What flashes through your mind like a spotlight catching a few shimmering mirrors of a disco-ball when you hear the term ‘drag queen’? Is it sequins, ping pong balls and ABBA a la Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)? Or princess points and Strawberry Socials with To Wong Foo (1995)? Or is it seedy Sunday nights down at that seldom-ventured local where the brave soul in the bulging corset tries to but just can’t nail that Rocky Horror number?
Whatever colourful image you conjure up, Dressed As A Girl has something more to show your mind’s eye as it takes you beneath the fabulous wigs, costumes and makeup of a handful of people behind East London’s alternative drag scene.
Through Colin Rothbart’s lens, a glittering and glamorous Jonny Woo welcomes us into his world and it’s not long before that thick layer of cotton wool is whipped away from our eyes with the precision of a sleight of hand magician. The outrageous shenanigans of ‘Gay Bingo’ night illustrate perfectly how Woo’s loss of control would lead to a significant life-changing experience. He is openly honest about these events, bringing with him a positive message of change and this is evident in how healthy he looks out of make-up.
Scottee is the Eeyore of this group of subjects. A dark cloud has followed him from his troubled upbringing of alcoholism and neglect. The pain of which he pours into his performances as he takes that dark cloud up onto the stage with him, letting it rain down on him with all its fury. A raw example of how life transforms into art.
Holestar is the Connie & Carla (2004) of the scene, the woman who dresses in drag – or faux queen, as they call it. Unsurprisingly she is the best at applying her make-up. And while she does have her own touching moments where tears dare to destroy the heavy applied mascara, Holestar delivers a good slice of the comic relief with her dry wit and frank opinions on the other members of the scene crew.
Amber, formally Dean, on the other hand appears to go from strength to strength. She becomes more confident and comfortable in her own skin each time we revisit her. A successful reunion with her father, who has never his new and improved offspring, is one of the more heart-warming scenes from DRAG. Understandably Amber takes the opportunity to question dad’s true opinion of her new life. And it is here that a precious moment is captured and crystallised on film – a teary but joyful look of acceptance, the holy grail.
But perhaps the most affecting tale of this fruitful bunch is the story of Pia, a transgendered woman whose beliefs are even more outlandish than her former antics. She refuses to take the hormone medication that maintains her rightful body as she waits for the end of the world to pass. Holestar puts it to us that this may have been caused by Pia’s drug use back in the day. Still as this lost lady weeps off-camera, could it be something much more serious? Are we looking at the unthinkable downside of gender reassignment? Because of this deep turmoil you’ll be dreading the worst and wishing for her to pull it together. Pia is truly a fascinating human being.
What I admire the most about Colin’s documentary is that while there was certainly a story to be told, he had the mind-set, the vision and the respect to fully recognise that it was one that could only be told through the eyes and words of each individual. He even hands over the narrator’s duties to Jonny Woo in disco-tinged interludes as he spouts warped Shakespeare like some otherworldly fairy drag-mother.
Somehow I feel saying that Pia, Amber, Scottee, Holestar and Jonny are like you and me would be a disservice to them. They have lived their lives against the grain, as well as shaving against it. They have done extraordinary things and made extraordinary decisions. Not everyone can say these things. But most definitely like us, they are all human. They have felt joy, loss, doubt, rejection, depression. They age, they fear, they bleed, they perish. And just maybe, they have shown us, that despite all these pesky similarities, that life can be a little bit more fabulous, a little more outrageous, a little more of how we truly desire to live it, if we dare it to be.
Dir: Colin Rothbart
Scr: Colin Rothbart
Featuring: Holestar, Scottee, John Sizzle, Jonny Woo
Prd: Chris Amos
Run time: 94 mins
Dressed As A Girl is screening as part of the East End Film Festival and followed by live cabaret performance by the infamous Jonny Woo.
Tickets available from the Dalston Roofpark Bootstrap website, here.