“Genitalia is hilarious,” says Miss Cairo, a 23-year-old drag performer who, moments ago, was proudly displaying hers on stage at Soho Theatre. “Male, female and everywhere in between – it’s all funny to look at.”
Full frontal nudity (especially of the “everywhere in between” variety, but I’ll get to that later), readings from the radical feminist “SCUM Manifesto” and a slapstick reenactment of the shooting of Andy Warhol all feature in Jonny Woo’s Transformer, a draggy and druggy homage to Lou Reed’s most revered album. Cairo plays the part of Candy Darling, the transgender actress and member of Andy Warhol’s inner circle referred to in Walk on the Wild Side (she “never lost her head, even when she was giving head” – that one). Woo, queen of the east London drag scene, steps out of a dress and into tight jeans and a curly black wig to play Reed.
“Oh my god, it’s so liberating,” he says of his temporary break from drag, “I have so much fun being a straight man.” Woo quickly corrects himself – Reed, of course, wasn’t straight, as such. But the playing a man thing still stands. In preparation for his role, Woo researched the Velvet Underground frontman and, through interviews and recorded live performances, built up a picture of a slightly awkward oddball, who was probably a lot of fun (around people he liked, at least. Reed famously gave journalists an extremely hard time).
“He wasn’t a performer who exuded sex appeal,” says Woo, who goes on to talk about the teenage Reed’s treatment with electroshock therapy (rumoured to be for homosexuality, although that was recently denied by his sister) followed by a string of turbulent relationships with both women and men.
Woo, 42, born Jonathan Wooster, began devising a theatrical cover album after Lou Reed’s death in 2013. The show premiered last year and, this year, ran at Edinburgh Fringe, before returning to London in September.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the variety of the songs on the album,” says Woo, who first listened to Transformer as a 19-year-old drama student and was immediately drawn to the cabaret-like sound and tragicomic lyrics of tracks like Make Up and Goodnight Ladies. But, more than anything, in his ode to the album, he was keen to capture the spirit of a time and a place – New York in the early Seventies, in and around legendary nightclub and music venue Max’s Kansas City – in which, as he puts it, “people would make music, get shitfaced and run about”.
Arty and debauched Warhol-era New York isn’t a far cry from Woo’s own experience of the city, when he moved over there from London in the early 2000s. Under both the wing of drag veteran Lavinia Co-op and the influence of drugs (quite a lot of them, apparently), he began exploring drag and performing in burlesque shows.
“This underground culture and this exploration of the boundaries of gender always exists,” says Woo, when asked about the current (seeming) resurgence of queer visibility. From the heyday of old school gender benders like Lou Reed and David Bowie, to the present day and, say, RuPaul’s Drag Race, masculinity and femininity have always been fair game performance-wise, argues Woo. All that’s really changed, from decade to decade, has been the drugs.
In his Transformer, Woo, accompanied by a live band and backup singers including Miss Cairo, combines music with a fittingly disjointed spoken word narrative to tell the story of Reed and his queer rocker posse. Between songs, Woo’s Reed tells anecdotes (including one about why ballpoint pens probably shouldn’t be used to snort coke) taken directly from High on Rebellion, a collection of true stories centred around Max’s Kansas City.
At one point, Reed is interrupted by radical feminist Valarie Solanas, who reads an extract from her treatise to the evil of the male sex, the SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto. She then simulates shooting Warhol, also played by Woo (who does a swift wig swap) with a banana – a reference to the cover of the Velvet Underground’s debut album, designed by Warhol.
“We’ve got Candy Darling representing queer rights,” says Woo. “So we thought it was really important to get a feminist perspective in too.”
He explains that he was keen to create a sense of the political atmosphere in the US, contemporary to Transformer, which was released in 1972. Plus, he argues, Solanas made some salient points in the SCUM Manifesto. The line, “Women don’t have penis envy; men have pussy envy,” certainly got a cheer from the audience.
When Reed’s Transformer was released, it was declared “artsyfartsy kind of homo stuff”, by Nick Tosches in Rolling Stone. Woo, in his drag-infused interpretation of the album, seems to have taken this ostensibly negative review and proved that it was, in fact, a compliment.
While the show explores the issues of women’s and LGBT rights, Woo is very aware that, as it stands, it’s lacking in any reference to race (something which was a fairly big deal in the US circa ’72). He says that he’s keen to add in some references to Bob Marley and how he, in Max’s Kansas City, introduced New York to reggae.
Another Max’s Kansas City reference, it turns out, is Miss Cairo’s strip routine, which is based on a performance concocted by Warhol Superstar Andrea Feldman, in which someone would yell, “Showtime,” and she’d promptly get naked.
“I picked Cairo to do the show because of her singing voice,” says Woo. “But also because she has a very natural drag look. She’s not overly-contoured, she’s not overly-drag; she looks feminine.” Woo explains that this look, which is far more ambiguous gender-wise than the heavier and more clownish makeup worn by most drag queens, is very much “of that time”.
Cairo, who identifies as trans, is however, a very modern drag artist. She’s smart, thoughtful and fiercely political, which is something she’s keen to demonstrate when she performs.
“I want people to be comfortable with their bodies,” she says. “I used to like getting naked just to shock people. But, with my drag, because I’m aesthetically what’s in demand in terms of femininity, I can play around with that.”
Essentially, Cairo is pretty. When she strips, not everyone in the audience is expecting to see a penis (which she artfully tucks between her legs).
“I can be sexy on stage,” she says, “but I can also be throwing my dick around.”
“The stripping is good because it’s confrontational, exciting and erotic all at the same time,” adds Woo.
Confrontation, in fact, is often key to Woo’s stage persona. But, especially as London is losing so many LGBT venues, I wonder if he finds himself toning it down when performing to predominantly straight audiences.
“In Edinburgh I did,” he says. “I really tried to please people and it didn’t work. I tried to alter what I was doing. I wanted to get the big cheer and I wanted to be accepted, but I came away frustrated. In London, I’m a bit more fuckoff-ish, because that’s kind of what people are coming for. But the Edinburgh audience was essentially very straight, white, middle-aged and middle-class.”
But the straightness of the audience certainly didn’t stop Cairo from taking her clothes off. And, by the sound of it, the chunk of the audience consisting of “old rockers” weren’t at all bothered.
“We had a lot of hardcore Bowie and Reed fans turn up to the Edinburgh shows,” says Woo, “and a lot of them would come up to us after the show and tell us that we’d got it spot-on. Then some of them would tell us the story of the first time they saw Lou Reed live. The older people are the ones who really got into it.”
But what about Soho Theatre, which, in spite of its location, is not an LGBT venue? Woo tells me that they’ve been hosting drag shows there for many years.
“I’ve actually developed most of my stuff in non gay-specific venues,” he says, “as have a lot of queer performance artists.”
What’s more, Woo explains that the recent spate of LGBT venue closures isn’t at all new.
“When I came back from New York in 2003, about ten or 12 gay venues in East London had closed down,” he says. “Gentrification is the word people use, but that’s always been around. I think overdevelopment is what’s happening now.”
Woo responded to the most recent string of venue closures by opening a drag bar, The Glory, which he co-owns with his partner, in Haggerston, East London. That’s certainly one way of doing it. Even so, is drag being pushed out of queer pubs and clubs, and into the mainstream? Cairo seems to think so.
“I think it’s amazing that drag has entered the mainstream,” she says. “ It’s beautiful that we’re becoming more accepting as a society. But I also feel that, bringing it into the mainstream, maybe we’re losing sight of why drag is important.”
For Cairo, drag is meant to be political: “It fucks with stereotypes and it messes about with society’s perception of masculinity and femininity.”
Drag queens regularly come under attack by feminists who are offended by their (often quite grotesque) portrayal of women. They’re also called out by some members of the trans community, for parodying trans women. Cairo can see why these accusations are leveled at her and her fellow performers, but for her neither of these things are at all what drag is about.
“I think the gay scene is inherently misogynistic,” she says. “But I don’t see drag as misogynistic, as I think it’s just another form of identification. Drag looks at masculinity more than it does femininity.”
Cairo explains that she often experiences misogyny from within the gay community herself.
“I don’t shave my legs or armpits, she says. “I’m part Arab, and I get really bad ingrowing hairs. I’m tired of having to remind people that women don’t have to shave. Sometimes I have other queens tell me – ‘you’d be really pretty if you shaved.’ They’re subscribing to the ideal of femininity, and that’s not what drag is about for me. I’m a feminist through and through.”
Plus, unlike the majority of drag queens, Cairo identifies as trans herself. And gender fluid. And queer.
“There’s so much terminology now, it’s so wanky and pretentious,” she jokes.
“The word ‘blackface’ has been directed at drag performers,” says Woo. “Drag queens are accused of mocking trans women and I think sometimes there’s truth in that.”
Woo feels that we need to examine why the idea of a man in a dress is inherently funny. I ask Woo and Cairo how, if at all, increased trans visibility has affected drag. Woo says that it’s made him more thoughtful in terms of how he conducts himself onstage. The word “tranny”, for example, is something he’s more cautious about using.
Cairo, who would never use the word “tranny”, says, “the problem is, within our community it’s all fine, and it’s all coming from a place of love. But when it enters the mainstream, people who are against what we do use it as ammunition”.
“You have to remember,” she adds, “everything you do on stage affects someone in some capacity.”
At the end of the show, while still on stage, Cairo takes a puff from her inhaler, then casually places it between her butt cheeks, for safe keeping. Makes sense. The buttcrack: the pocket of the nude, right?
But I wonder – within the context of this culture of offence – if there’s an asthma sufferer out there somewhere who would’ve seen this as an act of reckless disregard for pneumonic inflammation disorders. Then again, as an ex-asthmatic myself, I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anyone make an inhaler look so punk.