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Charming and disarming, resident scary clown of the queer cabaret scene, Scottee is one of the most innovative performers working in London today. We met for a peppermint tea at his studio to talk light entertainment, Grindr, and the perils of performance art.
Vada: I read up on your blogs and it seems you’re pretty resistant to the term ‘performance art’.
Scottee: I’m quite vocal about how boring I think performance art is. At the same time, it’s alright if people want to call me a performance artist. I’m aware that I can contradict myself. I feel my ideas are moving the whole time. Maybe it means I’m mental, maybe it means I’m still figuring it out. And I think I am still figuring it out. My friend Simon, who works on Duckie, says I’m the Shirley Temple of performance because I’ve grown up doing it, whereas lots of other performers were in the sanctuary of art college to express oh-that’s-what-I’m-about. And I haven’t. I just started making work. I’m constantly changing my politic. At the moment I’m changing from avant-garde, whatever that is, to making shows that are even more accessible.
But how accessible would you say live art can be?
Live art is something I’m interested in because it’s often highly fuelled by personal politic. But it’s full of absolute wankers sat at laptops, saying ‘This is my relationship with pomegranate.’ There’s no glamour to it! I’m really into entertainment and how you can get people to do anything if you’re wearing a nice sequinned suit. It’s about mixing the two worlds of live art and light entertainment to make something that’s accessible, interesting, dynamic and political – without it being in the basement of a Soho theatre, but without it being at JD Wetherspoon’s.
From youth theatre projects to the club scene and the avant-garde, Scottee is now taking shows into large mainstream venues like The Barbican and The Roundhouse. There’s something triumphant about it. I guess there’s a normality to his bizarreness and a bizarreness to his normality that makes him, perhaps unwillingly, a gay pop icon in the making.
As you move towards, the ‘mainstream’, do you worry that you’ll become a parody of yourself?
As a performer, you’re constantly a parody of yourself. If you put anything of yourself on stage it’s a pantomime of the original story. There’s nothing wrong with being a parody of yourself – as long as you’re aware of the gag. I’m interested in making people have a good time and go away thinking about it. Anything else anyone thinks about my work, they can, because ultimately I couldn’t give a shit. I’m happy making stuff if people still turn up to it. If in twenty years time people don’t turn up, then I might think, ‘Oh shit,’ but I’m having a laugh rolling around the floor with people watching. Does that make me a parody? I hope so.
Is your development as a performer entrenched in your working class upbringing? It seems to fuel your politics both off and on stage.
My class is really important to me in my work. It informs me of how I am today. A lot of my friends who are performers or in show business are middle class. Either they were comfortable enough to go to uni or they were affluent, or they were around art from a young age. Coming from a council estate – my Mum was a cleaner and my Dad was a roofer – I’ve got a certain amount of pride about the world that I live in, a pride in being able to be as capable as people who’ve had training.
Are you active in UK politics?
I’m a Labour supporter. I guess because when I was 15 they brought down the age of consent to meet hetero relationships. When I was 17 and about to enter the workplace they brought in the Equal Opportunities Act for LGBT people. And when I met my boyfriend, they brought in gay marriage. It’s always felt like they were a political party who have done a lot for my community. When you hear people like Diane Abbott talking about ‘the whites’ or David Lammy saying that working class people should be able to beat their children and then we wouldn’t have had the riots, it makes you question your allegiance with the party.
Directly opposite the studio window is a billboard advertising Manhunt. Being gay is weird. I’ve never quite understood hook-up culture – and such an overtly sexual advertisement seems jarring considering it’s barely midday, which is ironic considering how regularly Nuts and Page 3 go overlooked.
How do you, as a queer performer, identify with hook-up culture and the sleazier side to gay culture?
There’s [The billboard] an advert for homophobia staring you right in the face. It’s interesting that in 2012 our sexuality is still a secret, done on our own personal mobile phones or laptops. It’s almost like homosexuality’s afraid to be homosexual. I’m quite proud I’m not part of this gang. I was sold homosexuality through the medium of Queer As Folk. As I was coming out it was on the telly and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is really important.’ It sold me these ideals, that homosexuality and gay clubbing were amazing and fun and everyone was having a hoot. But my first night out on the gay scene I ended up crying outside Balans – as I was queueing up to go eat probably. I remember thinking it wasn’t what I was told it was going to be. Now I don’t feel that I need to socialise by my sexuality. I don’t need to socialise with other gay men, read gay magazines, go on gay holidays; which is quite threatening to other homosexuals. They live in that world of gay magazines for gay people. My sexuality isn’t a problem so I don’t feel I need to communicate with other gay men. I’m anti-gay, and sat here in a dress.
Who would you cite as influences? Your podcast series, Fifteen Minutes With Scottee, sees you interviewing the likes of Lisa Stansfield and Matthew Kelly.
All the people I really like are working class, had problems with alcohol or drug addiction, and use popular entertainment formats to get over whatever they want to say. People like Whitney Houston and Lisa Stansfield, they’re the only pop stars I think are great. Dawn French, Kenneth Williams, Les Dawson, Tommy Cooper: they’ve all had personal rubbish go on in their life that has changed them as people. I’m interested in real people and the place where honesty and artifice meet. I’m sat in a dress and a sequinned shirt talking to you about real things that matter to me in my life. I find that exciting. I can talk to you in a full face of make-up, which is artificial and isn’t me, but I can tell you something honest about my life or what I’m feeling. That’s what I’m interested in exploring in my work. Dressing up realism! God, I’m coming out with one-liners today.
Scottee’s infamy could have something to do with his fabulous indiscretion: he’s angry about elitism in the art world and angry about cuts in the arts sector.
Artists should constantly be questioned about what they’re talking about, because most of the time it’s rubbish. And they got publicly subsidised funding to do that! And it isn’t the government who’ve funded my projects. It’s anyone who’s bought a lottery ticket. Let’s not dress it up like this is the Conservative Party thinking my art’s great. It’s not. Jennifer who lives on a council estate in Durham has bought six lucky dip. She bought my wig. It’s amazing, isn’t it?
I swig the last of my peppermint tea and turn off the tape-recorder. Scottee, effervescently vitriolic and savagely smart, sees me out through the glitter slash curtains. And then I’m out on the boring grey street walking towards the bus-stop, wanting to be back inside.
Camp (as Christmas) runs at The Roundhouse from the 13th to the 22nd of December. Buy tickets here: www.roundhouse.org.uk/whats-on/productions/camp-as-christmas