The Art And Anger Of Jonny Woo, East London Drag Legend

Franco Milazzo
By Franco Milazzo Last edited 39 months ago
The Art And Anger Of Jonny Woo, East London Drag Legend

Jonny Woo at the opening of The Glory.
Jonny Woo at the opening of The Glory. Image: Joerg Brunsendorf

There are drag queens and then there is Jonny Woo. The man who has come to personify the East London drag scene for over a decade had a busy year in 2014. When he wasn't hosting regular variety circus show Boom & Bang at The Roundhouse and Hippodrome Casino, he manned a lectern at TEDxHackney, the London Wonderground's Lost Lectures and as part of the East London Lectures series. Just before Christmas he opened The Glory, a new bar in Haggerston which has already seen gigs from cabaret luminaries Bourgeous & Maurice and Le Gateau Chocolat as well as life drawing, dance parties and new talent contest Lipsynch 1000.

His latest artistic venture sees Woo take on the lead in Hellscreen, a play which fuses film, animation, music, immersive design and theatre. It is set in the contemporary London art scene but takes its inspiration from a classic Japanese horror story. Woo plays a talented contemporary artist whose horrifically dark personality makes him an outcast in already dark circles.

Written by Morgan Lloyd-Malcolm (You Once Said Yes) and directed by Rachel Parish, this macabre moodpiece will no doubt be enhanced by its venue, The Vaults. The collection of underground caverns is currently host to the Vault Festival which goes on until 28 March. You  can catch Hellscreen there from 25 February to 8 March.

Before all that, we nattered to him about drugs, drag and why residential properties are so evil.

Your role in Hellscreen doesn't at first appearance resemble your on-stage personas. How did you prepare to take on such a dark role? Did you go all method and do your own research?

It's not so far off from me! A tormented artist dissatisfied with his lot. I know that. He is a dad and goes to extremes which is not me but there is a lot I get and I enjoy going into a new realm of dark places. He is provocative and really dark. I like that. If you see the play, you will hope I didn't go the method route, he goes to some extreme lengths. It's pretty expressionist in places actually.

You're the doyen of the East London drag scene. What is it about that neck of the woods that first appealed to you? Why does that appeal still hold?

I moved there 20 years ago and made it my home. It was by accident and, like so many people coming to London, we are looking for a place where we can say, I belong. It was East London, it could have been anywhere but the time and place suited me. I am not going to run off looking for the next hot thing. I have made it my home and there is so much there to offer. I couldn't give a toss if it goes out of fashion. I have a stake in it now.

There are many people bemoaning the encroaching effects of gentrification on London nightlife venues. New venues like The Glory are fighting back. What would you tell Boris Johnson in this regard? Is it something we should be fighting or just a sign of the times?

It's a bit of both. Residential properties kill off culture. Fact! Residents in expensive flats don't want entertainment on their doorstep. As a new business owner we have gone in knowing this is a sign of our times and we need to be prepared for it. I think there is a fight to be had, but we have to be realistic. I still have trouble to cause but don't think I'll be leading the war. I think you can be savvy about this. I hate seeing queer bars close. I'd tell Boris, give the little guys a break!

The Glory is partway through its talent contest Lipsynch 1000. How does it compare to your earlier show Tranny Talent? When is the final?

Oh it's so good! The entrants are just incredible, more polished than years ago. I do miss the car crashes but so many hot boys in leotards and heels right now. What's not to like? 1 April is the final.

You've talked before about how drugs have affected your life, including how they contributed to your multiple organ failure almost a decade ago. Are you concerned about the level of drug-taking in London's gay nightlife scene?

You know, it isn't great, but I am less and less a part of that scene. I think it's not the amount of drugs being consumed, it's the type of drugs and it is killing the creativity and the joy and the community. If someone needs help, I am there. I've been there! But not to the places that the new drugs on the block do. It's sad but there are vicious circles of attitude and behaviour that need changing among gay men, which are about so much more than drugs.

Looking a little wider, how would you compare the London and New York drag scenes? Have shows like Ru Paul's Drag Race (RPDR) homogenised the looks and language of queens on both sides of the Atlantic or are there still significant differences?

Ha ha! I like RPDR, but I don't really go for that look myself. The drag for me is an artifice on top of an idea and I like to let the inside shine out. I think this new contoured look is a mask in some ways. Squint and they all look the same. But it has inspired a whole bunch of kids to pop on a frock, which is fab.

I'll always buck the trend and encourage a more anarchic approach. I think this new style lacks the humility and self-depracating humour of the trad style though which is a shame: there is a lot of attitude in that face paint! Also, in NYC there is a strong performance art scene which I am looking forward to visiting again soon. Don't think that RPDR is all America has to offer.

Many people still miss your legendary Gay Bingo nights. Will they ever be back?

Hmm, never say never. I have new ideas right now. I loved it, I fell out of love as I felt that it was defining me and I had other things to do. Watch this space!

Finally. has Mary Portas commented on your act based on her?

She has seen it and agreed, she looks exactly like me!

Hellscreen is part of the Vault Festival, on Leake Street SE1, 25 February-8 March. Tickets £16.50.

Last Updated 21 February 2015