“The guide to survival is you have to set yourself some rules”. And those rules apparently are to be as outrageous, glamorous and fabulous as possible.
In nightclubs across the East End of London throughout the last decade, a collection of raucous drag performers where beginning to develop a fiercely loyal following that would push them towards the mainstream. Dressed like a Girl is narrated by the ‘ringleader’ Jonny Woo, who poetically leads us through the rises and (minor) falls of the alternative drag scene as they get more and more attention from the elite fashion, theatre and clubbing communities.
The main characters are Jonny, the charismatic leader of the pack; Scottee, the artistic youngster who has an experimental one-man show on the side; Amber Swallows, a transitioning trans woman who makes dirty electro music; Holestar, a female ‘tranny-with-a-fanny’ who gives drag lessons; John Sizzle the eclectic DJ; and then Pia, a androgynous conspiracy theorist who has taken a few too many drugs…
The night that saw their rise in notoriety was a Gay Bingo event, which (in Jonny’s words) was mostly an excuse to drink heavily and combat the comedown from a weekend of excessive drug use. This included a lot of hard liquor and ‘69’ jokes, as well as lots of dancing and performances and generally being as outrageous as possible. This then led the collective to progress to curating a space at Glastonbury, introducing the bands at Lovebox, as well all branching out with solo shows and projects.
The film manages to perfectly balance the anarchic, punk behavior of the queens in public, with the tender personal back-stories of their early and private lives. Jonny ended up collapsing with massive organ failure and had to quit drinking due to his excessive lifestyle; Holestar explores her battle with depression with her solo live-shows; Scottee explains a harrowing childhood on a Camden estate where he was accused of being a gay rapist just because he was sexually active; and Amber has to somehow get acceptance of her transition from her socially-conservative, rugged and blokey father.
These more intimate moments are interspersed with montages of nightclubs, catwalks and festivals where the characters and the film itself seems high on a mixture of acid and ecstasy. The costumes and make up are a visual feast that change so rapidly it’s actually hard to really take in any one of the amazing designs.
The last 5 years have been landmark years in the UK and USA for gay rights and queer representation. More and more characters are appearing in mainstream culture as tolerance grows and political battles are won. Although most LGBT people would agree that this was a good thing, there is also a minority that doesn’t want to integrate and are proud of being different and a community in and of themselves. Dressed as a Girl is a celebration of defiantly queer identities building their own culture and space through flamboyant solidarity. The characters are tough, the style is confrontational and the politics is loud.
Director Colin Rothbart has produced a film that proves that behind every great Drag Queen is a real man (or woman) with depth and character. And that you don’t have to always feel fabulous on the inside to look fabulous for your adoring fans…