How times have changed. Amy Lame is one of a new breed of lesbian drag artists, women who do female impersonation from a woman's perspective. She's part of a new generation of lesbians who revel in more than just lipstick; they also enjoy wigs, false eyelashes, sequins, feathers and anything shiny. After all, it is fashionable in the "queer Nineties" to sparkle with the glittering depthless polish of the kitsch, post-modern urban scene.
Other than what she calls "traditional drag", Amy cites other influences on her persona - like television game shows and musicals. She has her own distinctive style, wears a big gingham frock, has pigtails and nerdy spectacles, and provocatively describes herself as a "gay man trapped inside a lesbian's body". She's intent on breaking one of the lesbian community's biggest taboos: the F-word. Femininity. "I don't want to play boys' games. I don't want to be a man ... we can be just as powerful being women."
Amy made her debut at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London two years ago. But she went on to conquer less self-consciously knowing venues, establishing the successful cabaret nightclub, Duckie, at the Vauxhall Tavern in London.
With her gay male friend and business partner, Simon Strange, she is responsible for pulling in new acts and new punters. Gone are the same- sex crowds; now a 50/50 mix of men and women enjoy each other's company, people with a sophisticated appreciation of drag.
"Performance artists - if you can understand them at all - are doing the politics without the comedy and stand-ups are doing the comedy without the politics," Amy asserts. "There's a new breed of queer performer that does a bit of both, and a new audience, too - an audience who want more from their entertainment than just silly laughs ..."
Amy believes this mixing of different forms of comedy and performance reflects the spirit of the times. "In terms of performance now, really exciting things are happening - call it millennium fever - the breakdown of everything. Twenty years ago, you had your drag queens and singers, you could mix a little bit. But now, gay performers especially are at the cutting edge of what's happening, breaking down and using influences from loads of different forms."
As the Manchester-based performer, The Divine David, says: "My influences are varied. The Blackpool Tower Circus, which as a crucible of life probably transcends Arthur Miller, and all manner of ingredients in the cream-cheese dominated finger-buffet of modern culture."
Combining vaudeville and cabaret in new and surprising ways, a whole new generation of women and men have blossomed on a new British queer cabaret scene.
Women like Marisa Carr, who describes her work as "somewhere between cabaret, live art and erotic performance". As Carr herself explains: "I'm very interested in vaudeville and if you look at early music hall, it was very anarchic and bawdy." Carr draws on a showgirl tradition, a forum where powerful women were able to fuse sex with wit, song, quips and audience banter.
Another Duckie act, Helena Goldwater, describes herself as a "lesbian drag queen". She draws on the powerful women from her own background to flesh out her high-femme stage persona. "For me it's really connected with being Jewish. I base a lot of my characters on the wonderful women I grew up with. They were really glamorous and I want to reclaim some of that in a feminist context. Although I look really over the top, it's not parody. This is who I am and where I come from; the fact that I'm a lesbian doesn't mean I'm disconnected from that."
Both Carr and Goldwater combine strands of vaudeville, cabaret and drag in highly personalised ways. They take on female social archetypes, such as "the sex-goddess" and "the auntie", and re-work them from a feminist perspective. They do not, as perhaps some male female-impersonators have done, make sexuality and authority mutually exclusive categories. Call it feminist or queer, it's definitely political. According to Goldwater: "I think that's in its nature. It's about making a statement."
The way those statements are made, however, is far from being didactic or banner waving. Certainly, "coming out" is not on Amy's agenda as such. But neither is she in any closet. Talking of Duckie, Amy says that "it's clear we're gay but it's said in a different way. It's not about getting on stage and shouting 'I'm gay, look at me, I'm so funny' It's more subtle than that. It's about gay people taking the piss out of each other. Which is great!"
When asked what advice he would give to a 16-year-old coming out today on the gay scene, The Divine David replies: "Don't allow the scene to convince you that the backbone of your identity is your sexuality ... there are infinite interests in the world other than what you want to do with your toilet parts in the name of love."
Those who have lived beyond coming out are more willing to be publicly critical of other lesbians and gay men who are now treated as fair fodder for cutting humour. Lesbian and gay comedians can now convey a sense of lesbian life, warts and all, by constructing characters driven by anger, jealousy and revenge as well as love and community.
One such example of this is the Manchester-based performer, Twinkle, a woman whose comic persona has earned her the label "the lesbian Victoria Wood". Wearing fluorescent frocks and wielding a giant water pistol, Twinkle is something of a "lesbian bimbette".
"I use Twinkle to live out some of things that I think are funny about how lesbians behave," Twinkle says. "I'm not taking the piss saying, 'You're all sad bastards, get a life'. I'm saying, 'yeah, it's all fun, let's just look at it and laugh at ourselves and not be pretentious'." She sends- up a whole generation of confident, clubbing, Nineties lesbians. "There really have been all these lovely shiny dykes with their lovely silver tops and shiny hair and mobiles. And they're really loving the show, saying: 'That's me, it's fab isn't it?'"
8 Duckie is at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, Kennington Lane, London SW8, every Saturday night, 9pm-2am, pounds 3.00. The Market Tavern (1 Nine Elms Lane, London SW8, 0171 622 5655) will host two new club nights on alternate Fridays: .Amy Lame's The Wig 'n' Casino and The Divine David's Viva Viva Apathy!Reuse content