Everyone remembers their first time, don’t they? I remember mine like it was just yesterday. I had all the usual nerves about the unknown, expectations and the pressure to perform. I must admit I wasn’t expecting the flashing phone cameras or gentle applause as I finished, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I race ahead prematurely to my exciting climax, let me rewind, take things nice and slow, and tell you all about my very first time on stage in Drag.
I moved to York in the summer of 2019, and I was brimming with optimism and excitement at the prospect of a new job, a new city, and a new chapter of my life! I had studied for my degree at the University ten years earlier and so the city felt familiar, which allowed me to believe that I would settle quickly and feel right at home. This sense of confidence and bravado was something I recognised within myself and revelled in, but in recent times had been lacking, as I had spent the previous few years caught up in the claws of cancer and everything that had followed. For me, this resulted in 2 years of chronic anaemia and unexplained episodes of blood loss, which had stopped me in my tracks and reduced my life to its bare essentials. All at once and quite by magic the anaemia and the bleeding had stopped, and so I had begun to rebuild my life, brushing myself down and making a conscious decision to look only forwards, and to waste absolutely no time feeling sorry for myself.
With the help of a very well-known gay social app, I had done my research and had gathered information about the gay scene, nights out and possible social activities before I arrived in York, as I was very determined to get out and about. I have very clear memories of my walk through the city from my new apartment to the club that very first weekend. I was so excited by the possibly of having a dance and maybe a fickle snog with a stranger. It was a lovely summer evening in the middle of June and so the city around me was glistening and looked almost picture perfect. It was one of the first times in years I had felt well, and good about myself. It felt joyful to catch my reflection in shop widows as I passed by, seeing someone I recognised rather than a stooped ‘Tim Burton’ character with a strange limp which had developed due to poor blood and failing joints. Previously, I had resigned myself to the fact that my body was failing me and that my BC (before cancer) self was gone. The very idea of feeling attractive and to be dressed in nice clothes on my way to have a fun night out again felt almost dreamlike, as it wasn’t something I had expected I would experience again. Since my recovery, I fully appreciate and never take for granted the sensation of just feeling well in my skin.
As I arrived outside the venue, I noticed that there was a decent queue outside. A skill that my gran had passed onto me was the ability to strike up a conversation with my neighbour if stood in any kind of line for long enough, so even though I had arrived alone, I was confident I would have made a friend or two to hang out with by the time I got to the front. I overheard a couple stood just ahead of me discussing that this, the only, once monthly gay event in York was closing and that this would be the very last night. I couldn’t believe my ears, was gay culture in the city really disappearing the moment I arrived? My attention was suddenly shifted beyond the couple as I could hear a booming voice shouting in my direction over the crowd, “Oh honey, look at you, you’re fabulous!” A tall, silver bearded American guy in a smart, short sleeved blue shirt and surfer shorts beckoned me over, he was eccentric, excitable, and wonderfully loud. This might sound a strange thing to say, but I remember as my eyes found him that he looked exactly how he sounded. I knew instantly we were going to get on famously, we chatted, embraced, and gave each other a very ‘Ab Fab’ pouty kiss on the lips.
My lovely friend Miles is truly iconic, endlessly welcoming and smiley. He has been the backbone of my drag experience and is a vital part of the Drag Community in York. Miles supports everyone from the side-lines, but to date has not appeared on stage in drag despite several amazing Halloween outfits. What he does do is provide is enthusiasm, a comfy sofa (complete with two dogs for company) and a place to get ready, and of course lots of Kylie prosecco.
Urban legend tells us that officially there are only two times of year that Drag Queens are born, Halloween night and Pride weekend. Mine was the first of these two. Having kept in touch with Miles, he had invited me to a one off spooktacular drag show on October 31st called Hallo-Queen at a local bar called ‘The Micklegate Social’, as he had just started dating an aspiring Drag Queen who was performing as part of the show. He suggested I should come dressed up in drag and meet his friends. he must have recognised something in me as I jumped at the opportunity to bring to life one of the many superheroes that I had a secret ambition to embody. ‘Tonight, Matthew I’m going to be… Poison Ivy!’
If you know anything about mydrag, you will know I am ever the practical Queen. It was the middle of a cold autumn and so even though the entire outfit came complete in a bag from an online retailer, I put my own spin on things with a green Primarni jumper, which I still believe - though unconventional - added something to the leaves and netting. It felt electric getting out of the taxi and walking through the bar. In the far corner I spotted a chalkboard with ‘Hallo-Queen’ written on it, positioned just in front of a doorway with a curtain pulled back, revealing a neon pink arrow pointing downward and underneath it the word ‘basement.’ I hobbled my way down the staircase as I could hardly walk in the 2-inch heeled boots I had squeezed myself into. I was greeted by a very tall Queen dressed as Ursula from the Little Mermaid, complete with tentacles and purple face/body paint, who was on the door checking tickets, I felt like I was quite literally entering a whole new world. As Miles introduced me to his friends, I was besotted by a beautiful dark gothic clown (Bodie Snatcher) and a zombie (Bailey Bubbles) with a dolls head placed on top of their head, and the remaining headless body hung on a strap under their chin. This was creativity, beauty and horror all combined. This was drag.
I had set myself one goal for the evening, to somehow find a way to get up onto the stage and have a dance, I wasn’t sure how, but knew I needed to wait for the perfect opportunity to present itself. As soon as the midway interval was announced, I knew this was my moment. I strode up to the DJ and asked them if they would play Wannabe, I got an enthusiastic nod and a smile. I felt that if this was my one night in drag, then it surely had to include some SPICE Girls and a ‘Zig-a-Zig Arrrh’. Moments later, the previous song finished, and those oh so familiar intro footsteps started up, OMG it was happening. Some of the audience had nipped off to the loo or to get a drink, and others were chatting and scrolling on their phones, but I was undeterred. Manoeuvring my way through the polystyrene gravestones that populated the stage, I turned to face my friend Emmie, who had come with me and was cheering from the front row with her phone ready to capture the impromptu performance. As I danced, I could see people returning to their seats, and I could hear them singing along, it felt almost overwhelming, crazy, heavenly! Given it was Halloween I think it was supposed to be hell on earth, but you get the idea. Three short minutes later it was all over. The host who was dressed as Ronald McDonald returned to the stage to prompt people to take their seats, I shuffled back to my seat and the second half of the show began. My heart was racing, I felt truly alive, and the fire within me had been lit.
The closure of the venue, meeting Miles that first weekend, my cancer, my recovery and my refusal to accept that the Queer experience in York was reduced to nothing the week I arrived, and most importantly meeting the Drag performers, all sparked in my head and set in motion the idea that something should be created, If only to provide me with regular nights out. I arranged to meet with the queens I had met through Miles,to discuss the idea, much conversation, planning and glitter later, led to creation of the Family Shambles and our first wonderfully queer drag event, but that is another story for another day.
Let me leave you with a quote that I saw on a poster in the entrance to an exhibition that I walked past during a college trip to London what must be 20 years ago, and has remained embedded in my mind ever since: ‘Don’t complain about the darkness, shine a light’.
Isn’t it amazing what might just be possible?