Popstarz wasn't just a club night, it was a rite of passage. Every Friday for 20 years, around 1,500 people from across the LGBT+ spectrum, plus their straight mates, would pile in and dance to indie hits, stomping pop songs and R&B bangers in three distinct rooms.
Popstarz attracted a massive mixed crowd because it was cheap, inclusive and attitude-free. ‘You could be absolutely anyone, into any kind of music, and you’d feel like you were among friends,’ says El Conchitas – one of the original Popstarz DJs playing at a one-off revival of the night this week.
When promoter Simon Hobart launched Popstarz in 1995, it offered a radical alternative to other, posier gay club nights. ‘Popstarz was very political when it started,’ recalls Hobart’s business partner Tommy Turntables. ‘It was two fingers to the big gay clubs at the time, which were all playing techno and hard house. We had signs up saying, ‘“We don’t need Es, we drink beer”, and “boozing not cruising”. London had other gay indie clubs before Popstarz, but they were more introspective. Popstarz was alternative and really, really big, which is hard to pull off.’
Popstarz’s success paved the way for other queer indie nights such as Misshapes, Rebel Rebel and Pink Glove. East London’s epic pansexual party Sink the Pink has a very different vibe, but captures some of the Popstarz spirit in the way it positions itself as a edgier and more welcoming rival to the mainstream gay scene.
London’s Night Czar Amy Lamé started her own long-running club night, Duckie, after seeing how Popstarz had united a tribe that previously felt isolated by the scene. ‘Popstarz changed everything about LGBT+ clubbing in London,’ she says. ‘It was the first place all the queer indie kids could go to hear our favourite records being played, drink beer and shoe-gaze. Simon Hobart was a true visionary.’
As Popstarz grew and became part of London’s gay nightlife establishment, it focused on honing its music offering and booking bigname performers such as Goldfrapp, Scissor Sisters and Mika. ‘There has never been a night in London as good as Popstarz – from a punter viewpoint, and from a DJ viewpoint,’ says El Conchitas. ‘Wherever I DJ in the world, people know the Popstarz name.’
Like Conchitas, drag queen Lady Lloyd got her first break at Popstarz and says it felt like ‘a home away from home’ filled with students and music fans knocking back cans of Red Stripe priced two for a fiver. ‘It just had a family vibe which most club nights never match.’
The Popstarz brand was so robust it even survived Hobart’s untimely death in October 2005. ‘There was no question that we wouldn’t continue after Simon passed away,’ Turntables says. ‘In a way, it drove us to the next level. I wanted to prove to Simon that we could do more. I’m very proud of what we’ve done in his name.'
Popstarz moved venues several times over the years, taking root in King’s Cross, Soho and Holborn, but its last incarnation in Vauxhall proved a bridge across the Thames too far. ‘This was 2014, before the night tube, so the location did put some people off,’ Turntables explains. ‘I didn’t want Popstarz limping along, because to work, it needs to be a big, glorious event. And the indie music scene, which had always helped drive Popstarz, had really died. So it felt like the right time to bow out.’
Turntables points out that in 2018, Popstarz feels political again. At a time when London’s nightlife is under threat, and queer spaces in particular face a fight for survival, hosting a club night on this scale makes a serious statement. He also hints that future Popstarz revivals are possible. ‘We’ll see, but what I do know is this Saturday night is going to be sensational.’