy that we are so wrapped up in being camp or not. Sure some gays are, but some are not. Let’s just concentrate on who we are and be happy with that.
Who are your fave divas?
Well obviously Mariah is there. She will always be #1. Beyonce for her music and performance. Grace Jones I love. Tina Turner I will always love. It’s interesting though because most divas I love have an element of strength, attitude, boldness. Whereas Mariah has always been soft, cutesy and girly. I think it was always about the voice with her. But even when she performs she looks in pain as opposed to these other women who command the stage.
What most interests you from the past and how old school do your queer tastes go?
Hmmm…not massively if I’m honest. I think the 80s is my favourite decade. I love all the Warhol/Haring/early Madonna/Interview magazine era. I guess 80s New York is what I’m talking about. It’s always interested me. Warhol’s The Factory, just a collective of his favourite people.
Kind of like a real life The Back Building….
What would your fantasy gig be?
Well my Mum always tells me about the time we lived in Australia and she and Dad went to see Tina in a little hotel showcase. That would be amazing.
Also back in 96, Mariah came over to support the Daydream album. She doesn’t tour much and I was gagging to see her, but it was a Sunday night and I had to go back to boarding school, Mum wouldn’t let me have the night off. I have never forgiven her. But to see Mariah in an intimate venue at the top of her game mid 90s would be incredible.
Mariah or Whitney?
Oh gosh…I have and always will be camp Mariah. But I have come to appreciate Whitney as I get older. All The Man That I Need is one of my favourite songs of all time. But Whitney never had the material. She just had this incredible voice. When she sang it was like she couldn’t hold it in.
When they sang together it upset me as Whitney showed strength and although Mariah opted to show range, Whitney clearly won. She sounds great on that record. And I will always have love for The Bodyguard. Every song she sang on it was incredible.
Miss Ross or Miss Summer?
I used to work at Donna’s label and one of the best things was hearing old stories about her. About how warm a person she was, how she gave someone a small writing credit on a song of hers, how she’d invited him to stay with her in Nashville. I do love her, but my love for Diana runs deeper. I mean The Boss album is flawless. Ashford and Simpson are genius. Although obviously so is Moroder. Oh God, do I have to pick?
No, we’ll allow equal love of both. What would be your ideal date?
It would involve food. Ha. There are a few places I love. Randall & Aubin on Brewer St. La Fromagerie just off Marylebone High Street. The Wolseley. But yes, food is always a winner.
You’re DJing at Debbie on the 8th Feb. We had a blast when we did a set there. How are you selecting your tunes?
I am very excited. I DJ a lot at more pop/dance clubs like Push The Button or Songs of Praise. So I am really excited about throwing some unexpected stuff into the mix. Stuff I think Debbie can handle. There is an old Agnetha song I cannot wait to play. I may have to pull some Stevie out for Sina. I also want to drop a Liza song which is important to me. But we’ll see what works on the night.
We think this is quite an exciting time for women in pop – there are lots of distinct, colourful, strong, creative characters such as Gaga, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Jessie J, Beyonce, Nicki Minaj – what do you make of this era of pop? And where are the colourful boys?
I’ve been thinking about this and I guess we do have boys in pop, we have One Direction, Olly Murs, Rizzle Kicks, The Wanted. It’s just I’m not interested in them. If you are colourful then it is seen to emasculate you. And although One Direction fans love thinking the boys are gay I think that is an anomaly. I loved it when Kele Okereke came out because he was tough, his album was called The Boxer. It’s just a shame it didn’t do better. I also loved the brazenness of Nightwork by Scissor Sisters. The shocking album cover. But again the label had higher expectations and it was seen as a flop. Labels are seeing less and less return so I think they just want artists to play it safe and get that £££. We need more queer independent artists bringing their work to the mainstream.
If RuPaul put you in charge of collating a bunch of drag artists for a UK edition of Drag Race, who would you approach for the auditions?
Well I always love the fishy queens, but I’m not really sure we have many over here. Well at least I don’t know many. I think London has a great alternative drag scene with Johnny Woo, Ma Butcher and that crew. I love them. Gateau Chocolat….
But a lot of our drag queens are promoters or DJs. Jodie Harsh, Dusty O, Lady Lloyd, Munroe Bergdorf. I mean I love them, but I don’t think they would be up for doing Drag Race. It’s different.
What are your fave things about London?
It’s interesting. When I had the corporate job at the label, I had grown so tired of London. But having been away for three months, returned, changed career. I see a different side to it. I love our night life still. It would be nicer if it was closer together but there we go.
I love the mish mash of architecture we have. I think the fact that one minute you can see the stunning Natural History Museum and then see the gherkin is great.
It think the best thing about London is the life it has afforded me. The gay lifestyle is incredible and when I talk to people on my shifts at Comptons who are from out of town, I realise how lucky I am.
Who would be in your dream Girl Supergroup?
One thing I know about girl groups is they don’t last for long. I am happy with my solo singers. I’d rather they focus on the music than the drama.
What secrets are in your hair?
When I worked at Universal, I was privvy to heaps of gossip on the biggest stars. So there are a fair few in there but they need to stay there till I write my autobiography and get that pension.
*The Ethel Mermaids see queer as being many things. As well as its historical and political connotations, we see queer as being all encompassing of the LGBTI food groups. This is why it’s our label of choice. I would say that ‘gay’ can sometimes describe something a bit more mainstream, perhaps, or perhaps not… let’s say gay doesn’t always explain what we’re describing as well as queer does, in some specific contexts. That said, I do understand Michael’s distinctions between the two as defined and discussed by him in this piece. I just wanted to clarify this point as I use ‘queer’ and ‘gay’ throughout – interchangeably for us in this context. Here, I wanted to explain that our own view of queer is wider than that expressed by Michael in this interview. What we love about these conversations on Mermania is that there is a whole variety of opinions and definitions of our fabulous world and culture. It’s not always Ethel’s world view, but part of our project is to present and discuss the many and varied world views of our participants and Mermates. CM
The Internet is – of course – full of wonderful things. Still, just when you think you’ve seen it all there is even now the occasional surprise and the occasional gem. Then there is something so superb that you realise that there was a little gap in your heart and soul that was just waiting for this thing to come along and take up residency. That’s what happened when we first saw a Punchy Players video. So brilliant, so funny, so GOOD; were we not guffawing so hard we’d say we were speechless. The genii behind Punchy Players are Chris and Jeff who have an obvious love and affection for their subjects. We know from our fellow Hollywood-obsessed queers-n-queens on the Interwebs (including some of our very own Mermates) that there is quite the hardcore obsessive following for Punchy Players – as well there should be. As much as we constantly need more Punchy Players for that spot we have reserved for them, we also needed to know all about the PP world. So grab your Cream of Wheat, your Mounds, your Joys and your good powdered donuts and enter with us into the day-to-day worlds of your favourite Golden Hollywood divas.
How did the idea for the first Punchy Players film come about?
CHRIS: Jeff and I share a similar sense of humor and admired many of the same classic stars and TV shows. We would laugh a lot together and make up dialog when watching TV or just talking about our favorites. I told Jeff that I felt there was a project we could do together, and that our combined abilities could create something fun, but I wasn’t sure what it would be. One day Jeff was singing the old Cream of Wheat product jingle as Judy Garland. It was hilarious. I told him to record it and I would put some visuals together for it and share it on youtube. We’ve done quite a few more episodes since that one, but “Judy’s Cream of Wheat” continues to be a favorite.
JEFF: We each contribute equally to the ideas and the lines for each episode. In general I oversee the audio and Chris oversees the visual production.
We like to think of the Punchy Players going around doing Judy, Liza and Ann Miller impressions all the live long day. Are we close?
JEFF: Yes, this is actually quite accurate. We find ourselves speaking as these characters in a variety of real life situations.
Exactly how many hours of The Judy Garland Show has been watched to perfect that impression? And what do you love about her?
JEFF: I have been fascinated by all things Judy since I was four years old. I have every episode of her TV show committed to memory. She is a complete original. Her persona is so warm, unique, and delicious she is almost indescribable. As much as I love her singing. I have always been entertained by her way with words.
CHRIS: Judy had such a beautiful quality that was so rare and perfect. She was a combination of so many things. She could do it all. Jeff does such a wonderful, spirited impression of her. He emphasizes her fun side. I really like that.
Do you don an Ann Miller wig when recording the dialogue (she hopes…)?
CHRIS: I try to make Jeff wear one but he said it itches and is way too heavy.
JEFF: What I love about her is that she holds nothing back. She is very honest. In spite of being wacky and funny, in nearly every interview I have seen with her, she has a longing for the Old Hollywood system that kept stars looking their sparkly and spangly best.
CHRIS: Ann always looks her best and goes around with her microphone, even in her house. She’s always ready for her public.
How do you decide which divas to use in your films?
JEFF: There are two factors involved. First is, who do we love. Second, and I often wish this was not so, it comes down to who can we imitate.
CHRIS: Yes, we try to include our favorites. They are a great motivation and joy.
Who might we see in future episodes? Any old-school/current diva crossovers?
JEFF: Someone we both adore who has not yet made an appearance is Doris Day. We are trying to work her into a future episode.
CHRIS: We haven’t done as much with current divas mostly because we are such big fans of the old-school ones.
You made a film especially for a Judy Garland fan event, ‘Judy in Hollywood’. How did that come about? And so… ehem… do you take requests? (Cough… Ethel Merman… cough) 😉 ❤ xxx
JEFF: Judy in Hollywood was a request from a friend of author Coyne Steven Sanders. Steve happened to be a friend of mine who wrote the definitive book about Judy’s television series called “Rainbow’s End”. When his friend asked us to create a special video for his Judy fan event, we were honored. It was meant to be a surprise for him. I slipped and told him we were planning it and he was excited. The sad part is that Steve died suddenly, and never saw the finished product. We dedicated the piece to him.
CHRIS: “Audrey Airlines” was a request from a friend as well. We’ve received several requests from fans and we may surprise them with one or two in the future.
We’ve been reliably informed by our Mermates that lines from Punchy Players films get quoted on an almost daily basis (example: “I looked behind the dresser and there was Howard Keel!”): did you know this? How do you feel about this? Was it part of your ultimate goal to have people pretending to be Judy Garland snooping around Ann Miller’s house?
CHRIS: We quote our favorites from the comedies and stars we love, so to hear that people have fun quoting the lines we have written is very flattering. One person said he went into a store and started doing the lines and singing about candy bars as Judy. Too funny! Some have said that thinking about the dialog often has them laughing in waiting areas or in situations where they wouldn’t normally be laughing, causing others to wonder. We’re honored and glad that we’ve brought some smiles and laughs.
Did you expect the cult following you’ve built on the back of these films?
JEFF: I think Chris always had a bigger vision for Punchy Players. My nature is to be more skeptical, and I actually worried that people might not understand what we were spoofing. I am happy I was wrong.
CHRIS: I’m not sure I expected quite the reception that our productions have gotten, but I did sense the irresistible possibilities of such a project. It’s great to connect with all of you who enjoy the comedy and love the same classic personalities and entertainers that we do. Fans of Punchy Players have been so friendly and we’re happy to have heard from so many lovely people.
Most of the featured talent in your films are no longer with us but some are, such as Miss Julie Andrews and Miss Liza Minnelli. Do you know if they are aware of your work? Would a Miss Andrews Herself or Miss Minnelli Herself cameo be a dream for the future?
JEFF: I would be thrilled to hear that they approve. I would also not ever want to offend them in any way, and we have put a lot of work into having these stars maintain their dignity. We love them, after all.
CHRIS: We’ve enjoyed putting these pieces together because we’re such admirers of these stars. If one of them did make a cameo at some point, yes, it would be a dream come true and you’d have to pick me up off the floor.
Could an extension of Punch yPlayers films perhaps be an actual Ann Miller Frog Collection? Just for me? Please? Think of the revenue you would rake in…
JEFF: Isn’t that Frog hilarious? The first time I saw that Chris’ visual of that wig on the frog’s head, I laughed myself sick.
If you could live (perhaps briefly, to consider your nerves) with any of the Punchy characters, who would top your list?
JEFF: I am afraid if I lived with any of them my illusions might be shattered, but I have always wanted to sit and laugh with Judy Garland. I would not say no to meeting or knowing any of them.
CHRIS: If I had a choice to spend time with one of them, I think I’d have to choose Julie Andrews since I’m such a fan of hers. I think that one of the reasons I thought of concepts like Judy Garland in a grocery store, is that I’ve often daydreamed of how fun it would be to just hang out with favorite stars in everyday situations. I know that many people, including us, feel that our favorite celebrities and shows are like old friends that bring us comfort. Punchy Players is a way to live those moments and spend more time with those we enjoy, even if just in make-believe.
Leisa Rea is funny. She is really, really, jaw-achingly, might-puke-cos-can’t-breathe-from-laughing funny. We first encountered her at the Camden Fringe late summer 2012, in an awkwardly long, thin, L-shaped room above a bar. As massive comedy fans, we had scanned the listings, done our research and chosen wisely. (Much more wisely than the time we were tempted into a ‘comedy club’ in a basement in New York, anyway. That time, before we knew it, we were sitting in an audience of four others, two of which were openly smoking crack, the other two I think were having sex. The MC’s opening line of ‘So you gave someone you don’t know ten bucks and followed them into basement where you have no phone reception…’ preceded two of the most tense hours ever experienced.) Anyway. Bygones. So in the Camden bar there was no crack, sex or terror, but you know what? That was okay. More than okay. Replacing the fear was a mash up of moments of near magical hilarity entitled ‘Bastard Legs & Other Shows I Haven’t Written’. The concept was simple. Leisa fully admitted that she couldn’t focus to actually write any of these elements into a single show and subsequently the audience were treated to a never-before-performed-even-in-front-of-herself string of titles to the backdrop of a sweet, sweet Powerpoint presentation. The titular ‘Bastard Legs’ (in our house, a now oft-imitated move) was a few seconds of rubber-legged joy, and the rest of the show (possibly eased by the tic tac sedatives provided) was just punch after punch to the funny bone. She has a new show in Feb at the Soho Theatre called Conference. We’re polishing our lanyards already.
Like yourself, we have a penchant for Lazy Susans (see also Hostess Trolleys). In an ideal world, what would you laden down your Lazy Susan with?
Crisps. But that’s mainly because if it was anything more interesting, I might not want to share it with the rest of the table. If it was just crisps, I’d be spinning that LS with enormous generosity. No mixed flavours though – we’d have to stick to ready salted. Hopefully then people would lose interest and drift off, and I’d order a Chinese Banquet for One.
Where do your bastard legs take you on a good day out in London?
Hampstead Heath for cobweb clearance, the BFI viewing room to look at obscure documentary clips for free. Also quite like playing with musical instruments on Denmark St, with no intention to buy. Otherwise I’m in Foyle’s cafe getting intermittent wifi against a background of light Jazz.
You recently stayed at Burt Bacharach’s East Norwich Motor Inn (which, according to Trip Advisor, has a ‘bereavement rate’. Handy). What was the most Bacharach and what was the least Bacharach thing about it?
Oh, that’s marvellous – a bereavement rate. Super idea.
So, the most Bacharach thing was the ‘Fitness Centre’, located in the basement. Pretty kitsch: no windows, strip lighting, burgundy carpet and some of the best gym equipment I’ve ever sampled. I can almost see Bacharach’s ex wife, Angie Dickinson doing pull ups on this.
The most un Bacharach thing about the place was the fact that Burt sold it in the 80’s after a divorce and disassociated himself with the whole damn venture. The Hotel rebranded and boarded up his name, but a storm last year ripped the board off and the new owners have wisely left it that way.
Apart from Burt Bacharach’s Inn, what would be your ideal celebrity- based holiday destination?
I’d like to open The Deirdre Langton Caravan Park in Rhyl. I have fond memories of caravanning in Prestatyn in the mid 80’s, and getting my photo taken with a sedated python in the Caravan Club House. (That snake, incidentally, went on to bite a woman on the next table who was then rushed to A & E).
Anyway, my Deirdre Langton Caravan Park would be snake free. It would also have a couple of bars named after her other husbands – The Barlow Lounge would do a signature cocktail called The Ken (enjoyed by over a thousand women) and there’d also be Samir Rachid’s Corner, serving traditional Moroccan pub grub with Lancashire overtones.
Is drunk-ukulele the best ukulele?
One should always be ‘on something’ when listening to the ukulele. My poison is Complan & Jack Daniels.
Has your dog, Sally, managed to evolve further than the computer keyboard in communicating profundities?
Sally died this August *long awkward silence*
She was a supreme mime, never barked, always watched from the sidelines and of course was unmatched as a songwriter. She may well choose to communicate further, through dream. Then again she may not.
*allows a single tear to fall*.
We all know the answer to the stupid question ‘are women funny’. We won’t ask you that. We’ll ask you this instead – ‘are lesbians funny?’ (Or, to put it another way, how does your queerness inform your comedy?)
I think who I ‘am’ does inform my comedy, yes. I like absurdity, old showbiz, outsider stuff. I see my sexuality as part of a whole package of being woman/queer/feminist/Mancunian lapsed Catholic with working class roots growing up in the 70’s and 80’s. All of that informs my creative work. It was definitely grimmer up North when I was a kid than it seems to be today. Back then it was bleak! I suppose there’s a dark undercurrent in all the stuff I make. A sort of comedy for losers, underscored by the music to ‘Sale of the Century’. Failure with glitter on.
Your work is a mix of the political and the surreal. Mental health, sexism, Phil Collins – what really gets you going?
Sale of the Century, public information films, variety nights in working men’s clubs, dirty caravans, great ideas and tuppaware parties all get me going in a good way. Things that work my last nerve are upwardly mobile people with bad taste, anyone who believes their own hype, and arrogance and stupidity. Grrrrr!
Yes. I also give myself ‘crumb-eye’, a condition which affects anyone who has ever worked closely with biscuits in the eye area. Symptoms are both immediate and violent and include blinking, swearing and blindness.
How many packets of biscuits do you get through when doing a Biscuit-Eyed Lady film? Does the fact that the character has no mouth make it more likely that they’ll make it to your eyes?
The original jammy dodger eyes (now 9 years old) are still intact. There are signs of wear and tear – which would possibly devalue them on eBay – otherwise, they are the Real Deal, patched up with a bit of clear glue. Like David Dickinson.
Karen is totally self-qualified, a safeguard she put into place to stop anyone trying to sue her. She’s still horribly active on both sides of the Atlantic. Clients tend to come via the yellow pages and only ever attend one session. That’s how good she is. Gifted, would probably be a better word.
We co-hosted a Wig Party at queer discothèque Debbie. There was plenty of hot n heavy hair-on-hair action. If any wig from Wendy’s Wigs & Weaves Woolwich could be yours, what would you choose and why?
Oh crikey, there’s such a range at Wendy’s – erm, ok – I’m torn between the ‘Ann Darwin’ model (she was the lady whose husband pretended he’d had a canoe accident and lost his memory…when really, he’d been hiding in his wife Ann’s wardrobe for years, after she’d told her sons he was dead…Confusing I know).
Ann & husband were both done for fraud in the end. So. Yeah – the Ann Darwin wig, is unassuming, grey but has a hint of criminality about it. OR, the ‘Cleo Laine’ wig. I’m going to have to toss a coin aren’t I?
Conference, written by Leisa Rea and Cicely Giddings is at the Soho Theatre on 3rd February
When we first heard about Stephen Crowe’s latest project StreisBAND we could not wait to hear the results and to discover just what kind of animal it would be. We weren’t disappointed. StreisBAND are unlike anything we have heard before. Their frantic, affectionate renditions have captured the imagination and spawned an instant dedicated fan base, which includes serious, die-hard Babs fans. No small feat. For years composer Stephen Crowe has been writing ‘little operas’ as well as performing free-improv with the trio Ynd. His latest venture might just be the most fabulous contribution towards Ms Streisand’s cultural impact in a very long time. Some gigs and an album are coming soon.
It’s obvious that StreisBAND is not a gimmick or a joke but instead comes from a place of pure love. How much do you love Barbra Streisand? How did your Streislove begin?
She’s a genius, and she’s funny. Who else can you say that about?
I must have been 20 years old when I first came across Streisand. I was at a car boot sale and there was a copy of Brahms’ Violin Concerto and Funny Girl on VHS. I could only afford one of the two, and though I knew nothing at all about Barbra Streisand, I thought it was worth a try. It was an agonising decision, though I knew nothing about Brahms either. Funny Girl is a masterpiece, I reckon. It sparked an obsession. It’s the ‘thinking voice’ that I love about the Streisand. The ability to act while singing, I mean. I think all musical performance is acting on some level.
What led to the formation of StreisBAND?
I had the idea a few years ago. It was a kind of ridiculous notion that had no chance of materialising. Like saying ‘I’m going to move to Paris and write poetry’. I recently mentioned it to a girl that I was trying to impress. She thought it was hilarious, and so I had to turn it into a reality. You could say she called my bluff.
The first move was to design the logo. I’m not sure how many bands finalise the logo before the first rehearsal, but I hadn’t even met the drummer before I printed twenty T-shirts saying ‘StreisBAND’.
We first heard of the StreisBAND project through your ad for a drummer. Tell us about some of the people who replied – on the whole, did they get it? How did you decide on Barry?
More people ‘got it’ than I had anticipated. I had twenty-five applicants from all over Europe, and including drummers who’ve played for quite big names. I held auditions in London, but Barry (who lives in Ireland) sent me some videos of his interpretations via youtube, and he was my favourite. He was obviously having a ball while he was playing. He’s really funny, too. Which helps.
Does Barry love Babs too?
He didn’t, but he does now! That’s sort of the point of the whole project. Make people realise how great the songs are. They have to be great to withstand this sort of pummelling.
StreisBAND consists of vocals and drums and in your words, ‘no guitar, no bass, no marimba’. How and why did you come to that decision?
It’s just a lot more interesting than having a regular rock n’ roll set up, isn’t it? There are more than enough guitar bands in the world. This is much more direct. No pissing about, as it were.
How does StreisBAND fit in your oeuvre of avant garde, experimental musics?
That’s a tough question. I’m having a break from writing little operas and experimental music so that I can be more spontaneous and get out of the whole contemporary classical field and all the routine that goes with it. But is it REALLY a break? Or is it a continuation in some way? I don’t really know. Best not to dwell.
How are you choosing the songs?
I have to love the song and it has to work with the StreisBAND treatment. It helps if there’s an emotional tight-rope in the lyrics. Me and Barry struck upon the image of Oliver Reed on the street in his underpants, having been thrown out by his girlfriend. He’s pleading with her desperately as she throws his clothes from the bedroom window. He’s blind drunk and it’s raining. If the lyric of the song can fit that image then we’re on to a winner.
There also has to be a balance of well-known songs and more obscure songs. I don’t want to just do the Greatest Hits, that would be too easy and a bit boring. Besides, more people on this planet need to hear ‘Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking’, hopefully if they like StreisBAND’s version they’ll have a listen to her original. They’re surprisingly similar.
We hear there may be a tour?
There will be a few individual performances, and if they don’t go horribly wrong then there’ll be a tour.
Like us, you saw Babs’ recent concert at the O2. What did you think?
I was stunned! I wasn’t expecting her to be anything like as good as she was, frankly. I love her voice and I love her humour- both of which I imagined were in decline. But she was fucking fantastic. Her song choices were incredible, too, which is vital. The most moving Babs song for me has always been ‘Didn’t We?’, which isn’t an especially well known song, but she sang it and I was thrilled. I think I cried a couple of times during that concert. But then I’m an easy crier.
Babs likes to have some guest boys along on her tours these days. When she chooses StreisBAND for her next tour and to appear on her imminent duets album, what song will you do?
‘You Are Woman, I Am Man’. My tash rivals Omar Sharif’s.
Do you see StreisBAND as a one-album project or does it depend on your voice giving out or not?
HA! Yes, my voice may not hold out much longer singing the way I do. But it’s definitely ongoing, as far as I’m concerned. It might change, it might stay the same. I don’t want to sterilise it by forming concrete plans, since wildness is the best thing about it.
What is your favourite Babs era/album/film/TV special/hairdo?
I can’t get enough of those early albums and films. I love the album Barbra Streisand and Other Musical instruments, for the sheer range of textures in the orchestration. And it’s really funny. I couldn’t survive for love without Je m’apelle Barbra, either. For TV specials it’s got to be A Happening in Central Park which I use as my secret weapon to convert unbelievers. That performance, with all the schtick and the wit and emotion is complete genius. Great hair in Hello Dolly, but a bit of a superficial character, I seem to recall.
Barbra Streisand offers you a professional residency in her home/s. Do you:
a) choose to turn one of the shoppe’s in her basement shopping mall into a small gig venue, even though no one ever actually goes down there?
b) hang out with her in the ‘Grandma’s House’ studio and jam?
c) become a troubadour, following her as she checks her stocks whilst still in her pjs, demands another quail pizza from her PA Renata, requests you play ‘Smile’ for her coton de tulear Sammie and in memory of bichon frise Sammy (RIP), decides what colour flowers and fish she wants to match up today, and has some afternoon delight with Jim in her purpose-built shag-room?
d) something else?
HAHA! I would put microphones all over the house to make recordings of every word Babs says to Sammie and publish the results as an experimental novel. Or is that too obvious?
Is there a music genre that Babs hasn’t touched that you would love her to?
Glenn Gould wanted her to do some Mussorgsky, but I reckon she would have been staggering in hair metal.
You Don’t Bring Me Flowers with Diamond, Guilty with Gibb, No More Tears with Summer, or I’ve Finally Found Someone with Adams?
Guilty. Hands down. I like I’ve Got a Crush on You with Sinatra, too.
In Barbra Streisand…And Other Musical Instruments Babs sing-conducts an orchestra in ‘a concerto for voice and appliances’. What are your favourite appliances to play?
Corkscrew and bottle opener. I’ve been rehearsing for years.
For me it will be the performance she gave when she won the talent contest at New York gay bar The Lion, the one that launched her career as an actress-who-sings. What Babs moment will you visit when you take a trip in the Ethel Mermaids Time Machine?
A few seconds before she met Elliot Gould. I would swoop.
What next for StreisBAND and Stephen Crowe?
I’m trying to raise money to finish recording the album, and I’m sorting out a couple of gigs before the New Year. I’m off to live in Berlin for a few months from January. Don’t worry: there’s a very good drummer there for all German StreisBAND performances.
The Ethel Mermaids were very excited to read a much shared ad earlier this year recruiting a drummer for a Barbra Streisand metal covers band. StreisBAND has now found its drummers (several for gigs in different countries) and has recorded an album. You can buy it from the StreisBAND Web page and for a limited period can get a StreisBAND t-shirt thrown in to boot. StreisBAND is the brainchild of artist Stephen Crowe, so always promised to be rather marvellous. We cannot wait to attend a gig.
The cover of Woman in Love got me thinking. I had read a few years ago that Babs didn’t like that song and never wanted to record it. When we saw her in concert she did an abridged version of WiL, prefacing it with an explanation as to why she never had sung it in her concerts before. She said she didn’t agree with the lyrics, that it was an ‘interesting time for women’ when she recorded the song. Presumably referring to women’s lib, it seems that her objections as a feminist are that the rights she’d like to defend over and over again are not to get a man into her world and hold him within. However, when she went on to sing My Man later on in the show with no critique of those lyrics, we couldn’t help but feel that Babs was a bit of a fickle fish… Perhaps we should give her a break though: My Man – despite its terrible victim lyric – is an amazing belter and one of her best songs. We adore it. Plus she was putting WiL in a particular historical, social and political context which lends support to her reasoning.
I LOVE Woman in Love. It’s one of my absolute fave Babs songs – perhaps top 3. It’s my ringtone because its slinky intro is perfect and I can’t imagine many people have used the song as such. I will defend my right to love Woman in Love over and over again. However, thinking about Babs, her discussion of the song and StreisBand’s cover, it suddenly occurred to me – just because Babs is straight and so singing it as a woman addressing a man doesn’t mean the song necessarily has to be read as straight. What if the woman in the song is a woman in love with a woman? What if the right she will defend over and over again is actually the right to love a woman? This would make sense in terms of gay lib if she wants to talk historical context. If there was a simple way to contact Babs and tell her of my thoughts on the song, I would. But she’s a hard celeb to reach. You can’t even msg her facebook page. Perhaps she’ll Google herself and come across our blog post. Yes. That’s what will happen. So Ms Streisand? Whaddaya think of my theory?
(Ms Streisand can contact Corinna ‘Merms’ Tomrley via The Ethel’s email: email@example.com. Ms Streisand can also ‘like’ the Ethel’s facebook page: facebook.com/ethelmermaids; and follow them on Twitter: @Ethelsmermaids)
We Ethel Mermaids bring a lot of different likes to the EM project and there are of course collective fandoms, loves where we are unanimous. We heart Murder, She Wrote and Angela Lansbury. We all came to MSW at different times in our lives and we all love it very, very hard. There is – not surprisingly – quite the camp, cult following for MSW. If you are unfamiliar, along with a recommended viewing any of the millions of episodes repeated on TV every 10 minutes, we would like to be your guides for all things MSW, Jessica Fletcher and Angela Lansbury. May we please direct your attention to (WARNING: explicit material) the sublime Positive Moves (extracts available on youtube)? That in itself could possibly be all you would ever need. But wait – there’s more. There is Murder, She Blogged, which is pretty amazing with pretty extensive breakdowns of the episodes. There is Murder, She Saw: a blog dedicated to the endurance test of one woman watching every episode in one marathon session. There was one golden week in 2009 that cartoonist Timothy Winchester dedicated to MSW art and toonage, and it was so brilliant and so popular that he repeated the triumph in 2010.
And then… (sigh) …and then there is something so fabulous, so perfect, so totally MSW in spirit and in thoroughness that when we discovered it we were floored. Then we picked ourselves up off the floor and ran – RAN to its author and said: talk to us. And what is this treasure trove? It is Exploring Jessica Fletcher’s Closet in which the wonderful Lau painstakingly catalogues the best outfits from each MSW and then researches where you can find matching items and BECOME Jessica for your very self. We did not need to ask ‘why?’ Such a question is unnecessary in the face of such beauty. But we did need to know more about Ms. Lau and her incredible blog…
Do you remember the first time you saw MSW?
When I was very little we did not have a television. I never missed it, as we were always busy doing so many other things, but when we finally got one, the whole family quickly got charmed. My mum loved murder mystery books and was an avid fan of Agatha Christie. My first memories of MSW are episodes watched with her on our bulky colour TV. It was like opening a magic window to a world we never knew before and we liked it very much.
What is it about MSW that you love?
MSW’s success, in my opinion, is largely down to the brilliant portrait of Jessica played by Angela Lansbury. Of course the episodes are well written, and even if they always follow a similar pattern, they always manage to be surprising and original (something that many TV series today fail to achieve). All the characters are personable and lovable without being too cheesy, but needless to say, Jessica is the reason why people, still today, keep re-watching this series over and over again.
I think Jessica is loved by so many people of all ages, genders and sexuality because she is a flag-bearer for anyone who defies stereotypes. Any label you try to pin on her (OAP? Widow? Small town writer? Sleuth?) she manages to turn around and prove you wrong. I think the secret of her appeal is in her being so very human, her humanity expressed by the multifaceted aspects of her personality. She is clever, but not boring. She is classy but not snob. She is mature, but not old. She is obviously wealthy, but not spoiled. And she is sexy but not in the plastic way that models from magazines are trying to sell us as the only accepted canon: she has the charm of a real woman, a woman with brains and guts, as well as a creative mind and a humble spirit. I think this is what I like the most about her: she is fragile but fearless, and lives her life in her own terms. She is someone who has suffered and come through it, a woman who went on with her life even if things did not go perfectly to plan. She could have spent time at home crippled by her loneliness, missing her husband and regretting not having children of her own, but that would have been a very different show, and quite a depressing one! Instead, she makes the most of the cards that life handed her. She never lets anyone talk her down and is very confident, but in a world where standing up for yourself seem to be synonym of walking over others, she proves that treating people with kindness and respect does not necessarily makes you weaker. What attracted me to her fashion style, specifically, is that she always looks at ease with herself. She oozes confidence without being aloof, and yet her outfits are reasonably easy to put together and not necessarily expensive. My goal is to obtain that effortless style that comes from knowing what works for your body type and just feel that you can forget about looking in the mirror, because real class comes from the heart.
How did the blog come about?
In January this year I was in between jobs and I stumbled upon reruns of MSW in the early morning slot. One day I saw Jessica wearing a beautiful dress and I went online looking for a website giving fashion tips inspired by the series. To my amazement I could not find any. I started to do some research for my own pleasure and then I thought: what if?
What is your process?
I usually watch every episode on my laptop, stopping the DVD to take screenshots when I see Jessica wearing a new outfit. I then research on internet, looking on dozens of websites – from high street stores to vintage and second hand stores – trying to find something as similar as possible to what she is wearing. Whenever possible, I try to identify the original brands. I then put all together and write the accompanying text. It is real fun but quite a time consuming task. Inexplicably the most mundane of items are usually the hardest to find. I think finding the right pieces is mostly down to patience and sheer luck, but I truly enjoy my research and I am honestly learning a lot about fashion in the process.
What has the response been like?
The response from readers has been overwhelmingly good and I am really humbled by all the lovely things that people wrote to me, both via email and on the blog. I am not on Facebook or Twitter, so I have not advertised the blog in any way: I did not even tell any of my friends about it until recently! That is why I am so happy that so many took the time to read it. I am really amazed by the amount of people who found out about it just by word of mouth and I am really happy if people have fun reading it as much as I have fun writing it.
If you had to pick one outfit that you’d most like to own and wear, what would it be?
I love the dress that Jessica wears in the cross-over episode with Magnum PI! I even put it in the header of my blog. I think it is so simple and yet so very elegant and I can’t wait to get to that episode to be able look for something similar. I love Jessica’s style in general, and since the beginning of this blog I started wearing scarves and belts, something I never really did before. Now when I go shopping I can’t help by thinking: Would Jessica buy this?
What has had the biggest response?
So far, definitely the fish cardigan. I was incredibly lucky to find the name of the original maker, as usually I really struggle to find perfect matches, let alone the real thing! It was also really great that Mary Maxim, the company that produced that original knitting pattern in the 80s, stumbled upon my blog and decided to make it available again for purchase. The response from readers has been amazing and I know of a couple of people who are in the process of knitting it as we speak. I really hope they will send me the photos once finished: I would love to publish them on the blog if they will allow me to do so!
What would you do if you got to meet Angela?
I have never had the luck to meet Angela Lansbury or even see her live in theatre. If I could meet her, I would probably be star-struck and unable to say a word, but a braver version of me would love to interview her to ask about her take on fashion. I would love to know how much say she had in deciding what to wear on MSW and what are her favourite style secrets. In a perfect world, I would then invite her for dinner at my home, together with my family and friends, as I think she would be the most interesting and charming dinner guest ever.
Do you prefer the Cabot Cove episodes or those set in the Big Cities and Exotic Locales?
The Cabot Cove episodes. Maybe just because they are the ones I have the most memories with my mum.
Do you have a favourite episode?
I thought about this very hard, and it is a difficult choice. I love that episode in two parts (in series 3, I think) where she dresses up with an improbable flashy outfit and puts on a fake accent to get into a circus where one of her relatives is hiding. I like to think I would have done the same and I can’t wait to blog about it! In the first series, I love the episode where Jessica has to fight an allegedly self-driving car. She even gets to play arcade games and it makes me giggle every time I see it. I am actually re-watching the series as I blog so I am sure there are many great episodes that I haven’t seen yet, or that I forgot all about, so maybe ask me again in a little while.
One of my fave things is the outfits that some of the guest stars wear – SO MANY SEQUINS!!! Have you ever thought about expanding and doing posts about other character’s outfits or the glam guest stars?
Yes, I definitely thought about it. I am planning to do a Grady Fletcher special and maybe also a ‘bad girls’ special, as two lovely blog’s reader suggested these ideas. Hopefully I will manage to find the time to put something together soon.
Tell us a bit about yourself outside of your MSW world
I just moved a couple of months ago from London to the Emirates, where I am currently overdosing on good food and trying not to go full-lobster in the heat. I have an amazingly supportive partner, brother and friends. I love animals, baking ugly cookies, travelling and taking photos of skyscrapers. Writing is my passion but it is a bit of a mirage most of the time. I never thought I would write about fashion, then Jessica happened and my life has not been the same since.
This blog had a very positive impact on my life. I already consider it an incredibly successful venture, mostly because I met so many lovely people through it, but also because it made me more knowledgeable and more confident in my fashion choices: even if I haven’t obtained my goal yet, (‘becoming a classy lady!’), I still have 11 series and a half to get there!
If you look at Donald Urquhart’s art, it is no secret why we Ethel Mermaids should be obsessed with it. It’s not just the subject matters – full of Judy, Crawford, Bette Davis and queer references galore – but his precise style that gets to the heart of the matter and pulls you in with the joy and the pathos and the glory of it all. Urquhart is not just a great artist, however, but a vital part of the queer culture that goes back to before the Blitz Kid days. He is fascinating, funny and pure Mermaid gold. We couldn’t be more thrilled that he agreed to speak with us about his life, his work and the time he lived inside a Shagri-Las song…
What’s your background and how did you come to be an artist?
I grew up in Dumfries, Scotland and drawing was a means of escape from an early age. Becoming an artist has little to do with developing technical skills however; I feel it has more to do with developing sensitivity and humour – and I don’t mean the ha-ha kind of humour. How this cerebral arrangement forms is probably a combination of education and life experience. I was lecturing some art students a couple of years ago and told them that at 18-24 years old they shouldn’t be struggling through art degrees and getting heavily into debt when they could have been gaining experience and increasing their knowledge. When I was their age I didn’t have any opinions. I had nothing to say. So I became a fashion model and didn’t waste any paper on rotten art. Until I wanted to cause trouble.
You’ve written a great essay about your drag journey – or journey as a reality creator – and how in the 80s gay scene, drag was sneered at. How it developed for you seems at once organic and subversively stealth. What do you think of the drag scene today, in particular the ‘alternative drag scene’?
To be brutally frank I can’t stand any of the so-called alternative drag scene. Some of my friends are involved with that scene and I am glad that they are enjoying doing what they are doing. My pleasure ends there. You watch a lot of these acts and to avoid boredom it is sometimes entertaining to picture what is going on in their minds. “I’m in drag. Camp. I’m referencing The Cockettes with my beard. Fabulous. I’m miming badly. That’s the joke. What a laugh. Tits and a hairy chest. I’m so alternative. I love this song. I wish I could sing. I just want to be able to say I am a performance artist. My dream is Edinburgh or Glastonbury. I’m getting paid. Deep down I want to be the new Leigh Bowery or Boy George. When I get this lot off I can go down the sauna and nobody will suss I’m a tranny. Best of both worlds. I love it. Why is nobody clapping?”
The trouble with a lot of these people is they really want to become celebrities. What I was doing was the exact opposite. You can’t fake decadence. You can’t merely pretend to be nasty and offensive, you either totally destroy people and leave them with a complex that no amount of pills or therapy can cure or you are wasting their time and yours. This attitude will not get you a media job. This approach is certain to backfire and you will have no business in showbusiness. I got the sack from a few cabaret jobs. I was the warm-up at Gaytime TV who left them cold. The talent show judge who was “too judgemental” (I thought I would judge the contestants as people too). Even when Heaven asked me to sit on a throne at the door and be bitchy to everyone who came in (through a microphone) I was told I had gone too far and never worked there again. Well. They asked for bitchy. Something I said must have really hit a nerve.
Talking of your innovative cultural creation, you co-founded with Sheila Tequila and DJ Harvey the legendary club night The Beautiful Bend. There’s so much that came out of it: collaborations, performance, music. Do you miss it and that era? If you were to resurrect TBB for one night, who would be there, what would your outfit look like and what would the first song on the playlist be?
The Beautiful Bend goes wherever I go. I don’t know about missing those times as they are always with me in memories. Harvey came to Paris about a month ago and I met him at the gig. He is really up for doing another Beautiful Bend, or something that fuses our creativity – the only problem is that we are rarely in the same town for long these days. I’m still in touch with Sheila and we still have our two hour long highly bitchy phone chats. What I would love to do is have a Beautiful Bend with Sheila and Harvey. Just Sheila and Harvey. Turn up the music really loud and have sound effect of crowds laughing and cheering, glasses smashing, explosions. And have someone on the door telling everyone it is way too packed and nobody is allowed in, and everybody gets turned away. Crying all the way home.
Actually I would invite Mr Pearl too. That would be really special. He loves swishy disco from 1978 so the first record we would play would be ‘Beautiful Bend’, which is Harvey’s favourite record and where we got the name from. I don’t know what I would wear. Hopefully Sheila would bring a few bags of shoes from 1978 and we could have a Shoe Parade. Just the four of us. We all have different sized feet (7,8,9,10) so there would be an element of Shoe Jealousy going on.
Much of your work is stylistically economical: either monochromatic or with few colours and measured lines, creating stark contrast with the flamboyant subject matters. You manage to distil the glamorous extravagance down to a few well-placed lines, skilfully capturing the essence of your subjects. Where do these stylistic choices stem from? What inspires your subject matter?
I’m very interested in Muriel Spark’s view of the novel as a short story that got carried away, and a short story being a poem that that somebody was too lazy or indulgent to distil down to its purest form. She was half-joking of course, but half-serious also. Nevertheless there is a truth there.
I am as much inspired by escaping reality as forcing people to face it. I suppose that “what inspires you?” and “who are your influences?” are stock questions in this sort of thing. The answer to both of them is ME.
You knew and collaborated with Leigh Bowery and were part of the 80s/90s alternative gay club/art scene. Leigh seems to have been a consistent part of your professional life since his death – for instance, you’ve assisted in archiving and curation of exhibitions, written about and created a zine about Leigh. He embraced simplicity and excess in equal measures. What are the meeting points in the worlds, sensibilities and artistic expressions of Donald Urquhart and Leigh Bowery?
In a similar way to Sheila, Leigh was one of my friends who was drawn to my descriptive powers and my love of detail. Leigh could stay on the phone for hours firing questions and I was always glad to relate the latest gossip, fleshing the scantest whispers of stories out into something a bit more lurid and grotesque.
We were both informed and encouraged by Scarlett Cannon, who was one of the most influential and inspiring people on the London club scene at that time. We were her boys and she was a sort of Miss Jean Brodie figure to us. “A celestial force for the good,” is how Pearl recently described her, recalling their first meeting at her club Cha-Cha’s.
We also were privy to an abundance of inside fashion and music information. You have to remember that we didn’t have the internet in those days so we physically had to go out and chat with as many people as possible. It was really exhausting usually, but we were young and nosey and hungry for cheap thrills – and serious pleasures.
I don’t know if you can tell that we shared a sick sense of humour? We also had a lot of time for the more extreme gay icons like Dorothy Squires and Danny LaRue. I can remember Leigh ringing me up, barely able to speak for laughing and playing a Live Dorothy Squires record down the phone. He laughed so much all through it that I could hardly hear it. Then he kept taking the needle back to the same place over and over again, but all the while tittering and laughing so I couldn’t hear it. He finally said “are you getting this in the VAN?” Squires was drunk on stage somewhere in Wales and she had a van parked outside recording her performance for posterity. I used to play Danny LaRue down the phone to him. You have to see LaRue’s film ‘Our Miss Fred’ – that is totally where Leigh got most of his moves and poses from. The fantasy fashion show sequence is 100% Bowery – the audience are all in Nazi uniform. Too much.
I was very lucky to have known Leigh from 1983 up to his death. I watched him transform from a slightly bashful lad with an Aussie twang, through ever more extreme fashions and attitudes, to his rather grand final incarnation. His voice was total Royal Shakespeare Company eventually. Of course the whole time we were sure we were going to die young, because everybody was always dying. That was what drove our flamboyant decadence. Every party was going to be our last. I do find it strange that eighteen years after Leigh’s death I am still here. As are a large number of our contemporaries. The dying pretty much stopped after Leigh died – but not entirely of course. The era of frequent funerals was harrowing all the same. I remember thinking to myself ‘Another funeral. Another graveyard. Another wake. Who’s next?’
Your Alphabet series is brilliant. Unsurprisingly, we’re particularly drawn to your Joan and Judy Alphabets. They capture the camp, humour and iconology of the subjects; what keeps us hooked on them and why they are so fascinatingly delightful. Will there be any more alphabets in the future? If so, can you let us in on who or what you may be alphabetising?
I daresay there will be other alphabets. I’m not the kind of artist who can just roll their sleeves up and pick up a brush and whistle as they knock things out. I really have to find the right mood and become focused. The alphabets take a lot of planning and research. You have 26 alphabetically ordered points in which to describe your subject. Some letters are more difficult than others. I had a really tough time with my Margate Alphabet. The hardest letter was ‘O’.
I’m reading a biography of Tallulah Bankhead right now and although she would seem good material for an alphabet there seems to have been way too much going on in her life to nail her in 26 letters. Twenty six four letter words might be better.
To paraphrase one of your wonderful art works, ‘the faggots love Judy’. Some lady-faggots love them some Judy too. She appears in a lot of your work. What, for you, is the queer appeal of Garland?
‘Those faggots love to GET HAPPY with Judy – but is their happiness REAL?’ – I think I have seen enough feigned happiness on the gay scene to make Pollyanna retch. You know when somebody pulls a really huge smile – all bared teeth – but their eyes are desperately searching for your approval? If you don’t smile back instantly they start to feel insecure and wonder if you hate them. Rather than going into the danger zone of looking at themselves and working out what it is you might not like about them, they try to turn it around onto you. “Are you alright? What’s wrong? You don’t look happy.” – “I’m not happy because you are grinning in my face. Go away.” How shallow are some people? We all have to go around beaming like junk jewellery or we’re killjoys. I’d love to be able to explain my lack of expression by saying “I’m the president of the Virginia O’Brien Fan Club” but would they get it? Hell, I’ve met queens that have never heard of Coral Browne.
For me the queer appeal of Garland is simply that she was camp and could be very bitchy. She was hilarious. Other gay people cling teary-eyed to poor little Dorothy singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ as though her sadness is theirs too. That’s the thing – there were many Judys. She was no one-trick pony. There’s a Judy for everyone. Pill poppers, drunks, fag hags, lesbians, fats, anorexics, the bitter, the disillusioned, the brave, the weak… One Judy fits all.
There’s nothing quite like a train-wreck, tarnished or tragic blonde. How did you select those depicted in your Peroxides on Parole series? What do they mean to you? Do the contemporary crop of notorious blondes measure up to the cracked legends of these women? (Spears, Lohan, perhaps even Courtney Love immediately spring to mind).
Strangely I made those drawings by freeze-framing video tapes and then drew the sometimes distorted faces that jerkily flickered on the screen. So it was really down to which blondes I had video tapes of. Drawing with black ink on white paper, people only have black hair or white hair. There are no redheads or brunettes. There is something about a peroxide blonde that makes her a little shadier than a natural blonde. Like Kim Novak in ‘Vertigo’ or Tippi Hedren in ‘Marnie, she is a fake with something to hide as well as someone who goes to great pains to stand out.
I have no interest in Britney Spears. I might change my mind when she dies. Ditto Lohan. Courtney Love is more interesting, coming from the same trash pile as Pete Burns but she could try harder. Or maybe people could try harder to boost her “career”. I think she has great potential. Which is like saying I pity her for failing.
One piece of peroxide I am shocked has not gone further is Margi Clarke. Can you believe she is working in a pub? At a ‘Fur Is A Drag’ night in Heaven I shared a dressing room with her and Chrissie Hynde. Chrissie was a bit nervous as she wasn’t used to singing along with a pre-recorded vocal. I thought a spliff might help but Chrissie started worrying about what she was wearing. It was a black lace shirt with a black waistcoat and black jeans. “Is this OK? – I mean. I NEVER wear black!” she said in all seriousness. Margi was set to model an apron which read “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur” – but she was wearing a very obvious black bra and panties underneath. I tried to dissuade her. She wasn’t having it. Then I pointed out that she was going out in front of a thousand queens in a bra that was too small for her and caused fat to hang over it at the sides and back. Before I started on the panties she whipped her undies off. “You’re right,” she said, “and thanks. I’m going to get a new bra.”
You have the choice to spend an evening at the home of Joan Crawford or an evening on the town of Judy Garland. Who do you go with and why?
An evening at the home of Joan Crawford without her being there – where I could snoop through her wardrobe and sex toys. That appeals to me, but I don’t know that I would have found her as entertaining company as a sozzled Judy out on the town. I’d go and get rat-arsed with Judy and sing all the songs.
In the mid 1980s I lived next door to a sweet old gay couple. They had both worked in the hotel trade all their days. They had met them all: Liz, Grace, Ava… One night they had been at a gay party in Chelsea. They came out and the first thing they saw was a woman lying drunk on the road. It was Judy Garland. They couldn’t rouse her – she was totally out of it. So one of them ran to a phone box and rang round all the hotels to find out where she was staying. Then they bundled her into a taxi and took her back. Their proudest possession was the signed photo and thank you note she sent them. A true star. If I had to choose between suffering the agonies of Judy Garland’s heart or Joan Crawford’s vagina I know which one I would pick. Christina! Fetch me my Fuck-Me pumps!
We love a zine and are all zinesters here. I see the zine-as-art-object fucking with ideas of high and low culture and, for me, so much of your work is doing that. What do you like about the zine format and what are your thoughts about DIY cultural production in general?
I see the zine as something easy to produce. All you need is a typewriter and maybe material for collage, access to a photocopier – and away you go. You don’t need a computer or anything complicated.
I used a brush (never a pen) with black ink for drawing as the photocopier reads this clearly. I didn’t rub out pencil marks as the crummy photocopier at my local post office wasn’t sophisticated enough to pick them up.
The most important aspect of a zine is quality of content. Otherwise don’t waste paper. If you are making a zine for your own entertainment just make the one and stay home.
Which Shangri-Las song do you live in?
I was going through a hell and high water seaside romance. It was really more draining than fulfilling, and one bleak morning it struck me that I was trapped in some melodramatic Shangri-Las Song – or all of them. I made that drawing and then it was turned into a print to raise funds for the Whitechapel Gallery. By the time I had got the prints my on/off boyfriend had decided that we should be “partners” as he called it. We were going steady at last. I gave him a signed print and told him that he had inspired the drawing. “Which Shangri-Las song were you thinking of?” he asked, looking quite flattered.
-“One of the ones where they both die in a horrible car accident at the end.” The look on his face told me that our love was doomed.
On the 8th August The Ethel Mermaids will be present, in Joan-drag and hawking our stuff, at Amy Grimehouse Presents Mommie Dearest. What’s your take on the book and film, and: will Donald Urquhart be in London to accept an invitation to come along too?
I don’t know what I’m doing in August. Paris closes down so there isn’t much point in me being here. I’ll certainly come along if I’m in town. With an axe.
I met Faye Dunaway just after Mommie Dearest came out. She used to shop in a fashion store I worked in called Jones. She had a whole running rail of things she had put on hold. She was lovely, but the problem with her was that she was always “in disguise”, you know – big dark glasses, floppy hat, long crochet waistcoat. Total spy garb. Nobody was meant to know who she was. She had a thing about Katherine Hamnett menswear. The trousers were no good as they didn’t fit but she loved the parachute silk shirts and poplin jackets. Once she got very excited about a red shirt, “I remember when Katherine was designing this!” she exclaimed before checking herself with “but that is giving the game away…”
What game? Was this a game? It probably was. In all the time I had spent serving her she hadn’t actually purchased anything. What I didn’t know was that she really hated the film. One afternoon I was unpacking a box of new jackets that had just arrived, and hanging them on the rails. Enter Dunaway, in mufty as usual. Smiling I said “You will be pleased to know, Miss Dunaway, that we only use wooden hangers in this store.”
Through her tinted shades I saw her eyes widen, her mouth turned down at the corners. It would have been great if she had yelled “NO… WIRE HANGERS…EVER!!” but she turned on her heel and stomped out in a fury without saying a word. I don’t know if she came back to the store as I was “made redundant” about a week later. I suspect because of her.
What was the question? Oh yes, Mommie Dearest, the never ending story of Big Bad Joan Crawford as told by her abused daughter. Christina has brought out a few extended versions which I haven’t read. I remember she had a blog that may as well have been called “And ANOTHER thing!” – she always has that bit more energy to spare for hammering another nail into Joan’s coffin. In her most recent tour she made no bones about hinting that Joan was responsible for Albert Steel’s death while answering a question from a fan. Did Joan really throw him down the stairs or was Christina remembering a scene from one of Joan’s movies?
The book may well be a memoir written out of revenge and skewed by a defective memory. B.D. Hyman’s ‘My Mother’s Keeper’ was a copycat effort by Bette Davis’ daughter to cause her mother pain. It did. They never spoke again. At least Christina waited until the bitch was DEAD.
For an illustrated edition of Vanity Fair you chose the sublime Bette Davis as your Becky Sharpe. Why was Bette so useful for this project?
I was originally only going to show the key female characters, in an homage to George Cukor’s ‘The Women’. By way of homework I watched the film ‘Becky Sharp’ – the first colour movie – which was based on Vanity Fair. I really didn’t think that shrill Miriam Hopkins made a convincing Becky. She is great in some scenes but I thought that Bette Davis would have been much better. Davis and Hopkins loathed each other, and I decided to use Davis as my model for Becky Sharp – sort of a revenge from beyond the grave.
In the book Becky first appears as a schoolgirl and at the by the end we don’t really know her age but it is clear that she has let herself go to a great extent, so I drew Davis going from fresh-faced ingénue to Baby Jane – and beyond. I think any reader with knowledge of Bette Davis films could easily imagine her in the role.
Bette appears elsewhere in your work, for instance the incredible Davis Scowl depicting Bette in The Anniversary. Do we have your permission to get a tattoo artist to put your Bette on our Becky (Mermaid)?
I think that’s a lovely idea. I’d really like to see the end result – depending on where the tattoo is. She’s not going to have her eyeballs done is she, so that she has ‘Bette Davis Eyes’?
All images courtesy Donald Urquhart, Herald Street and Maureen Paley galleries
Over the years it seems that whenever I’ve Google-imaged a particularly fabulous diva, the best pics would belong to the blog Stirred, Straight Up, With a Twist. I have continually marvelled at the enormous, youarethere clear, unusual images and smiled at the succinct, sharp, witty text that accompanies them. But the author of those words and collector of those pictures remained somewhat of a mystery. Sure there was the thumbnail of a gent as dapper and sophisticated-looking as you’d expect. But apart from the ‘TJB’ next to his photo, there was no further clue as to his identity. Nor – frustratingly for me – a way to get in touch and express my love.
I recently happened across the facebook group Hollywood Babylon. Immediately hit with ‘How on earth have I inhabited facebook for so long and not had a CLUE that this was there?’: I felt home. And amongst the fabulously well-informed trivia-toting wonders was a familiar face belonging to one of the most prolific of HB’s posters: none other than the star of his own thumbnail, Mr Todd Brant, he of Stirred, Straight up, With a Twist. It made perfect sense that someone of his knowledge, wit and detail should be found here. Hurray! I could get more of a fix of the Brandt magic than just the blog and – BINGO! – get in touch with the man and tell him how much joy the blog and its content have given me over the years. I could tell him he simply MUST be interviewed for ‘Ethel Loves…’ and become the Honorary Mermaid he was born to be.
So darlings, with a tinkle of ice over gin and vermouth, the stab of an olive and a splash of its juice (take note: how I like mine), please join me and raise a glass to the wonderful Mr Todd Brandt.
Tell us about Todd Brandt – what’s your background?
One of my friends calls me “Queenie” — NOT because of any limp wrists, but because of the novel of that name by Michael Korda. That’s my one enigmatic answer, darling, and I promise to not be coy for the next sixteen questions.
When did you first fall for Old Hollywood?
I distinctly remember seeing “How to Marry a Millionaire” on afternoon television one day when I was sick and not at school. I must have been around eight or nine years old at the time. From then on, I was hooked. I would scour the TV Guide every week, highlight the old films that were playing, and if they were airing late at night, I’d set my alarm clock to, say, 4 a.m. to watch Barbara Stanwyck in “The Mad Miss Manton.”
In 1989, I contributed to my middle school paper. My contributions? Memorials for Bette Davis and Lucille Ball. Also that year, our English class final assignment was to write a book — literally, write a book. We wrote them, supplied illustrations, bound them, the whole nine yards. Ever the teacher’s pet, I wrote two: one was a work of fiction which borrowed very heavily from “All About Eve”; the other was what I considered to be the definitive biography of Marilyn Monroe.
How did Stirred, Straight Up, With a Twist come about?
I give all credit to the amazing, fabulous, talented “Thombeau,” whose late, lamented blogs “FABULON” and “Chateau Thombeau” are still legendary in all the right circles, darling. Seeing what he was doing completely influenced what I started doing.
Where do you get such amazing, massive pictures?
I don’t necessarily “create” when I blog, but I DO “curate.” It takes me a long, long time to find just the right images which fit the theme or concept that I have for a particular post. Every picture I use is by design, for a specific purpose. And I almost always use high-res images. I think that gives the blog a particular look and consistency.
You have a wealth of historical knowledge and a wonderful way with words yet you use them sparingly on the blog. Was it a conscious decision to have the images dominate on SSUWAT?
It is definitely a conscious decision, and there are two reasons. The first is partially answered in my response above: when I write a longer, more detailed “essay” post, it automatically necessitates, by my standards, very specific photos which are directly related to the text. You may have noticed that I do a lot of “triptych” style posts, with three related images. Those kinds of posts can take hours, just to find three images which carry out the theme I have in mind. (I’ve abandoned some ideas, because I couldn’t find the right image or images.) With an essay-style post, it obviously takes much, much longer, and I don’t always have the time (or energy!) to do so. The second reason is that even though I adore trivia and gossip and all of the minutiae of Hollywood information, I primarily envisioned SSUWAT from the very beginning as featuring beautiful, unique images — not the same tired ones that you can see almost anywhere — with funny or ironic titles/captions. I dream in captions and one-liners, darling. I reserve the essays for “special” occasions, or when I’m feeling particularly verbose and inspired.
Who are your top 5 goddesses and why?
Joan Crawford: For her unwavering self-discipline and unyielding determination to create herself from the ground up.
Judy Garland: For possessing more raw talent than any other human being of the 20th century.
Arlene Francis: For ineffable, unflappable, indisputable charm.
Marlene Dietrich: For creating the most flawless image possible, and then refusing to spoil the illusion.
Diana Ross: For inventing the pop diva template as we know it today, and for nurturing what’s essentially a small talent, then developing and polishing it to her best possible advantage.
You’re having a pool party at your Brentwood home circa 1938-1965. Who do you invite and what shenanigans occur?
Guy Madison, and I’d give the servants the day off, darling.
What are your favourite star biographies/ autobiographies?
I actually find a lot of the more “scholarly” biographies boring — the biggest exception I can think of is Sam Irvin’s exceptionally well-researched and thoroughly entertaining biography on Kay Thompson. It not only is a long-overdue, scrupulously detailed look at a vastly under-recognized performer, but it’s a great read. Movie star autobiographies can be entertaining, but so self-serving that you must take them with a shaker of salt. Personally, I think that the fluffy, advice/self help/memoir genre (of which “My Way of Life” by Joan Crawford is the Holy Grail) is not only the most entertaining, but probably closer to the true essence of these stars, as they saw themselves, than anything else. I’m letting my philistine side show through, but I’d rather read a tawdry dime-store paperback like “Jayne Mansfield’s Wild, Wild World” (1963) or a silly beauty guide like Arlene Dahl’s “Always Ask a Man” than a lengthy biography with annotations any day.
Your favourite star?
Joan Crawford. Definitely.
I’ve just discovered Hollywood Babylon on facebook and I LOVE the community – I feel like I’m home! What are your thoughts on the campness and queer appeal of Old Hollywood?
Without putting too fine a point on it, I think the queer community — particularly gay men, and particularly gay men of a certain age — completely understand the concept of creation. Creation of a new persona, creation of a new life, a new identity — creation of a community or chosen family. Old Hollywood glamour is all about creation and illusion. We not only understand that, we embrace it. Younger gays understand that, too, but I think the concept resonates more with people who lived through a less liberated time — when smoke and mirrors were the order of the day.
Do you ever take your martinis dirty?
I like a lot of things dirty, darling, but never my martinis.
Gin or vodka?
Gin. I never quite understood the vodka martini. It has no balls.
Bette or Joan?
Joan, of course. I adore Bette; I just happen to often champion the underdog. Joan was tough in her own way, but also insecure and running from her demons. I feel oddly protective towards her.
Streisand or Midler?
Streisand. I have my issues with her, but I can’t deny that the lady is pretty fucking incredible. I like Bette Midler, but I never thought she was half as fabulous or talented as her followers do.
Jayne or Mamie?
Jayne all the way, baby. I respect Mamie for still being alive and kicking, and she’s fun in those bad girl B movies, but Jayne took bad taste to such a stratospherically, operatically, insanely awesome level that one can’t help but just sit back and be amazed. I adore her.
Liz or Debbie?
What’s next for Mr Brandt?
If I were more of a planner, and more organized, I’d probably not only have a better idea, but I’d most likely be there by now! I just take life as it comes, darling, and I believe that enjoying life is appreciating beauty and surrounding yourself with it. Even if it’s only in your own imagination.