Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

Dressed As A Girl: the best of East London’s Alternative Queer scene

If you are unfamiliar with the alternative drag scene in London’s vibrant East End, then discovering the extraordinary performance artist Jonny Woo who had been the ringmaster of it all for the past decade, is quite an eyeopener. Although I should add quickly, one of the very best kind.  In this new documentary from first time filmmaker Colin Rothbart made over six years on a minuscule budget, right from the opening titles it is hard not to be mesmerized by this dynamic larger-then-life strapping powerhouse in his provocative scantily clad glamorous costumes as he struts around the stage belting out his latest rap, or lip-syncing to some anarchic song.  Hard to pin his look down : part glam rock, part new wave punk, part S & M with an excessively painted face, he defies you not to take him too seriously.
After a few years performing in N.Y., Woo came back to his beloved Hackney in 2003 and corralled an odd assortment of other performers together and they performed Gay Bingo. It was less about gambling and much more about behaving as excessively outrageous that they get away with in a public pace. Woo admits that they all usually performed  after coming down from an abundance of drugs, and so the only way they could get through each show was by imbuing vast amounts of alcohol. The show ran for some years until the excesses got rather annoying.
Over the six years that Rothbart shot the movie, besides documenting Woo’s life unfold, he followed a handful of other performers whom he shows trying to combine their successful careers as burgeoning stars of East London’s cabaret and club scene, and the reality of their complicated and somewhat traumatic lives off stage. They included Holestar a woman who dresses up as a drag queen and is somewhat bitter she doesn’t get all the breaks she thinks she deserves: John Sizzle a very successful Drag DJ who is coming to terms with the fact that at aged 45 it is time he had another career; Dean a burly butch man who transitions to ‘glamathon’ Amber literally in front of our eyes; and Scottie a rather confrontational and dramatic performance artist who goes through a phase of making his audiences share his deep depression about the strife he had/has with his parents.

Woo himself, though quite the superstar being feted by the likes of ‘Time Out Magazine’ to host Spectaculars at venues such as The Royal Opera House, has had his demons too.  He almost died when his vital organs started to pack up after the sheer battering he had given them with his years of success, and is now a changed and sober man.  His new state of wellness hasn’t affected the body of his work which we see from recent performances such as the 10th Anniversary Show of Gay Bingo, is just as visionary and unapologetic queer as always.

It’s hard not to like the charismatic Woo and his passion for both performing and his ‘family’ of fellow performers, something that Rothbart certainly could not help falling for too as part of the ‘wrap up’ after making the movie, the two men not only started dating, but they opened their own Alternative venue together in Kingsland Road. There is a raw energy about his extraordinary creative work which challenges the whole premise of traditional British drag that has its roots in mimicking female divas and piling on the self-deprecating humor. It seems that Woo’s influences must have been Andy Warhol’s whole Factory scene as his work is reminiscent of that on several levels. Closer to home though what is clear from this compelling movie is that his highly original gang are the true successors to the glorious era of Leigh Bowery and Boy George in the 1980’s when London once revelled in true alternative style.

Posted by queerguru  at  03:03

Genres:  documentary

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