Steps' H Watkins On How He Found A Safe Space In Pop Music: 'I Want Everyone Else To Feel That As Well'

"For me to speak openly as a gay man and a proud gay dad, wearing a ball gown on stage – I never thought I could do that!"

With a summer hits tour coming up and a new album to commemorate 25 years since the release of their debut single, it seems like everyone is in the mood to celebrate Steps at the moment.

H Watkins has been part of the chart-topping band since the beginning, and admits he’s still not quite used to the acclaim Steps have been met with in recent years.

It’s quite incredible really, when 25 years ago everybody laughed at us,” he says. “It feels like a full-circle moment.”

H puts Steps’ latter-day success down to the fact they’ve continued to stay true to themselves over the years. But he also has another theory about Steps’ enduring appeal, which has to do with the escapism provided by their musical output and live shows.

“I honestly think that there aren’t many artists that have been around for that amount of time that create safe spaces for however you wish to identify,” he says.

“Whatever your sexuality or ability, Steps has an open door policy where you can come and live your best life. Whether it be in your bedroom with the door closed, or loud and proud in a field, come and live your authentic self, and have a fucking great time, that’s what it’s about.”

Steps performing at the Mighty Hoopla music festival in June
Steps performing at the Mighty Hoopla music festival in June
Lorne Thomson via Getty Images

This is definitely an approach H has taken himself in Steps’ most recent tour, which have seen him truly embracing his queer identity both in his wardrobe and in a speech dedicated to the group’s LGBTQ+ fanbase that he delivered each night on the road.

“It was important to me that I include a celebration of humanity, that’s what that whole section was about,” he says. “It’s important to me, as a gay man and all of the rest of Steps as LGBTQI+ allies, to use our platform for good.

“For me to speak openly as a gay man and a proud gay dad, wearing a ball gown on stage – I never thought I could do that! Twenty-five years ago when we started, I was in the closet. I was totally unsure who I was. And now I’m in ball gowns and harnesses, nail polish, glitter on my eyes.

“And [on Steps’ last tour] I said every night on stage, ‘thank you for allowing me to feel safe in that space’. I was living my best life, and I wanted everybody else to feel that as well. I’ve got goosebumps thinking about it, because it was such a special moment every night for me.”

“A Steps concert is a safe space,” he continues. “It’s all about indulging and expressing and playing – why not do that? And we’ve had so many incredible messages from parents of trans children, non-binary people, people who are struggling with their sexuality, thanking me for the speech that I gave every night on stage. And for me, that is worth it.

“To have those people on your side, the love in the room is immense. And that’s so wanky doesn’t it? But you feel it.”

H Watkins on stage during a Steps show
H Watkins on stage during a Steps show
Joseph Okpako via Getty Images

For Pride, we spoke to H about how he found solace in 80s pop when he was being bullied, the queer icons he admires most and why appearing on RuPaul’s Drag Race was “all his gay Christmases come at once”…

Who was the first queer person you can remember looking up to?

They’re not so much queer people, but they are queer allies. When I was young, the whole queer movement was so fuelled by Pete Waterman. OG Kylie, OG Jason, Rick Astley, Mel and Kim, Bananarama, Five Star, all of these people, they’re not necessarily queer, but they were part of my soundtrack to my youth and they provided a queer safe space for me, and I looked to them for solace and acceptance.

I knew I was different but I didn’t know what different was then. But I would close my bedroom door and blast those records on my little red plastic record player and shut out the world where I was bullied, beaten up, ridiculed for being camp and femme and different. My bedroom was my safe space.

Kylie Minogue in 1988
Kylie Minogue in 1988
Dave Hogan via Getty Images

What was the first LGBTQ+ TV show or film that you remember resonating with you?

Beautiful Thing. What I love about that film is that it’s a queer love story, beautifully told. If you’re of that age and of that era, you’ll remember the peppermint foot lotion scene… my little heart. Beautiful.

And I love that scene at the end where they’re dancing, I literally feel like crying now, just talking about it. Years ago, I bumped into Scott [Neal, who played Ste in Beautiful Thing] just outside Selfridges, and I blurted out all of this to him, literally: “It’s because of you I survived!!”

And I guess Heartstopper is Beautiful Thing for a new generation. It’s very matter-of-fact – of course you have the obligatory bully, but there are no massive consequences, no one gets gay-bashed or ends up in hospital, there’s none of that jeopardy, it’s just a beautiful story. And maybe it’s idealistic, I’ve not been in school for a while, maybe it is like that in school nowadays for queer people, maybe they can live their lives and be accepted and celebrate who they are.

But when I was in school, I never had that. I was followed home from school, I was bullied, I was beaten up. I never had that safe space. And Beautiful Thing, for me, gave me a safe space.

Scott Neal and Glen Berry in Beautiful Thing
Scott Neal and Glen Berry in Beautiful Thing
Paul Chedlow/World Prods/Channel Four/Kobal/Shutterstock

What’s a song you associate with your own coming out?

One of my songs in the soundtrack to my life and my queer awakening is Mama Cass’ Make Your Own Kind Of Music, from Beautiful Thing. The lyrics are just beautiful.

What was the most recent LGBTQ+ show or film that made an impact on you?

The show that has had massive impact on me and my queer education is RuPaul’s Drag Race. It taught me to appreciate where I am because of all our trailblazers before us, they give queer history lessons and the queens talk about their own pasts and upbringings, and the people that inspire them.

I’d been a Drag Race fan since around season three, so to actually be on the show, it was all of my gay Christmases at once. It was like, “how on earth am I on this stage talking and giving advice to these young queer kids, and they’re listening to me?”. And we had a lovely moment, River [Medway] and I, where he was talking about being femme and I completely related to that. I think that touched a cord with him, and then he was crying and I was crying. Those conversations, that visibility, it starts conversations in rural villages, and they’re lifelines for people that are in dark places.

The cast of Drag Race UK season three
The cast of Drag Race UK season three
via PA Features Archive/Press Association Images

Who is your ultimate queer icon?

People like Sylvia Rovero, Marsha P Johnson, Peter Tatchell, Stephen Fry, Oscar Wilde, Terrence Higgins, who have made an incredible difference.

I keep mentioning these people but they are just, for me, pillars of our community that everything else stands on. If it weren’t for those people, we would not be having this conversation today.

Peter Tatchell
Peter Tatchell
Gareth Cattermole via Getty Images

Who is a queer person in the public eye right now that makes you excited about the future?

I love Olly Alexander, I think he’s a really progressive exhibitionist, and I love that he can be fabulous and queer and wonderful and unapologetic.

I also have so much respect for trans trailblazers and the trans community, and I hate that they are under fire and under attack right now. On tour, every night I always said: “There is no LGB without the T”. And that got a massive round of applause.

It’s a small minority that are bigots… we should just be celebrating and welcoming and supporting all of our community. And celebrating humanity, we’re all human.

Olly Alexander on stage at Glastonbury
Olly Alexander on stage at Glastonbury
Shirlaine Forrest via Getty Images

Why do you think Pride is still so important today?

We’re very lucky in this country that we can live our best lives in safe spaces – and even outside safe spaces now. Queer people are very much in the mainstream, and I love that there is visibility and inclusion. But there are countries in the world that don’t have those privileges, and we can make a noise and we can shout loud and proud, and hopefully those voices will be heard. Small ripples make big waves and lots of countries are not where we are, and it’s a very scary time for a lot of people.

And I honestly think that time that Trump was in power had a massively detrimental effect on the world, and those views, that hatred, that bigotry filtered down, those seeds were planted, and we are suffering the aftermath and the effects of that.

H on the red carpet at the 2022 British LGBT Awards
H on the red carpet at the 2022 British LGBT Awards
Mike Marsland via Getty Images

What’s your message for the next generation of LGBTQ+ people?

Live your life loud and proud. Be exactly who you are. Love. Celebrate. Laugh. Life is for living.

Steps’ new album Platinum Collection will be released on 19 August. For more information about where you can see them on their 2022 summer tour, visit their official website.


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