A scene from Swansea University Students’ Union: a pair of paramedics tend to Little Jimmy Johnson, a six-foot drag artist who, dressed in a sparkly bodysuit and matching skullcap, somehow looks like a massive, weird baby. He’s split his knee open, but seconds later is patched up and shaking his moneymaker onstage to Electric Six’s ‘Gay Bar’. “Swansea,” he screams, “this is your late-night homosexual disco!”
Welcome to Sink The Pink, the anarchic club night that’s helped to usher in a new wave of drag that’s surreal, fun and – crucially – inclusive. The Guardian called it the “UK’s biggest and most outrageous queer night”. Launched in 2008 by two friends, Amy Redmond (drag name: Amy Zing) and Glyn Fussell (Glyn Famous), the events found infamy in east London’s Bethnal Green Working Men’s club, where the traditionally macho space became a cacophony of colour and DIY drag.
Sink The Pink’s anything-goes ethos feels equally inspired by the energy of punk and the dark comedy of cabaret. The events feature dance routines from drag queens, but punters come as dolled up as the performers, blurring the line between the stage and dancefloor.
It’s so popular that the parties are now held at the 3,000-capacity east London venue The Troxy and the shows sell out weeks in advance. Now, Sink The Pink has embarked on a UK tour, glitter-bombing student unions up and down the land. Look out, Swansea, Buckinghamshire, Essex, Norwich and Sheffield – you’re about to get genderf**ked.
And, with some trepidation, I’m off to perform with Sink The Pink at the 2,000-capacity Swansea show. My drag name: Darlene Desmond. I’ve always loved the transformative power of drag – its anarchy, its sense of rebellion – but never had the guts to get on stage. Until now. The question is: can Sink the Pink make a woman out of me?
My journey to becoming a drag queen begins at Oxford House, a rehearsal space in Bethnal Green. Here I meet the talented queens whose routines I’m unlikely to overshadow: Jimmy, Rodent DeCay, Eden and Diana Might (Amy and Glyn can’t make the uni tour). We’ll dance to Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’, lip-syncing the spoken-word section where she calls out “the liars and the dirty, dirty cheats of the world”, and will be taught the moves by Eden, AKA Lewis Game, a professional dance instructor.
Lewis has his work cut out with me. It’s bad enough having two left feet, let alone when they’re crammed into high heels. He discovered his talent for drag while dressing as Storm from X-Men at a fancy dress party. “Drag isn’t just a man dressing as a woman,” he says. “You can be a bit more gender-fluid now.”
Having donned a black wig, I totter about in heels. I don’t know how girls do it; I feel like Bambi on ice and Quaaludes. Yet Lewis is a patient and kind teacher.
When not in drag, Jimmy is Donald Marshall, a former player for the Newcastle Falcons rugby team. “I was studying scriptwriting and put Jimmy together – a child star called Little Jimmy Johnson, a little s**t who’s nine-and-three-quarter years old,” he says. “I often joke that being a drag queen and being a rugby player are very similar: they involve a lot of physical pain and it’s quite aggressive.”
After a fortnight of physical pain, rehearsing in heels, I await Sink The Pink in Swansea. They’re running late. Some of them came straight from a show in Ibiza. Half an hour before our show is due to start, they burst into the backstage area, dresses billowing from suitcases they’ve thrown open. Donald does a 20-second shave and after he slaps on make-up, Jimmy jokes: “It’s a bit ‘Ready, Steady, Drag’ tonight!”
Eden makes me up, sticking on fake eyelashes, painting my lips and contouring my face to create cheekbones that didn’t exist seconds ago. Jimmy throws me a backless white playsuit and Diana Might kindly adds a red belt. I’m not sure how elegant I look, my toes crammed into heels like little piglets in a pen; we may well be heading to the slaughter.
There’s a pre-show huddle and Eden gives me some last-minute advice: “It’s not about how you fall down – it’s about how you get up and carry on.” The show is thrilling chaos: a dazzling display of costume changes and near-misses, as Eden loses her wig but rallies round by shaking it at the crowd and Rodent almost falls, recovering by stomping her black rubber heels to the beat with a look of defiance. Jimmy piles into the unlikely moshpit the audience forms to DJ Fresh’s ‘Gold Dust’.
Jimmy rushes over to haul me onstage. I knew the steps seconds ago, but here my mind empties out. I miss the first set of moves, and instead just wave my hands in the air. By the time I’m whipping the audience, I’ve kind of clicked back into the routine, though really I’m just falling through it. Rodent sees me flailing about and snatches me, pulling me across the stage. This is white-hot fear. I enjoy the voguing section the most, mainly because it doesn’t involve moving your feet. Then comes the bit where I lip-sync, which to the audience must look like a badly dubbed Chinese movie.
It seems to last milliseconds. My heart feels like it might explode through my playsuit (though, to be fair, so does the rest of me; it’s quite tight). As I clatter offstage, I’m in danger of passing out with joy. After I disembark, I’m approached by a pair of student lads, 18-year-olds Josh Driscoll and Joe Marshall. They want selfies (everyone does). Both praise Sink The Pink, though admit they might not have come along if they’d known tonight was going to be drag. “But anything that’s fun, people are open-minded about,” Josh says. “If you can have a good laugh, you’re like, ‘Yeah, alright.’”
Later, Jimmy jokes: “You looked like you were making it up as you went along – so you fit right in with the rest of us.”
Sink The Pink offer me a generous and undeserved round of applause, before I hand back the heels and bid Darlene Desmond goodbye. A friend who was in the audience tells me: “You didn’t get every step, but you looked like you were having so. Much. Fun.”
And that’s the whole point about Sink The Pink: everyone is welcome. I might have been the world’s most inept drag queen, but I had the time of my life that night at Swansea University Students’ Union. It didn’t matter that I forgot the steps and careered around in heels with all the grace of a rhino on rollerskates. I became a Sink The Pinker: you can become one too.
Witness the chaos
Oct 14 Norwich Uni
Oct 15 Sheffield Uni
Oct 28 Oval Space, London
Dec 3 The Troxy, London