Jonny Woo, East London’s queen of drag

Jonny Woo, East London’s queen of drag and owner of iconic pub The Glory talks performance, identity and drag superstardom in a Covid age with Sylvie Wilkinson

drag queenJockstrap, heels and a smudge of makeup: Jonny Woo’s drag style was born of these three ingredients. A legend in the drag sphere and beyond, his alternative performances are known for their edge and flare – but where did it all begin?

Jonny Woo took his performance name from a school nickname given to the 16-year-old Jonathan Wooster. Jonny was born in Camberwell but grew up on the Hoo Peninsula, Kent. Despite having a background in dance and drama, Jonny’s drag persona didn’t materialise until adulthood: “I started doing what I do now when I moved to New York in 2000, hanging out in the downtown performance art and burlesque scene that was just starting up there.”

Now aged 48, Jonny’s approach to drag and performance is still political to its core. At first, drag was an almost incidental extension of his radical performance style. In New York, he collaborated with other artists, performing at burlesque nights with a nod to drag: “There were a lot of queers performing on that scene. I kept my beard and all that stuff, a gender blend rather than full drag – I explored loads of different ideas when I was in New York.

“I got very friendly with Lavinia Co-op as well during this time, a very experienced alternative drag performer who was a member of the Bloolips, a London-based troop in the 80s.”

Jonny moved to East London in 2003, bringing with him a new energy and approach to performance that would shape the drag scene in the UK: “I wanted to experiment with all the ideas I’d been playing with in New York, and a scene built up around this.” For Jonny, modern drag is about much more than men dressed as women. Drag has political power to break down gender norms, challenge stereotypes and express identity. The East London drag scene has grown from this.

“My drag style used to be more of a gender blend – knickers and a tie, very naked a lot of the time, chucking things on, getting up and dancing around. I’ve never been one for fake tits or padding, I like to reveal that I’m a guy.”

In 2004, Pablo Flack and David Waddington opened the Bethnal Green restaurant and cabaret room Bistrotheque. Jonny was asked to be their resident artist, where his fame in East London took off: “We did a drag lip-syncing competition there, which moved into cabaret style. I was there for about 12 years in total, and I then took shows to the Edinburgh Fringe and developed relationships with the Soho Theatre. I’ve travelled around Europe, Australia and taken shows back to New York.”

One of Jonny’s most notable projects of the past 10 years has been his All-Star Brexit Cabaret, for which he teamed up with Olivier Award-winning composer Richard Thomas. Jonny also devised his Un-Royal Variety show – an alternative drag and cabaret variety that took place at the Hackney Empire in 2017.

Jonny admits his aesthetic is now more conventional than it once was. His costumes, made by fellow performer and designer Jacqui Potato, have a more traditional impact: “I enjoy having big outfits made – I swish in and swish out again. I still get naked and cover myself in paint if I feel like it, so the crazy shocking element is still lurking, although I don’t know if I have the energy for it so much anymore.”

Over the past decade, there has been a push to save LGBT+ venues in the UK, more than half of which closed between 2006 and 2017. The pandemic has only added fuel to an already blazing fire, and in September the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan allocated an additional £130,000 in extra grants to support LGBT+ pubs and bars in the capital.

Amid this sobering reality, one survivor is The Glory – an LGBT+ pub and performance space in Haggerston. Founded by Jonny Woo, John Sizzle and Colin Rothbart in 2014, The Glory offers queer performers a place to forge careers through competitions and drag shows.

Being both a hospitality business owner and performer, Jonny’s stability has taken a hit this year. Despite this, he is keen to focus on the good: “We’ve been very fortunate at The Glory – we received a grant from the Culture Recovery Fund, which has gotten us through […] we’re grateful we got the financial support, we’re hoping we get some more to get us through this last bit so we can have a nice big reopening.”

“My drag style used to be more of a gender blend – knickers and a tie, very naked a lot of the time, chucking things on, getting up and dancing around. I’ve never been one for fake tits or padding, I like to reveal that I’m a guy.”


Jonny is looking forward to business resuming at The Glory, where the drag king competition Man Up will start up again, as well as their legendary lip-syncing competition Lipsync 1000: “We’re going to have a full program, just go on our website pretty soon and you will see the calendar will start filling up.”

Jonny is also writing a new play, Silvertown, based on Hubert Selby Jr’s 1964 novel Last Exit to Brooklyn, which he hopes will go into production next year: “Having time to do research is amazing. Creatively, I’ve been very grateful to be able to work on this new project.”

After speaking to activist Stuart Feather from the Gay Liberation Front, Jonny heard about The Kent Arms, an iconic pub where drag queens, dockworkers and members of the underground gay community would gather in the 1960s. The pub was situated in North Woolwich – a small area of the docks between City Airport and the river. Jonny quickly saw the potential of this space as the setting for his play.

“Two straight couples walk into a gay bar, that’s the premise. The pub just happens to be a pub based on a real pub that existed in the 1960s at a time when being gay was illegal and dangerous, and gay people were heavily prejudiced – violently, verbally. It was a hidden society, but there were these amazing pubs in the docks.

“I’ve been interviewing local people from the area who have told me all about it, and older gay men about being gay in the 60s. I’ve written monologues for actors which are available on YouTube.”

The world of drag has been thrust into mainstream consciousness with the rise of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, the first series of which gained over 12 million viewers. Even mentioning Drag Race feels like a disservice to Jonny’s style, though in his mind the popular BBC show has some merits: “I think queens are thinking of Drag Race as a viable goal and a great way to make a lot of money.

“More punky venues like mine, we’re not so interested in that. We all watch it and love it, but the people who want the Drag Race thing go to a brunch in some straight venue populated predominately by straight people. If I went into a drag brunch and gave them what I wanted to do, they’d boo me off!”

Having been mainly based in East London since 1995, Jonny feels at home in the area: “East London is great. If I’m going to live in London, I’m going to live where my work is, my friends are and my community is. It makes sense – East London has everything.”

The East London drag scene rejects convention with warmth and humour, qualities built up and established by Jonny: “Drag is something we can all do. It’s not about being on a pedestal – it’s about being in the middle of the dance floor, having fun and getting everyone else into the spirit.”

Young queens who perform alternative drag today do so with an awareness of those who went before: Jonny Woo is one of those who fiercely and creatively paved the way.


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