From a galaxy far far away, Glamrou and her Denim queens are hurtling towards VAULT Festival at the speed of light…
That’s right, Cambridge’s first – and so far only – drag troupe Denim are landing their spaceship down at VAULT Festival to battle the destruction of queer spaces and look futuristically fierce while doing so.
We caught up lead performer Amrou Al-Kadhi [Glamrou] and the queens to discuss the Denim queens, how important the preservation of LGBT spaces is, and taking to the stage with Florence + The Machine at NYC Downlow – one of Glastonbury Festivals greatest performance spaces.
Greetings Glamrou and the Denim queens, do you come in peace? We’re irreverently and chaotically peaceful.
You’re landing at VAULT Festival at the end of the month, what brings you here? And what wonders are you bringing us? As it’s been two years of offensively high budget space movies – which tend to be about straight white men redeeming mankind, let’s face it –, we want to bring you a queer drag narrative of a heroic space odyssey.
Our show parodies the narrative of Interstellar, where mankind leaves a dying earth to find a new planet to found. Our show sees five lost drag queens having to flee the dying space of Soho into space itself, to find a queer new planet to call home. This is our biggest show to date – expect inter-galactic projections, cosmic-cabaret, a huge drag alien puppet, a half alien half drag queen birthing sequence, low budget high tech sequences, and 60s throwback queer sci-fi looks.
VAULT Festival is a VERY important space for emerging artists and diverse audiences bang in the heart of London (and it is, like so many brilliant spaces, currently under threat – GRR). It is an essential time to be performing our show about saving such spaces in such an essential space itself!
What does the closure of queer haunts and safe spaces mean to you? This is something very close to our hearts as queer people living in London. We’ve been going out in Soho from very young ages, and to watch what is currently happening to queer venues in Soho and around the city is devastating. As someone who has experienced familial rejection due to my sexuality, the importance of safe collective spaces is second to none, and I can’t believe how rapidly they are disappearing.
As a young queer person in London, I [Amrou] am more and more finding that my drag is less accepted in certain gay spaces. I think both the cultural and physical gentrification of urban space has a lot do with the rise of the term “straight-acting”, for instance, and the internalised homophobia in gay spaces which seem more and more to value hetero-normative models of male behaviour. It’s incredibly sad to watch queer people dissociate with their history, and even reject any association with the term. I also, from first hand experience, think the closure of collective spaces and the rapidly growing jungle of online space is leading to more unsafe situations for a lot of gay men.
What do you want your audience to take away from your performance at VAULT? We want them to be uplifted and moved. Our aim is always to blend our political commentary with music and comedy, so that our audiences can associate what they have heard and learned about queer culture with an incredibly joyous experience. We love the idea of a positive, celebratory form of social progress, which is what we try to do with our denim shows!
Who are your drag influences, and what fierce women do you look up to at the moment? We are massive believers in drag as a form of parody and social critique, and are in awe of queens who reference their artifice and who consciously play and perform a commentary on identity; I personally LOVE Katya from season 7 of drag race for this reason, but Adore De Lano is pretty major too. I think what Jonny Woo has done for the London queer scene recently, and the way he performs political works as well as fostering younger artists – Denim included –, is extraordinary.
Always and forever Eddie and Patsy from AB FAB – I actually have a small role as a featured drag queen in the upcoming AB FAB movie! They are such icons of dragging female identity. WE LOVE THEM LONGTIME. Oh, and the Denims have an obsession with the late and fabulous Duchess of Alba. We do a pre-show hands in and celebrate her name before we go on.
I love the idea of a drag Robin Hood, stealing the wealth from dominant space and bringing it back to queer communities.
You’re the first and only professional drag troupe to come out of Cambridge University, how did you get started? I, [Amrou], had wanted to do drag long before Cambridge, but it was in my second year that I finally plucked up the courage. The university had one OK LGBT club night, but I wanted to throw a party that was “queer” in a more open sense. Not necessarily about sexual orientation, but for any kind of student who wanted to transgress gender and social norms in a more open sense, and I invited lots of wonderful queer performers to share the stage with me in some under ground cellars. I ordered the most mental wigs I could find on eBay, and watched make-up tutorials on YouTube – I looked really quite discombobulated.
From then on we began throwing massive parties for the entire student body, – up to 1,000 students at our peak – in historically quite traditional spaces, like the Cambridge Union, for instance, which pushed our interest to use drag within mainstream spaces to hopefully critique and eventually liberate those spaces.
Five years later, we are a five-part drag girl band, using the format of a mainstream pop girl band, with queer content and commentary. This is what fascinates us, and where we think we might have political potential. We hope to infiltrate mainstream spaces in an accessible format while critiquing that space and providing new conceptions of gender and identity. I love the idea of a drag Robin Hood, stealing the wealth from dominant space and bringing it back to queer communities.
What was the reaction like from your first performance in Cambridge? Sort of unbelievable – we sold out, and 400 students arrived, in drag, wanting to support. It was like there was this muffled thirst for drag and queer subversion waiting to happen, and we had finally unlocked it. I’ll never forget that night. It was a real ‘It Gets Better’ moment, ha!
Why do you think no one else had done it before? It’s tricky to say; as I’m sure people had dressed up in drag, but not in terms of an actual drag night and drag troupe.
I think the academia at Cambridge was finally catching up with contemporary society while I was a student there, and more and more students were looking to queer theory and more alternative frameworks of culture and history in their work. The student intake was becoming a lot more diverse, and in general I think the research people were doing was becoming more diverse – I had two incredible supervisors join and teach me in my time, who introduced me to a whirlwind of queer feminist performance art, and other such inspiring things!
I think timing was also important – the first year we did Denim was also when Gaga released Born This Way, and I think there was a mass cultural appetite for queer aesthetics and messages of solidarity and hope that was hard to deny.
We’re sure you get a true queen’s welcome when you return to Cambridge, but are there any other places in the UK or the world you want to perform? We just love performing in spaces that might not expect drag queens, and winning them over.
We did a gig in Aldeburgh to about 100 elderly country folk last summer, and winning them round by the last number felt like an achievement! When we headlined Port Eliot Festival in Cornwall in 2014, having families with 8 year-olds come backstage asking us to perform at their children’s birthday parties – which we’ve since done! – was also hugely moving for us! In terms of social progress, I think it’s all about the next generation. So yeah, more of those kind of unexpected audiences would be great.
Oh, and Wembley, obviously. Or maybe the Superbowl. That would be a fun one to try and queer. Maybe we could do a queer version of that INSANE and terrifying Donald Trump rally. Fuck, that was scary.
We have to ask about performing with Florence at NYC Downlow, how was it? And how did it come about? We met Florence as she happened to be at one of our gigs at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club in 2014, and we were coincidentally covering her song – cut to her on the side of the stage, us beckoning her on, and then we did a spontaneous duet!We then got to talking, and when we realised we’d both be at Glastonbury, we decided to do something.
NYC Downlow was the perfect venue to pitch the idea to, obviously. It was a JOYOUS moment – I was dressed in a rainbow flag, it was Gay Pride, it was the queer area of Glastonbury, and we bloody sang Spectrum, a song about colour, multiplicity and love. She’s a fucking rock star, and I think the most significant performer and vocalist of our generation. She just gives so much of herself, and her songs are like a window into her soul, especially live…. Anyway, yeah, it was incredible, It felt so significant that the queer pocket of Glastonbury had a secret performance with the headline act that year.
Is she an honorary queen now? I would feel super pumped if she said she was an honorary queen, ha. She is certainly majestic. The power she has on stage is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
What song would you lip sync for your lives to you? Nessum Dorma.
And what are your thoughts on the latest Drag Race line up? Already living for Kim Chi. Love her parodic and self-referential aesthetic. She also seems hilarious.
What is next for Denim? Once we finish our Vault run, we’re hoping to take our show around theatres in London and the UK, as well as finishing our album – the first single is out now – We want to tour the world as a queer drag version of the Spice Girls. It’s time, we think! The music video we just released is a real throwback to the 90s girl band pop moment – please check it out!
Any words of advice for young – or old – queens out there? Old Queens – Thank you for everything you have done to make drag possible for us today! We are forever in your debt.
Young queens – RESPECT and don’t forget the incredible, rich and tough lineage of queer culture.
Also, I’d say I think the most important thing is that drag has to be political, and should be about pushing boundaries for all kinds of audiences. More and more I’m seeing drag that seems very narcissistic and just about looking glamorous and up to date with high fashion, rather than about entertaining people, or making a social and political critique. I think it’s the responsibility of all drag queens to use their art and performances to say important things, and to uplift, entertain, and educate audiences.
Denim runs until 6 March at VAULT Festival, 9:30pm, £16, tickets are available from vaultfestival.com
And if you want to get a hold of Denim’s single – just as RuPaul says – it’s available on iTunes
For all your drag needs, don’t forget to pick up a copy of Shade, GT’s glamorous sister publication, for only £1.49 from gaytimesmagazine.com