When I set up a Tumblr account at the start of 2012, attempting to be ‘cool’, I found I only wanted to post pictures of Les Dawson, Hattie Jacques and Kenny Everett. I’m sometimes referred to as a performance artist and I’m known for provocative escapades with pasta sauce and declining to define my gender but I realised that no one I like/wanted to be/ripped off was an artist. They’re all entertainers.
Entertainment turns me on. It has no pretence but mounds of artifice. It’s accessible, engaging and unashamedly camp. I remember when I was very young, in the early ’90s, I would try not to gesticulate – I’d hide my limp wrist, keep my hands in my pockets so I wouldn’t seem gay or girly. Meanwhile, on the television, light entertainment was in its heyday: Cilla Black, Bob Downe, Dame Edna, Lily Savage, Michael Barrymore, the Spice Girls – and repeats of Les Dawson, Larry Grayson and the ‘Carry On’ films. Gender-bending men in polyester-blend safari suits were presenting game shows on primetime. It was outré and risqué rather than politically confrontational. These were unadulterated show-offs, self-confident, often freaks, but loved by the public. Meanwhile, I was painfully shy, despite my mum’s best efforts sending me to youth groups and letting me roam around with the wrong kind of kids.
I started my alternative night, ‘Eat Your Heart Out’, because I was too weird for the cabaret world and not academic enough for the art world. I’ve always tried to make stuff that’s highly visually appealing, but when people call me a performance artist I feel uncomfortable. I want people to enjoy themselves – my references are working-class variety and television entertainers.
For a long time, I’ve tried to do stuff to make people feel differently about things. How pretentious is that?! We’re living in this time and entertainment is escapism – people want to escape that world for a few hours. With ‘Camp’, my new show at the Roundhouse, I’m trying to carve out a space where things can be fun and I can experiment without being controversial in a vulgar or grotesque sense. It’s a test to see if I can be entertaining without pouring pasta sauce all over people – and it’s about coming to terms with my own effeminacy and a public proclamation of the things that have shaped me.
I wanted to do a show other people could bring their mums to. I wanted to present people who are making really interesting work who would never normally share a bill, so I’ve asked showbiz friends ranging from gay-bar drag acts I met pulling pints in 2004 to Barbican regulars. It’s about inventive popular culture with an emphasis on fun. I’m hoping it will be like the ‘Royal Variety Show’ meets ‘Vic Reeves’s Big Night Out’ for people on Tumblr.
Entertainment without the effort…