John Sizzle interviewed by Emma Silverthorn @
Back in October director Colin Rothbart’s Dressed As A Girl was released into cinemas, showcasing the vibrant drag scene of East London, tagged as the British version of Paris is Burning, Dressed As A Girl a decidedly niche sounding film ended up being a surprise hit praised by Sight and Sound magazine, The Guardian and of course us. I was lucky enough to interview my favorite of the films personae John Sizzle a perfect balance of DJ, Drag Queen, landlord (The Glory) and furniture upholsterer…
When did you first discover drag?
I came to it late myself, I didn’t do drag till my thirties but I’m from London (Highgate) so it was always around as a gay man, I grew up going to places like The Black Cap, The Vauxhall Tavern and watching people like Dick Emery, Dame Edna that whole sort of panto culture. Later Steve Strange. It’s always been a part of the culture. I love the flamboyance of it. I consider drag to be further reaching than just than gay men, Shirley Bassie was pretty drag-gy, big dramatic, larger-than-life creatures, using lots of glamour and other worldliness to create an image of femininity. Films like Barbarella, sci-fi with Buck Rogers, these colourful, fantastic, escapist characters, ‘cos you know I grew up in Thatcher’s Britain, power cuts and everything very beige and brown! The explosion of colour in the eighties always appealed to me.
In the film you say ‘The whole world tells you you can’t wear a dress, drag’s about saying “fuck you” to the world’. Would you still agree, do you still think drag is about rebellion now it’s become more mainstream?
I think it is. For me back in the day when I was doing it thirteen years ago me and Jonny (Woo) we’d still be looking a bit scrappy, have beards, it wasn’t about passing as a beautiful woman, or a beautiful drag queen either, it was more a punky kind of aesthetic, rather than conforming to traditional codes of femininity. Bunging on bits and bobs and creating a bit of a creature. I think as gay men our definition of approach femininity is different to straight culture and probably to a lot of women, I don’t see it as something that belongs to women, we share half our chromosomes. Now there’s this added thing with the internet of selling yourself, selling your image and it’s a natural progression like in RuPaul’s Drag Race. But those codes of flamboyance a couple of centuries ago were used by men, wigs, make-up, powder, blusher, in my mind it’s part of our toolbox. It’s drag it’s fun, expressive, it can be naughty, its adds adrenaline and it came out of a run down but very creative time in Shoreditch.
So do you see drag as political?
It can be, I didn’t think it through then. I think the politics before were just a case of “we’re here we’re queer get used to it” and I’m going to wear a massive wig and be quite visually noisy and I think that’s political. And I think that’s political within the gay scene itself because of how we approach masculinity and project it back to people. I’m a very sort of stocky, muscular gay guy and I’m not promoting a fey type of masculinity, you know, nothing wrong with a bit of camp, a bit of tenderness or softness, but I’m quite a bruise-y kind of character so I think the politics at the time was get over yourself. You don’t have to be any particular type of gay guy. Enough of the nonsense, let’s get real.
Well I’m forty seven and I’m still doing it! In the film I’m quite anxious about my future, at the time I was doing a lot of drink and drugs, a lot of hangovers, I’d been doing it for a while, I was having a lot of fun but was questioning myself, you get weary don’t you? I’ve always been a creative, I’ve always loved making stuff, so I was using upholstery to center, to work in a traditional, to be doing something that doesn’t involve the internet and all of those modern distractions. Its very artisan but its not financially viable. The upholstery was a way to get off the merry-go-round, calm down a little bit, it’s quite meditative. The thing with drag is if you’re an artist your art develops with you, if you’re using drag as a medium like Jonny is, then that will evolve with you but I don’t consider myself an artist, I consider myself more of a comedian. At one time I felt like I’d driven myself into a cul-de-sac with drag. I left advertising to concentrate on drag. Long hours working on stupid brands in advertising, after a while I was banging my head against a wall. But the drag now, what’s it like with my age, experience, look and act I get better gigs, lots of fortieth birthdays, DJ-ing at The National Portrait Gallery, The National History Museum in Manchester, The British Museum over the summer, in a big mummy room, The Royal Opera House, around Europe. Not bigging myself up its just become these more enjoyable gigs that aren’t about scrabbling around with your wig on in the toilet of some pub in Bermondsey, quite soul-destroying, the drag doesn’t control me now.
In the film one of your friends at your birthday party says you’ve paved the way for the next generation of drag queens, so I was wondering what advice you have for those wanting to follow in your footsteps?
O advice, oh God! Don’t take yourself too seriously. Use drag, don’t let it use you. If you’re going to earn a living, commit to it and make a living. And also look after your feet, those heels will kill you, you’re feet are your friends, there’s one thing about putting fashion above comfort but at some point in your life, that is going to bite your ass. Really just be nice and welcoming, welcome the up and coming, it’s not a competition, it’s friends to be made, and work to worked, collaboration, collaboration, collaboration!
TLE would like to thank John Sizzle for his time and insights. Follow John here.
Dressed As A Girl is released on DVD December 7th. Read our review of the documentary here.