Back in the mid-90s, soon after moving to London, I worked as a cloakroom attendant at Madame JoJo’s, the legendary cabaret in Soho. In the 80s, the club had featured drag artists such as Lily Savage and Regina Fong.
Not only was I able to watch the cabaret quite comfortably from my seat, as the cloakroom was located directly opposite the stage, but the whole experience of working there was akin to taking part in real-life theatre three or four nights a week.
The staff consisted largely of drag queens, though one or two of them were very convincing transsexuals. Most of them performed on stage, dancing and singing, while a few others worked as ‘barbettes’, an exotic-sounding synonym for waitresses.
The bar staff were mixed: gay and straight, boys and girls; real girls. The glass collector was a sweet Spanish man who would only ever wear a black leather apron, a spiky S&M collar and a pair of black leather boots. Not many could resist the temptation to pinch or spank his bare bottom as he walked past. Then there was me, at the coat check: just one big happy family!
At the entrance, upstairs, was the receptionist: an evil-looking blonde who was actually very likeable once you got to know her. An equally, if not more, evil-looking drag queen worked alongside her ‘welcoming’ the customers, who were in fact scorned and insulted from the moment they stepped into the venue.
They seemed to love it, though, and kept begging for more. They were mostly girls on their hen parties; usually drunk by the time they arrived at the club, let alone by the end of the night. The verbal and psychological abuse they received from the drag queens was a crescendo directly proportional to the general intake of alcohol and drugs.
The male side of the clientele was a totally different breed: they were the so-called ‘trannie admirers’, i.e. straight-acting, -looking guys who happen to be sexually attracted to drag queens. In other words, gay or bi guys who need their men to look and act like women in order to delude themselves into believing they’re actually straight. Bless.
Last but not least, were the patrons who made my night – the trannies: a mix of transsexuals and drag queens, some of the latter so outrageously dressed and made up, you could have stared at them in amazement all night; while some of the pre- and post-op transsexuals were so convincing and damn good-looking that anyone would have been proud to take them home and introduce them as their girlfriends.
One of the bartenders, a handsome and somewhat naïf Lithuanian, believed for weeks that all the “girls” in the show were actual women – until I had a chat with him and shattered his illusion.
Some of the transsexual patrons looked like very classy ladies – up to their fourth or fifth drink, when their voices would start getting deeper and their demeanour less and less ladylike. At times they became so disruptive they had to be thrown out by the bouncers. They were hilarious.
After work, some of us would go to an illegal after-hour bar located beneath a sex shop on Berwick Street. One of the ‘ladylike’ trannies was an habituée there. She wore the same Chanel suit and the same pearl necklace week on week, her dyed-blond hair always up like Patsy Stone‘s in Ab Fab.
One night the police raided the dive, but Chanel Lady was unfazed and remained calmly seated on her stool, glass in hand. When asked by one of the cops to follow him to the police van, she looked at him with disdain and replied, in her North American accent, “Can’t you just let me finish my drink?”. She then turned to the plain-looking policewoman and screeched, in a childish tone, “I know you’re a lesbian, anyway!“, drunkenly spilling her gin and tonic onto the woman’s uniform.
I almost felt sorry for the officers who seemed mortified and short of words.
As much as I enjoyed working at JoJo’s, it couldn’t go on forever. After a three-year break, I decided to go back to uni, so I started working as an usher in a West End theatre, where the hours and the environment were more suitable to a full-time student.
The front-of-house staff at the Phoenix Theatre consisted of an interesting mix of people: from English working mums to migrant African workers and mature European students; unlike the actors and back-stage crew, who were all white British and seriously looked down on the ushers and bar staff. In fact, they wouldn’t even acknowledge us. Except the lead singer, Lyn Paul, who’d always smile and greet: what I call a real lady.
But there was one serious drawback to the new job – the uniform: white shirt, black trousers, a very unsightly multi-patterned waistcoat and a bowtie. It was dreadful.
And what a difference from the jeans-and-T-shirt look I could get away with at the old JoJo’s!
Images: courtesy of Alex Nattrass