British drag sensation Velma Celli has hit the Australian shores to wow audiences with her charismatic energy and powerful persona in A Brief History of Drag. We talked to Velma about drag inspirations and why it is so important for the show to reflect on ground-breaking songs and eras throughout drag history.
BYO: What excites you most about being in Sydney to perform A Brief History of Drag?
Velma: It excites me that I’ve never been here and that I’m in the drag capital of the world. I remember being a kid and watching Priscilla Queen of the Desert, even if it is a cliché to say that. Yesterday me and my friend went to Oxford St just so I could go straight to the place of drag and absorb it. It’s so far from home but it is such a huge honour to be here.
BYO: You describe your show as quite a rollercoaster of emotions. What kind of themes do you explore in your show and do you draw a lot on personal experiences in that?
Velma: Before a regular gig I’ll go on to social media and put out requests and it is a great way of putting a setlist together. Normally I resist doing the typical drag songs but there were too many requests for Sweet Child of Mine and Kinky Boots, that it got to the point where I thought I’ll put them all in and rip it off and never have to do it again. But then when I wrote all the songs out, I realised that these songs are anthems and really important to the history of gay culture and how it has evolved. So each song has a kind of personal attachment to it.
BYO: You talk about interspersing your show with pivotal moments in drag history. Why was this important for you to include in the show?
Velma: The older I get as someone in the LGBTQI community, I realise these songs are really important to people on a really deeply profound level. For some people I Am What I Am is the obvious one, but when I was a teenager and up to my mid-twenties, being in a club when the remix would come on again I just found it a bit too cheesy and cliché. But as I got older, I realised this is a really important song, not just for gay people, but also just in terms of personally accepting yourself. It is to do with our independence as a gay culture, the stonewall liberation, the gay riots, all of that. That song is basically an anthem for that era, and there are loads of moments like that in the show.
I sing a lot of songs that are unexpected as well, like Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’. It was initially a cheesy pop song but then when you the documentary Can I Be Me? it makes so much sense. The documentary is her coming out as a lesbian, which she could never really do because she was Whitney Houston – America’s sweetheart and African American, which of course makes it additionally hard. To have a moment, then, to sing for Whitney is amazing, because she didn’t have that opportunity to live her authentic self.
BYO: I read about the hilarious story behind the name Velma Celli in one of your interviews, and was wondering if you’d be able to share it?
Velma: I was in my last week of Chicago and went out with the gays from the show like we did every Wednesday night. And on the last night I got a message from the boys from Priscilla saying we are going out in drag, so I went to Primark and bought a dodgy outfit. We went to the club which is called Madame Jo Jo’s and we were out drunk. The drag queen said, “I heard you can sing, give us a number”. Apparently I gave 10, and then as I was leaving the promoter came up and asked if I’d be able to come back next week. The show was over and I was unemployed, so I accepted because I really needed the gig. Then of course I had to come up with a name real fast, and we were in Chinatown later that night, eating vermicelli noodles and then bam there was the name – Velma Celli.
BYO: Who would be one of your favourite people to have worked alongside so far?
Velma: We have this show called EastEnders, it’s our big thing in England. It was meant to just be me in the background, but then the director told me to just walk in on the set, and when the other character asked my name I said Velma Celli as they didn’t give my character a name. I’m the first person ever to be themselves on the biggest show in England which is hilarious and I didn’t have a concept of how big it was until it aired. When people say they hid behind the sofa, I literally hid.
BYO: What aspects of drag do you think the broader entertainment industry could benefit from?
Velma: Because drag’s a really freeing art form when you put anyone in drag for the first time, and that could be a woman or a man, there’s this whole new confidence. I think it works best for a straight man, because when they are in drag something is unleashed and it can be catastrophic. I do a lot of work in the straight scene and it’s great because I just feel like I’m tearing away stigmas all the time. I often think that woman is fabulous and she’s dragged her husband here, but he might be that guy at home who sees drag on TV and doesn’t have time for that shit. When I’m playing at a venue though, they have to support me, so I feel like I’m sort of tearing down that shit from people in a weird era where we were all marginalised.
Velma will perform her show, A Brief History of Drag at The Factory Theatre on February 4. Tickets can be found here: http://www.factorytheatre.com.au/events/2019/02/04/velma-cellis-a-brief-history-of-drag