‘WHEN they make the stage musical version of your life,” I begin. “Oh, Rhianna would have to play me,” says Al-Lana Pillay, without hesitation. Not if I were casting, she wouldn’t. Rhianna isn’t one-tenth the woman Mz Pillay is. She has worked with everyone from Diana Dors to Ruby Wax, done Eartha Kitt’s make-up and been dressed by Leigh Bowery. But even they almost pale into insignificance in the Grand Guignol epic of Pillay’s life.
Born in Grimsby in 1959 to an Irish-Italian-Spanish mother and an Indian father (she a cleaner, he an engineer on a trawler), Al-Lana “popped out, on a chaise longue, singing, ‘I’m just an old-fashioned girl,’ while Eartha Kitt was playing on the gramophone”. She always knew she was a girl. Albeit on the outside she looked like a boy – “this little brown effeminate kid” as she describes herself.
At six, the other kids at school were calling Alan/Lana “a little f***ing queer. I was told I was a nigger and a Paki all the time.” At the age of eight, her devoutly Catholic mother beat her with a hairbrush, splitting her scalp in four places, “trying to let the effeminate demon out”.
“It got worse in my teens because my effeminacy, or femininity, was becoming more and more evident,” says Pillay.
At 13, she was raped by four priests and told she would go to hell and suffer for eternity if she told anyone. The priests told her mother they had tried to perform an exorcism but it had failed. When her mother finally discovered the truth about the rape she told the 13-year-old Lana that she deserved it for being queer. Then her brothers beat her so badly – “in an attempt to butch me up” – she was hospitalised and, at 14, ended up in a Child Assessment Centre, where she remained for two years.
What kept her going, she says, apart from her Leonian spirit and a conviction that “I had a right to be here” was being a dreamer – “Dreaming that one day I’d be beyond this, dreaming of being on the stage.” And the stars of her dreams were Eartha Kitt and Mae West, Dorothy Squires and Lena Horne. Her “signposts”.
At 16, when “it became too damaging to stay”, she left Grimsby for Manchester, in the sidecar of a motorbike. As we pause for breath, she pats my knee. “Anyhow, I’m glad I’ve got that off my chest because I think readers should know about the pain and the power that lurks behind the sequin socialist.”
Don’t, however, unbuckle your seatbelts quite yet. Al-Lana took to Manchester like Katie Price to St Tropez, starting by carving a Shirley Bassey-shaped place on the stage of a club run by Frank “FrouFrou” Lamarr. “Frank was involved in a court case – a scandal with some of his saunas – and it went to the High Court in London. I used to do the first half of the show while he was driving back up to Manchester in his white Rolls-Royce,” says Al-Lana. “I don’t know where he used to put his slap on because he used to arrive fully dragged up.”
Then Lana spread her lamé wings. “I did all the working men’s clubs. I was known as the Shirley Bassey of the north. I got nominated for all kinds of awards. Then,” she smiles, “The Fall fell into my life – Kay Carroll, Mark E Smith – and they sort of fell in love with me.” She shaved her hair short, bleached it white and debuted with the post-punk cult legends at The Russell Club in Hume as “a sort of tranny, gender-ambiguous John Cooper Clark. It was the full Warhol Factory thing.”
Persuaded that now Manchester was too small, the 19-year-old rode her dreams to London, narrowly escaped the wrath of the Clapton Ponds chapter of the National Front and met Keith Allen on the swings in Powis Square. “I had no idea who Keith Allen was, I just thought he was trying to get off with me,” says Al-Lana coyly.
“He said, ‘I’m in comedy. Got my own show coming off on Channel 4. Will you come and do something in it?’ And there I was, filming in all my glory for Channel 4’s first ever yoof programme.”
Which led to an introduction to Peter Richardson and a bouquet of blooming amazing performances with The Comic Strip – first as Alan, then Alana, and finally as Lana Pellay – culminating in her own star vehicle, the film Eat The Rich. Al-Lana smiles and sighs. “These were my lucky years,” she says.
Lucky too for disco-lovers globally who were treated to Lana Pellay’s monster hit Pistol in My Pocket, written and produced by Pete Waterman with Sheila Ferguson singing back up. But after Eat the Rich, the sparkle comprehensively came off the mirrorball. Claiming to be owed money from The Comic Strip, Lana sold stories about them to the press – and was cast out of comedy Camelot in disgrace like a gender-ambivalent Lancelot.
“I did rather shoot myself in the foot,” she says, staring at her perfect manicure. “At that time I was on the hormones. And very young.” She shrugs “I didn’t really have a very stable view of the world.”
“Hormones?” I ask. “So had you decided to pick a gender?” But this is Al-“many names and two genders”-Lana Pillay.
“There was never a compulsion to have gender reassignment surgery,” she says firmly, “‘Cos I never thought that having those bits would make me any happier or any more of a woman. Although I did like having me breasts. You have a good time with blokes when you’ve got tits.”
The professionally-exiled Lana (“I couldn’t even get panto”) came off hormones (“I didn’t want to live in an issued body any more”) had a breakdown, lost everything, retired to Manchester to regroup and returned to London where – unlikely as it might seem – a combination of volunteer work in hospitals, an appearance on Gary Clail’s 1991 hit Human Nature and a place as film critic in Craig Charles’s Funky Bunker brought Al-Lana back from the brink.
Now she is – to paraphrase SuBo – “who she was born to be”. And, for August (and, surely beyond) she is Dorothy Squires. Diva plays diva and it is extraordinary to watch. Al-Lana must be the only performer who has to tone herself down to play the fabulous Welsh she-dragon who made Bassey look like Dana.
The show – written by Richard Stirling and directed by Stewart Nicholls – is bitter-sweet, tragic-comic and really rather lovely. Pillay is – as her one-time screen chum Jennifer Saunders would say – absolutely fabulous and, unlikely as it might seem, it is absolutely perfect casting.
“I always describe myself as this prize china vase that has been smashed a few times and the pieces all put back together so it all looks fine from a distance,” says Al-Lana. “But if you look close up you can see where the Bostick has gone.” Bostick has never been put to better use.
• Dorothy Squires: Mrs Roger Moore, Gilded Balloon Teviot, 12-27 August, 12:45pm.