Legendary drag performance artist Lavinia Co-op is very busy at the moment. Scheduling an interview, we had to work around no less than three rehearsal schedules for productions including Swansong, a new drama by Nathan Evans about gay people in care homes; the Un-Royal Variety Show at the Hackney Empire and finally How to Catch a Krampus, this year’s Christmas production from Sink the Pink.
Aged 67, Co-op shows absolutely no signs of reining in the workload, which is no surprise following a career that has flourished thanks to a mixture of talent, pragmatism and an ability to adapt.
“I’m riding the tiger at the moment. If you can ride the tiger, it’s a thrill but you have to be constantly aware that it can all end in a flash. You’re on a high, but remember there’s the low,“ she says.
Co-op’s rational approach to working as a performance artist can probably be traced back to her early days, when she trained first as teacher. This was in the early 1970s, when Co-op was already part of the burgeoning Gay Lib movement. Experiencing homophobia at college, she switched to study drama at Rose Bruford, before eventually training for three years with the London School of Contemporary Dance.
“After two years, I damaged my knee, but I already knew that I was never going to be a professional dancer. The training and discipline grounded me, however, and not long after I met Bette, who I’d known of from the commune, off the Portabello Road.”
The queer performer and activist Bette Bourne had joined New York gay cabaret group Hot Peaches for its European engagements and was about to create her own troupe in the UK in 1976 called Bloolips. Co-op became member of the company.
‘Hot Peaches blew our minds – we had drag queens in pubs in the UK, but there was nothing like this radical, queer drag’
“We all went to see Hot Peaches and it blew our minds, because we’d never seen anything like it on stage. We had drag queens in pubs and Gay Sweatshop was around, but there was nothing like this radical, queer drag. So Bette got us together and we worked on a show based on The Ugly Duckling, with each of us contributing to the skits, music and sketches.”
Bloolips became the iconic queer ensemble of the new-wave era. With shows such as Lust in Space, Teenage Trash, Living Leg-ends and Sticky Buns, Bloolips defied conventional forms of cabaret and drag, developing a fascinated following on both sides of the Atlantic. The collective survived until the early 1990s, but before then Co-op had moved on and considered retraining in Alexander Technique.
“There were no courses available to me in the UK at the time, so I had saved up some money and moved to New York to study. I got part-time jobs to supplement my income and then I started doing drag in the clubs, as I’d never worked in them before. People were throwing these huge parties where they paid you to do drag,” she recalls. “Well, I was rough: I came to Manhattan with just a handbag, but I had two friends who sadly died and they left me a ton of drag.”
What was your first job?
Working as a dresser on Abelard and Elouise at Wyndham’s Theatre in 1970-something.
What was your first job (non-theatrical)?
Messenger boy for an advertising agency.
What is your next job?
How to Catch a Krampus at the Pleasance
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Learn another skill so you have something to fall back on.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
Bette Bourne and the Bloolips
What is your advice to young people?
Talk to an old person every now then. You never know what you might find out.
If you hadn’t been a performance artist, what would you have been?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I just try to stay in the moment – that’s the key. Everything else is nonsense.
In Manhattan, Co-op met legendary promoter Susanne Bartsch, who hired Co-op for major parties and tours alongside the likes of RuPaul and Joey Arias. In tandem with these appearances, Co-op continued her studies in Alexander Technique and ran a slew of part-time jobs to make ends meet. Returning to the UK in 2010, Co-op settled in east London and felt that retirement was inevitable.
“I’ve never been an ambitious person and I’d changed my life a few years ago – I sort of retired and began a postgraduate course in Alexander Technique. Then Tatler magazine invited me and a bunch of other queens to do a photo-shoot, in which we all looked like famous duchesses. And then there were other bits and pieces in clubs and at events. Suddenly I was back on the tiger again.”
Since her re-emergence onto the UK’s queer scene, Co-op has barely stopped working. In 2017, Co-op formed a natural alignment with Sink the Pink, the famed queer collective produced by Glyn Fussell, appearing in The Queen’s Head, which took place in a converted basement in Selfridges. This performance led to a sell-out retrospective solo show at the Purcell Rooms titled Lavinia Co-op: Up Yours!.
This year, Sink the Pink mounts its first ever theatre residency with How to Catch a Krampus, which runs for six weeks before Christmas at the Pleasance in Islington. Written by drag queen Ginger Johnson, the play is inspired by classic British horror and features Co-op as a Victorian dominatrix.
“It’s great performing with a company again. I may have abandoned any ideas of retirement, but I no longer feel the need to hit the clubs again. It’s hard work and theatre allows you to hone your skills. I’ve done a few music videos recently and I wouldn’t mind doing more film. I’ve got the face.”
Born: 1951, Hackney, London
Training: The London School of Contemporary Dance
Landmark productions: Lust in Space, Bloolips (1979-1981); Lavinia Co-op: Up Yours!, South Bank Centre (2018)
Awards: Knobbly knees, Blackpool (1968)