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Performer Jonny Woo: ‘I had a beard, bikini and a wig on, I was really putting myself out there’

Jonny Woo. Photo: Simon Phipps Jonny Woo. Photo: Simon Phipps

After working on the club and burlesque scene in New York, Jonny Woo returned to the UK and opened the Glory pub, a key London destination for LGBTQ+ cabaret. He tells Giverny Masso about his latest politically charged show…

How did you get into alternative performance?

I did drama at university, and I used to do school plays. I got into contemporary dance at university. When I left uni I went to the Place, and decided to continue training in New York. While I was over there, my friends were on the burlesque scene and it caught my imagination. I was very into clubbing, and I found a way of mixing performance and clubbing. I thought, ‘Let’s make a performance you can do in clubs.’

How does being a drag artist in New York compare with the UK?

In New York, they have a certain view of gay performance – they really nurture it. You are allowed to call yourself an artist, which is something you don’t allow yourself so much in the UK. You have to be an actor, dancer and singer. People have found it hard to understand that drag is part of my performance, it is not necessarily the performance. People [in the UK] thought you would stand in the corner of the pub and tell misogynistic jokes. In New York, they are a lot more into that kind of performance.

What happened after you returned to the UK in 2003?

I started doing parties at the George and Dragon [pub in Shoreditch], which caught people’s imaginations – doing stuff that hadn’t been done at the time. I had a beard and a bikini and a wig on, I was really putting myself out there. Some friends opened the venue Bistrotheque, where I created work for the next nine years as an artist in residence. Some of my shows went to the Soho Theatre – for six or seven years I was there regularly, so I have a lot of respect and time for their support of queer artists.

Did you find it hard to separate work from the party scene?

About six years ago, my star started to wane a bit because I was drinking a lot. I had been since the age of 17. New York was all about going out clubbing – it became a real identity for me. I went into recovery, so now I am much more focused on making work.

Why did you start the Un-Royal Variety show two years ago?

It was a culmination of everything up to this point. The Royal Variety Performance was a format that was asking to have an alternative and I felt I had a roster of artists good enough to fill the Hackney Empire. After the referendum, the political climate changed, and I felt it was necessary to put forward a show with a more political edge – something cabaret had maybe lost a little. I’m really excited: Richard [Thomas] and I are writing new music to go right through it. We’ve got a bigger band and acrobatics. It has an old-school feel, but it’s very current and politically engaged.

CV: Jonny Woo

Training: University of Birmingham (1990-94); the Place (1998)
First professional role: Love After Death, Julia Ritter Dance Company (USA), (2001)
Agent: Curtis Brown

Jonny Woo’s Un-Royal Variety runs at London’s Hackney Empire on November 3 and 4

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