Being a drag queen is about saying “fuck you” to everyone else, declares DJ John Sizzle to the camera at the start of Dressed as a Girl, a new documentary about East London’s alternative drag scene.
The film, set to be one of the highlights of this month’s East End Film Festival, charts six years in the lives of a group of people who share a love of partying, dressing up and a determination to express themselves however they want.
“Coming of age stories are usually people in their teens and early 20s but this is about people in their-mid 30s and turning 40 and growing up finally,” says the scene’s ‘ringmaster’, Jonny Woo.
Woo gained a cult following in East London after he founded Gay Bingo in 2003, a notorious night out which used bingo as a pretext for all manner of outrageous goings-on.
Complete with blonde wig and fake eyelashes, Woo presents each character in turn, building up the mythology of the group with a languid delivery that contrasts to the chaos on screen.
We meet Amber, a transvestite model who wants to transition into a woman. Holestar is a self-proclaimed ‘tranny with a fanny’, the only biological female of the group. Scottee is an ambitious show off with a troubled past, while Pia claims to have predicted the end of the world. And then there’s John Sizzle who, as he approaches the age of 45, wonders if drag is still for him.
The film begins with early footage of Gay Bingo, when the scene was in its infancy. Using the innocent concept of bingo as an excuse for madcap debauchery (you have to see it to believe it), it shows how ready excess and exhibitionism was the group’s stock-in-trade.
The film then leaps ahead to Glastonbury in 2009, a gig at the Royal Opera House and Lovebox.
“The idea initially was for it to be a year in the life of all these East London alternative performers as a time capsule-type thing,” says Holestar, who came up with the idea to make a film alongside its director, Colin Rothbart.
“But because of funding we decided to make it a longer project, which was quite beneficial in the long term because you see how everyone changes as people.
“It’s a celebration of that alternative, new artistic wave of creativity that was taking over at the time, especially in Hackney. I like to think it’s an East London celebration.”
Colin Rothbart moved to East London in 2008 and makes television programmes for the likes of MTV by day. He wasn’t part of the gay scene when he agreed to direct Dressed as a Girl, he says, and as an unknown quantity he wasn’t trusted from the outset.
“Because I had a TV background I think some of them thought oh he’s going stitch us up, so there was always that suspicion and it took a long time to get the core characters on board.”
But once signed up, the core characters had their own ideas about the filming. Some wanted their performances to be the film’s focus but that, says Rothbart, would have made it a “home video for the scene”.
“They didn’t really want me to meet their family or ask some probing questions about their past or anything like that, so that took a long time. I think that’s why it benefitted from having six years to film.”
Looking past the wigs and false eyelashes to darker and more serious issues such as suicide, addiction and mental illness gives the film a far broader appeal that will hopefully ensure it gets an audience outside East London.
“We’re all eventually talking about quite low moments in our lives, or very personal things,” says Woo.
“I think this idea, that everything’s great, everything’s fun, but actually we’re all dealing with some quite serious shit… it kind of destroys the illusion a little bit.”
Each of the characters is a star in their own right, and a few of them could carry a film on their own. Amber’s story, from holding a fundraiser in Dalston to raise money for a boob job, to opening up her own shop and a difficult reunion with her family, is at turns funny, moving and inspiring.
“She really wanted her story to be a beacon for people who are growing up, and being transgender in countries where it wasn’t accepted, so she let us into every aspect of her life,” says Rothbart.
For Woo, the excesses of the drag scene almost proved fatal. The film shows him coming back from the brink and redefining his life.
“It is about the glamour and hedonism, but it’s also about the effects of it,” says Rothbart. “The scene is great fun but it can kill you if you’re not careful. And if you’re being offered unlimited drink and drugs some people take it a little too far sometimes.”
The six-year filming period allows you to see each character, in all their fabulousness and all their flaws. Holestar, who was this year named Best Drag Act at the London Cabaret Awards, talks freely about her struggles with depression.
“My aim for the film was for anyone who thinks they’re different to be able to watch this and think it’s ok, you can be whatever the hell you want to be.”
Two of the characters, Jonny Woo and John Sizzle, as well as the director Rothbart, now own a pub called The Glory on Kingsland Road, while Scottee has become a Radio 4 broadcaster as well as associate artist at the Roundhouse. So has the scene grown up and disbanded?
“Not so much actually,” Jonny Woo insists. “The drag scene in East London is as vibrant as it was back then and is bigger, and has far more people doing drag.
“People moan and say there’s nothing’s going on and things are closing down, but the East London drag scene is absolutely buzzing. That scene was of its time, but the party isn’t over.”
DRESSED AS A GIRL will be released by Peccadillo Pictures, where it is playing throughout the UK as part of the POUT Fest Tour followed by the DVD late 2015.
The East End Film Festival runs until 12 July