Filmmaker ended up in relationship with Jonny Woo after setting out to make drag movie

Jonny Woo

Jonny Woo - Credit: Archant

Prime time TV producer Colin Rothbart set out to make a film celebrating the East End’s vibrant drag scene, which premieres at the East End Film Festival this week.

Colin Rothbart (right) and Jonny Woo

Colin Rothbart (right) and Jonny Woo - Credit: Archant

But instead he ended up having a “more gay and colourful” life after entering into a long-term relationship with one of the stars of the show, Jonny Woo, and later opened up a pub with him dedicated to the art.

Colin, 42, whose day job involves working on shows like The Apprentice and Extreme Fishing, has spent the past six years tracking the lives of seven flamboyant characters, in his touching movie Dressed As A Girl, which premieres at the East End Film Festival next week.

Encouraged by a friend who suggested making a British version of Paris is Burning, an iconic film about New York’s drag scene in the 80s, he went off to Glastonbury to meet the potential cast in 2009 at travelling disco NYC.

Colin, of Shrubland Road, Haggerston, said: “I didn’t know a huge amount about the scene at the time, most of my friends are straight, people were suspicious at first, it took a long time to get their trust, they were worried they might be misrepresented or they could be exploited, but one of the early converts to doing it was Jonny Woo.”

Amber, centre, in 'Dressed as a Woman', who is undergoing a sex change

Amber, centre, in 'Dressed as a Woman', who is undergoing a sex change - Credit: Archant

Because the film had a non-existent budget, it has taken six years to make and follows the journeys of the cast of seven who perform up and down Kingsland Road and at the highpoint, securing gigs at the Royal Opera House and the Hackney Empire.

In the film Jonny Woo talks about alcoholism and how he nearly died of internal organ failure because of going out partying too much. Jon Sizzle discusses the aging process, while transgender Amber starts off looking like a “butch bloke” and after a sex change operation now looks like an “amazing glamathon” woman.

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It also tracks Pia, a political activist who regards herself as a “third sex”, performer Scotty who reunites with his parents following a difficult upbringing, and Holestar, a woman who dresses up as a man in drag.

“I did not realise how long this process was going to take in 2009. Six years is a big chunk of my life, that wasn’t intentional – but the beauty of filming over such a long period is that things happen,” said Colin.

John Sizzle

John Sizzle - Credit: Archant

“It’s about community, it’s about universal truths and values. I wanted the film to appeal to everyone from builders to my parents, or people confused about their identity.

“Everyone can watch this, initially when my parents saw the early cuts they said there are lots of men dressing as women, and they thought: ‘maybe it’s not for us’, but once they watched it they thought ‘they are nice people’.

“The cliché when you strip away the mask and the make up you see the real person underneath, and it doesn’t matter how much glitter you throw on, how much drag you wear, we are all human underneath.”

Many people don’t understand the idea behind dressing up in drag, believes Colin.

“Men who are transvestites wear women’s clothes for kicks, and they are often straight, but people like Jonny get dressed up because they don’t want to be constrained by societal norms and the whole traditional idea that men should wear trousers and women wear skirts, he doesn’t go around the house in skirts. “Drag makes the world a much more colourful place. The film is very much a love letter to London and a celebration of gender diversity.”

Making the film has made Colin’s life “take a different direction”, as not only did he start dating Jonny Woo, he also opened up The Glory in Kingsland Road.

“After six months of filming Jonny kept asking me out on dates, I thought this wasn’t very professional,” laughed Colin. “I didn’t have a boring life before I met all this lot, but my life has become a bit more gay, a bit more colourful. “I didn’t mix on the gay scene before, whereas now I would say it’s much more a part of my life because I run a bar with Jonny, and John Sizzle.”

A screening takes place at the Dalston Roof Park in Ashwin Street on Tuesday July 7, followed by a live cabaret performance by Jonny Woo.