Following our visit to see the fantastic Priscilla Queen of the Desert at Theatr Clwyd, We Are Chester’s Tori Erskine had the opportunity to meet the wonderful Velma Celli ahead of her new show Iconic – The History of Drag. Photos: PR and Tori Erskine.
Hi Velma, thanks for having a chat with We Are Chester today! Could you tell me a bit about how Velma Celli was born?
Velma Celli was born because I was performing in Chicago in the West End. I was an understudy of the role of Mary Sunshine, so in that process I learnt how to walk, stand, and sing like a lady. On a Wednesday night the ensemble boys from the West End would all go for a gay night out in Soho.
One week, La Cage aux Folles, Priscilla [Queen of the Desert] and Chicago were going out, and that week it was decided that we were going out in drag. I went to Primark and I bought a terrible dress, some kitten heels (bleurgh!), some cheap make up, got ready after the show and downed some gin. I went down to Madame Jojo’s with all the Queens, who of course looked incredible because they were in these big shows with big budgets, costumes and wigs! Whilst I was there I cant remember it, but I’m told that the drag queen DJ said: ‘I’ve heard you can sing, give us a number,’ and apparently I gave them three or four, and jumped into the splits!
As I left, the promoter from the club asked if I wanted my own show the following week. I was leaving Chicago that week anyway so I thought I might as well! So I left the club that night and went to China Town, I was dressed as Velma Kelly from Chicago and I was sat there eating Singapore vermicelli noodles so there was only one option really, it had to be Velma Celli.
We’ve all been there with a bad Primark dress! So, for anyone who doesn’t know you, how would you describe your style of drag?
Well there’s been many! Back when people traditionally started drag you try lots of things out, you do it terribly and get things wrong, like any job! Nowadays it’s a little bit easier because of RuPaul’s Drag Race (RPDR) and I think a lot of the Queens just copy it and it’s not a normal creative process.
I kind of started off as I am now, I always sing live, my looks are a bit androgynous: no wig, kind of crazy make up, trying not to look like anybody else. Then as the years went on I was influenced by other people, I had massive wigs, I had six drag queen backing dancers, so I did try everything.
What fits now and what has fit the last few years is back to my roots, which is no wigs, androgynous, gender bending drag.”
Your look today is amazing! A lot of drag performers say they see a big difference between themselves in drag, and out of drag. Do you see this difference?
I see a big difference in confidence. So when I’m getting ready when I put the first bit of make up on I don’t really feel anything. But there’s a little bit of a switch that happens, and I think it’s usually around once I’ve got my eyes on, my cheekbones, my lips and everything else is on, I see myself changing in the mirror and my mannerisms just suddenly change and adapt into this more feminine structure.
I don’t know how or why that’s happened, I think it’s just developed over the years. I think on stage if I’m in a musical as a guy obviously I’m in the character so that doesn’t count, but if I’m doing a gig or cabaret as Ian I’ve got way less confidence. If I’m on stage as Velma I’m like a Tasmanian Devil! It’s like a force just takes over me and I just go crazy, what’s interesting about that is that in order to sing at your best you have to be as relaxed as possible, so singing dressed as Velma I sing way better than I do as Ian because I have so much confidence!”
In your trailer for your new show I spotted you singing RuPaul’s Sissy That Walk! As drag has become more immersed into pop culture through things like RPDR, do you think there’s more focus on drag in the US than in the UK?
Sissy That Walk is on my album! I think it’s interesting, I cant speak for everyone, but I feel like many drag queens in the UK feel that although it’s brilliant and a great celebration of the art form and it’s getting out there to a lot of people which is creating a lot of jobs and more queens, sometimes I feel that its become a bit gentrified – I feel like a lot of them just churn them out now.
So, for example, a lot of the queens on the last three seasons actually grew up watching RPDR as a thing, back in my day to do drag you just had to put on a dress, go out, and you’d learn over years and years.
I do love it, I feel it’s very entertaining, I don’t feel that it represents drag in the UK, but that’s fine, because it’s not in the UK, it’s American!”
I could literally talk about RuPaul’s Drag Race all day. But! We need to hear all about your show! Tell us a bit about it.
It’s called Iconic – A Brief History of Drag and it’s a show that I wrote a few years ago. I wrote it mainly because a lot of my fan base were asking me to sing drag classics such as I Am What I Am, I Will Survive etc. and I had never done it.
I’d always shied away from doing any songs that you would immediately associate with drag because I wanted to be different.
However, a lot of the followers were asking and asking for these songs! So I thought what I’ll do is, I’ll do one gig, I’ll sing all those songs for them, rip off the bandage and just get it out there do a bit so I never have to do it again! But researching the show I realized there was a show in this, in fact there was about five shows in it!
It’s not just about the music, it’s about learning from old queens, famous, funny things that drag queens that have gone before us have said, moments in politics, huge moments in the gay culture, and in history like the riots that were started in the Village in New York and at Stonewall. The drag queens and the gays stood up against the police and won gay liberation, huge stuff that lots of straight, but lots of gay people don’t know about. I like teaching people about that.
I also like that there are moments in the show that are musical theatre songs, bits from different musicals that perhaps weren’t as successful as Priscilla Queen of the Desert. It’s nice for an audience to hear a song that they’ve never heard before.”
There’s a lot of history that I definitely don’t know about and I think it’s so important that people get the opportunity to learn about it!
The title Iconic – A Brief History of Drag is actually my second line of the show, and I say ‘Tonight I’m going to take you on a journey of my most favourite moments in drag history.’ So although it says history of drag, it’s actually those moments in drag history, little nuggets and pockets of information that I’ve taken on whether knowingly or not that have influenced my drag persona now.
So as much as it’s a history of drag, the whole heart and crux of the show is about history, but I don’t harp on about it, it’s there! Just so I don’t want people thinking that they’re not coming to something like ‘DAY ONE OF ADAM AND STEVE!’”
Thank you so much for having a chat with We Are Chester, Velma! I hope the show goes well and I can’t wait to see it next week!
Iconic – The History of Drag is coming to the Liverpool Epstein Theatre on Friday 29 June, you can book your tickets here. (https://www.epsteinliverpool.co.uk/events/iconic-brief-history-drag/) Also keep an eye out for our review of the show!