Jodie Harsh: 'Drag is my work suit'

The drag-queen extraordinaire talks to Stina Backer about why she still doesn't care what people think
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The Independent Online

Drag queen du jour, friend to the stars, and hostess with the mostess: Jodie Harsh has, over the past few years, helped to transform the London gay scene with her popular club nights, Foreign and Circus. The big-haired, sarcastic alter ego of 24-year-old Jay Clarke has become an acclaimed DJ and promoter in her own right, bringing the East End's dirty electro and queer nu-cabaret scene into the mainstream.

Harsh has recently been made a resident at Manumission, the legendary Ibiza haunt, and is going on tour with the club this summer. She'll even warm up for Peaches at Glastonbury next week. But before she heads off to sunnier shores, Jodie is planning to bring her Circus to town one last time – creating the biggest and most star-studded Pride after-party London has ever seen.

How long have you been Jodie Harsh?

I started doing drag when I was at London College of Fashion. It was just another creative outlet at the time, plus it paid the bills. I used to get £40 a night for dancing on the bar at Heaven among the muscle boys, which was more fun than pulling pints or working in a high-street shop. Then I started working on the door, and shortly after I set up my own night, Circus, and it became really popular. We've had some amazing artists there such as Ladyhawke, Amy Winehouse and Mowgli.

What do your mates call you?

All my mates call me Jodie now, Jay is only my passport name. I don't travel as Jodie, it would be too much hard work.

Where did you grow up?

In Canterbury, Kent. I moved to London when I was 18 to go to London College of Fashion.

What were you like as a child?

I was very theatrical and always going to drama classes. I loved music – I wanted to be Michael Jackson. I also had quite an unhealthy obsession with Pamela Anderson. I guess I've become a mixture of the two, at least in my physical appearance.

When did you come out?

I was really young, about 15, 16. I'm really glad I came out that young, because I was very sure about my sexuality; I never really cared that much about what other people thought about me. I still don't. As long as my loved ones are OK with it, I am fine.

What does your family think about you doing drag for a living?

I have a great family, so I feel very lucky. My mum and I are very close and she is actually coming to Circus on 4 July to see Siouxsie and the rest of the acts. At first my younger sister didn't know how to deal with her big brother being a raging London queen, but now she loves all the perks that come with it such as free champagne and VIP parties. My 87-year-old grandmother even loves Jodie and wants me to sort her out with one of these fabulous wigs.

Speaking of wigs, where do you get those creations from?

They are just fab, aren't they? I have them made especially by Charlie Le Mindu in Las Vegas. He does everyone's hair; he did Peaches' as well as Barbie's for her 50th limited edition. I always have at least two wigs on the go at the same time. I have probably gone through 120 since I started.

Why do you think Jodie has become such a success?

I think I brought her out at the right time. London's East End fashionista culture was about to explode and the motto was very much "life's too short". The whole nu-cabaret movement was also kicking off with people like the amazing Jonny Woo doing performance pieces on the gay club scene. There wasn't a drag queen in the mainstream media at the time so I wanted to push the boundaries a bit. Now I get MySpace messages from young gay boys thanking me for being out and gay, and drag queens from all over the world saying they love my look. It feels really good knowing that I can help someone by just being me. Thirty years ago, you couldn't even be gay and out in the media, [but now] even tabloids such as The Sun will run stories on my nights. So if I can pave the way, in any way, then I'm happy.

How would you describe Jodie's look?

When I started I was really, really girly and then I went really androgynous – but that was because I was trying to sort out how I was going to look. It then developed into a look that is an exaggeration of what society depicts as femininity: somewhere between a Barbie doll and a clown! I don't want to be a girl and I am not particularly feminine, I don't wear false boobs and I rarely wear skirts or dresses. I would say that I'm a boy with loads of feminine qualities. My hair, my lips my make-up, my shoes, everything is big, much bigger than a girl. I hope I look more attractive than scary!

What's your favourite item of clothing?

I do love my Terry de Havilland shoes. I wear nothing else.

Who is your biggest influence?

Grace Jones, Peaches, Roisin Murphy and anything from Debbie Harry to Marie Antoinette.

What about Jay's look: is it slick or scruffy?

I put so much effort into my drag look that my daily look is a bit scruffy – just jeans and a hoodie. The drag is like my work suit; when I am not working I don't wear drag. I'm sure the suits in the City don't wear their stripes at the weekend.

Is there a Mr Harsh?

I've gone on a few recent dates, but it's still early days. I'm technically still single – so offers are still welcome ...

Is there any downside to being Ms Harsh?

I've had to sacrifice my eyebrows for my art – every time I shave my face I have to shave them off because the make-up looks much better without them. I have learnt how to draw them back on, and unless you get really close you can't notice. I am naturally blond, so they were never too visible anyway. My feet are absolutely killing me and I'm currently having to go to physiotherapy twice a week because my back is all messed up from wearing high heels all the time, but, as I said, you have to suffer for your art.

What's the first gay club you went to?

It was probably Girls And boYs, the only gay club in Canterbury. I would love to DJ there, to have a proper Jodie Harsh homecoming party!

Where do you go clubbing now – is the gay scene in London changing?

I go out so much for work so I tend to stick to those nights. It's true that the gay scene in London is changing. Soho has lost a lot of venues and things are shifting more to the East End where some really exciting things are happening, such as GutterSlut, Dalston Superstore, and in Hoxton where I live. I don't tend to go out in Vauxhall or Soho any more.

What do you think the gay scene is like in the rest of the country?

I have performed in most major cities in the country. I have travelled all around the world, and honestly I think the UK has the best gay scene in the world. We are very lucky, spoilt for choice really – the biggest, the best and the most widespread. Glasgow is amazing and has a great and very cutting-edge music scene, and places such as Optimo and the Arches. Brighton has some great venues and Manchester has a nice little scene.

How did you get the name Jodie Harsh – did you choose it or was it given to you?

There were these two drag queens I used to hang out with when I worked at Heaven, called Brandy and Petra, and they started calling me Jodie because it was a plain name and started with a J. A few months later, someone asked me if it was after Jodie Kidd and I was like: "No, more like Jodie Marsh really!" The guy then laughed and said it should be Jodie Harsh. Then I went: "Oh my god, that is it, that is my name". It's meant to be a piss-take of that naff celebrity culture, where people are famous for doing nothing. I got my name from being a great club promoter and DJ – not for flashing my tits in a tabloid newspaper.

Have you ever met Ms Marsh?

We actually did a DJ battle at Circus once. I had to choose the music for her, and she just stood there in her bikini and Ugg boots waving some pom-poms about. Bless, that poor girl.

The Circus night, at the London club Matter, is in conjunction with Pride. Do you remember your first Pride?

I was 18 when I went to my first Pride. I had just moved to London, and for the first time ever, I saw literally hundreds of thousands of gay people smiling, having fun and being proud all at the same time, which is really important. A few years ago I was on the first float in the parade with Ken Livingstone, as well as Ian McKellen and lots of other celebrity gays. I was the fairy on top of a massive four-tier cake surrounded by muscle boys with their tops off. I think Pride is getting bigger and better as the years go by.

Do you think Pride is still important?

Yes, absolutely. Equality is always a serious and important issue, and we still have a few more hurdles to get over. But it should be fun too. It's our day and especially important for those who don't feel that they fit in to what society considers "normal". It is all about visibility.

Will you march this year?

I hope so, but it all depends on how much planning I have left to do for the big night. I'm really excited about it, I have wanted to do something with Pride for ages, and having the last ever Circus as a Pride party just seemed like the best idea ever.