Meet Joe Black: We spoke to the iconic Drag Race star from Brighton
‘Brighton is the gay capital of the UK, and anyone who says it’s Manchester is a liar!’
After a very dramatic week on Drag Race UK, we caught up with Brighton local Joe Black to get the inside scoop on everything. We spoke about everything from life in lockdown, what the Brighton drag scene is like and just what he thinks about *that* critique.
(SPOILERS FOR DRAG RACE UK BELOW)
First of all, how are you doing? How are you coping with lockdown?
It’s been a very long year, hasn’t it? Just hanging around in fancy pyjamas drinking coffee, looking at my cat, who doesn’t care about the state of the world, more concerned about being under his favourite blanket. So yeah fine, just plodding along, just waiting for all the things to open again so we can have a delicious time with everybody once more.
Hopefully that’s sooner rather than later… Speaking of your cat, that’s the one we saw in the Queens in Lockdown episode, right? Did you get him in lockdown?
Yes, Klaus. We got him in August or September. It wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment “let’s see if any Sphinx cats are around!”, my boyfriend’s manager at work had a Sphinx cat who sadly died. They were like “nope! I’m not doing lockdown without another cat!”, so they bought a new one, which turned out to be quite pregnant, and neither he nor the breeder knew. So, they were very surprised when suddenly one morning five kittens arrived! And Klaus is one of the kittens, yeah. He’s gorgeous!
That’s so cute! Now, we have to talk about the most recent episode. What was it like getting the call to come back? Apparently you only had three weeks?
I did yeah, I only had three weeks. Which is a lot less time than seven months, isn’t it? A lot less time. It was one of those things where I got the call and I was like “do I do it?”, because you know, anything can happen. And obviously anything did happen. But it was like to give it another shot, there’s that kind of “returning person curse”, as well so in my head I knew no matter what happens, I’m probably gone fairly immediately, because as much as you like to think you can break the system somehow, in the entire franchise history, no one has ever returned and lasted longer.
You had a pretty iconic run, eliminated then back then eliminated, how do you feel about the idea that you’ve sparked – dare I say it – one of the most iconic critiques in history?
People actually are saying it might be one of the most iconic moments in Drag Race history *laughs*. I’ve seen a lot of people saying this, I’m not saying it myself, I’m just saying people have said it. Every time I appear on Drag Race, I seem to create a bit of a sh*tstorm, every time! So my first elimination was quite the chatter, and then this one was obviously quite the chatter again. So it seems that every time I pop in, things seem to kick off, and then off I go again! I’m not coming back a third time, I’ll tell you that.
Should I take that as no All Stars?
No, I think I’m going to rule All Stars out for now. I don’t think Mr. Charles is that fond of me to be honest with you *laughs*. I’ll give him a couple of seasons to chill out a little bit.
Moving out of Drag Race, what other opportunities has drag given you?
Well, I’ve been really lucky. Because I do more of a traditional Cabaret-type show, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel across the world. I did a run of my own show for a week in Melbourne, Australia. I toured America, UK and Europe. I used to go to Berlin quite a lot, because it’s got that reputation and history of the sordid cabaret vibes. I’ve been super lucky to be able to do so many shows and stuff. And with Drag Race, all that’s done is just open that up and mean that I can tour a much wider audience, and the offers have just gotten a little more surreal.
Going back to the very beginning, how did you first get into drag? How did you evolve to your very specific style?
I started doing cabaret shows in 2007, and that was in live music environments, doing cabaret shows on either side of a rock, ska, or metal band – because it was quite hard in the live music scene to put me with any particular genre. So I ended up on the most bizarre, sometimes highly inappropriate lineups, either as a support act or part of a night of live music or whatever. And then I moved into hosting or doing guest spots on burlesque and cabaret shows. Visually in terms of the drag, I always wore fairly clowny and androgynous costumes and makeup for shows, and I’ve always been interested in Disney villains, and camp Old Hollywood silent movie imagery. I suddenly one day realised “well I could look like that if I wanted!”, so I did! And then it slowly morphed into a more glam – but still bordering on the grotesque – vibe.
Your aesthetic is certainly very unique – I can’t compare it to many other drag queens.
Well it’s not a traditionally flattering style, because it’s quite old. So a lot of people are quite concerned with being really gorgeous, and I’m not *laughs*. I want to look like I’ve been hibernating in a box since 1926, and suddenly, here I am! A lot of them are also more pop than me, as we’ve learnt from episode 5. No one’s ever looked at me and gone, “you know what? Joe would be fantastic at pop”. I like some pop culture stuff, but I’m not particularly trendy or current with anything I like, that being old women in old movies, I guess.
It definitely works. It sort of fits the aesthetic of Brighton too, has that affected your drag in any way, being from here specifically?
I’m originally from Portsmouth, but I’ve lived in Brighton for nearly 10 years now. Growing up in Portsmouth, it was the queer utopia just down the coast, and it was when I moved to Brighton that what I was doing developed into a way more draggy, queer, aesthetic. I think I discovered myself in Brighton. Portsmouth formulated my interests and my musical performance style, and Brighton was a real personal development for me. It’s when I became close with other queer people, which I didn’t really have in Portsmouth. It helped a lot of personal growth.
Brighton is the gay capital of the UK, as some people call it.
That’s what I would say, and anyone who says it’s Manchester is a liar!
OK, that’s a hot take! Do you think Brighton differs from anywhere in the UK, being the gay capital, is there a reason why Brighton is where you chose to develop your style?
I think Brighton is such a unique place. You go just a little bit out of Brighton and suddenly the entire vibe changes, it’s an entirely different world. I could walk down the street in Brighton dressed as a plague doctor – I don’t know why I used plague doctor as an example, considering we’re currently in the midst of a plague – and no one would bat an eyelid. I think, historically, Brighton has always been a bit weird, and I would love to know the history of why it’s always been that bizarre place that’s a magnet for people who are different. I used to do shows in London, and when I said I was from Portsmouth they went “really?”, and now what I get is “Brighton? Oh, of course you are.” That probably sums it up, that’s essentially what it is.
It is a surprise that you’re the first one from Brighton to make it on the show, considering. I believe you have a show in Brighton?
I do, completely sold out. I’m doing a tour in September, for a show called Decopunk. But we’re going to add an extra Brighton date to the tour, because the Komedia sold out in two days. We’re going to go to a bit of a larger place, as the special hometown event.
What could you expect from a Joe Black show, then?
Gin-soaked, cabaret chaos, musical mayhem. It’s song, it’s chatter, it’s ridiculousness, clownish behaviour, shenanigans. Me, having too many gins, wishing I could light a cigarette on stage, should that be legal. I want to look like I am smoking on stage, but we’re not allowed to do that. The room is full of smoke. No matter how nice the room is, you’ve got to imagine it’s a dingy, horrible, seedy back-alley cabaret bar. I am the wonky raconteur on the stage with a piano, telling the stories. There are neon lights – they’re all broken – the odd flicker here and there, the carpet is mysteriously stained, you don’t look the person working behind the bar in the eye. That’s the vibe I’m trying to give.
Yeah, I can picture it now, you’ve really set the scene there. Finally, can you give us any hints as to any upcoming looks?
I have some very exciting things to be announcing in the future, and lots of content coming out. It’s a digital world now, and I’m giving all the digital content I can for this new, strange screen-led world. I’ve also been doing limited-edition prints – there are 10 episodes and five looks have been chosen for me to do prints of, my next print is episode 8 and the last one is episode 10. As per all Drag Race, the theme is always “Your Best”, do the absolute most. So that’s what I’ve done *laughs*. All you’ll know is that in episode 10, I’ve thrown absolutely everything at this one.
Well, what a note to leave it on. This has been a lovely interview, thank you so much for taking the time out to speak with me today.
It’s been a pleasure, thanks for chatting with me.
BBC Three series RuPaul’s Drag Race UK is streaming now on BBC iPlayer