With no fewer than three shows at this year’s Fringe, Le Gateau Chocolat will be wearing a lot of hats, but Susan Mansfield finds that, when it comes to identity, the man behind the masks is having his cake and eating it
Le Gateau Chocolat is sitting at a table in an iconic gay London nightspot, the Glory in Hoxton, expertly attaching a set of false eyelashes. A voluptuous make-up bag is open in front of him. He’s getting ready for a publicity photoshoot with the cast of Jonny Woo’s All Star Brexit Cabaret, one of the three shows he’ll be performing daily at the Fringe.
“Three shows a day?” I say. He grimaces. “I don’t want to think about it,” he says, and sweeps off to the loos, returning moments later in a turquoise and gold sequin-encrusted leotard, and a gorgeous dark-blonde wig. “Daywear, darling, daywear,” he purrs, in a voice like molten chocolate, and prances off to join the rest of the Brexit cast.
Half an hour later, he’s in a T-shirt and African print trousers, and we’re in a nearby café having a conversation about public and private selves – the former being the guy who wears the frocks and the sequins, who has wowed the Fringe since 2011 with his incredible baritone, singing everything from Wagner to Billie Holiday, and the latter Le Gateau Chocolat, the man who will, in a hour or so, blend into the London crowds without so much as turning a head.
After two years’ absence, he’s back on the Fringe with Icons, a show celebrating the moments, music and people who have been “iconic” to him, from Pagliacci to Elvis to Celine Dion. He is known as an incredibly hard-working artist (three shows not being enough, he and Jonny Woo compered Assembly’s opening Gala), and is keen to make clear that what has kept him from the Fringe for the last two years were unmissable opportunities elsewhere: performing in The Threepenny Opera at the National Theatre in 2016, and, last year, an invitation from Emma Rice to play Feste in Twelfth Night at the Globe. Oh, and he’s just back from Berlin where he did a private gig for 3,500 Flight Centre employees, the warm-up act for Kylie Minogue.
His own shows tend to combine elements of his own life story – growing up gay in Nigeria, being bullied at school, suffering from depression, falling in love for the first time – with a repertoire of songs from Gershwin to Disney. But ask him how he arrived at this point and he seems almost puzzled, both by the question and the answer. “If somebody were to ask me to plot some kind of road map of how to get here, I don’t even know. I’m just riding this colossal rollercoaster that keeps on presenting some rather extraordinary things.”
Born in the UK, he returned from Nigeria for boarding school at the age of 16, then did a law degree at the University of East Sussex. (“It was that whole thing about having something to fall back on, but I’m thankful I haven’t had to – and I hope that I don’t have to.”) While a student, he became a regular at cabaret/club night Dynamite Boogaloo, where he was given his first chance to sing.
“It is about seeing the likes of Jonny Woo, Taylor Mac … things slowly planting themselves in my subconscious about the kind of performer I wanted to become. It’s also about having the conviction and courage to believe that you have something to say, have something people might want to hear. My life experiences inform the kind of performer I am. Otherwise I’d just lip synch and tell jokes – which is also an incredibly important art form, the art of distraction and entertainment.”
When he was offered the opportunity to make a show for children, he thought at first of Disney princesses (he did a fabulous rendition of Let It Go from Frozen at the Assembly Gala) but realised he had more important things to say. “When my niece came back to live in the UK, she found it really hard to settle in school. The other kids were really curious, she was the only black girl in her class, they were saying ‘why is your hair different? why is your nose different?’ So you go from an environment where you are just a human being to a different enviroment where you are told, ‘Yeah, you are a human being, but you’re not like all of us.’ Having experienced that for a lot of my life, it became important to say, ‘Yeah you’re not like everyone else but you are enough.’”
From this came Duckie, a family show suitable for age three and up, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling, but with a twist. “I found the idea of mistaken identity quite difficult, the idea that this duck magically becomes a swan because he’s been through difficult times. Sometimes you’re not the egg of a swan that ends up in a basket of eggs of ducks, sometimes you will just be that duck that looks different, or is different. I wanted to tell that story because I am that, the one who is a bit different. You might not immediately blossom into a swan, that’s something you have to make happen for yourself, but it starts with understanding that hatching different is absolutely fine – you are adequate.”
So we’re back to the public and private selves, the man in the costume and the man in the crowd. Is one more “real” than the other? “No, I don’t think so. It’s fluid, because all the experiences that I have inform everything I do as Gateau. The best way to describe being Gateau is that he is never not me, it’s a heightened version of myself, through a magnifying glass that’s got glitter on it. You can remove the glitter but the core, the person, is still there.
“People think drag is about what you wear, but it really isn’t, it’s about what you present. We’re all in drag, always, from meetings with our bosses to Sunday lunches with our parents, to clubbing with our friends. Some of that is prescribed based on the society we live in, and some of it is ‘what side of myself should I present to fit in to whatever this situation is’.”
It was the most valuable lesson he learned from the Glasgow-based theatre-maker Adrian Howells, his mentor and close friend who died in 2014, one of those to whom Icons pays tribute. “When he was in drag, he was never not Adrian. Little did I know, that was the biggest lesson he could teach me: the art of putting the mask on only to reveal the person behind it.”
• Le Gateau Chocolat: Icons, Assembly George Square Gardens, 2-26 August (not 13, 20) 7.30pm; Jonny Woo’s All Star Brexit Cabaret, Assembly George Square Gardens, 2-27 August, 6pm; Duckie, Summerhall, Until 12 August, 2pm.