Queens of soap attract a staunch camp following: Coronation Street's strong women - all buxon, brazen, brash and blonde - have ousted the vamps of Hollywood as the hot gay icons, reports Marianne Macdonald

MOST screen addicts, asked what Marilyn Monroe has in common with Coronation Street's arch-ditherer Mavis Wilton, would be stumped. Nor does Bette Davis have an obvious similarity with Elizabeth Dawn, who plays Vera Duckworth with more stridency than style. But the connection is simple. The strong women of soap have ousted Hollywood vamps as the hot gay icons.

Coronation Street doings in Alf's mini-market, the Kabin and the Rover's Return are, despite the total absence of homosexual characters, followed avidly by gay men. The attraction is the women: Bet Gilroy (Julie Goodyear), Vera Duckworth, Ivy Brennan (Lynne Perrie), Phyllis Pearce (Jill Summers), Mavis Wilton (Thelma Barlow) - and its blend of tragi-comedy and kitsch.

The compliment is repaid in kind. When Elizabeth Dawn performs her cabaret routine at The Fridge in London this Tuesday, the nightclub - which hosts Love Muscle, London's biggest gay night, on Saturdays - will be packed with homosexual admirers. Nor are other stars from the Street averse to playing to their gay following. Both Sarah Lancashire, who plays bimbo barmaid Raquel, and Lynne Perrie have appeared on the circuit.

Such enthusiasm for this time-warped Northern soap opera lies in what the gay community interprets as outrageous campness. 'Julie Goodyear even looks like a drag queen with her big hair, thick make-up and enormous earrings,' says Paul Burston, who edits Time Out magazine's gay section.

'The gay audience is attracted to things which are not convincingly real. It's to do with pretending to be things you're not and what gay men go through coming to terms with their identity, the struggle to come out.'

Lily Savage, a Liverpool drag artist, was brought up on Coronation Street. 'For a lot of gay men, Bet Gilroy and Elsie Tanner were role models. They'd constantly get knocked back by men and pick themselves up again. When you were finding your feet on the gay scene - having one-night stands and being rejected - you could relate to their survival instinct.'

It is campness which has elevated other soap-queens into gay icons - gone are the days when Joan Collins ruled the roost as Alexis Carrington in Dynasty. Dot Cotton (June Brown), Pauline Fowler (Wendy Richard) and Pat Butcher (Pam St Clement) of EastEnders have inherited the mantle. But their real sexuality - Polly Perkins, who plays Trish Valentine in Eldorado, is lesbian; Julie Goodyear has been linked with Justin Fashanu, the bisexual footballer - is not the issue.

'The strong woman characters have a great appeal to gay men because they often get one over on boorish straight men,' says Peter Burton, who runs Millivres Books, a Brighton-based publisher specialising in gay fiction.

'Other soaps, particularly Australian ones, are popular because they often have attractive young men in them.'

Some gays say the appeal of the matriarchal soap character is that of earth-mother. One theory is that gay men expect knocks from straight men and sympathy from straight women. Others say their larger-than-life quality echoes the appeal of period film stars such as Liza Minnelli, Joan Crawford or Bette Davis.

June Brown, who is frequently asked to appear at gay venues, gets hundreds of letters from gay fans. 'They say how much they like Dot Cotton because she's camp. The majority of gay people have a good sense of humour and like the wit I hopefully put into my performance. Certainly, if I had played Dot as a straight character she would have been a really boring woman,' she says.

Andy Medhurst, lecturer in media studies at the University of Sussex, has a telephone message that announces: 'Either I'm out or you've rung during an important soap opera.' He remarks: 'Soaps are aimed at women and deal with what a lot of straight men deem trival: life, death, love, divorce, betrayal, childbirth. Gay men are interested in things not deemed masculine, such as traffic jams on the M25 or DIY.'

Medhurst also points to the fact that many soaps have been created or written by gay men, including Tony Holland, who co-created EastEnders and Eldorado, and Tony Warren, who invented Coronation Street. In an interview with Gay Times, Warren recalls telling his mother: 'All my life I've written about your sort. I was good at doing that because an outsider sees more . . .'

Do soaps deliberately cater to a gay audience? Bill Hill, who edits The Street, Coronation Street's bi-monthly magazine, thinks it does. 'Having studied the programme in great detail, I believe they are producing what viewers want to see,' he says.

'With those over-the-top performers I would say they are pushing the programme towards that market. We have a big gay readership in the magazine.'

David Dale, who describes himself as a male actress, recalls only half-jokingly his mother blamed his sexuality, when he came out, on a childhood diet of Coronation Street. But he has poor memories of playing a gay man in EastEnders in 1986.

'The job was going to be this big, loud East End drag queen, very confident, very bossy, with advice for everyone. In rehearsal the character's name, which was something like Butterfly L'Amour, got changed to John Fisher because they felt it was too extrovert. My lines got cut and when I was camping it to the hilt as a drag queen they told me to tone it down. When they asked me back I turned them down.'

(Photographs omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Kitchen and Bathroom Installers

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This provider of designer kitch...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: The infrastructure, support services and const...

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£28000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer and Markets Development Executive

£22000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company's mission is to ma...

Day In a Page

Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

The dark side of Mexico

A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border