Dressed As A Girl

by Roger Walker-Dack

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday May 7, 2016

'Dressed As A Girl'
'Dressed As A Girl'  

If you are unfamiliar with the alternative drag scene in London's vibrant East End, then discovering the extraordinary performance artist Jonny Woo -- who had been the ringmaster of it all for the past decade -- is quite an eyeopener.

I should add quickly that this eye-opener is one of the very best kind. "Dressed As A Girl," a new documentary from first time filmmaker Colin Rothbart, was made over six years on a minuscule budget. Right from the opening titles it is hard not to be mesmerized by this dynamic, larger-than-life powerhouse, dressed as he is in provocative costumes as he struts around the stage belting out his latest rap, or lip-syncing to some anarchic song. It's hard to pin his look down: Part glam rock, part new wave punk, part S & M with an excessively painted face, he defies you not to take him too seriously.

After a few years performing in N.Y., Woo came back to his beloved Hackney in 2003 and corralled an odd assortment of other performers together to perform "Gay Bingo." It was less about gambling and much more about behaving as outrageously as they get away with in a public pace. Woo admits that they all usually performed after coming down from an abundance of drugs, and so the only way they could get through each show was by imbuing vast amounts of alcohol. The show ran for some years, until the excesses got rather annoying.

Besides documenting Woo's life unfold over six years, Rothbart followed a handful of other performers whom he shows trying to combine their successful careers as burgeoning stars of East London's cabaret and club scene. He also documents the reality of their complicated and somewhat traumatic lives off stage. They include Holestar, a woman who dresses up as a drag queen and is somewhat bitter she doesn't get all the breaks she thinks she deserves; John Sizzle, a very successful Drag DJ coming to terms with the fact that at age 45 it's time for another career; Dean, a burly butch man who transitions to "glamathon" Amber literally in front of our eyes; and Scottie, a rather confrontational and dramatic performance artist who goes through a phase of making his audiences share his deep depression about the strife he has had with his parents.

Woo himself -- though quite the superstar, being feted by the likes of "Time Out Magazine" and hosting spectaculars at venues such as The Royal Opera House -- has had his demons. He almost died when his vital organs started to pack up after the sheer battering he had given them with his years of success. He's is now a changed and sober man. His new state of wellness hasn't affected the body of his work, which we see from recent performances such as the 10th Anniversary Show of Gay Bingo, a show that is just as visionary and unapologetic queer as always.

It's hard not to like the charismatic Woo and his passion for both performing and his family of fellow performers, something that Rothbart certainly could not help falling for, too; once the filming was wrapped, the two men not only started dating, they opened their own Alternative venue together in Kingsland Road.

There is a raw energy about his extraordinary creative work that challenges the whole premise of traditional British drag, which has its roots in mimicking female divas and piling on the self-deprecating humor. It seems that Woo's influences must have been Andy Warhol's whole Factory scene, as his work is reminiscent of that on several levels. It's also clear that his highly original gang are the true successors to the glorious era of Leigh Bowery and Boy George, icons from the '80s, when London reveled in true alternative style.

Roger Walker-Dack, a passionate cinephile, is a freelance writer, critic and broadcaster and the author/editor of three blogs. He divides his time between Miami Beach and Provincetown.