My friends often tell me that the people that inspire and motivate me, and who’s work continues to make me strive to make my own career bigger and better, are not quite the “legends” that most people look up to. Apparently, Cheryl Tweedy, Lauren Conrad, Carrie Bradshaw and The Charmed Ones, don’t quite cut it. I mean, fair enough, two out of the four are fictional but their character traits were to be admired: Believe in love, the road ahead isn’t easy but keep focussed and every now and then you’ll be floored.
The two inspirations of mine, that my friends and I all agree on, are people that I look up to not only as fellow LGBT people but as people in a similar line of work to me: Paul O’Grady and RuPaul.
I don’t mean to trivialise the LGBT movement or its history, nor do I want to ignore the important people of the past who have helped move us forward to a more equal place so I can live in a time and a country where I am equal in the eyes of the law, but history (along with RE and PE) was never my strong point and I’d hate to get a fact wrong during such an important month.
What I thought would be nice is to write from the heart about what I saw when I watched these two people that I have looked up to, who have helped pave a path for people like me in my career, who have been part of the LGBT movement, and who made me brave enough to dream in a world that hasn’t, and sometimes isn’t, always so accepting.
As a child of the 90s, I vividly remember Paul O’Grady’s Lily Savage all over the airwaves here in the UK. From the Big Breakfast, to Blankety Blank; from the evenings with to The Lily Savage Show. This was a drag artist from working class Birkenhead jumping over all the barriers and making it as a regular fixture on mainstream TV. For me, it was reassuring to see this level of success also being from a low-income working class council house, and as an LGBT person, realising that anything is possible if you put in the years and have the audacity to believe not only in your dreams, but in who you are.
Lily was this straight-talking, no-nonsense sensation in my eyes. She stood up and she made not only my mum howl but my dad too. Although I was quite young, I think that’s when I realised that my parents would accept me for who I am. Even now, all these years later, O’Grady’s Savage persona still influences; she went hell for leather with her opinions, talking to her “mainstream” (what a fucking word) audience about everything including her nights at The Vauxhall Tavern or with leather queens in the Black Cap. It made me realise that trying to write a witty joke that would appeal to all about Nectar Cards or filling up the car with petrol was not the thing for me and my career. What I learnt from Lily was that using your authentic voice with your audience is not only the right thing to do, it’s what they enjoy.
I’m not sure if Paul realised what an effect Lily had on the UK audiences. I mean, I’m sure he did, he’s smarter than I ever will be. But I think going up there - everyone knowing that he was a drag artist, everyone laughing and accepting - did wonders for the LGBT community, and for me at least, it showed that being yourself, or a version of yourself on stage, is a great way to feel accepted.
Then there is Ru. First of all through Drag Race and some of their stories, I realised how difficult some LGBT people really have it in the world and by these queens being so brave and telling their story on a show that has huge mainstream success, I think it has built our allies immensely.
Both Ru and Paul have inspired me in simple ways. One lesson is owning who you are. I often worry about being a feminine camp man but because of those two I am not only brave enough to leave the house as me but to take it to the stage as well. And even though it shouldn’t be a worry, sometimes, when you rock up to a gig in Grimsby it can be a concern. But I say ‘fuck it’ and own it.
The final thing they taught me is about education. Not everyone has gone through what we as LGBT people go through – that outsider feeling that I think most of us have felt at some point. I often felt in school that I wasn’t one of the girls but also wasn’t one of the lads, so wondered about where I fit. Both of these brilliant men have made me brave enough to tackle LGBT rights on stages around the country and discuss it just like brilliant comics discuss feminism and race, and I hope in my own way, I’m helping the LGBT community in my own way.
My final thought is Ru’s biggest message, the one I tell myself after getting rejected from that job, or by that boy, or being told that “we already have a gay on the bill that night” - the things that knock our confidence - and that message is: “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell can you love somebody else.” And on the flip side, I also believe in Lily’s: “tell ’em to fuck off”.
Stephen Bailey tours ‘Can’t Think Straight’ until May 2018, including 3 nights at London’s Soho Theatre from 3rd – 5th May. For details see: www.stephenbaileycomedy.
This week we are hosting a mini-series from our blogging community on the LGBTQ+ figures who have been the biggest inspiration for them.