Cabaret legend Dave Lynn talks performance nerves and the new, modern definition of drag

It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon in Brighton and Dave Lynn is preparing to perform at a new venue.

He’s been a drag artist since 1976, playing the pubs, clubs and festivals of the UK, famously appearing in cult gay film Beautiful Thing, pitching up on Coronation Street, singing with Lesley Joseph on Birds of a Feather, and starring in countless theatre productions.

This week, Jason Reid and Dave talk past, present and future…  


What was the drag scene like when you started out in the 70s? 

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It was very underground. You had to be in the know as there were no gay papers or magazines and hardly any drag on TV. I started in a talent contest and then performed everywhere I could for £15 a night.

It’s interesting that talent contests have remained a constant over the years. If anything they’ve become more popular!

The format works. I didn’t get as much out of it back then as I would now, because the competitions are much better known and on a bigger scale. Whatever your opinion of the show, I think RuPaul has done it well with Drag Race. I was lucky, and very enthusiastic. Enthusiasm always helps. 

Did you have to be tougher then? 

No, I think you have to be tougher now. When I left school I was offered a place at stage school and my parents said I was too sensitive – they were right. But then when it came to performing as a drag artist, I didn’t think about where I was going because I was just so happy be on the stage. ‘Making it’ is not just about TV and film. If you can carve a successful career out of working in pubs and clubs, then you’ve made it.

Living through times like the AIDS crisis and Section 28 must have difficult as an out gay man? 

Of course. Thankfully, early on, I was taught the importance of being brave and proud of myself. The network was small and underground, but it was extremely supportive. We were like a brethren. 

In recent years drag has become much more mainstream. What do you think of that? 

I mean it’s good, but ultimately it’s just a job. People seem to think we live this amazing and glamorous life. On the gay scene the ‘stars’ are now in the audience, especially in Brighton. 

Another thing that’s changed is how people interact – the internet and social media. 

We had to make do with a landline and word of mouth! It’s all relative though. Social media is a good thing and I like using it – mostly to post pictures and updates that mean something to me personally. But it’s also bittersweet. I think we all have to learn how to deal with it in a way that benefits us best. If you know what I mean…

Totally agree about it being bittersweet. Do you ever get nervous before performing? 

Absolutely – different nerves now though. I was never one of those artists that felt sick before a show. I was always kind of hyper and now I’m very quiet. 

Are nerves important? 

Yeah, because if if you haven’t got nerves then you haven’t got ‘it’. Nerves can work to your advantage, and there must be some anticipation of what’s going to happen. 

Is there anything you haven’t done that you’d like to do? You know, like a drag bucket list. 

I’d love to host a chat show and be the first drag queen contestant on Strictly Come Dancing! 

Finally, as a highly respected artist with a career that spans over five decades, what is that secret (or not so secret) recipe for longevity? If anyone knows, you should! 

Oh, the million dollar question! You have to believe in yourself and refresh your act from time to time. Don’t be scared of doing other things or taking time out – it’s good for you as an artist and it makes you appreciate the scene when you come back. 

Older artists won’t be here forever, and we really want to see good new acts succeed, because it makes what we did last. Remember it’s about more than just looking gorgeous. As my mother used to say to me: ‘After the first song we’ve seen your dress and the look – now give us a show’. 

Dave Lynn will be hosting ‘A Spectacular Night for Michael Topping’ on 9 November at Two Brewers. 

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