It’s not unusual for drag performers to rise from relative obscurity to appearing on TV. Lily Savage hosted Blankety Blank, Ru Paul has her Drag Race and then there’s Mary Portas (what’s that? oh.). For Drags Aloud, their journey to fame began with a TV show in their native Australia which led to a prize-winning performance at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, appearances at four of the last five Edinburgh Fringe Festivals and, next month, an evening at Southbank’s new Spiegeltent.
On July 20, Drags Aloud will bring their new eponymous show to the London Wonderground. They won’t have too far to travel, having re-located to Essex last year. We probed founder member Kris del Vayze hard and long and this is what Kris had to say.
What got you into drag in the first place? Did you ever consider a career in acting, comedy or singing?
I fell into drag almost by accident. After a successful twenty year career as an actor and dancer, including a couple of years working in New York and London, my body told me it was time to stop. I was devastated and really didn’t know what I was going to do with myself. I spent a couple of years doing the old reliable hospitality jobs eventually managing hotels, but never really “loved” it. So I went traveling for two years until the savings ran out and I had to think seriously about doing something with my life.
I decided to put down roots in Melbourne (Australia) and resigned myself to working in pubs and restaurants. It was during a night out at the clubs in 2002 that I was talked into entering a drag competition. Drag was nothing new – I’d used elements of drag in dance and cabaret shows and had played “man dressed as woman” roles before so the thought of throwing on a dress wasn’t at all daunting. I didn’t win the competition but like so many of the “Someone’s Got Talent” and “Pop Idol”-type shows, I ended up with a career and the winner hasn’t been heard of since.
I started getting some drag work around the Melbourne gay scene and was making regular appearances with Jessica James and Amanda Monroe, with whom I founded Drags Aloud in 2005 after we had made a TV variety programme of the same name. We started building some large scale drag shows that moved away from the usual club and pub-style shows and then moved away from the scene altogether and concentrated on Fringe Festivals and Comedy Festivals – which led to our first appearance at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2007. The rest, as they say, is history.
When the Olympic torch gets to your neck of the woods on July 7, what will you be doing?
I’ve been asked to make an appearance when the Olympic torch makes its way through Essex. I was a bit miffed that I wasn’t asked to be a torch-bearer, but in hindsight, I won’t run to catch the tube let alone to carry the torch. I will probably choose to wear something suitably sporty for the occasion, a leotard and leg-warmers and sensible shoes – something with a low heel!
Is there a point during the prep for a show that you “become” Kris? For some performers I’ve spoken to it’s the wig, others the make-up.
Many performers say that there is a point, during preparation for a show, where a switch flicks on and “the persona” emerges. I used to be like that – it used to be when I’d finished my eye make-up. There would be a distinct “change” in bearing, in attitude, in everything. I don’t quite remember when
that changed; probably around the time we started doing the festivals. By that time, drag was my profession and “putting on the slap” became the same as putting on a work uniform. There was also a change with the shows: I wasn’t necessarily playing “Kris”, I was playing a variety of roles and had
to morph into a variety of characters in the space of a one-hour show.
How has the drag scene changed since you started?
The drag scene is constantly changing. Participants move on; new “baby” drags are always coming up. Tastes and styles change. Having moved away from performing on the “scene” back in Australia, I suppose I see it from a different perspective.
The scene requires a more niche performance. Drags Aloud moved into the mainstream and the basis of what we do is very different. Much like dialects change from region to region, there a different requirements when presenting to a mainstream audience. Pay for performing on the scene in Australia is fairly scant. Drag is considered to be pretty much at the bottom of entertainment food chain – even on the scene. It is certainly held in somewhat better esteem here in the UK and for mainstream audiences drag is almost a cultural thing – Danny La Rue, Lily Savage and so many comedians have used drag – Dick Emery, Benny Hill and so on.
But no matter where you go in the world, drag is pretty much the same. The difference is only in the language – mainly slang terms – a ‘root’ in Australia becomes a ‘shag’ in the UK.
What was the inspiration for the current show?
The new self-titled show was inspired by a monologue written by one of our performers and the Lady Gaga song Bad Romance. Its all about ‘bad romance’ and lets face it, for as long as there’s been a world, there’s been ‘bad’ or at least ‘odd’ romances – the potential for comedy is endless. As far back as Adam and Eve, Elizabeth the First, Cleo and Caesar, Cleo and Marc Antony, Liz and Dick and Liza and just about every man she’s ever hooked up with. Then there is possibly the most famous
relationship of all – Romeo and Juliet – and we all know how that turned out. So with all that material at our fingertips, a couple of cheap ‘penny romance’ novels and our own amorous disasters – there was more than enough to build a rib-tickler of a show in sketch comedy alone. To keep it moving along, we’ve added some fabulous songs, a bit of belligerently choreographed dance and live (yes!! LIVE vocals) – so our audience should be able to giggle, sing and dance their way back home after the show.
How do you go about putting together your onstage outfits?
The process of putting together costumes is a mine-field. Inspiration comes from many places – nightmares, dreams, window-displays or sometimes just an image forms when you’re editing the initial soundtrack. Budget is a huge factor, or adapting what’s in your mind to fit that eight yards of ugly
bargain material that’s been sitting at the back of the wardrobe for the past decade. Sometimes its as simple as remodeling something that hasn’t seen the light of day for several years.
When preparing backstage, what’s your most essential bit of kit?
I can’t survive backstage without space – our shows are very costume-centric and full of very fast changes – so room to set costumes is critical. This is of course followed closely in priority by a mirror, a brush, hairspray and a roll of kitchen paper – we always need to mop our soggy brows between sets.
Do you have any crazy stories from your recent runs in Dublin or last year at the Fringe?
Every tour has its stories and its unforgettable memories. In Adelaide during Fringe there was the enormous praying mantis with a bright pink feather stuck to its back, climbing the wall of our dressing room and then there was the locust plague that hit town at the same time. Nothing beats putting on a wig and feeling something crawling around under it. I had a locust use a curl at the front of one wig as a swing in the middle of a number.
There’s always panic when flights get cancelled and you’re forced to find emergency accommodation. A £20 a night guest house in Wales comes to mind. The window to our room was barely attached to the building and, in fact, the building itself was barely standing. Then there were the less than honest producers who put us in fourth-rate accommodation in a crime-riddled area of Queens in New York and having to kick the door in. The best stories, unfortunately, are the ones that you just can’t put into print (although the autobiography is going to be a filthy read!).
Have you had any interesting heckles?
We’ve had some very interesting comments made during shows – not so much heckling (we tend to heckle each other), but certainly very quick-witted audience retorts. During our Movie show of 2010 we tipped our hats to Mary Poppins and during the Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious number when
we were spelling it out, one wit in the audience said “I can’t spell, I’m dyslexic”.
During a Q&A in another show, we were asked if the cast had retained their “veggie patches” or if we had “lady gardens”. During a meet and greet after a show we thanked a lovely young lad for coming along and how wonderful that he’d brought his mother along (he was arm in arm with a much, much older woman). With a great deal of indignity, she informed us that she wasn’t his mother.
Want to see Drags Aloud strut their stuff? They have a nifty promo video and will be at the Priceless London Wonderground spiegeltent on July 20. See dragsaloudofficial.com for tickets and show details.