Drag dolls: Scottish men discover their feminine side

THE Duchess smiles a hazy half-smile and squints into the spotlight. Unsteady in her platform heels, she sways a little, adjusts the tiara on top of her ash-blond wig and brings the microphone to her lips. "I am what I am, I am my own special creation."

The opening lines of Jerry Herman's Broadway hit are met with immediate cheers. The song is the unofficial anthem of gay pride and a paean to misfits, outsiders and ugly ducklings everywhere. Gloria Gaynor and Shirley Bassey have both recorded their own versions, but tonight it's delivered in a gravelly baritone by a short, middle-aged Glaswegian man in a dress.

The crowd joins in, singing and laughing as the Duchess's wig slips further to the side of his head, but across the room a couple of members of the audience cast a critical eye over his black sequined evening dress. "The shoes don't match the frock," says Avon Starr. His companion, Musty Gusset, simply rolls his eyes.

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It's Drag Idol night in Delmonica's bar, in the heart of Glasgow's gay village. The Duchess and his rivals are competing for a place in the final of the first UK-wide drag queen competition. Regional heats have selected contestants from cities across the country, including acts from London, Belfast, Birmingham and Blackpool. The winner will be crowned at the grand finale in Glasgow next weekend, and Starr and Gusset are determined to earn their place in it. "I may not be a professional drag queen," says Starr, "but when I go out I make sure I look damn good. It takes about four hours to get ready, shaving places that don't want to be shaved and getting the make-up right. But when I'm done, I am perfect – not a thread hanging loose or a smudge of lip-gloss in sight."

Sashaying through the crowd in an electric-blue wig and psychedelic figure-hugging dress, Starr looks more like a voluptuous computer-game character than a traditional drag queen. Like many drag artistes, he makes his own costumes, and his professional background as a make-up artist means he knows what he's doing with the mascara.

Gusset's look is equally cartoonish. Inspired by the hip, colourful drag queens of Sydney's gay scene, a recent Gusset get-up paired an iridescent green mini-dress with Tinker Bell wings and the inventive use of yellow carpet foam fashioned into a spiky wig. "I like the glamour and I enjoy looking good, but there's no way I want to look like an old woman," he says.

"We don't do traditional drag," says Starr. "It's more like science-fiction drag."

"Yeah," Gusset laughs. "We're genetically modified drag queens."

The past two years have seen a rebirth of drag nights in Glasgow, with clubs like Utter Gutter and Valley of the Dolls inspiring clubbers to glam up for alternative 'dragnificent' nights out. The favoured look, like that of Starr and Gusset, is miles from the traditional Bet Lynch rip-off style that has defined British drag for decades.

Despite the flamboyant scenes outside Utter Gutter on a Saturday night, neither Starr nor Gusset would take to the streets in character, and instead transform themselves in nightclub toilets and backstage dressing-rooms. "I don't leave the house in drag," says Starr. "I wouldn't even take a taxi dressed like that."

"Every time I get up as Musty Gusset I wonder if I'll get my head kicked in," says Gusset. "But people love us and go mad for us."

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When not in drag, Starr is Greg, an American-born make-up artist in his mid-40s. Gusset is a 28-year-old financial analyst for a high-street bank. Monday to Friday he wears a sober suit and tie, but on weekend nights he and Starr work as hostesses at Delmonica's, where they are paid to bring their own blend of glamour and humour to the bar. Gusset's daytime work colleagues are unfazed by his alter ego, and some have met him on nights out. "When I put on the make-up and wig, my character completely changes," he says. "Musty has her own friends and fans that I don't have."

Neither Greg nor Gusset would consider wearing women's clothes unless they were working or going for a night out, and unlike traditional drag queens they don't have a set comedy or performance routine. "The old-fashioned cruise-ship or end-of-the-pier style of drag is just not my kind of thing," says Gusset. "I don't find the blue humour funny, and I don't think people in Glasgow really go for that either. Straight audiences may enjoy it, but I think the gay scene has moved on."

Drag's mainstream appeal peaked in the mid-1960s to 1970s, when Danny La Rue became one of the UK's highest-paid and most-loved entertainers. Today, drag queens remain a staple of hen parties and cabarets where what's left of traditional music-hall entertainment can still pull a crowd. While modern drag queens such as Starr and Gusset have broken from this traditional form of entertainment, there is still an audience for it in Glasgow. City-centre nightclub Madness bills itself as a 'theatre of fun'. With tribute acts including the Naked Elvis and an in-house crew of performers staging mini-versions of Copacabana and Moulin Rouge, it promises – and delivers – full-on, unreconstructed entertainment.

Betty B, a platinum blonde in a shimmering blue sheath dress holds court over a boozy, leery crowd of young stags and hens dressed in nurses' uniforms and flashing devil horns. One of Glasgow's longest-standing drag queens, Betty has gigged in pubs and clubs across the city for almost 20 years, entertaining a very different audience from the urbane gay crowd at Delmonica's. "I love working in some of the rougher pubs around Govan and the city centre," he says. "I can get away with so much more – swearing, cheeky jokes, having a few drinks before going on and getting some great banter going with the audience."

It's a tough gig to keep the attention of the hard-drinking Saturday-night crowd in Madness, but audience participation seems to be the key. Betty invites the hens to join him on stage. They cluck around him like a favourite aunt as he administers shots of tequila to the best dressed and admonishes the men in the crowd for their poor dress sense. His act relies on the time-honoured, vaudeville elements of drag, where a man in a frock is always going to get a laugh and the play on gender conventions invites and permits the lewd, sexual humour. "Women love it when you wind up their husbands," he says, "but there's a line you learn not to cross: you never poke fun at the women. After all, you're still a man in a dress, and the husbands and boyfriends will be ready to have a go at you if you wind up their girlfriends."

Off-duty, Betty is Jon, and unrecognisable in a grey fleece and blue jeans. Like all drag queens – as opposed to cross-dressers and transvestites – he has no interest in dragging up outside working hours. Small-framed and softly spoken, he endured years of homophobia in his west-coast hometown before moving to Glasgow in his 20s. "I'd never considered drag and had no interest in dressing up in women's clothes," he says, "but I loved to sing and was too shy to perform in public."

In a bid to encourage him to sing, a friend suggested he create an alternative stage persona. "She dressed me up in a wee black curly wig and a dress that cost a fiver from the Briggait market. The minute the hair and make-up went on, I was a different person. I suppose the image allowed me to hide my nervousness and get out there and perform, like a clown putting on his face before doing a show. I've gone on stage as myself once or twice, but I didn't enjoy it. I'm much more comfortable performing as Betty."

While Betty B gave Jon the confidence to move on from his past, there are moments when he questions why this was necessary. "When I first started doing drag I'd sometimes think, 'Why am I doing this – I don't even like wearing women's clothes.' But I came to see it as like working in a garage – you put on your overalls to go to work. Now I've got to say I love all the sparkles, the glitter, the big hair and the diamant, but it's still just the uniform I wear for my job."

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There are straight men in frocks (Dame Edna, aka Barry Humphries, for one) and let's not forget the many men who don dresses at stag parties and for Hallowe'en – but this event is largely the preserve of gay men. Drag queens, who play with gender conventions for the purpose of performance, are very different from transvestites or male-to-female transsexuals, who hope to pass as a woman and to live as one.

The irony is that some of the straight audiences Betty entertains are more comfortable with Betty – a simulacrum of a woman – than with Jon, a gay man. "Some people don't know how to relate to me as Jon, but when I've got my make-up on they all come to the dressing-room and tell me their problems and ask for advice. Everyone has an aunt or a cousin or knows someone like Betty – she's easy to approach and she has been around the block a few times. She's a wise old bird," he says. "A lot of straight guys come up to me at the end of the night and shake my hand. They say, 'We're not really into gay people but you've got some balls, wee man.'" He shakes his head. "Only in Glasgow."

Glasgow is not a city known for its tolerance of men in frocks, which may explain why none of our drag queens was willing to be photographed as their daytime selves, alongside their glam alter egos. Paul Wilson, organiser of Drag Idol, says the city's hard-man image and reputation for violence initially put off many acts from coming to the city for the final. "I want the competition to challenge people's preconceptions about drag and about Glasgow," he says.

Wilson hopes that, as well as raising money for the Terrence Higgins Trust – the country's largest Aids and HIV charity – the competition will put Glasgow's drag queens on the map and help consolidate the newly emerging scene. Across Scotland, regular drag nights are held in Edinburgh, at Priscilla's cabaret bar, and Aberdeen, in the Market Arms pub.

CHERI TREIFFEL'S MAGENTA beehive pushes him well over 7ft tall. He's wearing a short black cocktail dress and spiky heels, flaunting long, well-toned legs. He pops out of the Waterloo bar, Glasgow's oldest gay pub, for a quick cigarette, and appears completely nonplussed by the glances he attracts from the traffic passing along Argyle Street. "I hardly ever get any attitude," he says, "and if I do, it doesn't bother me much. I'm pretty intimidating in my wig and high heels, and I'm not going to be scared of some teenager in a tracksuit calling me names."

A full-time performer and costume designer, Cheri, aka Mark Swift, is a hard-working professional drag queen who sees his act as very much part of the drag tradition and is happy to play to both straight and gay crowds. "An audience is an audience," he says. "Straight crowds – men as well as women – love drag and are much easier to work than gay audiences, who can be quite cynical and say they've seen it all before or that they could do better themselves.

"Straight audiences tend to be more open-minded because drag is something unusual for them. When a man goes onstage in a dress, they're already warming to you – you'd have to be pretty crap for them not to like you. But I don't put on a frock unless I'm getting paid. I don't do drag for kicks or to say, 'Aren't I fabulous and gorgeous dressed up as a woman.' It's uncomfortable wearing tights and corsets and fake nails and wigs. It's not a pleasant experience, and I don't do it for fun. It's drag. It's a comedic tool. I think other professional drag acts would say the same.

"There's a big difference between cross-dressing and drag. Cross-dressing is about the skill of the make-up and creating the illusion of being a woman, whereas drag is all about exaggeration. Some people might be offended by this exaggeration, but I think it's a compliment to women to see this larger-than-life version of femininity. I think the naughtiness of drag queens' humour appeals to women and straight guys because we can say the things they might think but would never utter in public."

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As one of the judges in the final competition, Treiffel says he is looking for a professional and polished act. "The god is in the details. I want to see shoes matching nails matching handbags."

The contestants will be judged on three categories: 'Hooray for Hollywood', which invites impersonations of movie-star divas past and present; 'outrageous swimwear', which will call for plenty of depilation and a chance to show off shapely calves; and a five-minute cabaret performance. "I'll be looking for a real sense of characterisation," says Treiffel, "as well as strong entertainment value. Drag went out of fashion in the 1980s, so some of the younger guys haven't seen real drag and have no historical background or references. If you ask a young guy in a dress to name a drag act, they struggle to get beyond Lily Savage. They don't have a sense that they are part of a tradition going back hundreds of years."

While Treiffel and Betty B carry on the tradition of British drag with their well-crafted performances and comedy repertoires, the young drag queens at Delmonica's are flaunting every convention. Starr and Gusset's new-wave glamazons have secured their places in the final. Now they begin the long task of removing their make-up before venturing back out on to the city streets.

The Duchess, who lost tonight, is still hogging the mic. He throws his arms above his head and belts out his closing lines. "So what if I love each sparkle and each spangle? Why not try to see things from a different angle? Life's not worth a damn till you can say, 'I am what I am.'"

• Drag Idol Opportunity Frocks is at Arta, Glasgow, this Saturday (www.jpevents.co.uk); Cheri Treiffel presents Cheri's Christmas Cracker, a night of cabaret, at the Classic Grand, Glasgow, on December 11 (www.cheritreiffel.co.uk)

Decades of drag

Danny La Rue

The grande dame of drag, La Rue was born Daniel Carroll in Cork in 1927. He starred in a string of West End hits, including Hello, Dolly and Come Spy with Me. A string of Royal Variety Show performances and pantomime appearances secured drag's reputation as a respectable form of family entertainment, but La Rue insisted on calling himself a 'comic in a dress' rather than a drag queen. At the height of his success, in the 1960s, he was one of the highest-paid entertainers in the UK. Now in his 80s, he was awarded an OBE for his charity work in 2002.

Cindy Pastel

The 51-year-old Australian is a pioneer of Sydney's famous drag scene and is widely acknowledged as the inspiration for Mitzi Del Bra, Hugo Weaving's character in the 1994 movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Pastel, aka Ritchie Fingers, led the closing parade at the 2000 Sydney Olympics in full drag, perched in a silver shoe on top of the famous Priscilla bus.


Ultra-glam and ultra-trashy, RuPaul calls his look 'black hooker drag'. The 6ft 4in glamazon, born RuPaul Andre Charles in San Diego in 1960, developed his own fan club working as a DJ and go-go dancer in New York nightclubs before achieving global stardom with his 1992 hit single 'Supermodel'. A deal as the first 'face' of Mac make-up and an autobiography soon followed. RuPaul also played the lead character (in drag) in the 2007 spoof blaxploitation movie Starrbooty.

Lily Savage

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The 'Birkenhead Bombshell' was born plain old Paul O'Grady in 1955. After performing a gruff, northern style of stand-up to gay audiences throughout the 1980s, success at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1991 introduced Savage to broader audiences. After numerous TV appearances, the character was given her own show, Lily Live, on ITV in 2000. Today, O'Grady has ousted his alter ego, 'retiring' her to a convent in France. He has a chat show and a new comedy show on Channel 4 and was awarded an MBE for his services to entertainment this year.