Words & illustrations by Emily Doyle
It’s a Friday night in September. The nights are drawing in, but it’s still mild enough to enjoy a cigarette on the balcony of Nightingales and watch life go by on Kent Street. Amber Cadaverous, dressed in white satin lingerie and draped in bandages, ushers the crowd into the venue for the Grand Finale of Dragpunk’s Ghoul School.
In July, Dragpunk opened applications for their contest to crown Birmingham’s first drag supermonster. Encouraging applicants from all backgrounds and styles, they stressed in the call out that this is a contest founded on learning and positivity, under the banner of ‘All Drag Is Valid’. In short, they’ve taken a lot more cues from underground hit Boulet Brothers’ Dragula than from Ru Paul’s Drag Race, in terms of values as well as aesthetic.
Both the heats of Ghoul School were well attended, but tonight it’s standing room only not long after the doors open. Plenty of competitors from previous heats have turned out to show their support. Lucius Blac, whose catholic-gothic aesthetic means he’d just as soon be referred to as ‘Father’ than as ‘Daddy’, is propping up the bar. Blac’s performances in heat two were whirlwinds of suave machismo, whether he was wearing a white suit and priest’s collar or a dishevelled clown costume. Sadly, this wasn’t his year – but most of the audience went home that night with pockets full of stickers proclaiming ‘once you go Blac, you don’t go back’ in an ornate blackletter typeface. Flanking Blac are fellow competitors Abel Valentine and The Vicar’s Daughter. Valentine won hearts in heat two with a playful lipsync to Smashmouth’s ‘All Star’. The Vicar’s Daughter, who’s heartfelt mime performance was a highlight of heat one, has fashioned an outfit for tonight out of one of her dad’s stoles, combining it with a barely-there bodysuit, sunglasses, and a fringed boater.
Waiting for the show to begin, heat one performers Cider Goblin and Frieda Brest are perched on the edge of the stage playing Pokemon Go. Cider lived up to their name and gave perhaps the messiest performance of heat one, scattering the stage with empty tinnies out of a bin bag during their lip sync to The Cramps’ ‘Garbage Man’. Frieda was responsible for a delightful chicken themed performance that same evening, it had a skillfully crafted mix featuring Lizzo’s 2018 hit ‘Boys’, but every time she said the word “boys” it was replaced with “chickens”. Often the simplest ideas are the funniest. Tonight, Frieda is here in their masculine alter-ego, Fred D’Coq, complete with a neon pink suit. Sitting in the front row along from them is Church of Yshee 2019 finalist Misty Fye, eager to show support for their partner in crime Glitter King.
Hosting tonight are Dragpunk’s own Lilith and Tacky Alex, a thoroughly odd couple who’ve got polar opposite dress senses and about a foot in height between them. Lilith, veiled in black lace and with eyeliner so sharp it would make Siouxsie Sioux’s eyes water, towers over Alex, who grins at the audience from under a pair of floppy rabbit’s ears and a smear of pink lipstick. The two heats were hosted by the baby of the group, Amber Cadaverous. After some outdated whispers went around the scene challenging the validity of a young queer woman hosting a drag contest, Paul Aleksandr took the stage at the beginning of heat two to make it very clear that as far as Dragpunk are concerned Amber’s place is on the stage. Beaming, Amber took the mic, ringing in the autumn with an enormous pumpkin costume. Paul, having affirmed his role as kindly-yet-creepy uncle of Birmingham’s queer community, returned to mopping up blood and other fluids between performances with an endless supply of blue roll.
The finalists tonight have been given three performance tasks each to determine the winner, who gets to take home a troubling trophy – one of Paul’s sculptures that makes use of a doll’s head and a liberal coating of glossy red paint. First, they’re invited to show off their skills with a narrative performance. Glaswegian queen Diana Morphine takes queues from Tim Burton’s campy classic Beetlejuice, strutting around in a black-and-white striped suit and flinging plastic cockroaches into the audience. Suzi Looz, who’s heat one striptease to Black Flag’s ‘Nervous Breakdown’ saw her booked for a show in London the following week by judge Mary Poppers, delights the crowd by disemboweling Boris Johnson (played with trademark swagger by Haus of Sauseej’s Christian Gay) before emptying a milkshake over his head.
Glitter King, who’s truly mastered comfy drag, cavorts around the stage in a Grumpy Bear onesie to Eiffel 65’s ‘Blue’. Sissy Punk invites Fred D’Coq to join her on stage for a deeply troubling performance, where dialogue from the episode of Always Sunny in Philidelphia where Frank Reynolds convinces the gang they’re eating human meat segues into ‘Truly Scrumptious’ from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, as Sissy appears to carve slices of deli meat of Fred’s glutes with a sadistic flair. It’s a word perfect lip sync that has the crowd in stitches. The most unexpected performance comes from Nottingham queen and cosplayer Wyntir Rose, who’s interpretation of a viral episode of Peppa Pig is inspired.
The Ghoul School contestants are then invited to perform a brief runway performance. Local comedy-drag performer Cosmic Crum takes the opportunity to show off an impressive silicone breastplate, while Diana Morphine keeps it classy in a floor length red ballgown. Sissy slithers out of a latex dress to reveal an acidic yellow bodysuit, a look that’s almost as delightfully trashy as the camo chaps she wore for her heat one lipsync to Vengaboys. The star of this round is undoubtedly Suzi, who gambols onto the stage in a tartan suit and snaps open a fan which bears the legend ‘TIPTON’. She writhes on the floor, fluttering it coquettishly, to delighted chanting from the crowd. At the time of writing, Suzi is listed as a ‘notable resident’ on Tipton’s Wikipedia page.
For the final act of the night, performers are simply given the brief ‘freakshow’ – surely an invitation for chaos from Dragpunk. Cosmic Crum steps up to the plate with a wonderfully hairy striptease which must have been the final fate of at least three purple wigs. Diana Morphine is a picture of android glamour, glitching and death dropping her way through a slick mix of electronic pop and looking like Barbarella turned up to 11.
Sissy Punk gives one of the night’s most heartfelt and political performances about her trans experience, culminating in some defiant, full frontal nudity to the sound of ‘Sweet Transvestite’ to the adulation of the judges and the crowd. Horror queen Melancholy, who in the last heat stapled a rubber mask directly onto her face and subsequently bled so much her false lashes melted off, takes the stage as the evening’s final act to hushed anticipation, before engaging in some neon clad needle play that is enough to turn even the strongest stomach. Judges China, Ruby Wednesday and Misty Monique retire to deliberate, and at this point it genuinely feels like anyone could win it.
After a short break, Diana Morphine is crowned the winner of Ghoul School 2019 to much deserved applause. Her consistency and variety won the judges over, so she now has the honor of taking the baby head trophy back to Glasgow – as well as hundreds of pounds worth of drag supplies from Give Face Cosmetics, What A Drag, Offend My Eyes, Morphe and Urban Decay and a paid performance spots with Dragpunk in the future. So, look out as this won’t be Diana’s last time in Birmingham…
For more on the Dragpunk Collective, visit www.dragpunkcollective.wordpress.com
For more from The Nightingale Club, including full event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.nightingaleclub.co.uk
‘I pick my way through the dressing room, stepping over debris from previous performances – a toy guitar, a picked-over sheet of stick-on moustaches, and a slowly deflating blow up doll. The front of my shirt is damp from where I tried to sponge out a pale purple stain from the Dark Fruits. I slip on my coat, grab my umbrella, and make for the stage with what I hope is an air of masculine confidence.’
Watch out for Emily Doyle’s Diary of a Short Lived Drag King, a 24 page A4 ‘zine recanting her own experiences of when she manned up and got on stage – with illustrations from Emily and photography from Eleanor Sutcliffe.
Diary of a Short Lived Drag King will be available through Review Publishing from 30th September, click here for more details.
If you have been affected by any of the issues surrounding sexual violence – or if you want to report an act of sexual aggression, abuse or assault – click here for information via the ‘Help & Support’ page on the NOT NORMAL NOT OK website.