Velma Celli thought shows about the music of gay icons had been done to death. The acclaimed Yorkshire-born drag queen – musical theatre actor Ian Stroughair by day – is known for her powerhouse vocals and cabaret nights in London. (When we speak on the phone, she is actually in full drag from a previous TV interview, so for our purposes, we decide we’re interviewing ‘Velma’.)
But when pondering ideas for her first full solo touring show, she turned to social media for inspiration. And so, ICONIC: A Brief History of Drag, which comes to the Epstein Theatre Liverpool this week, was born.
“It turned out people wanted those drag classics, all those songs you think of when you think of drag, ‘I Am What I Am’ and all that – and I’d always avoided that, thinking it was too obvious,” she says.
“So from that, I thought I’d do it the once and leave it alone. However, when I started researching, there was just so much more to it. Drag history needs to be celebrated.”
ICONIC takes in some of the most significant drag moments of film, stage and popular culture, with nods to the likes of David Bowie, Queen, Boy George, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Tina Turner and more.
She continues: “There is the risk of the LGBTQI community, and the youth, forgetting about things that are really important. And it’s not a matter of harping on about history, but acknowledging what’s gone before. How the Stonewall Riots started, where gay marriage came from, even things like [cult documentary] Paris is Burning – it’s important.”
Velma, 35, has been doing drag for almost a decade. She stumbled into the art form completely by accident while working in the West End, when a weekly “gay night out” of performers, egged on by cast members of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, went on the razz in dresses and make up.
It was all for a laugh, but instantly, Stroughair saw a new outlet for his creativity.
“It could be any costume, any make up, any wig. It’s not so much being dressed as a woman as being a different person, that process of becoming a different character,” Velma says. “If I sing as Ian, doing a gig, I’m much more reserved. Velma is completely fearless – and my vocals are a lot better for it.”
Velma’s story began when youth theatre production of Kes gave Ian the bug to perform; at 16 he began ballet lessons and later auditioned for performing arts school. “The rest is history,” she says.
“Growing up, my dad used to take us down to London watch the big rugby league final, and after the match we’d go and see a musical. So I grew up with musicals and always dreamed of being in Cats, which was the be all and end all – and was actually my first show when I was 19. Doing the West End was a big box tick for me.”
Going on to star in shows such as Rent, Fame and Chicago, Velma made friends with co-stars and performers including the likes of West End royalty Kerry Ellis, Louise Dearman, and Liverpool’s own Nikki Davis-Jones, who have been among the luminaries to pop in on her London cabaret shows.And as exciting as it is to work on big ensemble musical theatre productions – Velma even appeared as herself in BBC soap EastEnders earlier this year – there’s something about being at the helm of your own act that is equally as appealing.
“I love writing, I love choreography and performing; it is a great outlet, thinking up ideas and seeing if they work in a show,” Velma says. “Every actor has a certain look, that casting bracket – they’ll always have a thing they’ll never get cast in because they don’t look right. With cabaret, they can’t tell you that. It’s really freeing and liberating.”
Audiences in Australia and across the UK have already given ICONIC a lot of love.
“It has been nice to come out of London for the first time,” Velma says. “Venues like Manchester sold out – and it’s nice to have these audiences in places where I don’t know anybody, it is so nice to have that support.”
ICONIC: A History of Drag is at the Epstein on Friday (June 29). For tickets and more information, see the Epstein’s website.
The post “Drag history needs to be celebrated”: Interview with Velma Celli appeared first on MADE UP.