The gentleman behind Bournemouth’s most notorious drag act is sat in front of me in pair of jeans and a faded blue polo shirt. He rubs his eyes and takes a long sip from his pint of shandy – “Lager, not bitter, please.” His forearm rests on a battered dressing table covered in little jars and bottles. Behind this three noisy terrier puppies, are yapping and jostling for his attention. I did not expect him to drink a shandy.
Nor do I anticipate the anecdote about putting on a free show in a day centre for people with Downs Syndrome. And that’s just the beginning. Underneath all the glitter, withering put-downs, and enough penis references to make Rihanna blush, it is clear that Dame Kitty is the absolute antithesis of the stereotypical bitchy queen.
It turns out Kitty happened by accident. Seven years ago when their “loose canon” of a resident drag queen called in sick (“Turns out she was actually drunk and lairy in Amsterdam,”) David, co-owner of Rubyz cabaret restaurant, was forced to make a choice. “I had never worn women’s clothing, never been on stage, or never even sung a note before. But we had a room full of 140 people waiting to be entertained so it was a case of run upstairs and put the face on. It was exactly the same way that you’d change a barrel or go in the kitchen and fry chips, someone had to do it.” He shudders. “It was vile. Thank God there were no pictures back then. It was quite literally a 6ft tranny in very bad outfits.”
Fast-forward seven years and Dame Kitty is on stage three times a week. But she’s not alone. The team that accompany Kitty with all her different shows are called the Rubyz Academy, which was set up to provide free practical theatre training and performing experience for those who couldn’t afford the high fees of traditional stage schools. “We just tell people to come along and get involved and we find a part for everybody. They really are a great team.” Wannabe drag queens prance about on stage alongside working mums, and with no official schedule or obligation to perform certain shows, Rubyz Academy is designed to be as inclusive and accessible as possible.
But it’s not just those who want to work in the theatre that “Aunty Kitty” is on a mission to help out. There’s also theKitty Wish Foundation, whose first mission was to put on a pantomime for Bournemouth’s underprivileged children two years ago. “Parts of Bournemouth are classed as in the top four deprived areas in the country,” David tells me, and I sense we have moved on the topic which most ignites his interest. “It’s frightening. These kids live two miles from the beach and yet they have never seen the sea.” In that first year, a pantomime was performed every Sunday for a month, and reached around 1,700 children from very low-income families, whom the Kitty Wish Foundation sought out through children’s services. In the two years since, they’ve reached approximately 6,000 children and their families, and provided them with the opportunity to watch a show at Bournemouth’s Pavillion theatre, for the first time. “The best bit is that at the end, you have these Dads and Granddads, men that some may judge – with the same prejudices that many would judge a drag queen – coming up to you and telling you them and their kids loved the show.”
But before the team can start working on this year’s pantomime, ‘Kitty Saves Christmas’, they have to focus on the Bournemouth Family Festival, which attracts over 25,000 visitors. “The first year we went I had figured as we were in the Rubyz tent, we would have a Rubyz crowd. So I’m ready to go on (he breaks into song), “What good is it sitting, alone in your room..”, I draw back the curtain and it’s just rows and row of kids! And I am in a basque!” He covers his face and bursts into laughter. “So now each year there are no basques and no high kicking, it’s officially become a kids tent. I’m always ‘Aunty Kitty’, or ‘Kitty the Fairy’ to the kids.” And surely this is a great way to familiarise children with issues about gender performance and diversity from a young age? “Exactly. It’s not frightening for them if they have grown up with this comedic figure, it is just there.”
I try to steer the conversation back to the experience of what it’s like to perform Kitty on stage: “The most magical moment is that last note you belt out the audience don’t want you to leave the stage. It’s right then that I feel very grateful.” I try to probe for some diva-esque egotism by asking whether he ever feels proud of his achievements “I feel oh so proud of my team,” he enthuses, piercing blue eyes dancing, “Just watching them grow is amazing.” I then learn all about the personal development of one member of staff, her new-found confidence and higher education ambitions. “They’re all my protegé’s and if I could get the money together I would love to set up a summer theatre school to be able to help more people to perform.”
Clearly it’s this “giving the gift back” that inspires everything about ‘Aunty Kitty’ and her work. “That’s the magical part of it. We can create a magical world for people and take them on that journey.” It is at this point I realise that my original designs for a profile rich with juicy gossip, snide asides and extensive detail into Kitty’s stage get-up were well and truly ruined. “It is just so important for me to do this kind of work. Especially for the kids. I’m just a clown with a different face.” And better make up? “Ha! Wait until you see it…”
The self-deprecation was the final straw. I had fallen for do-gooding Dame Kitty. Surely, I think to myself, drag queens aren’t supposed to be this nice?