Lavinia Co-op on how the Bloolips brought radical drag to the mainstream - and the Hackney Empire
PUBLISHED: 14:54 14 March 2018 | UPDATED: 13:14 15 March 2018
Lavinia Co-op travelled the world as part of radical drag troupe Bloolips and performed at venues from Jackson’s Lane to the Empire. As photos and memorabilia from the group’s remarkable past go on show at Hackney Museum, he tells Emma Bartholomew his story
“We were the original Priscillas, Queens of the Desert, zooming up and down the country in a broken VW van,” Lavinia Co-op remembers of his time touring with the gay musical comedy drag troupe Bloolips.
“It was about being yourself on stage as a gay man.
“Not trying to be like a stereotypical gay man or acting camp, but about developing your comedy from your heart and your sense of truth as an actor.”
The Bloolips were formed in 1977 by Hackney actor Bette Bourne, who had been involved with the Gay Liberation Front in the early 70s.
Inspiration came from the New York-based gay and lesbian cabaret group the Hot Peaches, who performed in London in 1974.
“We had never seen anything like that before,” said Lavinia Co-op, whose real name is Vin.
“They were using songs that other people knew but changed the words, making stories up, wearing hippy and colourful and big and strong clothes, and there was the drag influence.
“Bette did a season with them in Amsterdam, and at the time he was full of it, and when he came back he said: ‘We’ve got to get this on.’”
Lavinia Co-op, who trained in contemporary dance, knew Bette through the Gay Lib movment, and became one of Bloolips’ core performers.
Others included Diva Dan and Pearl, and by the time they disbanded after 12 shows in 1994 about 25 others had taken part.
Jon Taylor, or Jon Jon, wrote shows like The Ugly Duckling, Lust in Space, Living Leg-ends and Sticky Buns.
Satirical political comedy was combined with tap dancing and singing.
Everyone made their own costumes on a budget out of plastic laundry baskets, broken lampshades, and tat from second hand shops, sometimes using mops as wigs.
“At the time there was such a put-down of drag as an identity or a form of working,” said Vin, now 66 and living in Hackney Downs.
“You had pub drag, the typical stereo-misogynist drag, but we were coming from androgyny.
“We weren’t trying to impersonate women.
“Of course we were colourful and clown-like.
“They thought we were punk at the beginning because we were that radical.”
In the early days they encountered “a hell of a lot of criticism”.
“There were shouts from the audience – ‘f*** off the stage,’” remembers Vin.
“It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But it goes the other way, where you aren’t spelling out gayness.
“You have this storyline and you are using a song and maybe you do a bit of tap dancing.
“You bring the audience along, and they forget you are in drag. They think: ‘This is funny. This is people being themselves.’”
They toured in Germany and Holland, and spent months in New York performing Lust in Space, earning an Obie (Off Broadway) award.
“They hadn’t seen anything quite like it. We were British vaudeville music hall,” said Lavinia Co-op.
“We got New York reviews and when we got back to England it was as if they had just discovered us.”
They went from performing at “alternative” theatres like Jackson’s Lane to doing shows at the Hackney Empire.
Vin has donated five Bloolips posters to Hackney Museum as part of the Hackney Pride 365 year-long celebration.
At its culmination last week he shared his story at the town hall.
He has now part-retired, but is working on a solo show at the Southbank, and sometimes works in nightclubs.
“I don’t want the stress level and I don’t want to have a heart attack,” he said.
“But it’s important people see you because you’ve got skills, and you’ve got things to say, and you’re older.”
He regards gay liberation as an “ongoing struggle”, and is reluctant to give out his last name.
“I don’t know if there’s an element of paranoia, but when you go, ‘that’s my front door, that’s my neighbour, that’s where I work’...
“They might know what I do, but I have to balance that out and work it out with people.
“I’m very paranoid as an older person being in the street in drag. Over time I have been attacked.
“This is what I mean: we are still struggling to have a safe space for LGBTQI+ people.”