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Pride’s Got Talent finals 2023: The quest for best LGBT+ singers and cabaret acts

Back for its ninth year, the talent show is looking for show-stopping acts to perform at Pride in London as Emma Henderson explains

Wednesday 21 June 2023 15:23 BST
(Carol J Moir)

What started in 2014 as a small closed event, has now bloomed into a huge country-wide exhilarating and quite frankly, life-changing competition, Pride’s Got Talent. The annual event is Britain’s only fully-inclusive LGBT+ talent show, which sees the winner take home not only £1,000, but also secures the enviable slot of performing live on the main stage at Pride London’s celebration on 1 July to its hundreds of thousands of people.

The competition is split into two categories, which are made up of musical acts and cabaret. "It kind of grew out of the need for Pride London to programme community acts across the stages, in a way that they could see some of the acts first, and not just go to booking agents who usually booked established acts," says Michael Twaits, head of Pride’s Got Talent. "They wanted to make sure they were including the community based acts who were working the scene and who might not be hitting the mainstream," he adds.

During the first Pride’s Got Talent event, Twaits was one of the judges, and said they all felt "it became obvious that this was actually a show in itself," he says. The following year, it went from a closed event to open to the public and began to grow.

Nine years on, and this year’s final is hosted in the Adelphi Theatre on the Strand in London, to an audience of around 1,000 people, which just goes to show how much the event has expanded.

Throughout the heats, the competition tries to go to as many LGBT+ venues as possible. "This year, we went to the new Zodiac bar in Warren Street, which is the UK’s only trans owned and run space," says Twaits. The idea was to put a "spotlight on the community elevating acts and giving you access space to try out work that perhaps I haven’t heard elsewhere", he adds.

"For the final, we want to do something that is on the grandest scale we possibly can and I don’t think you’d get the same wow factor from the backroom of a bar or 150 seats". The event’s not just for Londoners though, as the competition is seeing people from travelling from all over the UK to take part, and Twaits mentions the idea of having heats in other parts of the country, or even other cities having their own version in the future, although he’s keen to emphasise it’s not about making money.

Alexa Vox performing her caberet act at the finals in 2022
Alexa Vox performing her caberet act at the finals in 2022 (Carol J Moir)

Instead, what’s key here for Pride’s Got Talent is to really uplift and include all parts of the community. For Alexa Vox, winning 2022’s competition in the cabaret category as a trans woman over 45 has undoubtedly changed her life. Being crowned the winner "goes far beyond just performing at Pride London, which is of course unbelievable. But it’s also about " representing your corner of the community".

Vox adds that "nobody gets to stand for eight minutes on a West End stage and perform a complete solo," which is also part of the winning package for cabaret acts. She adds:"That doesn’t happen. I’ve not only done that, but I’ve done that as a trans person over the age of 45. I’ve been doing this a long time, and these doors weren’t opened previously."

Her success since winning has continued over the past year too, and has meant she’s "been seen more seriously as an act" and she’s been "seen by more people".

Vox’s win also highlights how special the event really is, as it provides a safe space for those acts within the community who are often overlooked, where drag queens are tending to dominate the LGBT+ entertaining space at the moment, in part thanks to increasingly popular shows like Ru Paul’s Drag Race. The show has undoubtedly positively elevated the profile of drag queens, but in reality there’s far more of a spectrum within the community. Vox says: "The scene moves in waves, like fashion, following whatever the trend at the moment is, which tends to be one type of drag. That type of drag is fantastic, and of course we all love the show [Ru Paul’s Drag Race], but there’s so much more out there."

Twaits adds to the notion and says the popular act of the moment is more specifically male bodied queens, adding that "if there’s a drag king act, it’s most likely going to be a drag king themed night", making them usually in the minority. He adds: "If you don’t fit that [popular act of drag queens] you’re fighting for space".

Vox’s top tip for entering the competition is to be your authentic self, which proved to be the right formula for her, as her winning act was based on her life story. "I produced an eight minute mini musical. People came on the journey of my whole story", which she says "is not a sad one, as many trans stories are".

"My trans story is actually a story of joy – my life got infinitely better the day I transitioned". Vox explains that she didn’t transition until she was in her mid 30s, and says her life continues to "get better, thanks to this platform".

Vox even goes on to say how much this positivity has rippled out beyond just her life too. "It doesn’t just include me. I’ve got family, I’ve adopted children. You know, it’s a knock on effect. And we’re all in a happier place."

Drag king Sweet FA is one of this year’s cabaret finalists
Drag king Sweet FA is one of this year’s cabaret finalists (Jake Hills)

This year, there’s 10 eager finalists which are again split into five singers and five cabaret acts, who are all battling it out to be crowned. But they’ve all got the same ethos when it comes to why they’re there, which is to represent, inspire and uplift their community.

For singer Jobie, being in the competition is about "representing countryside queers in such an influential space, as growing up I didn’t have the exposure to ‘be who you want to be’. It felt like a very enclosed space. Winning would provide other kids like me with the scope to push for what you want, no matter where or who you are."

While Sweet FA, whose drag king persona is a queer Catholic priest, says their act: "Exists to validate, uplift, accept and love the queer community in a way that the priests I had growing up as a queer Catholic, never did, and still don’t."

Previous winners of the competition include Adam All, who’s now a huge drag king, and had the honour of  taking home the first crown, while Alex James Ellison, a comic songwriter, has gone on to write musicals. "Then we’ve had double act musical comedy duos, we had a political drag queen so we’ve had very different skill sets and never really the same style of act twice," says Twaits.

So varied have all the winning acts been, that "in fact, if you put all the winners together it’d be an amazing show," Twaits says, which sounds like it could be the next generation of the talent event.

Aswell as winning £1,000 and performing at Pride, on the music side the winner gets to record an EP to release, while the Cabaret winner gets to perform a solo show, which this year will be at The Phoenix Arts Club.

Judging the event is Megan Lawrenson from BMG Production Music, Stefan Doering the head of Pride talent, Victoria Scone from Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK, drag king LoUis CYfer and Mzz Kimberley who has been judge of the finals for years, along with The Independent‘s own culture and lifestyle news editor, Rosin O’Connor.

On the singing side, Jobie is another finalist this year
On the singing side, Jobie is another finalist this year (Jake Hills)

The competition is so exhilarating that Twaits says "every year we come to the contest, slightly negatively thinking ‘it’s not going to be as good as last year’, ‘wasn’t last year amazing?’, ‘wasn’t the talent brilliant’. But then every year during the heats you’ll have an act, and think, ‘Where the hell have you come from?’".

Looking ahead to the final, it’s going to be a hard one to call. "I feel we’ve got five very different music acts, all representing different styles of music and different areas of the community. And then we’ve got the cabaret, where no two acts are really the same. I mean, good luck to the judges, but there’s no two assets comparable,’ says Twaits.

When it comes to what to expect on the night, Twaits says: "Well, obviously for me, there’ll be big dresses… There’s always a lot of emotion" too. He says he always wants to get it across that this isn’t a traditional night in the theatre. "Audiences aren’t sat there silently, passively, just letting the shows wash over them. They’re on their feet dancing, shouting and screaming along, as well as getting their tissues out as well." Plus, he says "where else can you get £15 tickets for a West End Show?".

Vox will perform at the final as reigning champion, although without the pressure. She’s described it as her "second in a lifetime opportunity", after winning last year. This time though, it’s with a new act, singing a musical theatre number, as she says she no longer needs to tell the story. "I want people to say, ‘oh, she’s a singer’".

Whoever the winner may be, you’ll be able to see all of the finalists again at Pride too, as they’ll all perform across the stages around the city. Vox will also be on three of the five stages at Pride London’s event on 1 July too, she says she’s taking every chance to perform she can. "For people like me, opportunities [like this] don’t happen." Yet they have, and Pride’s Got Talent is certainly seeing to the fact that it continues to happen for other people too.

Pride’s Got Talent final takes place on Monday 27 June at London’s Adelphi theatre. Buy tickets from £15 here

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