Fashion: It's a drag

Next week's Pride 98 march will see some serious dressing up and showing off. Melanie Rickey talks to four drag queens, regular Pride-goers, about what fashion - and dressing up - means to them

"WE'RE DRAG QUEENS, honey; it's strictly work, not play," says Kitty Cartier, or Kit, as most of her girlfriends call her. I've just asked her about her attitude to the clothes she dresses up in three nights a week - and I've been put firmly in my place. It turns out she is fibbing: Kitty has been one of the principals at Madame Jo Jo's, London's best- known drag-cabaret club, for four years - and it's obvious she loves every minute of it. Kitty's alter ego, Ian, got the job after a friend saw an advert in The Stage. "I went along to the audition in girl's make- up, two-inch heels, a box jacket and bare legs, and sang 'If They Could See Me Now'," he says. He cringes at his early lack of finesse. "At first it was the wrong dress with the wrong shoes, and the wrong hair with the wrong face. But I can do pretty much anything with my face now."

Kitty and the other Madame Jo Jo's "waitresses" - Evita Cliterata (aka Spanish actor/ dancer Alberto), Purdy (Malcolm) and Lou (David) , who I met as they got ready for an evening's work - all tell the same story. Being a convincing drag queen takes a lot of practice in front of the mirror (they have to use oil-based theatrical cosmetics, as standard ranges don't have enough coverage or pigment). It also demands a working woman's wardrobe of a unique nature. Not for them the easy-wear, easy-care trouser- suit, the throw-on dress, or the outfit that can be dressed up for evening with the addition of a glittering brooch or a snazzy scarf. No, for these gals, work clothes are black lacy bras, G-strings, fishnets, corsets, micro mini-skirts and thigh-high boots, all sourced from second-hand shops and markets, Soho sex shops, or run up at home.

In short, this bunch look like hookers, but that's only because their clothing budget - usually nil - doesn't quite stretch to Thierry Mugler, Vivienne Westwood or Jean Paul Gaultier, whose dramatic and theatrical clothes they all love. As these are perhaps the campest designers on the circuit, the boys' choice is hardly shocking: what's more surprising is that they also love Prada and Gucci. Ask them why, though, and they'll say it's the image of the labels, not the actual clothes, which inspires their final look.

All four say they look at glossy magazines like Elle and Vogue as often as they look at GQ or Arena, and that they aren't into women's fashion in the same way real women are. Ask what it's like to be a man dressing up as a woman and they take pains to point out that it's theatre, not high fashion that has the last word when you're a drag queen. Kitty is inspired by the showiness of Liza Minnelli and Rita Hayworth; Purdy wants to be a bimbo; Lou likes lacy dresses; and Evita admires Jerry Hall, because "she's fierce".

As boys, Ian, Alberto, Malcolm and David dress gay, because they are gay, but there is very little that would indicate their nocturnal pursuits. Alberto wears an orange jumper and dance leggings with trainers, his daily get-up for auditions. Ian's wearing an Adidas top, trainers and Diesel jeans. "I'm contemporary as Ian; Kitty is much more glam and sexy in a Rita Hayworth kind of way," he says. Malcolm flounces around the club in ripped Levi's and a checked shirt - "I always wear this stuff"; David, the most conservative, wears a pristine white Gap T-shirt, and dark Levi's with Redwing boots. He's far more into mens' fashion labels than women's.

Once in front of the backstage mirror, however, the pre-show atmosphere gets very girlie. Feather boas and sequins fly, bras are stuffed, wigs are drowned in hairspray, and crotch areas are "tidied" with the help of flesh tights covered by fishnets, and a raunchy G-string to create the endless legs. Once the transformation is complete, all the "girls" are unrecognisable. Dance steps are run through, wigs and boobs are fixed in place, and everyone asks "Do I look alright?" through perfect, glittery pouts. It's show time.

! Pride 98: Clapham Common, SW4, Sat; for tickets call 0870 121 0121. 'Return to Planet Jo Jo': Madame Jo Jo's, W1 (0171 734 2473) every Thurs, Fri and Sat.

Captions: PURDY (ABOVE AND BELOW LEFT)

"Today I'm into a bit of Vivienne Westwood corsetry, an Edwardian bustle mini-skirt, and patent thigh-high boots. Purdy is a bimbo, she's up for a good time; she buys her undies from Marks & Spencer, gets intimidated in Chanel, but not in Harvey Nichols, and loves haute couture. Unfortunately she always ends up getting her stuff in Soho, like all good-time girls."

EVITA CLITERATA (LEFT AND BELOW RIGHT)

"For me fashion is about flamboyance. I go to Prada and Vivienne Westwood to try on womens clothes, then make my own things. I'm a dress size 10, but my feet are too big for women's shoes, so I buy Fredericks of Hollywood mules. I'd say I'm a Gaultier boy and a Mugler girl; but I never wish I was a real girl. I have the best of both worlds."

KITTY CARTIER (ABOVE, BELOW LEFT, AND OPENING PAGE)

"Kitty's biggest extravagance is shoes. She loves a good stiletto. I went into Gucci the other week to try on the most fabulous pair of sequin stilettos with silver heels - the staff are either into boys trying shoes on or not, and they were cool at Gucci. I loved the stilettos of course, but when I looked at the price, pounds 390, I could have died."

LOU (RIGHT AND BELOW RIGHT)

"If I was a woman I'd like to be Cindy Crawford. Well, maybe just for the day. Lou is mad, very drag and definitely not a tranny. More of a tomboy really. I borrow all my clothes from the other girls. This is my favourite outfit: white thigh-high boots, and a tarty backless dress so I can show a bit of arse and a bit of chest."

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