The Midlands-born drag artist has shot to nationwide fame on RuPaul’s Drag Race UK and is now headlining her first pantomime, Cinderella, at London’s Trafalgar Studios. She tells Paul Vale that hard graft and a thick skin are key
From Danny La Rue to Lily Savage, drag queens have long been a staple of light-entertainment in the UK. They can be rooted in stand-up comedy, such as Lenny Henry’s showbiz gossip queen Babbolonia Johnson or Steve Coogan’s acerbic Pauline Calf, or they might be based in the character-led comedy of The League of Gentlemen or Monty Python.
West Bromwich-born Baga Chipz, however, has been moulded in the gay bars and clubs of the Midlands. Her comic style is far more brash and working class, honed through years of working like a Trojan on the UK’s fierce drag circuit. And this year, she has shot to nationwide fame.
“It began when a girlfriend of mine in Birmingham just rushed up to me one night and said: ‘Let me do your makeup’ and I couldn’t believe it,” the performer says. “No, I didn’t want to do drag but she pushed on and ended up doing my hair and make-up and when she was finished, I actually looked good. Well, I was still only 17. So she took me down to the local bar, Route 66, and that’s when I sang a few Amy Winehouse numbers on stage. They seemed really impressed with my voice and I got my first gig from that. I’d not had any training but I’ve always been very theatrical and, probably more importantly, I’ve always been very confident.”
Baga has become a mainstay of the UK drag scene, building up a loyal and attentive fanbase. Moving to London early in her career, she won the 2010 Drag Idol competition, which led to regular gigs at Heaven and G-A-Y, gaining a notoriety for being reliably unpredictable.
“Because I’m always performing in clubs and bars every day I’d always have a drink. It wasn’t good, but the customers would buy them so I’d be constantly drinking. I was drunk so much. But I’ve knocked all that on the head and now I’m more professional. So if somebody buys me a drink at a show I just thank them and pass it on to a friend.”
Despite the hundreds of drag queens up and down the UK, it was US drag queen RuPaul who changed the trajectory of drag on both sides of the Atlantic.
RuPaul’s Drag Race has been on air since 2009 and remains an international ratings-winner well into its 11th season. There had long been rumours that the reality competition might have a UK outing and finally this year it landed on BBC3.
“Everybody today seems obsessed with RuPaul’s Drag Race and I realised that the UK version would be a major step up on the career ladder,” Baga says. “When I was starting out, the most famous working drag queen was Sandra, but now it seems everybody wants to be a drag queen. It’s like literally: throw on a wig, put some make-up on, and hit the clubs.
“Drag Race UK is showing the world that the British queens are not super-bitchy and competitive like the Americans seem to be. They seem to fight like cats and dogs. I think we’re more friendly. We’ve shown that we’ve got each other’s back on the show. Most of us are live performers and we are just being ourselves.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
What was your first professional theatre job?
Doing Amy Winehouse at Route 66 in Birmingham.
What’s your next job?
I’m doing special appearances and gigs all over the country practically every night. This Christmas, I will be playing Baroness Baga in Cinderella at the Trafalgar Studios.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Be professional and pay your taxes.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Northern working-class comedy and Coronation Street.
What’s your best advice for anyone wanting to enter the drag circuit?
Just be yourself. Don’t copy. There are loads of characters on the drag scene and people know when someone’s acting like them. So be an original.
If you hadn’t been a drag performer, what would you have been?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Not really. I just look in the mirror, take a deep breath and… showtime.
The impact of RuPaul’s Drag Race on the UK drag scene was slow but overwhelming. Suddenly drag was hip and the winners were flying all over the world for gigs and personal appearances. Some performers may have resented this invasion but Baga is far more pragmatic. “I have no resentment for anyone. I’ve always been of the opinion that you’ve got to work for it and work hard. There have been times when I’ve been watching a fairly lame lip-sync and thought of the money they are earning compared with me but I’ve never dwelt on it. If you’ve reached a certain point in your career where you’re earning that much money, then you’ve obviously done something right. I work with many of them weekly and I’m very good friends with a lot of them.”
She continues: “There are a lot of jealous drag queens, and I get a bit of stick for being on Drag Race UK. The thing is that you have to be happy for people or it’ll eat away at you. Jealousy is not good for the soul, so basically just be happy for people. Thankfully, I get a lot of support from people and sometimes from the most unlikely places. Kim Woodburn has become very supportive of my work and is always texting me. We did a show together and hit it off right away and we’ve become really close friends.”
Baga is following up her Drag Race UK exposure with her first ever appearance in pantomime. Cinderella at the Trafalgar Studios is described in the publicity material as “a drag pantomime extravaganza” and runs for only six performances.
It’s directed by Stuart Saint and stars Sheila Simmonds, best known for her performance on Britain’s Got Talent this year. Simmonds, another major player on the London drag scene, is playing the Fairy Godmother and Baga Chipz is the ruthless Baroness Baga.
“Rehearsals are just mad. Normally I’d be getting ready in a pub cellar and spending an hour on stage. Now I am going to be doing rehearsals and I’ll have a proper dressing room. I love all the camaraderie of working with a company. I love that bit where you’re getting ready for a show with the girls backstage, having a gossip, and getting closer to people.”
Baga has worked with the show’s producers TuckShop before, on The Spice Gals – a drag version of Spice Girls as part of the Underbelly Festival on the Southbank, in which she played Ginger Spice. “Also I get to wear a fabulous dress designed by Robin Lill. We’ve been friends for ages and he’s hugely talented. He made most of my outfits for Drag Race UK and my dress for Cinderella is unreal. It’s massive, like Elizabeth I or something.”
Is there anything about performing in pantomime that takes Baga outside her comfort zone? “Not really, I’ve always been one of these people that literally just goes out on stage and does the job,” she says. “I don’t think I am ever likely to be thrown by nerves. Even in Drag Race UK, I just thought to myself: ‘Right, if they don’t like it, they don’t bloody like it – won’t be the end of the world.’ You know what I mean? But the thing is, I always give it 150% when it comes to performing on stage. All we can ever do is our best.”
We speak ahead of the results of Drag Race UK, and Baga won’t be drawn on the identity of the winner, but talks openly about her many plans for the future. “After Cinderella I am planning a world tour,” she says. “I am constantly touring in the UK anyway but an Australian tour is being planned in tandem with an American tour.
“I’ve literally got about seven tours being planned as we speak. I’m full-on busy now till the end of April. There are other television programmes and appearances in the pipeline but I can’t really talk about them. Until then it’s work, work, work. Tonight I’m off to Bristol for a gig so it’s business as usual.”
Born: West Bromwich, 1989
• Drag Divas, Arts Theatre, London (2012)
• Drag Queens of London, London Live (2014)
• RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, BBC 3 (2019)
• Numerous gay cabaret awards and winner of Drag Idol UK (2010)
Agent: Andrew Muddle at Profile Talent
Cinderella runs at the Trafalgar Studios for six performances on December 15-29. trafalgar-studios.com