If you spent the mid-noughties listening to nu-rave and indie, it’s likely that on a Tuesday night you would have backcombed your hair, squeezed into some spray-on jeans and taken the bus over to Soho. There, you would have queued – often in the rain – up the length of Brewer Street, desperate to step through the doors under the white rhinestone ‘Madame Jojo’s’ sign. Once inside, the real fun began. You’ll have danced to the Klaxons and CSS and downed £2.50 (yes, really) vodka and cokes until three in the morning.
There had been a club on the site of Madame Jojo’s since the sixties, when Soho was a red light district run by London’s criminal underworld. It opened as a cabaret venue in 1986 by porn baron Paul Raymond, whose company published Mayfair magazine, the UK’s answer to Playboy. Before long, Jojo’s was the place to be: especially if you were a bloke that wanted a bit of slap and tickle.
As the years went by, the club was loved by everybody from students and London newcomers in their twenties to socialites like the late Peaches Geldof and Cilla Black – who once paid a surprise visit to White Heat, a club night which launched in the early 2000s and gave the former cabaret venue an electric new lease of life.
But in November 2014, Jojo’s became the latest victim of Soho’s reimagining from a sleazy hotspot to a multi-million pound leisure area, when it had its licence revoked following a violent incident. A bouncer was alleged to have pulled out baseball bats to attack a group throwing glass bottles outside of the venue, although he was later cleared of assault. And, while it was reported last year that Jojo’s was going to make a comeback in spring 2023, the doors remain shut and news has gone mysteriously quiet.
Madame Jojo’s was arguably one of London’s most iconic nightclubs: in the same tier as legends like Shoom, Plastic People and Fabric. Steeped in history, Jojo’s didn’t only launch the career of several cabaret artists, but was extremely adaptable when the fashions for clubbing changed. Sure, it was dark and seedy, but most of all, it was fun – and that is quintessentially Soho.
Featuring stories from the glamorous Barbettes – the original waiting staff in drag and six inch heels – as well as White Heat regulars and cabaret performers, this is how a crumby cabaret club became a London nightlife legend.
The ‘Barbettes’, a porn baron and drag acts: the early days of Jojo’s
The so-called ‘King of Soho’, Paul Raymond preserved much of the area we know today by buying most of it up and leaving it untouched by modern developments. Hosted by the inimitable compère Madame Jojo, the club would soon become his most popular venture.
Scott St Martyn (ran and performed at a cabaret night in Jojo’s): ‘I was in [musical] La Cage aux Folles at the Palladium and the cast were invited to the opening night at Jojo's. There was an act performing called the Broadway Babes. I turned to Mr Raymond, who I kind of knew, and said: ‘‘You should really do a cabaret with some drag acts wearing feathers, a proper old-fashioned one – I could put it on for you’’. Within about a month, I was running one of the first drag shows there: singing, dancing, directing and choreographing it. We performed every night apart from Sunday. I was finishing at the Palladium, then getting to Jojo’s to perform at 11. I didn’t really ever sleep. It was pretty hectic.’
Stella Artois (former Barbette and Jojo’s performer): ‘I started out making costumes for the Barbettes when the club first opened but suddenly found myself working as one, as well as performing in cabaret shows. The Barbettes were supposed to be neither man nor woman: we wore leotards and very elaborate makeup.’
Terri Fox (former Jojo’s performer and manager): ‘The Barbettes were the heart of Jojo’s, without them it wouldn’t have been the same. There was a strict audition process. They had to be over six foot tall and be able to walk in very high stilettos – that was the uniform. The club was on two levels and to get down to the lower level, they had to slide down a handrail and land while holding a tray of drinks above their heads. Numerous times there would be a bunch of hooray Henrys who had come from up West and would think it clever to pinch one of their bums as they were going down. A tray would go flying across the room. The girls worked very, very hard but always looked beautiful.’
Stella: ‘Being a Barbette was very hard work. You’d be up and down the stairs all night long in your heels, Jojo ruled with a rod of iron and would let you know if something was wrong. We’d usually be told off for being drunk on duty. But we were a great team of people who all got on with each other, and the Barbettes became celebrities in our own right. We wouldn’t pay to go anywhere else in Soho and could always skip the line. We were only paid £100 a week, but would more than make up for it in tips.’
Scott: ‘The other three dancers in my show and I spent most of the time dancing on the bar. The Barbettes would wash the bar area with a mixture of coke and water about ten minutes before we went on, to stop us from sliding about – but Mr Raymond liked a clean bar and would ask them to wipe it away immediately. We eventually realised that if we put Sellotape on the bottom of our shoes it would stop us slipping around, but then it meant we had to walk through the carpeted floor on our heels so that it didn’t get stuck to it.’
Stella: ‘One year I did a Christmas routine with two other drag queens, Ruby Venezuela and Ziggy Cartier. Ruby was a Christmas cracker and the other was Ms Christmas Spirit, wearing a costume that was like a cartwheel on her back with glasses and bottles hanging off it. I was dressed as a fireplace made out of a plank of wood with a hole cut in it for my neck. It wasn’t very comfortable. I was on stage wearing all sorts of things, I even dressed up as Margaret Thatcher once.’
Terri: ‘It was very hedonistic. The club finished at 4am but none of us working there went home. We’d all go into Chinatown for dinner, sometimes with the customers, and the Barbettes would stay in drag. These outrageous creatures of the night in six foot heels and leotards would sit there eating crispy duck at 6am then get the bus home dressed like that. It was fabulous.’
DJ nights replace cabaret and White Heat creates a new scene
After the 1990s boom in DJ culture, Jojo’s started branching out. No longer only a cabaret venue, it became home to club nights catering to all tastes – from jazz to funk and soul and electro – as well as a drag night called Trannyshack. Arguably, the most famous arrival on the scene was White Heat in 2005. Not just a club night, the promoters put on gigs by artists who would go on to be massive stars, such as Lorde, Jamie T and Adele.
Terri: ‘In 1993, I was headhunted to have my own show, Show Time, at Jojo’s, which I was thrilled about as I’d been involved with the venue since opening night and it really was the most glamorous place to be. Nobody wore jeans, everyone would be in Armani suits or beautiful dresses, done up to the nines. Mine was the last major cabaret show to be in the club and ran until 1996 when I moved to the US. After that, Jojo’s largely stopped having those choreographed shows and became more of a music venue. I thought that was a big shame.’
Scott: ‘At first, it was mostly theatre people and members of the gay community who went to Jojo’s. But after a while we started getting a lot of hen and stag parties coming in and it could get quite rowdy. I remember dancing on the bar once and having a drink poured on my shoe. Somebody else stubbed a cigarette out on it.’
Marcus Harris, DJ and promoter, White Heat: ‘In 2005, going out on a Tuesday night was common. People weren't living for the weekend like now. Life was a lot easier back then. The cost of living was a lot lower: the money people had went further. We’d not had all the Tory austerity and cuts. It was a fiver to get in, you’d watch three amazing bands that you were reading about in the NME, and at £2.50 a drink, you could spend £20 on drinks and be properly plastered. Our club photographer took thousands of pictures of people who were completely wasted. One night, a celebrity – I can’t remember who – came down and he took loads of photos of her. But her security intervened and offered the photographer £250 to delete the pics. He agreed: who would turn that down?’
George Spender, White Heat regular: ‘One of the funniest memories I have is when I saw a man piss his tight white jeans in the queue for the toilets once. He was standing queuing by the sink (which he didn’t think to use), holding his crotch and just let it all go, moaning ‘‘no, no, no’’ to himself.’
Marcus: ‘In 2008 we had a supergroup called the Pun Loving Criminals play a secret gig. It was one of the best nights I remember: the band included Alex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys and Lightspeed Champion and they did indie covers. But my favourite nights were just being down in the pit, watching bands I can’t even remember. White Heat really contributed to the whole indie sleaze music and fashion movement at the time, it was the epicentre of a lot of that stuff. It was where the art and fashion kids all went. Everybody was super skinny and looked like they were on smack and everyone had a lot of mascara on. I’d wear it myself.’
Lucy Smith*, White Heat regular: ‘Many of my memories from going to Jojo’s in the early 2010s are meow meow (mephedrone or M-CAT) related. I remember six of us crowding together in the tiny club toilets to take it. One of my mates once got so wasted he tried to show the bouncer his front door key instead of his ID.’
Marcus: ‘At the time, there was nothing else at Jojo’s that really focused on youth culture. White Heat dragged the club into the 21st Century.’
Kitsch decor, celebrities and boozed-up guest stars
Unassuming from the outside, stepping into Jojo’s was like wandering into kitsch heaven, all plush red and gold Art Deco-inspired interiors. It was so eye-catching that it was once used for a scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 film, ‘Eyes Wide Shut’. Since the eighties, Jojo's has attracted everyone from royalty and big-name celebrities to West End performers, sex workers and everybody in between.
Marcus: ‘I was 17 the first time I went to Jojo’s for White Heat, just before I started working for it with Matty and Olly who started the night. I’d never been anywhere like it. It was all velvety and golden, and a bit seedy and weird.’
Scott: ‘I used to go with Paul O’Grady – who used to perform as Lily Savage – a lot. One time we went and he was dressed like the Wicked Queen from Snow White. The decor of the club was a heady mixture of sleaze and chic, like a tart’s boudoir, and the room was always filled with smoke. As soon as you entered, your spirits lifted. It was very decadent, the atmosphere was just a party every night. But it was also very seedy: you’d have sex workers doing clients in the toilet. It was more like a bar you’d get in Berlin, such as the Kit Kat Club from Cabaret.’
Terri: ‘During my time at Jojo’s, people weren't allowed to take pictures inside, because there were so many celebrities in there. You’d have the likes of Princess Diana and Sarah Ferguson, Joan Collins, the cast from EastEnders: the list goes on and on. You’d have Mrs Smith from Brixton sat next to Lord and Lady whoever – that was the way the club worked. My favourite night was when I met my idol Dusty Springfield. I was called through to the dressing room and told she was coming in, so I changed the show to do an impersonation of Dusty and after she told me, ‘‘I’ve got one criticism – I was never that beautiful’’. We became friends after that.’
Stella: ‘What happened in Madame Jojo’s stayed in Madame Jojo’s. It was a lot of fun. There was nothing else like it in London. We had a lot of guest artists in our shows. The late ‘Carry On’ actress Fenella Fielding was one who stood out. She always used to turn up absolutely pissed. One night she came in, saying: ‘‘Oh darlings, I’m so late, I’m so sorry, I was run over by a Rolls Royce on the Strand’’. Fenella would sit in a big peacock chair on stage and read very filthy stories from a book. They would be fairytales with a twist, such as Goldilocks ending up in bed with Daddy Bear before Mummy Bear caught them and they ended up having a threesome. Very rude!’
Marcus: ‘One time Cilla Black turned up to White Heat. We couldn’t believe it, we were all saying, ‘‘That was Cilla Black from Blind Date!’’. She was sitting right by the dance floor, smiling and taking it all in. It was like having the Queen there, people were queuing up to talk to her. We also had a time when Bob Geldof had to come and drag Peaches out of there because it was the night before her GCSEs. She was a regular: she’d come down to White Heat every week and genuinely loved the music. Another time, Lindsey Lohan tried to hire out the booth at the bottom of the dance floor for her birthday but we said no because we felt like everybody was equal at White Heat, it wasn’t a sit down club. Because we were still an alternative night, we’d often find celebrities turning up quite funny.’
Terri: ‘I look back on my time at Jojo's fondly. I’ve gone on to own five different nightclubs in Spain and the UK and every single one of them I’ve decorated like Jojo’s – red and black with gold accents.’
The end of the club – and new beginnings
Despite protests and stars including Benedict Cumberbatch and Stephen Fry (who called Jojo’s the ‘jewel in the crown of Soho’) supporting the venue, the club shut its doors for the final time in October 2014 after Westminster Council withdrew its licence. Soho has changed a lot in the past eight years, but there’s been a string of news since then about Jojo’s reopening.
Marcus: ‘In 2005 when I started at White Heat, the area was full of peep shows and sex shops. Madame Jojo’s was right in the middle of that. Up until around 2009, the area was still old-school Soho, but it changed really quickly after. A lot of the seedier places went, and so did a lot of the bars. That’s when you saw Byron Burger and Pret starting to move in.’
Terri: ‘I was back in London three years ago and tried to go out late at night, but everywhere in Soho was closed. All I thought was, ‘‘Where’s my Soho gone?’’ It’s been cleaned up too much. I think the local council has annihilated it.’
Marcus: ‘Going out in Shoreditch and Dalston started becoming more popular than Soho for our clientele during the 2010s, and once we lost those really arty kids White Heat was more of a normal night. The shift East accelerated the decline and it seemed as if Westminster Council was starting to be well up for getting rid of places in Soho. I was personally angry about what was happening to the area because I’d been going out there so long and felt like a big cultural loss. I thought because Jojo’s had been there for ages, it would be safe. We had no closure when the club shut down and we never had the chance to do a last White Heat at Jojo’s. That would have been amazing.’
Stella: ‘In the height of the Jojo’s days, Soho was like its own little village. The Barbettes would be friends with the working girls, everyone looked after everybody else. It was fabulous. A new Jojo’s could help revive it, but to be honest, Soho just isn’t what it was. It doesn’t have an edge or mystery to it anymore.’
Scott: ‘If they reopen the new Jojo’s like it used to be at the beginning, it’ll be great. It needs to be an old-fashioned cabaret bar. There’s definitely a real gap in the market for that in London at the moment.’
The most recent report said that Jojo’s would relaunch once again as a cabaret club in Spring 2023, run by Simon Hammerstein of the risqué Box nightclub around the corner. Despite that, the doors remain shut – so it looks like we’ll have to wait and see what the future has in store for this Soho legend. Time Out has reached out to Hammerstein for comment.
* Name has been changed.