We spoke to the stars of East London’s drag queen scene

At the pinnacle of the queer community are the drag queens: the glittering guardians of the scene.

From the Stonewall riots to pride parades, you’d be surprised at how receptive an audience can be to a bloke donning lipstick and heels. Drag provides a glistening form of escapism, an underground spectacle for those who live on the fringes of mainstream culture. It allows LGBT people to embrace the facets of their characters that society most derides.
 
Dressed As A Girl – a new feature-length documentary directed by Colin Rothbart that tracks the lives of East London’s most outrageous drag queens – is the latest in a series of high-profile drag shows that have recently appeared on British screens. From TV cult hit ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ to the ‘British Drag Queen’s of London’, Channel 4’s ‘Muslim Drag Queens’ to the new movie flop Stonewall, it seems drag is booting down the doors to mainstream cultural acceptance.



But this 90-minute fly on the wall documentary, shot in London’s East End over six years, feels somewhat less glamorous than other on-screen portrayals. The stars of Dressed As a Girl aren’t sugar coated; the Shoreditch scene they were part of was drug-fuelled and messy, as too is their low glam, high sex appeal, style of drag.
 
We follow a series of characters as they carve out a life of drag in London's club scene: Jonny Woo, the legendry circus ringmaster; John Sizzle, a drag DJ with a penchant for upholstery; and Scottee, the youngest of the crowd, estranged from his family and determined to make it big. Rothbart also focuses on ‘Tranny with a Fanny’ Holestar, the outrageous trans musician Amber, and the enigmatic PIA.
 
“WE WEREN’T EMULATING A LOOK! WE’D GO TO PEACOCKS AND BUY WHATEVER THE FUCK WE COULD AFFORD.”
 
Unlike many drag-focused documentaries, there’s no fucking around in Dressed As A Girl. We start in 2003, and pilled-up queens are sprawling about the floor on a Sunday afternoon, shouting numbers and dirty dancing while their audience looks on in delight. It’s their legendary gay bingo party. (There’s a lot of gay, not much bingo.)
 
But what drives the drag that these guys have been celebrating?


JONNY WOO AND JOHN SIZZLE. PHOTO: MICHAEL SEGALOV

I meet Woo and Sizzle in their new East London pub, The Glory, rapidly becoming one of the city’s most exciting queer destinations as well as a training ground for young drag queens, keen to perfect their craft. As we settle down to talk, John Sizzle asks Woo if he did drag growing up and the pair of them chat away, cranberry juice flowing.
 
“A little bit,” he answers. “I used to get dressed up and play around with make up, but everyone does that…”
 
While Jonnny recalls heading off to NYC to develop his drag, and wean himself off drink and drugs in the process, Sizzle tells me he too started camping it up in drag early on in his life. When his parents were at the pub, he’d throw on a dress and a pair of platforms.
 
“I liked my sister’s freedom,” he laughs.

By the time he hit his twenties, post-pub sessions round at his would swiftly see him dressed as Grace Jones or Madonna, before hitting up S&M clubs dressed as the rotting corpse of Marilyn Monroe. As the drag developed, Sizzle left a successful career in advertising to work on it full time. “I was in my thirties, and was bored of myself and everything else, I enjoyed the anarchy of what we were doing. It was punky, naughty and aggressive.”
 
He describes the look as messy, although it wasn’t a deliberate style choice. “We weren’t emulating a look! We’d go to Peacocks [a clothing store] and buy whatever the fuck we could afford.”
 
From hosting Lovebox to shows at the Royal Opera House, Jonny Woo’s vocation was taking off too. It’s because they were, for London at least, doing something different. They saw old school drag as unsexy, so called themselves tyrannies, “exploring the idea of masculinity in heels and a jockstrap.”
 
The balls were falling out of their bikinis, and turns out we couldn’t get enough of it.



But in Dressed As A Girl we don’t just see the queens up on stage. Rothbart’s unapologetically invasive approach lets us into these performers’ lives, going behind closed doors with their loves ones, revealing a side to these sometimes-aggressive queens that we’d otherwise never know. According to Woo, it was part of the deal.
 
But the world of drag has its own conception of family. Families – or houses – are close-knit groups of LBGT people in the scene, often with a trans-woman or well-established drag queen at the helm.
 
The family culture of drag is most evident in Paris is Burning, a seminal documentary shot in 1980s NYC, tracking the ball culture of the city’s black and Latino gay and trans scenes. “We are families,” one queen says, as two boys, aged 13 and 15, roam downtown Manhattan’s streets at 3AM. One states simply that, being gay, he has no parents.
 
“I THINK GAY CULTURE STARTED BECOMING BEIGE TEN YEARS AGO,” AMBER SAYS, POINTING TO THE RISE OF SEXUAL ENCOUNTERS ARRANGED ONLINE.
I ask Sizzle and Woo if they saw their fellow drag queens as family, but they both shrug off the terminology. “I didn’t start doing drag until I was 26,” replies Woo, who suggests he was too cynical to imagine those around him as adopted relatives. “I couldn’t even spell family, the number of poppers I’d taken by 33 when we all met,” Sizzle jokes, instead calling the troop a “naughty and disjointed gang” that developed from big nights out on the scene.
 
They’d say they were friends, that they’d look out for each other, but ultimately the relationship extended no further.
 
Maybe it’s because they stumbled on drag later on in their lives, with networks and close friendships already fully formed. Many queens arrive on the scene much younger, in need of support networks and advice.
 
They are also both white gay men with relatively stable family lives (we meet their respective parents in the film), so I’d argue the nuances are slightly more complex.



For Amber, a trans woman who makes her transition during filming, establishing contact with her father is central. Without that contact, she sees those around her as her family unit.
 
There’s something strangely moving about Amber’s boobathon, which shows a relationship between these queens that extends beyond that of going out and getting wasted. Amber needs to pay for surgery to get breasts, and the gang throw her a party – as they do best – to make it happen: a hoard of dolled-up blokes in drag march through Dalston, East London, to round up attendees for the impromptu and raucous church hall party, raking in well over £4,000 by the end of the night.
 
“You don’t chose your family, you chose your friends in life… it’s called a community,” she says to camera, visibly moved.
 
“We, as a family, have bought our sister Amber some tits,” someone else delights.
 
Drag world is full of rules, culture and ritualism; you need to learn that from someone, a parent to guide you is an opportunity to embrace. It also allows you to see queer within the idea of the family unit, challenging what the stereotype of a mother and father is. For those with no contact with their parents, disowned for their sexuality, it’s a home. Use family, use friends, or use community, the relationships built are strong.



Back in the Glory, our carton of cranberry juice sits empty on the table. While Sizzle and Woo reminisce about their drug fuelled partying past, I couldn’t help but wonder what happens next for this scene. These two are still going strong but the environment surrounding them is changing. Where we sit in East London, gentrification is in full swing; the counterculture community they helped build is now a tourist destination.
 
The gay scene in London is also shifting, with pubs, bars and clubs shutting down regularly, and apps like Grindr, mediums for cruising online, destroying the need for physical spaces where queer culture, such as drag, can exist.

"FAMILY? I COULDN'T EVEN SPELL 'FAMILY', THE NUMBERS OF POPPERS I'D TAKEN BY THE TIME WE ALL MET!" 
I speak to Scottee, now 28, who hovers on the edges of this ramshackle journey. The only chance we find to speak is over the phone on a Tuesday morning, before his flight to Japan where he’s busy working on an exhibition. An Associate Artist at the Roundhouse in Camden, and a regular on Radio 4, Scottee has curated a career and is yet to hit 30.
 
He, too, seems resigned to the scene changing. “I think gay culture started becoming beige ten years ago,” he says, pointing to the rise of sexual encounters arranged online. But he also reckons it comes down to “gay acceptance.” LGBT people have long fought for equality in the law, and in the UK at least. As Scottee sees it, we’re well on our way to achieving it.
 
Even the drugs that fuel these drag queens have moved on now. Sizzle and Woo reminisce over weeks spent popping pills, after which they’d stagger about in their drag for days. But now? After 12 hours on mephedrone you’ll be stooping into despair or single-mindedly looking for sex, not wanting to camp it up in glittery spandex.
 
Drag might be on our screens but there’s a risk such saturation, with no roots in a subversive counterculture, might make drag become bland, co-opted into a stagnant tedium.
 
But many young drag queens I meet today still see their art as a tool for social change. Where queens may once have demanded equality in the law, now come demands centred around trans rights, misogyny, racism and body shaming. The goal posts might have shifted, but they see work has to be done.
 
Drag, like all forms of counterculture, needs something dreary and beige to rebel against. Before it was a revolt against society at large, so rebelling against the bleak LGBT scene itself might well be the logical next step.  If you’re wondering how to make that happen, watching Dressed As A Girl is a pretty good place to start.
 
‘Dressed As A Girl’ is available now on DVD and On-Demand via Peccadillo Pictures.