Drag superstar Lola Lasagne looks back to a time when the gay community was ripped apart by AIDS and Margaret Thatcher.
In part of one of our interview with Lola Lasagne, the drag superstar opened up about how hard it was living in self isolation, why she had no plans to enter Drag Race and what the future holds. Here, in a moving conversation with GuysLikeU, Lola – real name Stephen Richards – takes us back in time to when he first started out as a drag queen and gay life has changed over the past thirty years!
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Had a blast hosting ‘Boozy Lady Bingo’ at @dukeofwellington_soho tonight. And because I’m long sighted, the light is low & the numbers small, here I am rocking my new glasses. Back next week so come along for chances to win booze, prizes, cash. Listen to me be completely disrespectful. Watch me get a wee bit tipsy 😉😂
Stephen, take us back to life before Lola. Where did you live and when did you realise you were gay?
I was born in Earls’s Court in 1969, moved to Ealing until I was about five and then to South London where I stayed until I was 28 and moved to Brighton. I knew I was gay when I was very young. I just knew. End of story.
Were you ever nervous about telling your family?
My sister was the first person who found out and she was fine about it. My dad passed away when I was 10, so he never knew about me. My grandfather also passed away without knowing, which I guess saved a lot of potential tension as he certainly wouldn’t have understood. My grandmother took a little time to get her head around it but in the end she was fine. Both my grandparents came from a very different culture but were the loveliest people, so them knowing my sexuality was irrelevant. They loved me for who I was. My mother? Well, it took a very long time but there were many factors there which we don’t have time for…….
Were you out at school?
God no! I was the weediest child anyway. Small and skinny, so ripe for the bullies and there were plenty. At that point I hadn’t seen The Avengers on TV so didn’t know how to fight! I went to Archbishop Tenisons, a boys school which is opposite the Oval cricket ground and a five minute mince from the RVT. I was told repeatedly by the hilarious boys that I’d be going there when I grew up. HOW RIGHT THEY WERE!!!!!!! I managed to survive by running quite fast and using humour whenever I could.
What was the gay scene like back in the 80s / 90s?
So exciting! Back then, gay venues were tolerated even if gays themselves weren’t. Everything was hidden behind closed doors and we relied on the gay press to find out what was going on where and when. At the time, I had a job at Woolworths on Chancery Lane and Judi, the delicatessen manager, knew I was gay and took me to my first gay bar. I think it was The Euston Tavern, on Euston Road opposite St Pancras Hotel OR it was Traffic, on York Road. It was an absolute eye opener to a young impressionable young man like myself. I also went to the Two Brewers when I was 17! Obviously licensing meant I shouldn’t have been in there but venues tended to turn a blind eye as these were safe spaces for us. And the police didn’t really crack down on the scene until section 28……….
It’s hard to believe that there was once a time when being gay could have landed you in hot water with the law?
I lived in Brixton and completely by accident discovered that certain public toilets offered a lot more than the chance to go for a wee. For the kids reading this it’s called cottaging or cruising. I was too young to get into the venues at that point and didn’t have any gay friends. People feared going to venues in case they were seen by family, friends, colleagues from work so finding places where other men cruised for sex was the norm, although like any cruising, it was incredibly dangerous.
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#throwbackthursday Halloween 1987 I believe & the very first time I put drag on. I was a barman at the Two Brewers. This is me & the gorgeous David who refused to put drag on. But you wouldn't when you look like that, would you 😊#dragqueen #babyqueen #barman #barmaid #hotpotken #twobrewers
Around this time, the AIDS epidemic was gripping the world….
Just like the time we’re living in right now, there was no cure, no way of telling if someone had HIV until they got sick. The media branded it the ‘gay plague’ and we were vilified because it affected the gay population first and so therefore we considered by some as the cause. Because gay sex wasn’t legal under the age of 21, some guys felt they couldn’t go and get tested – which took over four weeks for results – in case they were arrested for breaking the law.
Do you remember the effect Thatcher’s section 28 had on the community?
I was 19 when it was passed and had left school so it didn’t affect me so directly there. But Section 28 turned the UK against the LGBTQ community and with the AIDS crisis as well we started to become fair game for the police and councils. The RVT had been raided in 1987 and the police all wore rubber gloves to do it. That’s when venues were threatened with closure.
It sounds unbelievable.
As well as pubs and clubs there were also centres and organisations for people to help come to terms with their sexuality, especially if they had been threatened, abused or evicted from the family home, work. But under this new law, this would have been classed as ‘promoting homosexuality’. The government said that Section 28 was meant to ‘protect the children’ but it extended far beyond that. Having not had had a great childhood at home, I was appalled by any discrimination against anybody for their sexuality. I still am and always will be. Discrimination against people for their sex, sexuality, gender, race has no place in my life.
Did you know anyone who lost their lives to AIDS at the time?
Way too many. I looked very much younger than I was. I was young and pretty. Now I’m just ‘and’… I’d discovered a whole new world I knew I fitted into and wanted to be part of. Sex was rife back then, cause we met each other in venues or cruising areas and I was desperate to be part of that too. I was one of the lucky ones, as between then and now, I haven’t contracted HIV because. People were all having more unsafe sex then they cared to admit andI was one of those people. But I got older and became more involved with the scene and saw first hand how HIV/AIDS was affecting it, my attitudes completely changed.
Were homophobic attacks rife back then?
Christ yes! The dangers of having anonymous sex with someone you’d only just met, usually in some dodgy cruising area, were enormous. But for many men, those were the only kind of places they could meet men. However, there were countless attacks on men and women when they left venues, targeted by gangs which sadly still happens now. There was a drag queen called Rose Marie, who left a venue with a man who murdered her in her flat. In 1993, Colin Ireland murdered five gay men and there was another serial killer called Dennis Neilsen before that. I know many people who were attacked after leaving a venue.
What was the 80s club scene like back then? Were there secret bars?
Most venues were not advertised as openly gay to avoid attacks although everyone knew if there was a gay bar in the area. The ones run by breweries, such as the Two Brewers, RVT, Black Cap etc were well known and had long histories of being gay venues. There were venues that were off the beaten track or ‘gay’ at the weekend and more difficult to find. But I went to most of them!
The party scene back then looked so wild?
I’m just a drinker. I only did drugs when I was 27/28just as was making the move from London to Brighton. It was a brief affair although I’d dabbled beforehand. Dare I say it was a great time, but one that’s well behind me. I mean, where do you put your drink if you’re trying to do a line? Too complicated.
When did you first start drag?
I worked behind the bar at The Two Brewers – and briefly at The Royal Oak in Hammersmith- and I first wore drag on Halloween in 1987. Lola came later on in 1988/89.
Who has inspired you most?
Pretty much every act I had seen on the scene. When I was at the Brewers I watched all the drag queens of the time whilst I was serving behind the bar. I saw Lily Savage, The Trollettes, Adrella, Regina Fong, David Dale, Sandra Hush, Candy Du Barry, The Harlequeens, Phil Starr – who was the first act I ever saw at the Euston Tavern – Ceri Dupree, Nikki Young, Lee Parris, Millie Mopp, Dockyard Doris. The list is endless!
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#throwbackthursday – May 1999 & my 30th birthday which was a joint one with my friend Stafford. We took over Fudges restaurant in Brighton & had cabaret from Dave Lynn & the much missed Dockyard Doris who were sublime together! I’d already gigged at Legends before this & after the party, we carried on at The Oriental, Revenge & Legends. I had a hangover for 3 days 😂 #gayboy #gaysofinstagram #dragqueens #cabaret #draglegends #lgbt
Was there good camaraderie among the queens back then?
Lordy, now you’re asking. There has always been rivalry. Don’t let any queen tell you different. Queens were ALWAYS jealous of each other’s success! Every week, someone would fall out with someone else BUT because we were part of a scene that was discriminated against in every way, we always had each other’s backs. And we constantly raised money for HIV charities so we were always working together. That said, back in the early days, there were a couple of VILE queens that no one liked.
It’s still the same, but I respect every act that works on the scene. I did back then and I do now. We all have our niche and there’s a place for us all. Some queens work the main cabaret scene. Some do ladies nights and straight cabaret nights. Some do brunches. It’s all fine but nowadays there’s little room for those queens with no talent. As well as the stage, you have to work on your social media, image and some fall by the wayside quicker than others.
What are you favourite venues around the UK?
The ones that still book me! I owe my 30 years – still counting – to so many people, but Jimmy Smith at The Brewers, Tony Chapman at Legends Brighton and the guys at The RVT have all contributed a large part to my success. But I love all the venues I work at.
Can you remember your first show?
I was meant to make my debut at the Brewers in the June of 1989, but my first gig was actually at the RVT a few days before on June 7 1989. An artiste had cancelled so I was offered the gig. I was a lip sync act back then, but always did a spot of patter after my first number. That night someone heckled me, I cleaned him and never looked back. I turned fully live in around 1993. My aesthetic is obviously very different now as it’s one frock, one wig for the show and Lola has a more recognisable image.
Were you very political in terms of fighting for rights etc.
Not really. I was too young and not savvy enough. Nowadays though I’m a very different queen.
When did you start to see changes in the way gay people were being treated in the UK?
When I started working the Prides, in particular Brighton. As I grew up I learnt to appreciate what was around me and what had gone before me to make that happen. I was determined that we shouldn’t take a step back from fighting for and achieving the equal rights we deserved.
How is gay life different now?
Obviously with all the victories the LGBTQ community have achieved over the years gay life is considerably better for most people. But not all. There will always be ignorance, discrimination, no matter what laws have been passed. And the threat of violence against us is as prevalent as ever. I’m not sure we will ever achieve full equality because of these things.
Do you think young gays appreciate the struggles we had before?
Social media and the internet gives the younger community a better chance to research the past and learn from it. Overall I would say there’s a lot of appreciation from them but you get nothing for nothing and I think the older community need to understand their struggles too and the new causes that need to be recognised and fought for, such as trans rights and gender identity.