Ahead of his curation of the Transform Variety Night at the West Yorkshire Playhouse this Saturday 29 March, I had the chance to chat to the wonderful and engaging performance artist Scottee. With his own styling of performance, queer art and reinvention of gendered entertainment, Scottee has been making waves on the circuit and further afield, and now will take over the Courtyard Theatre for one night only as he hosts an evening featuring some of the world’s most exciting variety performers. Here we talk about art, drag, the shock factor, class, body liberation and throwing cakes at Rihanna.
Vada: So describe yourself. Who is Scottee to our readers who might not be acquainted with you yet?
Some people call me an artist, some people call me a performance artist, my nan calls me a drag queen. I make performance, I make variety, I make art. It’s quite often quite brash and quite mouthy and sometimes I’m on the radio, and a lot of the time I’m on the internet making a nuisance of myself. So, kind of one of these modern versions of an artist, I do a little bit of everything.
Would you say you set out to shock?
No, not in the slightest. I think I used to make work which was like that. I used to make work which was like that, but I haven’t made work like that for a good three years. I make work now which is around my fetish of light entertainment and things that annoy me. I guess the grotesque is apparent in some of my work, but it’s not like I set out to shock or I want to shock people, people are just shocked by the images that I make. UGH, I sound like an artist! Rank.
What is the creative process for you? How many people are involved in creating Scottee on stage or is it just you?
No, quite a lot. There’s Rachel my Producer, Jordan who’s my Executive Director, and then I have a costume maker, two of those, a set designer, a lighting designer, a tour manager, so there’s quite a lot of people! I’ve got a cleaner, don’t know if you need to know about her. There are lots of people involved. It’s a group effort but I’m the stupid one who’s like “Hey guys, let’s do a show on a council estate.”
What can you tell me about the Transform Festival and your show on Saturday?
Transform approached me for their variety show which they have done for the last three years. They wanted to get a guest curator in for the night and I told them I’d do it as long as they didn’t call it a cabaret night because I think cabaret has this weird association with fishnets and burlesque and I’m not interested in any of those things, I think they’re boring.
The work that will happen will be some stuff that I think is the most innovative work that is happening on the variety scene across the globe and across the country. It will be a bit like listening to your own and somebody else’s favourite records on iTunes. It’ll be quite quick. You’ll think “Oh, this isn’t for me” but you’ll know that in three minutes there’ll be something to look forward to. That’s what I think the beauty of variety is. It’s very fast paced, it’s quick, it’s addressed to the audience. We don’t do this thing of “Aaah, the audience aren’t there.” It’s like yeh, you’re there, you’re drunk, you’re going to have a good time, but it can also be political, it can be fun and engaging. I think Saturday will provide all of those, and of course it’s in a courtyard, so it’s a bit posh.
Can’t wait! Is there anyone in particular we should look out for?
In the show I’m excited to see what people will make of an act called Baghdad’s Got Talent. She won a television contest in Baghdad called Baghdad’s Got Talent and she’ll do thirty second bits of performance. I’m looking forward to seeing the reaction to that. But I’d also like to see what they make of Ursula Martinez and Jess Love. They are two big cabaret performers from a show called La Clique and La Soiree which tours the world and they’re showing a new piece called Quick Change, Sex Change. I purposely put a few things in there which some of the programme team at the West Yorkshire Playhouse think “Oooh, that could be a bit edgy for Leeds,” but I don’t think it is edgy. I think Leeds is very astute and I think it will be interesting seeing the work.
I think Leeds is quite edgy nowadays, I don’t know if you’ve been recently.
Yeh, I was up last Friday. What I like about the North in general, well, I got the train from Manchester and it’s just beautiful, like the train journey is really beautiful. I mean, I walk down the street and I don’t look ridiculous, but I do look silly, these girls were like “I love yer jacket!” like, quite aggressively, and I turned around and I went “thank you” and they went “oh mer god, he’s from London.” I like the fact that the further North you go the more direct people are, and I hope that this comes out in the audience on Saturday. But also it’s a really beautiful city.
Considering this is for Vada, I can say this, another attribute is I spend a lot of time working in the North, and the North of England definitely got a better gene pool selection of men. Men get more handsome the further North you go. I couldn’t work out whether they got more handsome or if it was that they just became more rugged.
I’m not from England, but I’d say London was where all the fit guys are at to be honest.
Where are you from?
I’m from near Belfast, Bangor.
Ok, well I’m originally from Donegal and my dad was an English soldier in Northern Ireland, so yeh, we keep that one under wraps. I do lots of work out there. I love going to the Republic and the Northern Ireland, you have to be very careful about how you word them.
What do you feel drag brings to your art? Why drag?
Because it’s the lowest common denominator. This is where it gets a bit complex, I don’t think I do drag, I just think I wear nice clothes. Work that one out. When you do cabaret, the art world disregards you because they don’t think it’s real performance. When you do drag the cabaret world even shuns you, so you’re kind of like the lowest rung on the ladder, but it’s accessible and it’s been a skill that we in the UK have been obsessed with since Shakespeare wrote in the margins d-r-a-g. He wrote d-r-a-g, it stands for “dressed as a girl”. We’ve got a fascination with men dressing up as women for entertainment purposes, so I used this because when I walk on the stage they think they know what they’re going to get, and then actually it’s never what they want. Also though, I don’t think I make any attempt to look like a woman, I don’t wear wigs, I don’t change my voice, I don’t really wear skirts. My thing is more about the effeminacy of masculinity.
I know that you don’t identify as solely a drag act, but time for the obligatory RuPaul type question. With the popularity and mainstream success of drag, where do you see the art form going from here?
Boring, dull, misogynistic. I’m a feminist before I’m a drag queen, but I’m a feminist before I’m a gay man. This language of like “fishy” is offensive and dull. It’s mouthing the words to other people’s songs, there’s no innovation to it, there’s no politics to it. I personally don’t quite understand this obsession with RuPaul’s Drag Race because it’s cheap culture and I’m not into that. It’s a bit dated, it’s a bit boring, it’s a bit dull. It doesn’t represent what my idea of playing with gender is about.
I can’t say I enjoy it to be honest, but it’s kinda forced down your throat as a gay man.
Yeh, and I don’t particularly like gay men because I don’t buy into the lifestyle choices. When my Grandad arrived in this country on the doorsteps of houses it said “No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs,” and now in 2014 I live in a world where the gay community’s slapline is “No Fats, No Femmes, No Asians.” That’s not a world I particularly want to be a part of.
I read some interviews in the past and your blog posts that talk about art snobbery and elitism with performance.
I never think that people read it, and then people always say to me “I’m reading your blog” and I think “Why the fuck are you reading my blog?”.
Because you’ve formed yourself against the mainstream scene of performance art, but as you have become more popular and recognisable as a queer artist, do you think you could lose that semi self-sustained, self-created working-class image?
No, and I’ll tell you what, I didn’t create that image. When I first started making work I was shunned into that way. It wasn’t like I ostracized myself on purpose. I wasn’t like “Oh, I can’t be part of the gang? So let’s recreate school and let me sit in the corner on my own.” All it is is that people have come round to the idea of wanting to like me, or people have come round to the idea of thinking “Oh, maybe it’s not what we think it is, maybe it has got thought to it.
Am I worried about losing my working-class image? Well it’s not an image, it’s inherent to who I am. It’s in the way that I talk, it’s the way that I think. Some people call it a working-class chip on my shoulder which I find offensive because actually it’s about my passion. I have real difficulty that middle-class people don’t like to recognise that there is a class system that is in place at the moment. You’ll only ever hear a posh person say “Well we don’t have a class system in the UK anymore” because it’s bollocks. There’s a complete cultural and economic divide between what working –class people think is for them and what middle-class people think they should be allowed to have. Until this dilemma is solved, and the dilemma is that middle-class kids are born with a sense of privilege and working-class kids have to earn that. Until that has changed I think I will always make work that speaks to that. You know, I feel like an outsider. There are not a lot of people who are common who make performance.
Can you tell me a little about Hamburger Queen?
It’s a beauty pageant and talent show for fat people and it plagiarises things like the X Factor, the Great British Bake Off and Britain’s Got Talent. The reason I set it up is that I was really annoyed with the media’s constant portrayal of fat people. Apparently as a fat person I should be unhappy, I should want Gok Wan to put me in a room, I should want to put my body in front of another gay man for him to scrutinise my body and say it’s embarrassing. I don’t feel like that way, and I don’t feel ugly. I feel like the media’s constantly trying to tell me that I’m ugly. Maybe it’s an inflated sense of ego, but I actually think I’m really good looking. All of that world never spoke to me, so I thought I’ve got to create something that speaks to me, so I invented Hamburger Queen four years ago. It’s a bit of fun, but it’s about body liberation. I think people really like it because it goes against this constant grain of saying “Be thin, because then you’ll be happy.”
What’s next for Scottee?
Well I am touring the final third UK tour and second Australian tour of my solo show The Words of Scottee. Also, Drag, which is a show working with five over fifty drag performers who work in pubs, who get paired with three queer theatre makers, Mark Ravenhill, Lois Weaver and Chris Goode. They are challenged to make provocative political work about ageing in the gay scene, equality, and HIV.
Finally, don’t hate me, but I’ve been asked to ask you what flavour cake did you throw at Rihanna?
We got these cakes specially made for the performance and they were mostly icing, but under the studio lights they hardened and would give quite a whack. After that performance I just smelt of vomit because of all that cream…
You can buy tickets to see Scottee host the Transform Variety Night here.