The lady is a vamp: a guide to Scotland’s alt-drag scene

'A creature in between': Lady M strikes a pose. Picture: Michael James
'A creature in between': Lady M strikes a pose. Picture: Michael James
Have your say

WELCOME to Scotland’s alt-drag scene, where queens are courted by fashion designers, the wigs come all the way from Italy and we’re a long, long way from cabaret

Lady Guillotina Munter. As names go, it’s pretty hard core. It’s designed to be. Munter is a harsh slang expression for an unattractive woman, Guillotina is blatant just-for-effect violence and the phoney title ties it all up in a big subversive ribbon. A perfect fit for a drag queen who is a sickening (it’s drag-speak superlative) trans-Atlantic mash-up of outrageous rapper Nicki Minaj and Scots comedian Limmy’s gobby former junkie character Jacqueline McCafferty. “It could,” she says, “be some kind of artistic statement about beauty. But it’s not. There’s no politics in there. It’s fun. It’s a punchy name. It gets you.”

Lady M, as friends call her, is the epicentre of Glasgow’s thriving alt-drag scene. Thanks to her and her acolytes (she calls them “the Munterage”), Glasgow now has a group of boys who dress as girls unlike that in any other city in the UK. Influenced by club icons of the 1980s – Leigh Bowery, Pete Burns, Boy George – and the fierce queens who compete in the American TV series Ru Paul’s Drag Race, they are nothing like the show-bar acts who lip-synch to Shirley Bassey. These are seditious exhibitionists who combine fashion, music, sexual politics and false eyelashes. Attitude magazine dubbed Lady M, their ring leader, a “drag beast”, one of the 66 most influential gays of 2010.

They are pushing at an open door – indeed, kicking it down with stiletto heels. Fashion’s longstanding fascination with drag has become more overt, with transexual Lea T working the womenswear shows and mouth-dryingly beautiful man Andrej Pejic modelling suits for Marc Jacobs and frocks for Jean-Paul Gaultier. When Gareth Pugh’s fetish-club collections (Lady M describes it as “genderf***”) first appeared on the runway in 2006, it was considered wildly subversive. He now dresses Kylie, Beyoncé and Ashlee Simpson.

In the US, Ru Paul’s Drag Race has made the kind of drag that won’t get booked in a working men’s club much more accessible, and helped Lady M and her crew to crystallise their own identities. “End of pier drag – gay drag pandering for heterosexual audience – is not us. We have evolved. “We are queer, alternative, want to be contra, not palatable. And with Drag Race it has become very cool and edgy. It filters into Gaga, Nicky Minaj, everyone’s doing drag.”

In 2009, 27-year-old Lady M and a group of like-minded individuals (some are even real girls) decided that Glasgow needed a bit of gender-bending LA fabulous. “We wanted to make a scene that didn’t exist before,” he recalls. “A full spectrum takeover.” Since the demise of debauched gay night Utter Gutter, there had been a shortage of venues where men in miniskirts could mingle and moan about high-street clothing sizes. That, Lady M and her chums decided, would have to change.

The resulting club, Menergy, has become “a petri dish” in which to grow a leftfield drag culture. Many other cities already have a scene, centred either around female impersonators in feather boas, of the type seen at Soho’s Madam JoJos and Edinburgh’s Priscillas, or the aggressive ‘scag drag’ of glitter, beards, greasy eyeliner and ripped dresses. Somehow Glasgow had failed to develop either of these, leaving the way free for Lady M et al to write their own rules. “Traditionally drag fits into very distinct boxes. We don’t fit into those. When there is no ingrained culture it is much freer.” This has resulted, she says, in “queens coming out of the woodwork we’ve never seen before. Maybe they’ve never even done it before. Finally they have found a safe place.”

Many of these newbies find themselves being taken under the Munter wing. She is their fairy drag mother, advising on wigs, taking them make-up shopping (Illamasqua, a cult British brand that has a counter at Glasgow’s decidedly non-alternative Debenhams, is the brand of choice). “When they first come to Menergy they’ve dabbled, made the first steps. Then I come in and go, ‘No, no no’.”

For Lady M – her preferred name even when wearing a grungy checked shirt and a beard – drag evolved out of early style choices. She’s not transsexual or transgender, she’s a gay man who found the options in Top Man just too dreary to contemplate. “It’s a visual identity more than anything else. I’m not a woman. I’m a drag queen, a creature in between. Which I like. I don’t want to be one or the other. I just like being me, a boy who has the freedom to do what I do. I’m a bit of a chameleon, although I’m primarily seen in drag. I like to be able to do different things as well. This” – she indicates the shirt and cardigan – “is drag. Day job drag.”

Lady Munter did not just appear by magic in orange and pink leopard print, taped up and wigged to within an inch of her life. It started while she was a teenager in Glasgow’s South Side, exploring the city after dark. “At first it was a club kid thing, not proper drag: a bit of make-up, a crazy aesthetic just for the sake of it. Gradually it evolved. I’d be going out with friends and we would make it an occasion. Every time we wanted to up the ante.

“Men’s clothes are so boring, women have all the choices; not just dresses but fabrics too. Initially I bought women’s clothes to cut up.” Then it dawned that she could just wear the dress or blouse, straight out of River Island, without bothering with the sewing machine. “I started to think, ‘this outfit looks better with a wig.’ And it went from there. It all merged together and I thought, ‘I can do anything actually.”’

It’s not about trying to look like a lady. It’s trying to look like a sickening drag queen. “I’m not trying to emulate women, I’m trying to emulate other drag queens. I feel like a male actress; when I put make-up on it’s my face in make-up, I’m not a woman, it’s me in make-up. I pad up because it’s an aesthetic that looks good. It would look stupid if it was just a boy in a dress.”

To this, end Lady M has just invested £565 in a J-cup silicone breastplate, a pair of flesh-toned watermelons worn around the neck, hiding a hairy chest while serving convincing porn-star cleavage. She is enchanted with it. “I can wear a low neckline.” Wigs, meanwhile, are made to order by a drag queen in Italy.

While high fashion is a huge influence – “Versace, Westwood, McQueen, Mugler is my personal favourite, glamorous women who are insectoid and alien” – it is neither affordable nor likely to fit a short, stocky guy with eye-popping fake bangers. Happily, with drag queens being quite the most desirable accessory since a bichon frisé, there are plenty of local designers willing to dress Lady M.

Glaswegian Rebecca Torres made her a red dress with studs and chains that looks like one worn by Samantha in Sex and the City 2. Cardonald College graduate Gary Wilson, who has worked with Gareth Pugh, is currently constructing her a scary-sounding nail belt. If an outfit needs a hat, she calls bespoke milliner Pea Cooper. For bling, she flits between Sean McGugan’s industrial pieces and Tequila Star’s gaudy ghetto slogan necklaces – who but a drag queen would wear a ‘f***ing fabulous’ pendant? “People like me to be their muse,” she says, because drag queens will push it further than most real women – who care about looking fat, being laughed at by small children and rejected by their fashion-illiterate boyfriends – ever dare. “When a girl chooses an outfit, there are a lot of politics around it. She reins in make-up because she doesn’t want to look like a tranny. It just doesn’t have as much punch.” Give Lady M the same outfit and she will take it to the max.

Of course the mainstream has been ripping off the drag scene ever since Madonna borrowed vogueing. Today, however, it’s blatant. Nicki Minaj’s video for Stupid Hoe is a potted history of drag styles. America’s Next Top Model has a drag queen as a judge and another as a make-up artist. Lady M says, “You see Lady Gaga hijacking drag or a certain aesthetic. Everyone is constantly trying to up the ante.”

For Lady M, it’s not about selling CDs. It’s about being herself. “With most people, how they appear, dress, do face is how they are. For me, this” – she indicates her civvies – is Clark Bent. This is the disguise, the presentable face, whereas the other is the true reality. “It’s not a furtive thing. It’s just me on a really good day. With spikes. And gauntlets.”

• Menergy is at The Forbidden Gentlemen’s Club on Saturday (