Someone asked me recently why it is that I always play the roles of wicked women. “You played the notorious Miss Hannigan last year and this year you’re playing the Wicked Queen,” the person said. “Even your own Katherine Lynch creations are loud, larger than life, cusp-of-society women. You’ve been called lewd, crude and rude by some critics. Would you not like to just play the good girl?”
After a little stomach flip and a long laugh, the answer was no, I wouldn’t like to be the “good girl”. She was never me. I’ve never played her – either on or off stage.
Well, she hasn’t the layers of life that Miss Hannigan, the Wicked Queen or my own characters have, and she certainly isn’t as funny as the roles that I get offered.
Wicked queens – like the one I’m playing in Robert C. Kelly’s pantomime production of Snow White at University Concert Hall Limerick this Christmas – are just the princesses who forged their own path. I took my chance on that a long time ago and got into a lot of delicious toil and trouble along the way.
I’ve never wanted to be the “good girl” who’s saved by a prince and lives happily ever after in his kingdom, paying half his mortgage and picking up his dirty old crowns off the floor. Come on! Sure, those charming princes spend the whole night dancing with you, and afterwards they can’t even remember what you look like. Then they try your lovely new Manolo Blahniks on the foot of every girl in the kingdom, with no regard for verrucas. And, after all of that, they expect you to marry them and live with their parents when you’ve only known them for a day? Madness! No, I’m not falling for that old trick.
Besides, the “good girl” is a term that we don’t have much use for these days. In 2018, women don’t need to be the metaphorical saved princess anymore. We are stronger than that. Today, it’s okay to be the hero or even the villain – in fact, it’s better.
The roles of princesses themselves have changed in modern stories too. When I saw the Disney movies Frozen and Brave, I was delighted to see fairy tales that put the focus on the relationships between women and treated romance as a secondary consideration.
Now, thanks to Elsa and Merida, little girls (and boys) can be princesses on their own terms. Elsa wasn’t going to marry a fella she only knew for a day. Instead, she beat the haters and built her own ice palace where she could do whatever she wanted. Merida didn’t care about typical feminine things. She was a total tomboy princess who smashed gender roles by being a hotshot archer at 12.
Our Snow White is cut from the same cloth: she’s a feisty princess in a contemporary kingdom called Limerick with a boyband, instead of seven little people, in tow.
On a serious note, back in the day, this chubby, freckled young one (yes, me) all the way from Co Leitrim was 100pc never going to play Juliet, Salomé or the princess. So, I created my own characters to play with, when I wanted and how I wanted. For me, these comedy characters were created mostly out of pure necessity. The roles were not there for me to survive as a woman in the Irish entertainment industry, so I made my own.
One day, I – rather fabulously – slipped on some glitter outside The George in Dublin and, after a few cheeky wines in the bar, found my creative home in the gay community. I won Alternative Miss Ireland in 1998 and it was a game changer. I met the drag community. I was immediately hooked.
The drag queens around me played strong female characters. Icons and trailblazers. They paid homage to both the strength and vulnerability of women, from Maggie Smith to Aretha Franklin. There was a quote on the back of the loo door in The George that I always remember. It read: “We all require and want respect, man or woman, black or white, gay or straight: it’s our basic human right.” It was signed “Aretha”, as though she’d just been in for a quick freshen-up. We were all part of a peaceful protest and we didn’t even realise.
I began to live a very creative life in Dublin. I started performing on the stages of the various exciting bars and ended up with a residency of my own, called Busty’s G-Spot, in PantiBar. It was exciting to be paying my rent by entertaining my gay friends and their families who came in to see the weekly Wednesday show.
It was a privilege I took for granted at the time but, when I look back, I realise my luck.
My audience felt very comfortable with themselves and I felt comfortable with that. I made a lot of friends that I still cherish today. We were all just a bunch of beautiful creative souls back then. Life’s colourful underdogs. Little did we know at that time how many of us would make it in the entertainment industry in the years that followed. How Aretha’s war cry for equality would come true.
We weren’t trying to go mainstream. Mainstream came to us to check us out – what we were doing with costume, character and comedy. And there wasn’t a good girl in sight. We were all too complex to be only good; we were too busy being wonderfully wicked!
It was from this gay scene that I emerged to be the first woman in Ireland to front her own TV show for over seven years. As difficult as that was at times – and despite the scars I have from that rollercoaster ride – I’m proud that it happened.
Although I’d trained, I wasn’t your conventional actress and I didn’t fit into the theatre world back then. The people and the politics intimidated me. That’s all changed now, and I’ve recently finished a run at the Abbey Theatre. I was thrilled to tread nightly on its iconic boards. Performing at the Abbey was something I thought I might never do, but the theatre’s directors, Graham McLaren and Neil Murray, are very aware of gender equality and general inclusivity. Things in the world of theatre are a lot different now, since the Waking The Feminists and #MeToo movements.
I thank God (fair play to her) that I was surrounded by drag queens and fire eaters in the early years of my career. They kept me safe from the abuse of power that was going on regarding women in the entertainment industry and beyond. Women who only wanted to express and explore their talent.
With gratitude to all the strong, wicked and brave women who led the way, there has been a huge surge forward both at home and globally since then. The movement for equality is gaining confidence daily. Women are now standing shoulder to shoulder with men, and the good men are delighted about that. Abuse of power and snobbery are dying the deaths they deserve.
Although I’m happy the entertainment industry has become a more equal playing ground for men and women, and I do see the need for political correctness, I think that comedy has become too sanitised. I worry that social media – where it seems as though everyone is offended by everything – could be ruining this wonderful art altogether.
The court jester – the original comedian who was brave enough to stand up and ridicule the powerful and the ridiculous – has gone missing! Comedians are self-censoring. It’s hard to see how jokers like Matt Lucas and David Walliams – who just a few years ago had us rolling around laughing at them dressed as transvestites and the hilarious Bubbles in her fat suit – would get the laughs today. That’s both a good and a bad thing. Can you imagine Joan Rivers on Trump if she were still alive? How I miss her. We need to inject some wickedness back into comedy and hopefully it will all balance itself out again.
The pantomime is still a perfect medium for all sorts of wicked fun for everyone. It’s so special for children, and they spread that wonderful, contagious, magical energy all around the theatre, and we adults can’t help but absorb it. I’m so looking forward to being the Wicked Queen. A double whammy whahahooooooo – I’m behind you.
Oh yes, I am!
‘Snow White’ runs at University Concert Hall Limerick from December 17 to January 6. Book at uch.ie
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