Jonny Woo: interview

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From folding jumpers on Regent Street to wearing hair skirts in downtown New York, Jonny Woo has risen to become the queen of London's drag scene. Time Out joins him at his favourite London caff to talk wigs, bingo and flooded lungs

  • Jonny Woo: interview

    Jonny at the New Piccadilly Café (image © Haris Artemis)

  • Ask those who know about London’s alternative drag scene and one name crops up time and time again. Jonny Woo is an inspiration to many, not to mention midwife to a number of younger performers including Spanky, Ryan Styles and Russella, each of whom were delivered into the world at Woo’s Tranny Talent Contest in Shoreditch. According to the New York Times, Woo is nothing less than ‘Shoreditch’s ringmaster’. And his influence doesn’t end there. When American performance artist Taylor Mac first hit these shores, it was Woo he paid tribute to. ‘I saw Jonny Woo and I realised that drag can be anything you want it to be’, Mac told Time Out in December.


    The irony of this is that Woo didn’t want to be a drag queen. He wanted to be a contemporary dancer. He studied in Birmingham before moving to London for further training. When the doors of the dance world refused to open, he took a job in retail, ‘folding jumpers at Racing Green on Regent Street’. And when he got bored with that he tried telesales. But still he was bored. So he went to New York. ‘I thought I’d be like Madonna,’ he says with a laugh. ‘I thought I’d run away to New York and become a dancer.’

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    Jonny in character (right) (image © Rogan McDonald)

    He didn’t become a dancer. But under the watchful eye of [anarchic 70s performance troupe] Bloolips stalwart Lavinia Co-op, he did take his first tentative steps as a drag queen. ‘I was in the Boiler Room one night and in flew this giant moth covered in tinsel. And that was Lavinia. I’d never even heard of Bloolips, but I started hanging out on the downtown scene, going to places like Jackie 60, wearing skirts made out of hair’.

    After three years in New York, Woo returned to London in 2003 and found a job DJing at the George and Dragon on Hackney Road. Sunday night’s Radio Egypt parties were an instant hit. From there it was a short hop to Bistrotheque, where his Tranny Lip Synching talent contest caused an even greater stir. His looks included baby doll dresses, Mickey Mouse gloves, tar and feathers, and wigs in every shade including green. On stage he’s a madcap performer, whether hosting his riotous Gay Bingo, compering at Tranny Talent or dragging up in the ‘Dallas’ parody ‘Stark Dallas Naked’ or his equally eccentric ‘Night of a Thousand Jay Astons’.

    Off stage, he’s quieter and – today at least – more conventionally dressed. The silver glitter belt and chipped purple nail varnish are the only real giveaways. He’s not quite the creature of the night you might expect, though as we’ll discover there’s a very good reason for that.

    Time Out: So how does it feel to be midwife of the alternative drag movement?

    [Laughs] ‘I wasn’t consciously unleashing my children on the world! It was just a job. Before that I was running around Shoreditch doing drugs when what I really wanted to do was performance. Then the Radio Egypt parties at the George led to Tranny Talent and it just took off.’

    How different is New York’s drag scene?

    ‘There’s a lot of reverence for drag queens and trannies there; you really are the queen of the night. Here, people assume there’s some self-hating thing going on. So when I started the parties in Shoreditch I wanted to bring in some of that downtown New York spirit.’

    Why Shoreditch?

    ‘There was nothing much happening in Shoreditch then. I knew I didn’t want to do something in Vauxhall; they already had Duckie. And I didn’t want to do something in Camden. The Black Cap wasn’t calling! There were a lot of artists living in Shoreditch then, and a lot of fashion students. And 2003 was a boiling hot summer. It just felt like the right place at the right time.’

    Are there many more Tranny Talents waiting to be discovered, or has the alternative drag scene run its course?

    ‘To be honest, I’m just about ready to leave it all behind. I’m looking forward to doing more performance work. I’m 34, and I’ve been part of the scene since the age of 16. And especially with recent events in my life, I don’t feel the need to compete with the new generation of club kids.’

    What recent events?

    ‘Getting sick. Last October I had multiple organ failure. It was the end of a very long week. I’d been drinking a lot and taken a few drugs. I fell asleep and woke up in hospital; I thought I’d been kidnapped. I was in intensive care for three weeks. My organs started failing. My liver went first, then my kidneys. My lungs were flooding. I had dialysis. I was on a ventilator. I never thought: Why me? I knew very well why me.’

    How are you now?

    ‘I have high blood pressure. I have to take tablets. I’m still drinking but I’m looking after myself. I sleep, I eat. Which I wasn’t really doing before. I wasn’t giving my body much of a chance. I’m taking one step at a time rebuilding my life, trying to get back to normal.’

    Or as normal as you can be in a hair skirt.

    [Laughs] ‘It’s taken a while to rebuild my confidence. The first Gay Bingo I was terrified. There were 500 people and I was shitting myself. But I got through it, and I got through Tranny Talent. I think I’m actually a much better performer sober.’

    Any more dark secrets?

    ‘Two.’

    And how many wigs?

    ‘Loads. I have a little drawer for wigs currently in use, and a big drawer for wigs that are almost destroyed from too much backcombing. I try to recycle old wigs by donating them to worthy causes whenever I can.’
    Tranny Talent is on Wed at Bistrotheque; Gay Bingo, July 22, Corbet Place; ‘Night of a Thousand Jay Astons’, July 31-Aug 4, Soho Theatre; ‘Stark Dallas Naked’, Aug 16-18, Soho Theatre.

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1 comments
Lucy
Lucy

I saw Strange Hill in April and absolutely loved it. Jonny is a great dancer and it really shows. I was mesmerised by the whole performance but in particular by Jonny - very watchable. Thank you for bringing fun drag to mainstream London. I saw loads of a really high quality in Australia but have not found much since being home again. Looking forward to other shows. x Lucy