Dressed as a Girl: In Conversation with London Drag Legend Jonny Woo

words Aimee-Lee Abraham

2nd October 2015

Today marks the release of Colin Rothbart’s fly-on-the-wall documentary of London’s East London drag scene: Dressed as a Girl. In its depiction of the dizzying highs and devastating lows encountered along the way to cult superstardom, the film is unflinchingly honest, capturing a world where Queens fight to pretend “everything is fabulous… and no one is ill” while battling an array of personal and collective demons.

Having been at the forefront of the Shoreditch scene for over twenty years, Jonny Wooacts both as the film’s narrator and a primary subject. We sat down with him ahead of the frockumentary’s release to talk about drag, debauchery and the families we choose. Spoiler: it turns out they’re just as dysfunctional as the ones we’re born into.

Six years’ worth of footage was condensed into just two hours, and the narrative jumps very quickly from hilarity to heartache. How was it for you to watch yourself developing on-screen in such a measurable and visceral way?

For all of us there’s a great deal of revelation, especially with the benefit of hindsight. What’s great about the film is that it’s real; people aren’t trying to act up or be relentlessly positive for the camera. It’s not a sycophantic representation of drag that tries to falsely portray us as one big happy family. Thereis a real sense of camaraderie and community running throughout the scene, but the people within it exist as complex beings. Their relationships change and ebb and flow. There’s ambition, there’s disappointment, there’s friendship, and there are strains on those friendships. It’s messy.

It made for pretty difficult viewing at times.

Some parts are uncomfortable to watch. I felt like I was on trial at the premiere, up to be judged by a hundred people. Ultimately the film only presents a snapshot of each of our personalities, and we knew what was coming when we granted Colin access to our lives. We accept that as his subjects. The presentation is fair but it’s not wholly rounded. Certain segments make me wince, but when you look back on life as a whole it can all be a bit cringe-worthy. Audiences have appreciated that honesty so far.

Despite the conflict you’ve mentioned, there was a real sense of solidarity, and it was touching to see you all raising funds for Amber to have gender re-assignment surgery. On film we see some members of the public scoff at the validity of the cause, but it was such a transformative and redemptive experience for her.

Exactly. On screen it’s all dressed up as bit of outrageous fun, which it was, but these are real fundraisers with the power to affect real lives. Of course there are more pressing issues in the world, but if we want to raise money to help out a friend in need then that’s absolutely our business.

Dressed as a Girl goes beyond the humour and superficiality featured in glamorous mainstream shows like Ru-Paul’s Drag Race. Do you think it serves up an alternative version of the art form?

We all enjoy the liberation of dressing up, but we don’t all have this big, instantaneous personality change the moment the drag goes on, which you sometimes see in more mainstream drag. What characterises our drag is that you see the person underneath. The make-up and hair goes on and it generally falls off before the night is over, leaving you half made-up and half undone. You’re exposed, and the real person and the artifice are all kind of mixed together.

The film frequently references personal tragedy and substance abuse: Scottee reveals that his mother once stopped to pick up whisky while driving him to hospital in the middle of an asthma attack, and you discuss your own battles with alcohol. How has your life changed since sobriety?

It’s a miracle that I managed to do what I did for so long. I used to come home on a Monday morning and hibernate until Thursday. I was absolutely living for the weekend, I didn’t know how to stop, and I eventually suffered multiple organ failure. I don’t drink or do drugs any more and I have so much more time to keep up with my career and the business.

What’s next for you?

I have a few ongoing projects. As well as co-managing The Glory, I’m doing a rock-theatre show based around Lou Reed’s Transformeralbum and I have my East London Lecture which, to put simply, explores gentrification in the area.

As someone who has lived in East London for twenty years, are you nostalgic about the way things used to be?

I have this big hang-up with what I think is the overuse of the word 'gentrification’. I remember sitting in Geography class when I was fourteen learning about how it was just a natural evolution that occurred within urban settings, and change is certainly synonymous with the area. I don’t think East London has lost its sense of individualism or its sense of community. You only have to walk through London Fields or Victoria Park to see the an entire cross-section of the city enjoying the same beautiful facilities. The parks here really are the most fantastic things. They’re melting pots. I am proud to be a Londoner, and even prouder to be giving back through the business.

Dressed as a Girl is out in cinemas now, and released on DVD and On-Demand on the 7th of December from Peccadillo Pictures