Can we paint with all the colours of the wind, or are we just using tippex? Mixed race drag/burlesque artiste Miss Cairo wants to see more diversity in cabaret.

Miss Cairo with London Cabaret Award 2015 Best Newcomer Lilly Snatchdragon

Miss Cairo with London Cabaret Award 2015 Best Newcomer Lilly Snatchdragon

This week, I was lucky enough to attend the London Cabaret Awards to support an amazing friend who I have mothered, primped and preened since her cabaret conception, and I am so proud to say that she snatched the title of Best Newcomer.

It was also a fantastic night to see such astonishingly talented artists get recognised for their work. Of course, I feel that everyone deserves recognition for their hard work (more than just applause). It was also great to be exposed to other performers which I haven’t yet had the pleasure of seeing, reminding me how vast and varied our world of cabaret actually is.

The thing that struck me the most on the night was a word often bandied about in cabaret circles: “diverse”. We are lucky enough to have an industry of people of all shapes and sizes, that celebrates everyone on the sexuality scale and that is becoming conscious in recognising those who don’t fit the gender binary. We encourage, celebrate and applaud the weird and wonderful in this community of reprobates and perverts, some of whom have been discarded by society and have sought solace in our glittering family.

The London Cabaret Awards were in many ways just like any other high-profile awards ceremony. There were beautiful dresses and plenty of bubbles. There were people pretending to be nonchalant about whether they would win but deep down feeling that winning will validate them as artists. There was also the distinct lack of ethnic minorities. I have often heard compères make jokes about how white and middle-class their audiences are but, what is ironic for me, is that so is most of the cabaret community.

I have no problem with it being such a Caucasian industry. It begs the question, though, of why there aren’t more ethnic minorities within our community? I can understand that there are cultures which don’t allow performance of this nature – for example, it is frowned upon in Arabic nations for women to reveal their bodies – but I am also aware that there are those from other countries that are punk enough to go against the grain. Where are the performers that celebrate cultural and racial diversity? Where are the shows that allow the pushing of boundaries with ethnicity, or which create a safe environment in which to discuss or educate otherness?

The defining facts of the matter are these. There was barely more than a handful of non-white acts in this year’s London Cabaret Awards longlist (including David Bedella, Bishi, Le Gateau Chocolat, Stephen Rahman-Hughes, Siro-A and Lilly Snatchdragon). The judging panel is entirely made up of white individuals which perhaps shows that there is a lack of awareness for actively seeking out those performers that play around with race. This isn’t an attack on all white people in the world, merely a call out to those that use the word “diversity” to exercise it on a wider and much more aware capacity.

I don’t have a definitive answer as to how we can achieve more diversity within our industry, but I have a few ways in which it could be aided. Producers can start being actively aware of more diverse performers, by going to other places and seeing the plethora of talent that is out there. Shows should start creating safe spaces in order for more subversive work to be exposed to a different audience (change is all well and good within a peer group, but it’s much more effective when seen outside of the war zone). Performers should stop appropriating other cultures unless they have actively collaborated with someone who has firsthand experience of said culture in order to give a true representation of a demographic.

For me, seeing Lilly SnatchDragon win wasn’t amazing just because she’s my friend, it’s was amazing because she is one of those performers who is on a journey of tackling a lack of education in race and has now been recognised as someone who is valued by our community. And that’s pretty fucking cool.

Further reading

Miss Cairo gives us her lowdown on achieving drag perfection: “remember, everyone listens to a drag queen.”