Velma Celli (aka Ian Stroughair) opens wide, darling.
How did you get into drag?
I was in the West End production of Chicago and at the time it was tradition for “the gays” from the shows go out on a Wednesday night. Each week a different show decided the venue and the theme. In my last few weeks in the show, I got a text from the gays (it’s almost 10 years ago now, it may have been a pager or pigeon) saying “we are going out on Wednesday but we are going out in drag.”
You see, Priscilla Queen of the Desert had opened and La Cage Aux Folles was having a revival and it was their turn to choose this week’s “night out”. The text read: ‘We are keeping our makeup on and going to Madame Jojo’s, are you in?” I was like “YES”. So before my show I went to Primark, got myself a black dress, some questionable makeup and some kitten heels. My plan was to go out as Velma Kelly, the leading lady of my show. The show came down, I ran up to my dressing room, downed some gin, got into man drag and left stage door.
We met the queens from Priscilla round the back at stage door and out they came. This is the moment I realised that Priscilla had the biggest budget of any musical of all time for wigs, costumes and makeup and I looked horrendous. I said to myself “don’t worry, just get to the club, you’ll have a drink and you’ll feel better about yourself”.
We left and chucked a left on to Old Compton Street and as we hit Dean Street, the Cadelles from La Cage come floating toward us looking like actual women.
At this point I started running by myself to Madame JoJo’s, fell down the stairs and was at the bar doing shot after shot until oblivion… At some point later in the evening, the drag queen host said “darling, I heard you can sing, give us a number” I was like “no no, I couldn’t possibly”. Apparently I gave them 7 or 8. Jumped into the splits at the end.
When I came time to leave the promoter man came running up. He said “you were fabulous, do you want your own show here? Can you start next week?” Like any thespian I said yes. We tend to do that. Just say yes and figure out how to do it later.
Is there a story behind the name Velma Celli?
Well, after that fateful night out the drags from the shows and I headed to Chinatown and sat down at a questionable restaurant and desperately tried to come up with a name and a concept for a show. Every queen has to have a great name, right? Talent and content second, but THE NAME has got to be great. So, there I was sat dressed as Velma Kelly, eating Singapore noodles – vermicelli. There was only one option really. It had to be Velma Celli.
What can audiences expect from A Brief History of Drag?
My show celebrates not only those classic “drag songs” (rearranged in our own unique way) but also artists of various sexualities who pushed boundaries and teared down the walls of stereotypes. To mention one, David Bowie, whose gender bending images pushed gay culture into the public conscience and in doing so forced many to consider acceptance for anyone different, whether or not we knew it at the time. A more recent artist who has rather vocally had our backs and challenged perceptions is Lady Gaga. I actually open the show with one of her hits.
We touch on the struggle of those who simply couldn’t come out and live life in the music industry as their authentic self. Whitney Houston, who happens to be my favourite artist of all time. We also look at legendary and defining roles in Musical Theatre including Angel in Rent, Frank in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and a tender homage to the grand high witch herself, RuPaul.
What was the process like for creating this show?
In January 2015, I was in Tanzania performing, holidaying and having some down time with family and friends who live out there. Oh, and performing in full drag which that makes no sense in a country where it is very much NOT ok to be gay. It’s just the kind of “gal” I am. I was preparing for my return to London and working on my set lists for my upcoming gigs. As usual, I hopped on twitter and asked my followers what songs they would like to hear and many responses included those standard cliché songs one associates with drag and gay culture: “something from Rocky Horror” or “please belt out a RuPaul.”
I had always stayed well clear of the drag classics. I didn’t want to be yet another man in a dress singing the obvious. In fact, I was very proud to be known for doing the exact opposite of that.
Being the youngest of four sisters, I always like to keep folk happy so I thought, screw it. I’ll do one gig and shove all the classics together in one set, rip off the proverbial bandage in a “one night only drag extravaganza” and put it to bed once and for all.
Then something wonderful happened.
I started compiling the list of “drag songs” and it struck me. Not only was this a show, it was way overdue. I realised that these songs were the soundtrack to the history of the LGBTQI community – not dissimilar to that of an anthem played at a football game. These songs at sporting events bring unity, a sense of community and when sang in gospel chorus it invokes strength and positivity.
I had seen this in the bars and clubs over the years and if I am completely honest I could be found rolling my eyes or popping to the bathroom when the ‘queer anthems’ started.
Writing this show has completely changed how I felt about these songs forever. Icons of drag, whether it be in film, music, popular culture or even politics have been our trailblazers for an age, the drag queens always on the front line representing us and these songs (I have now learnt to adore) are the very heartbeat and soundtrack to a message (that message being “f*** my label”. I am a human, much like anyone else and my sexual preference is as important and unimportant as anyone else’s.”
What is your personal favourite moment from the history of drag?
For me I would have to say Freddie Mercury in the “I Want To Break Free” video. It’s so much fun and is actually my very first memory of drag!
Is there a certain message or feeling you hope audiences take away after seeing the show?
Yes – I want people to leave feeling uplifted, fabulous and to want to see more drag shows because there are SO many different types. I would like folk to feel inspired by the stories I tell about those trailblazing queens who gave us the freedom we have today. There are countless queens throughout history for which we all should be thankful for, of course many of them will remain nameless for all time. Celebrating the art form of drag and supporting your local queens is a great way to give thanks.