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)

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