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Drag generations: Lavinia Co-op in conversation with Ginger Johnson

The pair discuss changes to the drag scene as they take to the stage in Sink the Pin's 'How to Catch a Krampus' in London.

2018-12-12

Since making her name as a radical drag performance artist in the '70s, Lavinia Co-op has become one of the elder stateswomen of the London drag scene.

Born Vin Fox Vin in Hackney in 1951, as a young man he left teachertraining college because he found it too homophobic and trained to be a dancer only for a knee injury to abruptly end that career.

But in 1976 Vin found his true calling during a London performance by the Hot Peaches, a US radical drag group, and created his drag persona Lavinia Co-op. 

Along with Bette Bourne, he formed the six-person group the Bloolips. From the late 1970s through to the late 1980s they performed musical comedy across the UK, Europe and America.

Lavinia is appearing in Sink the Pink's How to Catch a Krampus at London’s Pleasance Theatre until December, where she stars opposite Ginger Johnson, one of the popular young star's of the edgy east London scene.

As two generations of drag collide on stage, we got Lavinia and Ginger together to look back on Lavinia's life and career, as the pair discuss the rapid changes the artform has undergone in recent years...

Ginger: Hello, my name is Ginger Johnson and this is Lavinia Co-op. Say hello, Lavinia Co-op.

Lavinia: Hello, Lavinia Co-op.

G: How are you darling?

L: I'm alright, not bad.

G: Good

L: Mustn't grumble.

G: No, not at all. Right, we're gonna go right back to the very beginning. Can you tell me the first time you remember being in a wig and a pair of shoes and a face of makeup. Tell us all about it.

L: Oh my God the real first time was playing the ugly duckling and being the ugly duckling in The Ugly Duckling, yes. Wearing white face, putting on red lipstick. Oh, there was a time before my God that's in a game show. In a Boy Scouts game show. Never mind. No, the Blue Lips in '77, I was thinking of that.

G: For people that don't know, who are the Blue Lips?

L: Blue Lips were a group of ragtag tap dancing toe queens. Sort of a radical kind of drag getting musical comedy shows together. Making up stories. Having a pin and singing live. Making your own costumes, getting it all together. The whole thing. Putting up the stage, getting people to come. Fliers, the lights. Then going out there and doing a musical comedy - The Ugly Duckling, and the other one.

G: What year was this? When did you start with the Blue Lips?

L: I'd say about '77, '76, '77. I think about '77, '78. Yeah then tour we managed to get a couple of shows together and we managed to get to Holland because they have the Guilder and Germany had the Deutschmark. They have money and they wanted to pay us. Whereas in England it was still hard to get work. Yes we did do a little bit some alternative spaces around England.

G: You had a residency in New York, didn't you?

L: We were, that was later in '81. We went to New York and we got, yes that was off Broadway. It was unbelievable. Yes we managed to do 6 months there and God, 4 months in New York and too near, and 2 months in San Francisco. No, that was quite a year of different... Are we down the festival of fools touring in Europe and Holland and Germany. Before that show we did a year, a year and a half. 2 years, maybe that was...

G: What was the drag like in that show because drag has changed a lot in the last few years? There is a lot more of drag around that's developing very quickly. What was drag like? What was the scene like when you first started doing drag?

L: What was the scene like? The scene for drag was much more predominantly the pubs, The Black Cat, the Two Brewers and Royal Vauxhall Tavern. I won't say it's stereotypical. It wasn't always. Sometimes it was comedic. Sometimes it was impersonating the Judy Garlands and the Barbra Streisand that. And so doing drag that was in any was alternative or of a full way, our drag was kind of rough, that rough later.

G: And political, wasn't it?

L: Yeah in a sense that you weren't trying to impersonate a woman. You weren't putting women down. You were being yourself as a gay man wearing clothing which was all kinds. You could really be diversing in the madness of what you're wearing.

G: Sounds a lot like Sink the Pink [laughter]

L: No, yes, no gosh.

G: You've got any training? You've got any certificates pinned on the wall?

L: Yeah, training. I did do a dance training earlier on Martha Graham and ballet. I knew I wasn't gonna be a dancer as such. But I've always kept in the body. [laughter] Later on I did the Alexander, teaching the Alexander technique. I managed to train at that in New York. But also the city, I did the teacher training course there for three months which is a good eye opener. Nothing really as far as qualification is going.

G: How did you end up on the stage?

L: I think well... by chance. Here by chance. No, hair by wire. [laughter] Design is by chance. Shance, and how did you end up on the stage? how did you end up on the stage?

G: Well it was Betty Bourne wasn't it?

L: That was major, I mean I did do experimental dance and the dance was a very strong. We met performance artists and there was strong, radical, political thing going on in the dance caucus. We were, it wasn't so stiff and I met some wonderful people. Yes it was with Betty Bourne and the Blue Lips. I really got into developing the gay persona, the gay on stage. The Lavinia, the androgynous. The possibility to play with what you're wearing. Lee Barry was in the 80s and I don't know whether we influenced him, his work. [laughter] You know what I mean because and it seems interesting younger queens we were much more coming from the hippie round. So we have the flower power. But as the punk thing developed there was this very strong radical punk thing going on that also broke the mould. So we could see that sometimes we were builders punk but in Germany they didn't know.

G: Do you think that drag is less radical now than it was?

L: I think, I think new drag, I think you still get that sort of West, we called it West End drag or Broadway drag, which is fair enough and those cups and bars support us just fine. The other side is yes, it's your East End drag of your Brooklyn kind of drag. There's that radical coming from, I would say coming from punk but it's just gone all unknown. People don't fit in to the gay stereotypes of the gay pubs and bars. The same with the drag. You can't always fit up to that. What's wrong with the beard and eye makeup?

Lavinia Co-op (Photography: Markus Bidaux)

G: Yeah, absolutely.

L: You know the lip lippy. You know then this, this high drag, middle drag, and low drag.

G: Which one are you [laughter]

L: What's her name, that one? Oh, she's, what's her name? Oh Jane Carrinty.

G: Yeah.

L: She said to me, "Oh Lavinia, you gonna come up. We gotta go up the club. You gonna come up the bar" I said, "Oh, I can't, I can't". She said, "Oh". She said, "Well you haven't got anything?" "Well I got low drag", I said. "What's low drag?" she said. "Well maybe a handbag and do your lips. Maybe a little bit of blouse or something." "I was middle drag, or maybe you do the whole face. And the rest, you know, you got new shoes." "What's high drag?" "Oh high drag? Oh that's Lavinia".

G: Right.

L: Lavinia goes that in the high drag. Sometimes it's if you gonna go out, do the full nine yards.

G: Absolutely.

L: Don't sort of, you know, if Lavinia is gonna turn up she better turn up.

G: Now you are an international drag sensation are you not? You've spend some time over in America didn't you? Tell us a little bit about that.

L: Oh, wow.

G: How long were you there for?

L: Roughly I was there a good solid 20 years. In the 80s we went with the Blue Lips and we went back and forth and did show this so I know, I remember the real beginning, '80, '81. So New York there was a lot of, it was great. A group of six people, six strangers really infiltrated. I got a lot. A lot of people were alive and they were dying. That was the 80s thing in New York. Amazing. But then I went back in the 90s and really got right into, I kind of, I think the AIDS thing really kicked me. It was like what the fuck are we gonna do now? you know, It was gonna start a life at forty. I thought just go if you don't do it. It was to do the Alexander and things like that. But the thing that in the 90s when I went there. Just to go to clubs and get paid to party [laughter] Was wow, only in New York. That was their attitude. God, did I do the clubs? I did the Landlock, the Tunnel, the Palladium, USA, the Boxy, Copacabana. I worked for party people, do the parties, all different kinds of party people. The misfits, I do back misfits, bar misfits.

G: Anything you miss about New York?

L: Instantaneous taxes. [laughter] But now things have changed.

G: What's it like at the New York taxi in drag ?

L: Sometimes they won't pick you up. But that's, you know...

G: Nothing changes there then.

L: You know yeah. Then you sometimes pick up somebody that might just want a blow job in the middle of the night. [laughter] four or five in the morning.

G: Get a free ride home.

L: Sometimes I never did that really but getting it. You're getting it. Drag, oh God. No that was an eyeopener. Going to New York and being there and being a freelance, doing the clubs and getting a bit involved with bits of their take getting into the New City, La Mama, PS122, that whole East Village thing. Living there, living on the bathroom strip. The neighbors knowing me. I remember there is a little kid there. She's now, must be nearly 25 or something. She knew me and she saw me and she was a little girl and she couldn't believe at me coming down those stairs, looking at me. She'd be cheeky and say, "You're not a girl!" I'd say, "Yes, I know. But what do you think I am?" She was a Puerto Rican family. Wonderful. No, people in the street, I could walk that block to the end and get a cab. I was always paranoid. But in New York it takes a while to come down. Over the years I got much more. No, that's the clubs, the theater. All the kinds of jobs you got to do to be a performer.

G: What would your tips be for somebody that wanted to be a performer? So you have to get top three tips for somebody that wants to be a performer.

L: If you know, one thing is as a performer, you're an artist. As an artist it's a lot of struggle. It doesn't have to be like that. You should get paid. You should be, you know, except in the fact that you are an artist. It's major. As a performer, things for me if you know that and it's really in your heart and that's it. You're not gonna make money. But so sometimes making money is a good thing. If you found something that will be an alternative. Oh, I should have been a hairdresser as well. That would have been good.

Ginger Johnson

G: Right.

L: You could work cause waitering is, when you're 70, it's a trip.

G: Yeah.

L: So if you find others see teaching any other skills that help you, that kind of support it.

G: Got another tip? One more tip for someone that wants to be a performer.

L: Oh, there's something funny. God, being a performer. Oh God. Think [inaudible]

G: Fine, always wash your tights.

L: Always wash your [chuckles] What about you?

G: What about me? [chuckles] What about we talk about how you've got involved with Sink the Pig?

L: Sink the Pig... Well you know, I knew there something was going on at the end of the Hackney Road. I didn't know what. I thought that's an, that used to be the Arabian Arms and it was, it was my- I remember my brother said, "Oh you're gay. There's a pub there, the Arabian Arms. Did you ever go?" "No I didn't. I'm not looking at that". But no, Sink the Pig, that working at the Box Nightclub there. That Lucy Fritz and Ahmet Chester Hays, is that his name?

G: Uh-hmm

L: Yeah, and those people who's turn on come down to was savage. Going to the out party, dressing up, feeling really at ease. Taking over, this is our space. Fig of liberation. Don't know much, hadn't really been involved.

G: Well I asked you didn't I?

L: Yeah [laughter]

G: This is Sink the Pig.

L: Oh [chuckles]

G: ...and The Queen's Head.

L: Oh yeah, The Queen's Head.

G: The first show you did with us was The Queen's Head, which was in Selfridges.

L: That was amazing, yeah.

G: And then you're back with us this year at The Pleasance. Why don't you tell us a little bit about the show this year? Who are you in the show this year?

L: I play an older man.

Lavinia Co-op stars in 'How to Catch a Krampus' at London's Pleasance Theatre until 23 December

G: Cranky. It must be awful being typecast.

L: Yeah [laughter] It's very difficult. I find the makeup most difficult.

G: Alright, yes, you got a ling wrinkles to draw in, you know.

L: yeah [chuckles] You have to squeeze you face up to find them.

G: Great top tip there.

L: [chuckles] Sink the Pink? This, does she have... it's funny I don't like to see. It's man playing an older man in it as well as Lavinia as well as, we won't gibve the story away. [inaudible]

G: Let's just say you do a version of a Rihnna song.

L: I do a version of a Rihanna song.

G: Nobody will expect.

L: Like when I did that show with you up yours at the First Over.

G: Yes let's talk a little bit about that. So, early while in the year, after we worked together on The Queen's Head, I asked you if you wanted to make a new piece of theater about your life. And that was one of my favorite things that I've done this year. We did it at the Southbank Center in the Purcell Room. I want to talk a little bit about that process. What was it like looking back on all of your life in that way to try to make that show?

L: It was good because we didn't go straight for the you know. We're gonna make a show. It was don't wait - don't worry about product process. We're going through this process thinking about ideas. Yes, interviewing, getting ideas of the history of me. But when we got down to the putting of things together, little areas of maybe parties. Areas of the Blue Lips. Areas of early gay liberation. Areas of AIDS or New York light night life or - so there was some kind of areas we got into it to see what- how people would feel if you said this. How would they feel? What do I want to show them? How would I show them in what sort of form, a dance or song, a lecture? There are so many ways to express yourself. Then what is the subject? So playing around with a different approach to the work so that you won't absolutely rigid and in the end pulling from that. And putting it together which you did a train of thought.

G: One thing that I really enjoyed about the show was that I think when we first went into it I expected that we'd make a show about the history of your life which we did in a way but actually it became more about the experience of being an older queer person you know.

L: That's true, yeah.

G: In the current situation and also an older performer you know. What do you think, What do you think now? How do you think about performing differently now to you did when you started? Do you have a different relationship to performing?

L: Yeah, I've obviously developed a lot of skill. But the energy is different. Definitely when I was younger I was able to run around like a blue ass fly like everybody else. Today, how people can get something on and the energy. They jump up and get over there. Their getting themselves out through the mirror over there doing - okay then let's do this and where gonna do that. "Oh My God, I'll never catch up". Okay, okay, it's like the vulnerable person or the disabled person or that the right words are. Is like you've got to accommodate these because in a group of people there's always different ropes and be kinds of people and some people need help that other people maybe just looking for attention. [laughter]

G: Aren't we all just looking for attention? Isn't that why we're here? [laughter]

L: In another way I don't believe that.

G: What are you looking for?

L: It's not about adoration or love on stage. I don't have this passion I've got to be there. I'm not.

G: Is it about the craft?

L: It's about the craft. It's about working with people. Most of my work I've ever done is because of people I've known or been in contact with. That's how I've worked. Not because of an agent or going - I have tried auditions since it all good to do.

G: One of the things I really loved about these Christmas shows that we do, it's becoming an annual thing now, is that when you're a cabaret performer you're quite often on your own a lot of the time. You get the gig on your own. You sit on your own for 2 hours. Then you put your face on. Then you go out on stage on your own. Then you come off and get back on the train on your own. You go home. You go to bed. So one of my favorite things about these Christmas shows is being in a team of people for 8, 9, 10 weeks.

Photography: Markus Bidaux

L: Shared experience.

G: Yeah, yeah, does it remind you at all of being in the Blue Lips?

L: Oh definitely yeah. No, sometimes I well up at the thought and some of the thoughts come to me. Then sometimes I just think, well in spirit, that deep down she is wandering around at the stage saying, "Get on with it girl. What's the matter with you?" You looks so miserable. The way she would, no, yes, no it's true. Also seeing people develop and grow in bits in a material, seeing how they work no different to any, you know.

G: Who do you think should come and see this show?

L: 18 plus. I think families would enjoy it. [laughter] Who should see this show? All they...

G: Everyone.

L: Everyone. This show...

G: I'd like to think that a big trend is up that's not too fond of Christmas but is still in it for the party. Would you reckon?

L: It's a fun. It's on the edge. It make point, it points up things, it pokes at things. It's silly. It's exuberant.

G: It's on at the Pleasance for the next 6 weeks. [laughter]

L: Thank you.

G: What's next for Lavinia Co-op? What comes up after this?

L: Oh, I hope not much.

G: You'll be lucky.

L: No... What's next? What's next? Hmm. Well the next is probably, down the road, is see if you can get up yours out somewhere.

G: Yeah.

L: See if I can do that. I, Anyways I don't, I don't have to perform. I don't... sometimes I wanna go...

G: No, keeps happening there, doesn't it? [laughter]

L: If I learn a bit more meditation, if I learn a bit more, if I just get into it cause it's about the getting older business now. Sorting out other older people. Being involved with other people so that you're part of that community and helping them at being around. But also... yeah, no.

G: As a queer person that's lived a life and talking to the people of Attitude Magazine like I was speaking to you now, what advice would you give to younger queer people as someone that could look back on all this huge experience that you've had? What would you say would be your message to younger queer people that might not have that chance yet?

L: Wow, there's a side of gay life that can be so horrendous and we've come from internalised depression, all kinds of things. But to be able to say it's possible you can have a really good life as a gay person. You can enjoy it. You can meet people you might not feel. Isolation is a big issue. Not getting, finding ways when you're not always in a bar. Dragging yourself up in the toilet. There's more - there's a big wealth of things out there. We've got a community but we can't always see it. Getting out there, some people it's really hard for but still right something about the wealth of our community, when you look back on history, God some of the rioters, musicians, painters, artists, scientists, I don't care, you know. So, you know we are different. Accept it.

G: Good.

L: We're different. We're not like other people. That's great.

G: Yeah, let's celebrate that difference.

L: Celebrate. Yeah.

G: Yeah, Thank you very much Lavinia Co-op.

Lavinia Co-op and Ginger Johnson star in How to Catch a Krampus at London's Pleasance Theatre until 23 December. For the best deals on tickets and show click here.

Read Lavinia Co-op's Life Lessons in the January issue of Attitude, out now.

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