When Adrian+Shane appeared in the first issue of Loverboy Magazine I was instantly smitten. Their art continues to delight, seduce and intrigue. With Judy and Liza being subjects of their work and ideas of queerness and identity at the forefront I needed to discover more about this amazing art partnership.
Corinna: I’m going out on limb and presuming you are a romantic couple as well as an artistic partnership? If so, what came first love or art or did both crash together at the same time?
Adrian+Shane: Haha, yes, you’re right to presume we’re a couple. Love came first. The art was never planned. We met at Christmas 1997. Shane was studying at the Glasgow School of Art and I was still living in Ireland. A month and a half after we first met I visited him in Glasgow for Valentines weekend and bought a massive bottle of Absolut vodka in the airport on my way. One evening, we sat on the floor of his student flat listening to the Spice Girls and getting drunk on the vodka. I began doodling in a sketch pad, then I passed it to Shane and he painted on top of my drawing. We passed it back and forth. This was the beginning of our collaboration. Over the weekend we filled ten pages in the pad with drawings, paintings and collage. We’ve still never shown them to anyone. The following year we had our first Adrian+Shane exhibition
C: How does your work life balance pan out?
A+S: After the gym every morning we drive to our studio. We usually have a brief meeting to decide what needs to be done and we spend the day working on it. We finish at around 7pm depending on what we’re working on. If we’re in the middle of a big project we’ll work until midnight. Then do it all over again the next day. We generally work 7 days a week. We get a break when we go on holiday.
C: Do you have a pretty solid and consistent vision as Adrian+Shane or do you, as two separate artists, have differences where you have to drop an idea because it’s not where you both want to go?
A+S: In general we both know what Adrian+Shane is and we have very similar likes aesthetically. But every now and then one of us will have an idea that the other doesn’t like. When that happens we either make adjustments to the idea or we bin it and move on.
C: Your piece ‘I Was A Gay Child’ is so stunning and resonates for so many queer boys, I am sure. Is this strictly a gendered piece though, do you think? I was considering it in terms of being a queer woman and wondering what I’d depict for my own gay childhood. I wasn’t a ‘tomboy’ (shudder at THAT word, but you know what I mean, I hope…). I think I’d have Lynda Carter, Daisy Duke and Cat Woman in the background for mine but I don’t know what toy I’d have in the foreground. Probably a Barbie tbh because I coveted them and all I had was my sister’s hand me down flat footed Sindy who was horse-crazy and Sloany. I couldn’t relate. I craved the glamour of old Hollywood and girlie things that spoke to me from within my queerness. Or I’d have a Spirograph because I used to think of Busby Berkeley chorus girl formations as I twiddled it… What are your thoughts on my rambling explanation here in terms of queer formativity, childhood and gender? And I’m thinking of it all from outside the binary as well…
A+S: We love the way you think. When we make art it’s generally from our own perspective. We grew up secretly fantasising about other boys/men and sometimes wanting to play with girls’ toys. It might be interesting to do a version of it from a queer girl’s point of view.
C: Can we talk about ‘Judy Fucking Garland’? I adore this piece and not just because I’m a card carrying Judy nut (in every sense, darlings). It encapsulates the deification of Judy – classically understood as The Gay Men’s Personal Diva. But also, for me, sums up the cultish deification by The Good Judy Fans – those who will not see her personified and portrayed as anything but fun, pure, happy, sexless. The fact that you have the word ‘fucking’ in there will piss off a lot of them and that makes me particularly happy… anyway, I digress (as I usually do on the topic of Judy). Your JFG is one of the best pieces of Garland art I’ve seen because it has a multitude of readings but is also simply joyous. What are you exploring through this and the related Liza piece?
A+S: We fucking love Judy. As little Irish gay boys we grew up watching her on TV every Christmas in The Wizard Of Oz. About a year ago we had the idea of using the line “Judy Fucking Garland” in a painting or T-shirt. After creating several designs we were dissatisfied with, we put the idea on the back burner and every now and then we’d return to it between working on other projects. Catholic imagery has always played a part in our work and combining the text with an image of the Virgin Mary gave it a whole new meaning. It’s powerful. The paintings were exhibited in a show in Dublin in June 2015 and caused a lot of controversy. The gallery received letters from life long customers demanding that the paintings be removed etc. Meanwhile the T-shirts we made depicting the same image have been flying off the shelves.
C: Some – unimaginative – people might not quite see how pop art and pop culture can be used to explore social commentary but it’s there in your manifesto and I definitely see it in your work. I think the subversiveness of camp is very, very underrated and one of our main weapons and tools. Can you say something about how your art takes on social critique and explores identity? There’s a particularly powerful thematic blurring of catholic and queer iconology there, too.
A+S: Pop art and social commentary go hand in hand as far as we’re concerned. Pop art was always about reflecting what was going on in society. That’s what we like to do, hold a mirror up and show off the ridiculous. We like to burst bubbles, including our own and try to disturb what’s comfortable. People get set in their ways and don’t like change and anything different.
C: Madonna is an artist who excels on stage: discuss (I used to work at the Astoria in the 90s. I can’t believe that they actually got Madonna for G-A-Y. Gutted I missed that. Adore your video piece that came from it). In your opinions, is she still as powerful up there on the boards as she was in her Blonde Ambition/Girlie Show heyday?
A+S: We love her. She still has plenty to say. We just saw her current tour “Rebel Heart Tour” and she has just as much energy as she’s ever had. People have been bashing her for years. It’s so ridiculous that she’s criticised for being 57 when in fact she should be celebrated. I guess it’ll take her death for the masses to examine her career and really appreciate how fucking incredible she is.
C: Your work ‘It takes balls to be a fairy’ challenges the stupid anti-sissy mentality in gay culture and celebrates the nancy boy instead. Is this something that’s particularly relevant to your artistic voice and message?
A+S: Growing up in an environment where boys were boys, played football and were masculine. If you didn’t match that stereotype you were singled out. Even now within the gay community “feminine” guys are looked down on. We love embracing these words that are used to bash and humiliate gays. Words that have been used against us. Taking them back, owning them and using them in a positive way. Queer, fairy, homo, faggot, poof, queen. We love them. ’It Takes Balls To Be A Fairy’ is by far our most popular T-shirt.
Gee but we all had a SWELL time at the Angela Lansbury Night that those Namesake Mermaids threw last week. GOLLY, what a blast. I don’t know Angela. Her Mama Rose is obviously inferior to MINE, but then – HELL – every actress in any role is inferior to The Merm – am I right kids? You bet your sweet fucking asses I am!
Anyway, this is all obviously an out of town tryout. You KNOW they’re just testing the waters and gearing up to doing a whole MONTH of events dedicated to YOURS TRULY. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! But they are, right? I’ll phone my agent and get the low down for ya on THAT! HAHAHAHAHAHA!
So, what else has been going on in the World of Merm? I know you’re all DYING to know, aren’t ya? Well, I hear that those crazy kids Rice and Webber are writing a show for yours truly called COOKED! and I’ll be playing Nigella Lawson. You can see it, right? Won’t even have to get a new hairdo! I told them that I am SHIT in the kitchen but that won’t matter, I’m pure SEX, just like Nige and that’s all that counts. Gonna paint her as the wronged but strong heroine, of course. I know that role by HEART. We’re Team Nigella over here in the office of The Merm and we’re gonna put the record straight. IN SONG!
Well, I gotta go now kids. I’m having lunch with my pal Benay Venuta and the simply GORGEOUS Judy Garland. God I fucking LOVE Judy. She’s a great kid and the only one who can turn the air bluer than YOURS TRULY. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! I just hope that crazy broad Jackie Susann doesn’t turn up again. That gal is gaga over me and Judy – can’t blame her, of course. But I just wish she’d CHOOSE who she wants to stalk. I can’t believe she’d choose anyone over me, even a SWELL gal like Judy. I’ll be sure to tell you all about it, kids, you know you can count on THAT.
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.
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.