Shiny, shabby people

The Brits was a mega-show, falling apart at the seams

Who was she? That's what I want to know. The Brits had many lowlights - One Direction, Olly Murs, One Direction - but a particular highlight was the disembodied female voice that boomed across the ferry-like O2 arena. She would say things like, "What a fantastic evening we have planned!" and "Coming up: Rihanna!" before the show cut to ad breaks.

I suppose she was meant to cover the links as James Corden traversed the floor to tell One Direction how beautiful and underage they were. Or the fist-chewingly awkward pause after the blink-and-you-miss-it tribute to Whitney Houston. But it felt like being at an airport. Any second now she was going to warn Kylie not to leave her luggage unattended.

The voice provided welcome relief, though, from the images. It was all so shiny. The X Factor has had more than a musical effect on the pop industry: it has changed the aesthetic of the arena spectacle. Of course Rihanna was going to perform with a small-town population of paint- weilding dancers. There is now no other way. Coldplay, in their matching but individually customised khaki boiler suits, were dressed like one of Louis Walsh's boy bands. Even Noel Gallagher had the look of a man who had been primped into a cartoon version of himself.

Thank God for Ed Sheeran and George Michael, who were, respectively, shabby and pissed and ably scuffed the metallic sheen of the event. When ex-Pussycat Doll (the epitaph of epitaphs) Nicole Scherzinger gave Sheeran one of his awards she looked like a woman whose understanding of the world (looks and money win) was being overturned. In Scherzinger-land, Sheeran is the kind of guy you expect to pick up the sweet wrappers from around your chair, not someone who wins an award. The disembodied voice didn't know what to make of Sheeran either, introducing him to the crowd by citing the number of his Twitter followers, Facebook fans and YouTube subscribers. Forget the album, Sheeran, check out those social media stats!

There were other sources of light relief in the form of Rob Brydon and Alex James (unwittingly), but the big prize for the night should go to the blokes who nonchalantly walked in front of the camera as James Corden pattered away into the ether. Never mind the dancers, the lights, the outfits: nothing reveals the true, shoddy heart of a show than the back of a suit jacket obscuring the view.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.