The Frocky Horror Show: Drag queens go to see their film incarnations in a Soho cinema. Paul Burston watches the fake fur fly

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The Independent Culture
THE LIGHTS dim. The movie begins: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. We see a bus bearing loads and loads of frocks - and three men in make-up. Bernadette, alias Terence Stamp, has her hands on the wheel and her mascara'd eye on the road. In the back seat sit her companions, Mitzi (Hugo Weaving) and Felicia (Guy Pearce), dressed to the nines and intent on having fun.

Bernadette is having none of it. Brushing a stray hair back from her face, she says she has no intention of joining in their frolics, at least not before they agree to drop the subjects of wigs, penises, dresses, bust sizes and 'bloody Abba'. Mitzi and Felicia decline. Drop those subjects and there would be nothing to talk about, would there?

To my left, squatting in the aisle, a 7ft silver-clad drag queen called Sassy Stryker is laughing so hard her wig has fallen off. Or perhaps she wasn't wearing one in the first place. She is, however, wearing tarty slap and false eyelashes so long, so stiff and so thick you can see them in the dark.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert tells the story of a trio of Sydney showgirls - two drag queens and a transsexual - busing it across the outback to fulfil a four-week cabaret booking at Alice Springs. It is a film in which hope springs eternal, and no problem is insurmountable as long as you are equipped with a handful of bitchy one-liners and a trunkful of gorgeous gowns.

And this is certainly a screening with a difference. Shortly before I leave home, the housewife superstar Lily Savage phones to say that she's really sorry and all that, but she won't be able to make it on account of being tied up with some telly people. 'What's it all about anyway?' she rasps. I explain that it's a special preview of a drag- queen movie for drag queens. Lily laughs. 'Rather you than me,' she says and rings off.

First to make an entrance at the cinema is Portia, a friend of Priscilla's director, Stephan Elliott. Portia is a shining Australian example of how to keep a cool head in a crisis - even under a mane of chestnut curls. She is skinny, wears a little black number and favours diamante clips.

So far, so good. The trouble starts when Transformer - the reigning Alternative Miss World, the one who looks like Rod Hull and Emu fighting their way out of a Victorian flower seller - arrives and decides to walk off with a tray of sandwiches, returns five minutes later and then disappears into the ladies' loo to powder her nose (from the inside, if her subsequent energy levels thereafter are anything to go by).

Suitably refreshed, Transformer hobbles out in her 12in stacked heels, makes for Sue, the movie's publicist, and inquires about her handbag. 'Can I look in here?' she barks. 'Is there lots of money in here? Is there?' Sue backs away.

Next to arrive are Chloe, whose studied posture suggests years of poring over pictures of Lauren Bacall, and 'Miss' Winston, a dead ringer for 'Miss' Naomi Campbell, only a shade more beautiful.

Suddenly a pantomime cow wearing a Goldilocks wig comes crashing down the stairs, riding roughshod over a trail of bread triangles. Inside are Sheila Tequila and partner Don, club hosts about town. It's hard to tell who's at the front and who's at the back, but unlike most drag queens they are not trying to pass as beautiful women. Obviously. This is what is aptly known as 'freak drag'.

But the main issue now is whether Transformer will remove her rigid headpiece or sit nearer the back so the other invitees will actually be able to see the film. 'I deliberately wore my biggest hat,' she snaps, 'so that nobody else would be seen. If you'd told me the dimensions of the cinema, I would have made one to fit.'

Half an hour into the film, the cow's head has fallen into the aisle, the drag-queen quota is seven and everyone appears to be having a gay old time.

They shriek when their celluloid counterpart, Felicia, taking her turn at the wheel, suddenly jams her foot on the brake, causing Bernadette to shove her lippy up her nose.

They holler when Bernadette rescues Felicia from a queer basher intent on raping her, confirming with two solid punches that a basher is no match for a trannie who refuses to be bashed.

They applaud when our three heroines are upstaged by a woman with a gift for propelling ping-pong balls from her lower portions. 'Go for it, girl]' someone shouts.

They fall strangely silent when someone asks Felicia what she and her friends do for a living, and she says: 'We dress up in ladies' clothes and dance around miming to other people's songs.'

It is curious sitting here with a bunch of drag queens who mostly make their living on the pub circuit watching a bunch of drag queens who mostly make their living on the pub circuit. Priscilla is billed as a comedy, but you wonder if it will be read as autobiography.

The lights come up. Sassy Stryker has her huge yellow cloud of a wig on and Portia is peeling off that little black number.' Divine]' says Chloe, as she bolts for the door. 'Loved every minute. I'd recommend it to anybody.'

'Fantastic]' agrees 'Miss' Winston. 'I don't see why it should be a 15. It should be a PG, then everyone could learn from it. Whenever I meet children, they're fine. Adults are the ones who poison kids' minds, then you get kids growing up with all these silly adult prejudices.'

'Fabulous]' enthuses Sassy. 'Very different, very colourful, very vibrant. I think it might have been even better with gay actors, but that's a very gayist point of view, isn't it?'

'Loved it]' say Sandra and Lucia, two late arrivals. Sandra's favourite bits are 'the costumes, the scenery and the story-line'. Lucia's favourite bits were all attached to Guy Pearce. 'My husband will kill me for saying this, but Guy Pearce has got everything I look for in a man. He's got the most divine body, the most fabulous tush and he looks fierce in drag.'

'Wonderful]' says Portia, slipping into a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. 'It's so Australian, it makes me homesick. The drag-talk is all very Sydney. And I miss all those costumes. They don't really do it like that here, do they? Here it's all pretty drag, not freak drag. Although . . .' She nods in the direction of Transformer, who has calmed down considerably since the film began.

'It made me cry,' Transformer confides. 'I thought it was very moving. The problem is, it makes life seem a bit too easy, doesn't it? I wish my life were that easy. I mean, the film is nice. It gives you a sense of euphoria, but so does Ecstasy. When you come down, you realise that life isn't quite like that.'

In a corner Portia, Sandra and Lucia are discussing a gig they're doing next week. 'They don't have a cassette player there,' Portia complains, 'so we'll have to get hold of that track on vinyl.' The others decide where they are going to eat. 'We'll have to go together,' someone speaks up. 'Safety in numbers, girls.'

Transformer exits and totters off, alone, to the nearest Tube. On the way, she is harassed by a man shouting that people like her belong in a zoo.

Where is a trannie with a solid left hook when you need one?

'The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert' opens nationwide on Friday.

(Photographs omitted)