- Words Aimee Phillips
Female drag queen pioneer and Glitterbox staple performer, TeTe Bang, speaks on queer safe spaces, finding her authentic self, and the empowering nature of the dancefloor.
Having graced dancefloors from London to Paris and Ibiza to New York, Glitterbox performance artist and drag queen, TeTe Bang, is now gracing our screen in the nightlife phenomenon’s new film, ‘Where Love Lives’.
The documentary, which tells the story of dancefloor culture and expression and highlights the need for subculture spaces, features Billy Porter, Honey Dijon, Kathy Sledge and TeTe Bang, as well as her Glitterbox family members, Lucy Fizz and The Mix Fit.
The eclectic TeTe – who was reconised as one of Attitude Magazine’s queer voices of the future – told Notion that her career in drag has been a “fluke”. The star of Channel 4’s ‘Drag SOS’ was the first self-identifying female drag queen to appear on mainstream TV, challenging the norm and on a mission to spread positivity around the world.
In an interview with Notion, TeTe Bang opens up about how moving to London helped her find her authentic self and land a career in drag, how the community has adapted due to Covid, being a thrifty queen and much more. Jump in!
First off – tell me all about your journey. How did you get into drag?
I got into drag because I was looking for it, partly not knowing what it was at the time, but I was looking for some way to express myself and a place to fit in the world which felt authentic. So I moved to London when I turned 18; where I lived at the time in the Lake District, there wasn’t a community there for me. I also felt a level of unsafety. I experienced violence and hate crime in the area, and maybe I was subconsciously getting away from the physical threat as well as a mental threat of being in that space. Although I think that’s probably something I’ve come to understand in retrospect, because I think a lot of it was just wanting to run away. When I was a teenager I just started going out by myself. I would dress up; I loved sewing costumes from quite a young age, I was always into making things in fashion. Unfortunately, there are negative implications when you’re doing that in a small town and you dress like you have just stepped out of the streets in Harajuku. The audience is not so forgiving. So I moved to London. By going out, I would go to so many different parties just looking something; even just having moments where I talk to someone in the toilet, like that was enough for me at that time. And really slowly, I started going to The Black Cap in Camden, which is a historical LGBT venue, unfortunately no longer open. I just made friends and spoke to people – mainly other drag queens and queer people. I didn’t get into drag knowing it was going to be a career or a job. Really at the beginning, it was a medium, a way of expressing myself and putting all these different interests I had in makeup, hair and wigs and costume and cabaret and performance and storytelling and putting them all together, which is the art form I happen to fall into. Obviously drag has exploded culturally over the past five years. We could not have predicted that [laughs]. I definitely did not know that I was going to end up doing this as a career, it really was just a fluke.
And a happy fluke at that! You’ve had a real impact with what you do; it must be amazing to see how your work has helped and influenced people?
That’s really encouraging. Like everything, there are days when you feel like you don’t want to do it, and it’s too hard. Especially as women, there are so many more walls in our way and barriers that we have to get through and drag is absolutely no exception. It is a predominantly male industry and has been centuries and that holds the mainstream. And to be able to help break down those barriers, that is what keeps you going. Those moments when people tell you that what you do has impacted them, those are the moments that you really cherish when you have no money or you’re tired or have spent everything you own on drag [laughs]. But then you remember, you see it on people’s faces, whether it’s from the dance floor, whether it’s online, whether it’s at performances. It’s indescribable.
You moved to London to immerse yourself in the queer scene. How did the city help you find your authentic self?
I think that if you live in a rural area, you’ll always look for things. I’m fortunate enough that I had access to the internet and magazines. I saw that cabaret performances were happening and drag was a thing in London. The city has a really rich cultural history, which draws queer people in because we know that there are historically safe spaces in London, which, unfortunately, don’t exist in a lot of other places. And I think I was looking for that, whether it was subconsciously or whether I was just drawn to it. You know what they say about finding your tribe; finding your people. Sometimes we do that really subconsciously. I think a lot of what drew me to the community was subconscious and going into spaces and being myself responding to that, and then it makes you feel safe. So you can explore different parts of yourself even further, even deeper because you’re in this safe space where you know people are going to celebrate it. When I first started I did some awful performances. I’ve cried on stage, I’ve explored issues around my past self harming and mental health and shown vulnerability. And that is because the spaces I was in and the people hosting those spaces have made me feel safe. That’s rare and something I’m really thankful for as well. There are those communities for everybody, no matter what way people choose to express themselves. If you put yourself out there authentically, people will be drawn to you and you’ll be drawn to those spaces.
There’s previously been such a lack of safe LGBTQI+ spaces outside of London. Do you see this changing now?
Absolutely! I think every generation that goes by, there becomes more and more spaces, and queer people are becoming more and more visible and then feeling safe enough to be more visible, maybe because of media. We are in the mainstream more because they see themselves in the mainstream, they feel like they can be more authentic. I mean, the community can be three people, it could be five people, whether three little queer kids dancing around your bedroom in the middle of somerset somewhere, that is a community. If that makes you feel like you belong then there is validity in that. I think what I experienced and what historically lots of other queer people have experienced, is that London also gives you a level of anonymity. When you’re walking around the streets, you don’t have to worry so much about whether you’re going to be harassed. I mean, of course it does happen but not in the same way that it used to happen. I get on the bus or tube in drag all the time and people barely blink an eyelid and walk down the street holding your partner’s hands and not feel like there is a threat of violence basically. That is changing everywhere else. But it also is changing slowly. We should look at the good things, but we also have to recognise that if we look at the stats of hate crime that have gone up in the past five years even, it’s not necessarily true for everybody. And until it is true for everybody, queer people are going to migrate to cities.
Speaking of change, has the drag scene been affected over the past year? Has the community changed from the pandemic?
Definitely, I think anybody who does a creative art form that’s physical has had to really had to think about their industry as a whole. People have been really amazing at adapting. Drag shows have been online since the very beginning. We’ve been engineering ways to promote work and still create community. But I think it has been valuable for us to sit back and have a look and say, okay, what are other ways we can make what we do accessible? Because it’s great thinking we’ll just go back to being in clubs and things like that, but how accessible are clubs? If you’re somebody who can’t leave your home because you have a disability or disadvantage, then why shouldn’t you have access to music? Or why shouldn’t you have access to drag or cabaret or performance? I think we can take some really positive things away from this pandemic about how we can make our work more accessible to a bigger audience.
You feature in the Glitterbox Ibiza documentary film ‘Where Love Lives’, which is such a gorgeous watch. It made me so nostalgic for the clubs! For those that are yet to watch it, can you explain why it’s such an important watch?
I think it’s an amazing archive; it’s an amazing piece of history of power and music and how unifying it is, and how international it is and how important for culture is, but also for people’s connectedness. Music is this universal language and we really take it for granted so much of the time. The film gives us space to really think about what it’s like to be on the dancefloor, and have this music pumping, and look at it from a bird’s eye view. When you’re in the club, we just take it for granted, before lockdown, there’s plenty of times we all complained about having to be at nightclubs until 7am. But it really has helped us to step back and look at what is important about nightlife culture and about the dance floor and music and about community and really celebrate that and commemorate that.
The film also got me thinking about the dancefloor and what it represents. What does it mean to you?
Physical therapy is a thing for a reason – we are humans and we need to move and let it out. We’re told as women that we shouldn’t draw too much attention to ourselves or take up too much space. We can make ourselves small without even noticing. We’re really rarely given space to really express ourselves without being adaptable gives people that, it gives women and queer people that space to fully enjoy your body and what it does and let out the emotions. One of the greatest things about being a dancer in Glitterbox is that all those beautiful shots that you see in people’s faces, we get to see that! We see that when we’re on the stage and when we’re on the podium, and I see people having a spiritual experience. And it’s empowering for me, but also, it just really cements how important dancefloors are to people and how real it is.
If you could pick one dancefloor to transport yourself to, where would it be?
Oh my gosh, that’s so hard! I’ve been on some amazing dancefloors. There’s nothing like Printworks, I think, in London. Having the height in such a grand space makes it feel limitless. There really is nothing holding you in. I also love the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, that’s a real home for me. Being around queer people, no matter what the dance floor is, makes it feel like home. Dancing with my Sink The Pink sisters, because that feels like my queer family as well. Every dancefloor you’re on is a different experience.
We get to see inside your incredible wardrobe in the film. You’ve got so many amazing outfits – how do you source them? What catches your eye?
I’m a very thrifty queen, I don’t really buy anything new. I love recycled materials. I love charity shops. I think there’s like an extra gratification if you know it was gonna be someone’s trash and now I’ve given a new life. I spend a lot of time watching movies, like musicals, like Strictly Ballroom or Hello Dolly. Other artists’ work is also inspiring. I just try in as much visual content as I can because I’m a very visual person. And when I want to make something or when I’m inspired by something, I literally will draw the worst sketch ever and then improvise. Sometimes you make mistakes, sometimes you have to adapt, but it’s about giving yourself time to do the process. To me, it’s about going with the flow and feeling it, and creating something that feels authentic.
I love the ‘Her-Story’ lessons you’ve been doing on your Instagram. It’s so cool that you’ve used drag for educational purposes as a way of amplifying historic women’s stories.
There’s this challenge on Drag Race where they all have to dress up as any queer icon, but I was surprised that most of them decided to dress as historical gay men. Why is it that every time we talk about queer history, we’re constantly talking about queer men? Obviously, these people are really, really important, but also, we just aren’t given the knowledge about queer women at all, so I took it upon myself. If no one else is gonna do it, I’m gonna do it! So many of these women I had no idea about. I spent so much time researching and putting together people that I wanted to do and there were so many amazing stories. I just did a lady yesterday called Carmen Rupe. She was a Maori trans woman born in the 1930s. She ended up running for the mayor of Wellington? Like wow, that was a trans woman of colour running for political status! That’s amazing!
Lastly, what can we expect next from TeTe Bang?
Oh, my goodness, I can’t wait to go to the dancefloor. I can’t wait for everybody to see ‘Where Love Lives’. It’s been such a long time in the making and then hopefully we’re going to tour it with Glitterbox too and we’ll be back touring festivals.