Is it a bird? Is it ’eck! I"ve never understood that pub tale about your mate who took a woman home only to find out she was a bit more of a handful than expected. I reckon your mate knew exactly what he was letting himself in for. The Adam’s apple’s a dead giveaway, not to mention the big hands, the jaw line or the baritone boom when they ask for a gin and tonic at the bar. No-one has really made such a genuine error. Surely. “That’s another story altogether,” says the leggy blonde in front of me. She/he isn’t telling that story. “I’m not sure you/I want to hear it anyway.” I know leggy is a bloke because I’ve just seen him become her before my very eyes. A 30-minute transformation from skinny bloke in jeans and a T-shirt to 6ft blonde in a pale blue sparkling mini-dress and high heels. The outfit is bit much for day wear though there are a few women in our office who’d swap physiques in a flash. And the hair is effective. In fact, the facial features, a slim pretty face with wide innocent eyes sparkling from a frame of dark mascara... get a grip, man, remember you are a heterosexual, look at your wedding ring. I’m relieved when Juicey Lucy, star of The Slinky Minky drag show at Cabaret in Fletchergate, strides away from me on her six-inch heels to pose on the stage for Weekend’s photographer. I was more comfortable when Lucy was John Gilbert, a thinly framed 26-year-old man. In his day gear you wouldn’t notice him. When I walk in to Cabaret one lunchtime I don’t. He bristles when he discovers that this is not just an interview. We need him to get into his Juicey Lucy guise — full make-up, the works. There is a minor altercation with his manager and Cabaret boss, Johnny Moore. “He’ll be alright,” Moore assures us. “Once he gets the gear on.” It turns out to be true. Lucy is confident, assured, a bit of a sharp-witted bitch. “It is a disguise I suppose,” he says. “I’ve never really been a show-offy person anyway. I enjoyed drama at school but I prefer to be in the background. I’m a big people watcher. “But once all the make-up and gear goes on I’m a character that I’ve created.
“I don’t really know why there’s such a difference between me and Lucy. I can’t explain it.” Psychologists might have a theory. John was brought up in an old mining town, bullied at school for being gay and found the drag persona liberating. “I fell in to it really. I was on a night out and I went to a drag night. I was trashed. I said to this guy, ‘I’m sure I can do that’. I was lying through my back teeth, saying I’d done it before. “So he said, ‘yeah, OK, come down tomorrow’. “When I woke up the next morning I thought oh.... but still I thought I’d have a look.” The club was in Ashby de la Zouch, John’s home town. He was just 17 and working as a care nurse in a nursing home. Within six months that career path was washed away in a sea of eyeliner and blusher. He kept up the job for six months but admits “it nearly killed me. I was starting at seven in the morning and not finishing the drag show until 2am, then having to be back at work for seven the next morning.” So he became a full-time drag artist. Not the sort of thing a working class mum and dad expect to be faced with. “Where you off to, son?” “Oh, I’m going to dress up as a woman and mince about on front of complete strangers down the local.” “OK, well make sure you lock up when you come to bed.” Maybe not.
It was particularly harder for John because he had yet to tell his parents he was gay. Wouldn’t they guess? The drag queen routine is surely a bit of a giveaway? “I told them I was glass collecting.” He adds: “The day that I came out was the day I told them I was doing drag. Which was two blows in one day.” Which came first? “That I was gay. Then, by the way, I’m not a glass collector, I’m doing drag. “My mum loved it. She’d always been one of those girls who would go to ladies’ nights so she’s always known about drag queens. She wanted to get involved making the dresses, which she still does.” It was the reaction of his dad, a mechanic, which worried him most. “I thought, ‘oh, my God he’s going to kill me’. But he just said, ‘I’m not surprised. And anyway son, I’m proud of you’.” Both parents have seen the shown at Cabaret. “I wanted to go to dance school when I was young but because it wasn’t the done thing for a boy I wasn’t allowed to go. Now my parents say they wish they would have sent me because it’s what I’m good at.” Much of his family have also seen the Juicey Lucy Show.
“They love it, they"ve got a freak in the family. My grandad is old school so he’s not really that keen but my grandma loved it.” Other fans of his show are former classmates who had bullied him at school. “It was very difficult growing up in what is an old mining town. Obviously it was difficult hiding the fact that I was gay and people always jumped to the conclusion anyway. So, I had a few beatings. “But I had the last laugh because they used to come in to see the show. One of them actually came up to me and said, ‘I know your face’. I said, ‘you should, because it’s been on your fist that many times’. “A couple of months later he said how much respect he had for me. Because he’d enjoyed the evening that we’d put on.” He adds: “When I came out a lot of rumours went round that I was at death’s door and I’d got HIV and stuff like that. “But I’ve had the last laugh because I’m quite successful in what I’ve done.”
The Juicey Lucy show was formulated with Moore two years ago. The name, a development from his previous incarnations as Legs Up Lucy then Lushful Lucy, has no significance, he says. “Luce by name, loose by nature,” offers manager Moore, who flits in and out of the dressing room, where John is briskly applying his make-up. The room is upstairs at Cabaret, a 10ft square plain white space with a desk that seats four. Each place has a mirror angled upwards. By the door is a single clothes rail amassed with dresses like a Joan Collins jumble sale. John was the DJ to start with and progressed through the ranks to now headline the Slinky Minky Show three nights a week at Cabaret. It is a mix of musical classics and biting bitchy wit as the drag artists bounce off audience banter. There are songs from Chicago, The King and I, and Moulin Rouge, in which he becomes pop diva Christina Aguilera. He spends an incredible £2,000 on clothes a month for the show. Most are handmade by three dressmakers, one of which is his mum. He doesn’t buy off the peg because, he says: “They’re not flamboyant enough. The stuff we wear, women wouldn’t normally.” The need to spend so much is, he says, because the show changes every month. As a result he has a room full of more than a hundred outfits at home. He also keeps a dozen or so at Cabaret. “A typical outfit costs £100-£200. Then there’s the wig and the jewellery and the shoes.”
He refuses to wax to attain hairless perfection. “I just shave. I haven"t even tried waxing. I don"t want to feel the pain.” And yet when I ask what he’ll do once age take it’s toll on his looks, he admits he is quite willing to undergo plastic surgery. Danny La Rue is still going, suggests the photographer. “That’s right. And he’s still very funny,” says John. “As long as my body can keep going, doing all the shows, I’ll carry on.” When he does get a night off he won’t mix in drag circles. “I don’t like them,” he says. “They’re too bitchy. “I don’t know if it’s jealousy because someone’s got more sequins than someone else but it’s always been the same. I suppose everyone wants to be top dog. “I’m not even on the gay scene, I’d rather go to a straight bar.” He is single. “The hours can be a problem in a relationship,” he says. Since stumbling in to the drag scene nine years ago, he has only stopped once. To work in a bank. “I ran a drag pub in Stoke and it wasn’t really that successful, so I thought I’d get a day job and put all the money back into the business. “I did tele-sales at HSBC and it was just so boring. “To come to work 9 to 5, come home, have your tea, watch telly, go to bed... that’s all it was. “And if you went out you’d see the same faces. “So I thought, ‘I have to get back into it’.”
He signed up to an agency and it continued from there, finally teaming up with Johnny Moore, who bought the Cabaret club in April, two years ago. “I just enjoy the people,” he says of the Cabaret crowd. “I think they’re really funny. We get hecklers but they won’t get the better of me. “I’ve been close to being hit a few times. But if they win they’ll never stop. “And we do get people up on stage but it’s not what you’d call humiliation.” More women than men come to the Slinky Minky Show, says John. “Women tend to be a better audience. More of a laugh. But the men are good for the banter.” His manager describes him as the next Lily Savage, which makes John scowl, though he admits his ambitions do lie in television. Eighteen months ago, he auditioned to present The National Lottery alongside Eamonn Holmes.
He also tried out for ITV reality show The Club. At that point he hands me his left breast. It is a tatty brown sponge pad that fits into a conventional bra. “Some dresses come with them already fitted,” he tells me. “You’re not going to make me sound like a tranny are you? There is a big difference.” With that he is back to join the rehearsals for the new show. There is panic on because no-one is ready and it’s to start in a few days. Just before I leave I nip up to the gents and as I’m washing my hands I notice a set of No17 eye lashes sitting on the sink. Blimey, is this the ladies? Somehow I don’t think it really matters here. You can see Juicy Lucy at Cabaret in Fletchergate every Thursday, Friday and Saturday in the Slinky Minky Show. She is joined by Raunchy Rusty and The Cabaret Follies. Shows start at 8.30pm and admission is £6. More details at www.theslinkyminkyshow.co.uk or www.cabaret-nottingham.com