Le Gateau Chocolat must be one of the hardest working men in cabaret. But, he insists: “My whole career was a wonderful mistake. I approached it with no plan, no trajectory, no connecting the dots to get to this point.”
Mistake or no mistake, he has lent his rich baritone voice to an omnivorous array of songs. Whitney, Wagner, Purcell, Porgy and Bess, he’ll sing them all – in fake eyelashes, a wig and lycra that highlights all the curves that men aren’t ‘supposed’ to have. But it’s not just cabaret that this bearded drag diva lends his voice to (and that’s probably why he works so much). The gigs at La Clique, La Soiree, and the Glory are punctuated with his solo shows Black, Icons, and Duckie, and work as an opera singer – most recently in The Threepenny Opera at the National Theatre.
It’s a dizzying mix. I ask what it feels like, going from the chaos of the cabaret circuit to the hallowed halls of the National Theatre. He explains: “It was a rather extraordinary thing, getting to work with [National Theatre artistic director] Rufus Norris, and singing the big song of the show, Mack the Knife. But when a friend of mine with the best intentions asked me if I felt it validated what I did, I said no. Whether it be circus or the Sydney Opera House, I approach it all with the same kind of integrity.”
It’s an attitude that comes from entering a world not through training, but through sheer – slightly frightening levels of – chance, graft and talent. After moving to the UK(where he was born) from Nigeria as a teenager, he boarded at a grammar school, where his love of singing was encouraged. But he had to give up a place at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in favour of reading law at the University of Sussex, after his funding plans fell through. The Brighton club scene, specifically a club night called Dynamite Boogaloo, initiated him into a rather less precious style of vocal entertainment.
“After years of going to the club, one night they heard me singing on the dancefloor, and they asked me if I’d sing something with them and I did, just in my civvies, as a punter,” he says. “That was kind of the inception. Before that, it wasn’t a world I was aware of or one I aspired to, it just sort of… happened. The evolution started there.”
It didn’t take long for him to shed his civvies, too, in favour of performing in drag. But although Dynamite Boogaloo in 2000 was his introduction to “drag as a culture, an art form, a theatre”, he explains that: “The more I think about it the more I realise that I’ve been in drag for a very long time. When you grow up the way that I did, in Nigeria, not knowing what it was called, but knowing that whatever it was – which is, you know, gay – was forbidden or taboo… it means I lived out a lot of my childhood in drag trying to distract or misdirect people, so that I wasn’t questioned or looked at.”
And the irony is that where you might hope that the UK’s gay scene would be a safe haven, it’s often anything but. Performer and artist Scottee’s Putting Words in Your Mouth drew attention to the insidious racism lurking in gay spaces. But it wasn’t exactly news to Le Gateau Chocolat. “So you arrive and you go, ‘Oh, thank God there’s a gay community here’. But then you go to the gay community and they go: ‘No, you’re that size’, or: ‘No, you’re black’. You’ll either be fetishised or shunned. It’s really interesting that a marginalised minority are unaware of how much they marginalise [other people] themselves.”
We take it as a given that toxic, looks-based discrimination is aimed at young women. “But even in the gay community you grow up looking at images of men who have the body of [Michelangelo’s] David – white, toned, has muscles, in a jock-strap. So it’s no surprise if someone comes out of that saying: ‘No blacks, no fats, no femmes, no Asians’. Because all he’s been fed to see as desirable is… not me. My work is mostly about visibility, but also about underlining sameness and the humanity in all of us. Before I’m gay, black, fat, and all these things, I’m human first.”
These are themes that resonate through his 2013 solo show Black – a look at depression and loneliness that culminates in a heartbreakingly drawn-out performance of I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me). It’s a piece that tarnishes the shallow gleam we’re taught to expect of drag queens, and juxtaposes the camp chaos of Friday nights out with the tough reality of Monday mornings back at a job you hate (in his case, as a call centre agent at NHS Direct).
But he’s passionate that these ideas are not just for grown-ups. Last year, he made Duckie, a show for toddlers at the Southbank Centre. “My niece recently started school in the UK, and had trouble settling in. Because kids, without meaning to, say: ‘Hey, why is your hair different, why is your colour different, why is your accent different?’ That seed takes root early, and then you spend your whole life fighting the concept that your difference makes you inferior. I just went headfirst into tackling that idea because I felt like I had to. It’s an opportunity for me to have a hand in the world I want them to grow up in.”
What was your first non-theatre job? Working in customer services for Lloyds Bank.
What was your first professional theatre job? Peter Pan at the Lighthouse Theatre, Poole.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? You are enough, you have the job. Work hard and excavate to the nub of who you really are and what unique selling point you can offer the work. Be inspired by, but not envious of, your contemporaries – that’s a waste of time and energy. Instead, focus on your progress – do all of this, strive to evolve always knowing and believing that you are enough.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Prepare, breathe and be honest. Breathe to calm yourself, enabling you to deliver and showcase the particular skill set and talent you can offer. Don’t serve the panel or the auditioner, serve the intention of the piece, author or composer.
If you hadn’t been a cabaret performer, what would you have done? Maybe opera, full time. I’m very thankful for the current balance between theatre, cabaret and opera. In an alternate universe, one I’m grateful isn’t my reality, I’d be a lawyer, but fantasising about being a performer.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Not really. Prepare, warm up and trust that the work you’ve done is enough, that you are enough.
It’s a pretty huge task – one man in a lycra leotard taking on a whole system that enshrines the importance of having lighter skin and fitting in. But it centres on tearing down the mythology of the beautiful swan that The Ugly Duckling teaches us we’ll become one day.
“The reality in life is that sometimes you’re a duck who’s just ugly – ‘ugly’ being a metaphor for ‘different’ – and so Duckie is about what happens when happy ever after doesn’t materialise.” He references the #itgetsbetter phenomenon of a few years back, where the slogan was used to give heart to LGBT young people. “Actually, it doesn’t automatically get better. We have to empower the younger generation to know that making it better is up to you. You have to believe in yourself, you have to fight, and you have to speak up when you see an injustice happen.”
After all the heavy stuff, it’s easy to see why he’s delighted at the prospect of flying to Australia with A Night at the Musicals, his show with fellow drag queen Jonny Woo. “It’s a show that’s born out of our friendship, and it captures a real joy and anarchic abandon – what made it ignite the way it did is its ability to completely forget everything for one hour and have fun with two grown men in bathing suits.” And in-between ripping the piss out of the silliest bits of musical theatre, he’ll be mugging up on Chekhov: the Young Vic in London has just asked him to perform in The Bear/The Proposal.
With a tour of Black in the works, too, it’ll be a busy 2017. But it’s nothing on December 2016, when he did three shows a day all month (two performances of Duckie in the day, and Icons in the evening). Or 2008, when he took two flights a day so he could simultaneously perform in a show at Edinburgh by night and rehearse an opera in London by day.
With a career built on chance, he’s saying yes to everything fate offers. “Back then, I said: ‘I’m never going to do this again’, but then I did. You just work with whatever life throws at you.”
Born: 1982, London
Training: Law, University of Sussex, 2000-2003
Landmark productions: Black (2013), The Threepenny Opera (2016), Icons (2016), Duckie (2016)
Awards: Olivier for La Clique (2009), Olivier for La Soiree (2015)
Agent: Phil Belfield, Belfield and Ward
The Bear/The Proposal runs at the Young Vic, London, from March 15-25.