It’s Friday afternoon and we’re at a corporate lawyer’s penthouse apartment on Old Street. A poppers-worthy Kelly Rowland remix eructates from an expensive soundsystem, as a shot glass shatters gently in the sink.
Dancer and drag performer Raven Mandella is out on the balcony, dressed head-to-toe in a creation that would give Princess Amidala an inferiority complex (and Princess Beatrice a headache).
The beating sun glints off the outfit’s glissade of shimmering fragments, and the light hits a passing helicopter, which falters and dips, narrowly missing the Shard. Raven waves to the distant, bemused pilot. “Iya! Ooh my ride’s here, come pick us up!”
Her aircraft-crashingly distinct ensemble is the work of designer Jack Irving, known for his trademark galactical showgirl look, shaking up fashion weeks across the world and, famously, styling Lady Gaga for the end of her Artpop tour in Paris.
Raven’s casual acquaintance with an internationally renowned designer like Jack is a great example of how ingrained she is with not just London’s gay scene, but its fashion and nightlife in general. She’s only lived here for three years, and she’s already owning it, hosting club nights and becoming a regular installation at iconic scene institutions like Sink The Pink and Heaven.
She has a glittering, infectious and instantly welcoming presence. One of those unique people who commands a room as soon as she walks into it, not with domineering arrogance, but with irresistible friendliness.
But these past few months have, to put it mildly, been challenging for Raven. In stark contrast to the unbridled joy and daily dose of glamour she’s always been accustomed to, her life took an unexpected and extreme turn in April last year, after an incident on a night out led to a court case and, ultimately, jail time.
Now, just over a year later, she’s back out in the real world. Contrary to her fears, she’s found that, for the most part, the gay scene has welcomed her back with open arms.
Raven grew up on an estate in Leeds, so her life has undergone seismic shifts since her move to London. As the sun sets over the city, and men in suits eye her from below, we discuss the drive and motivation that first brought her here.
“I love where I come from, I love the North,” she says emphatically. “But I’ve done everything I can in Leeds. You kind of get to a point, and once you get there, that’s as far as it goes. Kind of a stalemate. That’s not what I want in my life. I don’t want to be that person who goes to the same local shop, or gets the pint of milk at 3 o’ clock every day or whatever.”
For Raven, a big part of living in a city like London is the sense of possibility, which sadly just wasn’t there for her back home.
“When you come to London, you get out what you put in. If you work hard, you get results,” she adjusts a glittering shoulderpad thoughtfully. “That’s what I’ve found being in this city, and that’s what I love. But then, I’ve got lots of good friends, and I’m lucky that I’ve got the best of the best people in London looking after me. I live with Tasty Tim. Miss Kimberley’s my drag mother. I’m very good friends with Amy Zing and Glyn Fussell, from Sink The Pink. So I have lots of good people in my corner supporting me, and I’m thankful for that.”
It was this support network of artists and performers that proved invaluable during Raven’s time in prison. Without them, she says, she might not have been able to cope.
“I never once felt abandoned. Every week I had letters – sometimes ten letters a week. And people in there would say ‘who the fuck are you, some kind of celebrity?’ And I’d say ‘no it’s just my friends!’ I knew there was basically a movement going on out here – there were ‘Free Raven Mandella’ t-shirts!”
“Nadim Aoun, Amy [Zing] and Mzz Kimberley were my rocks. Every couple of weeks, Amy would send me massive packs of letters. I never felt like I’d been forgotten. Sometimes you can get exiled, and that’s it. ‘She’s in jail, fuck her.’ But that didn’t happen. So I felt very privileged.”
But there were, obviously, darker aspects to Raven’s time inside. Being in that sort of environment would be oppressive for anyone, never mind a black, gay drag queen. As well as dealing with the day-to-day trials of modern prison life, it also brought some of Raven’s older demons to the surface.
“It’s kind of like crawling back inside yourself,” she says, sounding uncharacteristically vulnerable for the first time. “I came out when I was 22. So I’d obviously lived in the closet for a long time. And it was kind of like going back to that dark place, and having that shadow over you. It follows you, wherever you go. You monitor the way you walk, the way you talk, the way you act, the things you say…it was like going back ten years.”
“That was the most difficult thing for me – not being able to express myself. I couldn’t laugh how I wanted, or do a death drop and throw myself on the floor, or say “hey girl!” or whatever. You know what I mean. You just couldn’t be yourself. So that was the most difficult part. But saying that, that’s where I come from. I come from the streets. I’ve had to learn.”
Despite echoes of her upbringing, Raven was still shocked by the conditions in prison. It is, she said, everything you think it’s going to be, and then some.
“It’s horrendous. You come out of your cell, and there are people getting slashed, people getting stabbed, and fights…all day, every day. People setting themselves on fire in their cells, people chopping their dicks off.”
Raven avoided the more corrosive aspects of life in prison by finding herself allies among some of the staff.
“I started working in the kitchens. For months, I couldn’t bring myself to get involved, but in the end I did. I started to get on with the women working there. And by the end, everyone knew I did drag! Even the prisoners! I was showing them pictures!”
Interestingly, once her peers had a greater insight into her life in the outside world, they seemed to understand and accept her more.
“The day before I got out, it was my birthday. I’d told everyone I was going. I was at work in the kitchen, chopping some onions, doing my bit. And all of a sudden I heard “Haaaappy birthdaaay…” and all the prisoners had baked me a cake! But because they couldn’t have candles, they’d used an oven lighter, holding it on top of the cake!”
“In the end, they were all really lovely. Even now they’ll call me sometimes on my phone, from their cells. There’s some really lovely people in jail. That sounds mad, but there are. They’re real. It was nice to just be around realness. Real realness. Real, actual people.”
Having been through the experience, and come out the other side, she’s not only philosophical, but humbly contrite about her time inside.
“I did something wrong,” she says, putting down her champagne glass with a resigned shrug. “I know I did wrong. I know I had to pay for it. So I went, and I did that. I could have got years for what I did, but I didn’t, because the judge knew I was being sincere. And so he said ‘ok, we won’t give you this much time. But we have to give you something because of what was done.’ And I’ve done it. And now I’ve come back, and I’m going to get on with my life.”
We top up our champagne glasses as Cé the photographer flits around us gathering up his equipment. On the street below, East London’s cast of graphic designers and model slash DJs are starting their nights out. Inside, on the expensive soundsystem, Rihanna’s finding love in a hopeless place.
As Raven reflects on how prison changed her outlook on the world, we start chatting about how our social circles see life. Inevitably, talk turns to politics, and with it, race, and the insanely incendiary nature of social media.
“It’s just tired isn’t it,” she sighs. “Very, very tired. There’s a heat, or a tension in the air. What people seem to be doing at the moment, is factioning off. Going off into their own groups. But at times like this, we need to group together. I can feel negative energies and I don’t like it.”
“We should all be embracing each other – appreciating each other’s cultures. Not cultural appropriation, cultural appreciation. Because I appreciate everything I see. And that’s what we should all be doing. Loving each other. Not saying ‘oh he’s a white person,’ or ‘he’s a black person’ or ‘she’s a trans person.’”
She necks the last of her champagne and stands to go inside, pulling open the balcony doors as the last blood-red shards of the sunset ricochet from her headdress.
“We’re all people. We’re all human beings. We need to get over ourselves. And that’s the T.”