In Conversation with Jonny Woo

Performance powerhouse and co-owner of the Haggerston pub, The Glory, Jonny Woo chats Dorothy in crutches and the changing London queer scene.

Having stood at the forefront of the Shoreditch drag scene for over 20 years (and in 6-inch heels too, grab this guy a chair) Jonny Woo is the tinselled lodestar of East London. He’s run Gay Bingo at the Soho Theatre, delivered performance art to the doorstep of the National Portrait Gallery, and toured festival after festival. Woo is a natural on stage and in the powder room; known for his pastiching drag personas that collage pop culture with political urgencies. Heck, even his surname demands applause.

His witty performances have ameliorated and muscled the drag scene into the 21st century. Combining experimental performance art with glossy demonstrability, Woo has since found himself leading the charge of a new practice of drag labelled ‘alt-drag’; the site of the collision of fashion and drag. Woo references eras and moments in fashion in performances such as Hellscreen, Night of a Thousand Jay Astons, and Faggot.

Ahead of the second annual Un-Royal Variety Show – a juggernaut mashup of drag – we quizzed Woo all about queer spaces and aesthetics today.

Tell us about some of your most iconic on-stage personas over the years?

One character that comes to mind is Spam Ayres. I went through this phase when I used boxing gloves as fake tits underneath a lace body and my friend had given me this strange mask with big ears and big hair. I think I used Incredible Hulk gloves and big stilettos to finish it off! I’d rhyme in a West-country voice, and that stands out as a definite cartoony drag look; a twist on my internalised femininity. A provocative and playful navigation. I’m not sure if I was saying anything with it, but it was clear!

Years and years ago, I did a video piece with Peter Podworski which was a lip-synch to Over The Rainbow as a Dorothy that had trodden on a landmine so was on crutches – clothes ripped, bandaged, and bloodied. We projected tanks rolling past and I could feel myself as the Wicked Witch of the West, in a black two-piece suit and long hair, that comes and shoots Dorothy. I liked that. That was in about 2003/4, I’m not sure where we were politically. We were probably at war.

When in doubt, we’re at war.

I started to mummify myself post-9/11. It was a recurring theme and I liked how it alienated me from everyone else. De-humanising me. It licensed me to be something or someone else. I was a scouse Pope at one point around the time the Pope was doing a papal visit. I had the idea of the Vatican as a nightclub in Liverpool in the 90s and the Pope as a rapper in gold jewellery. Some people liked it, some people didn’t. It got a mixed response! My method was to normalise the pope and ground him. What is he really other than an overpaid rapper?

Lately, I have begun to channel the suburban housewife look. For the Un-Royal Variety coming up, I have this beautiful pink chiffon dress. I was shopping at Marks & Spencers for drag! I did a gig recently for a charity called Magic Breakfast and I got a dress from there, too.

As the co-owner of The Glory and the closing doors of Madame Jojo’s in Soho, how are today’s gay and queer spaces changing?

I think East London is an interesting part of town regarding queerness as it’s propped up by individuals, rather than groups. Gay people forget that behind all these gay bars and events that run that there are individuals that a) are putting their money up-front and b) putting their reputations on the line. That really is East London’s gay and queer spaces that people chat about and come to, and love and hate, and whatever they do, is about. It’s a very different character to what is happening in Soho; the loss of independent gay bars and the different vibe that surrounds the area. Whereas in East, there’s the Dalston Superstore and the Queen Adelaide of Cambridge Heath, and it’s where the current scene has really sprung up from. Now, The Glory is very much part of this triangle.

It’s encouraging, and I’m proud we’re part of it. There’s a tangible, vibrant, and progressive community out there. It listens to the dialogues that are going around at the moment regarding transgender, non-binary, women, and race. It’s a place to be heard.

The gay community is very much integrated into London as a whole, and dedicated spaces may disappear as a result. But so many more spaces are accessible, and so many are overlooked as queer spaces. There are more spaces than people think. Spaces closing isn’t new; tonnes closed in a cull in the 90s. Now it’s a ‘thing’.

Taking a macro step back, how would you compare the London queer scene to other scenes, such as New York or Russia?

I personally am always more interested in underground scenes. It’s that side that gives everything momentum. The pink pound doesn’t have as much currency as it used to, and in London, the scene suffers from a lack of big clubs, and the clubbing scene has changed. There’s more dialogue between the cities. Manchester is burgeoning at the moment, and people are travelling more, from Birmingham to Edinburgh, to become part of performances across different cities.

I have connections to the alternative-queer scene in Melbourne, Australia, from going on tour out there. In Europe, I’m not so connected. Again, there are interesting, teetering pockets in Berlin of dance and drag. People are tourists and go to different cities to become part of the urban queer scene.

For New York, I used to live there. The scene has gotten its mojo back. When it comes to the Club Kid scene and really dressing up, they really are on the money.

I wish I did have better contacts to areas of the world where being gay invites injury or is problematic because it would be empowering for both sides. Such as in Turkey, we’re watching and seeing but not always acting. It would be interesting to connect the communities together.

Jonny Woo: Gay Bingo

In this global, mobile LGBT+ community, what does The Glory bring to this as a cultural hub?

We’re definitely one of the most heavy-programmed venues. Being a bar, we almost become a social centre. We have different elements of the community corral and use us for different reasons. We programme stuff for women, for guys, we have non-binary and latino nights, we’re working more with black artists. We’re hosting a Turkish night. We’re not doing it to tick a box; I genuinely find these nights exciting! Again, the point is that it’s our space and I am a performer. So we’re sensitive to the needs of performers and I’m not afraid to present stuff.

Me and John Sizzle have over two decades of experience of being out on the gay scene and of investing in performance and the community that comes with it. That’s what we bring. The possibilities of what we can do are maybe greater as we want The Glory to be a performance space. The Vauxhall Tavern has gotten a lot stronger in its programming, and I think our pack of programming perhaps inspired other bars to become proactive. When new energy arrives the scene feels revitalised and the whole scene benefits.

Jonny Woo’s Un-Royal Variety Show will be staged November 3-4th. Tickets can be bought here.

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