Manchester's drag queens come out in full-frontal force in Festival Square

The Manchester International Festival opener is always a lively affair, and with the Drunk at Vogue ensemble in charge of kicking off the festival for a third year in a row, this one promised to carry on the hedonistic tradition.

We sent along Body Confidential editor, L'Oreal Blackett, a go-getting young woman in her mid-20s, as well as Jonathan Payne, a 'dull, straight, white male' twice her age(ish), to see how each of their experiences stacked up.

'Grace Oni Smith is now entirely naked, while another queen crawls on all fours wearing peek-a-boo briefs and fishnets'

L'Oréal Blackett

I spy Liquorice Black first; ghost white face, black lips, all seven foot of her (give or take an inch) monochrome in ink black lace as if she’d been cut from analog static. Liquorice prowls Manchester's underground drag scene alongside Anna Phylactic, Grace Oni Smith, Lill Queen and Cheddar Gorgeous - ethereal drag creatures who look to have burst from the imagination of Tim Burton, taking up permanent court on Canal Street.

In Manchester’s internationally revered drag community, these are names you know and faces you seldom forget.

The brightest, boldest and most brazen of the drag set are out in force for Drunk at Vogue – the city’s most renowned drag party – a night of unbridled hedonism, dance and disco tunes.

This party carries a watershed warning.

It's ‘Manchester’s drag ball 1880’ and drag compere and performance artist Grace Oni Smith emerges dressed as a Victorian Queen - a bald queen, who likes to swear like a sailor and twerk while nude. “Keep up the applause,” she demands of the crowd, “it makes my fanny twitch.”

There's plenty more fanny jokes and double entendre to come. Drag comedy is crude by nature. Yet the humour can also be smart, speckled with political commentary and social indignation, from the use of Christian symbolism to Theresa May's mush - their political persuasions are clear to see.

Grace Oni Smith, a trans woman, is now entirely naked, while another queen crawls on all fours wearing peek-a-boo briefs and fishnets. But is this needless nudity? I’m undecided. During a time where gender norms are continually being challenged, Grace is using her ‘trans body as a canvas’ for self-expression. If this is an act of gender binary rebellion, then the crowd love it.

The controversial culture and language of drag has been hungrily embraced by the mainstream in recent years. The illustrious drag superstar Ru Paul and his hit show the Drag Race has even earned him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. More and more people are becoming exposed and appreciative of the intricacies of drag transformation (all the penis tucking) and what’s more, the complexities of gender identity. 

“We’re all born naked and the rest is drag,” said Ru famously. Indeed, and tonight, there's plenty of both.

17 07 3 Drunk At Vogue Grace Oni Smith
Drunk at Vogue

'It was Gay in all the best senses of the word'

Jonathan Payne

The Drunk at Vogue boys sure know how to throw a party. This is the third time they’ve run the festival opener, and this year we had Night Life. Loosely indebted to past parties of Manchester, including the raided Hulme drag balls of the nineteenth century, and taking in some of the darker hues that LGBT parties have been subjected to recently, this is a gathering that pretty much commanded you to dance – the buzzwords being hedonism, political, radical – beautiful. In these precarious times, dancing is a political act…

The quartet of Greg, Gary, Thom and James, who run DaV, pulled in their compatriots, the Houses of Decay and Ghetto, whose gorgeous ‘House Mothers’ hosted the evening – take a bow Grace Oni Smith, Joshua Hubbard and Darren Pritchard. We had dance offs between the two houses, and a quite hilarious audience dance off … I’m still trying to work out how one girl took her clothes off without using her hands, as she skipped back down the catwalk, Grace chipping in with ‘Oh, you must be the only person here in non-matching underwear’, and congrats to Anne-Louise, Grace again: ‘You can come up, any woman with sellotape over her nipples must be on stage’. The winner, Bryony, was fierce, poised … and also nearly naked.

Glitter, fishnets, leather, wigs, chiffon, pearl merkins, sellotape, thundering pop house, a soggy carpeted dancefloor, loos that closed an hour before the tent closed, conversations and screams. It was Gay in all the best senses of the word. As a dull straight white male, I do hope that Stephen hooked up. ‘What do you do?’ I asked, ‘BDSM’ he replied  … ‘Ah, I actually meant for a living…’; ‘Oh that. I’m a financial analyst. Let’s dance.'

My face is still sparkling as I type this.

Find out more about this year's Manchester International Festival via their website, or follow Confidential for more MIF news and reviews.