One of Britain’s most enduring drag queens Dave Lynn is fit, fifty-something and still fabulous. In a career path that is notoriously tricksy Dave Lynn has managed to stay the course for over 40 years, becoming, dare we say it, the Godmother of drag in the UK.
Indeed she’s a star of the small and silver screens, stage and is known for her singing prowess. Her appearance in the seminal coming-of-age gay drama, Beautiful Thing in 1996, makes her a legend – but you will have seen Dave Lynn turning up on Coronation Street, EastEnders, Doctors and most recently in Birds Of A Feather as Lesley Joseph’s drag self Proxy Cohen.
We meet in Wandsworth where Dave Lynn was starring as Sally (a drag queen) in a play about the murder of Scott Amedure in 1995. Amedure was a man who was shot to death after revealing his attraction to a male acquaintance on a talk show to be broadcast on national TV in America. The programme never actually aired, but the story reverberated around the globe. Explaining why he decided to star in the production he tells me, “I remember the story when it first came out, I think it’s a powerful piece which needs to be remembered.”
We plan to meet at the theatre at five pm, a couple of hours before the show. He arrives late and he’s very apologetic. He’s driven up from Brighton, thanks to the seemingly never-ending Southern Rail strikes. I’m waiting outside the theatre when he calls my mobile, “I can see you…” he coos – “I just have to wait 3 minutes until I can park for free”
It’s 5:27 – and the restrictions end at 5:30 PM.
I look around and across the road stands a fit looking man, dressed in a simple green vest top and shorts showing off some incredible looking muscles. He’s standing next to his flame red car. He is looking intensely at his phone’s clock. “Should I risk it?” he asks looking behind his shoulder for those notorious London traffic wardens. “No”, I say, “the moment you walk away, they’ll pounce like wasps on a barbeque sausage.”
We stand and wait for 3 minutes and It occurs to me that I’ve never seen Dave Lynn the man.
It’s clear to see that Dave is fit, standing around 5’9. He’s of slight build and he has those killer legs on show. Nothing about Dave – the man – gives away his full-time job, entertaining the patrons at gay bars across the South-East. No, nothing gives him away, apart from his eyebrows – so perfectly plucked and shaped.
With 30 seconds to go before 5:30 PM, we risk it and take a short walk to a local coffee shop. We order our £2.80 coffees and like two old friends, within minutes, we’re chatting like we’ve known each other for years. He’s extremely approachable and talkative, despite telling me that out of drag that he’s actually quite shy. We fall into reminiscing about the gay scene of a yesteryear – when there was a surprising number of gay bars in London. Just to put it into context over 100 gay bars have closed since 2000.
My first introduction to Dave Lynn was probably, as for most of us, through the feature film Beautiful Thing. Then there was that drag special episode of The Weakest Link with Anne Robinson, but it’s not until you see Dave Lynn live that you get to experience the character that is ‘Dave Lynn’. His sharp tongue and his incredibly feminine look have given Dave Lynn the edge over his contemporaries. But, there’s a wisdom to the act too. It’s the wisdom which helps a seasoned entertainer know who to pick on in an audience. Oh boy, when she gets going, she gets going. You wouldn’t want to be a heckler in Dave Lynn’s audience. Dave explains that it’s a bit of a talent, “there’s a great ‘wave’ of someone you think would be good. You don’t always get it right. I’ve also got a great habit of going to somebody who’s going to be harder. I hate to be defeated,” he laughs, puts down his coffee and looks intently at me, his left eyebrow raised. Perhaps he’s wondering if I was ever one of those hecklers.
I ask about Dave’s first foray into drag. He tells me that like so many legendary drag queens he started in London. The stage of The Black Cap was the birthing pool for so many of today’s most iconic queens and it’s where he got her break. He laughs as he tells that he was so rushed that he actually hadn’t thought about a name – and was just introduced as “Dave”.
“I was so nervous it didn’t occur to me to have a name. I got a friend to do the makeup, I borrowed stuff from my mum to wear. The name hadn’t occurred to me. When the host said to me, ‘what’s your name?’ I went “Dave”. That was it.”
You might be surprised to know but the Lynn part of the name came from a suggestion by his grandmother whilst sitting with her one evening. He lets me into a secret, “Lynn came from me sitting with my grandma, she was living with us at the time. She said take Mummy’s name, which was Lily strangely enough. So we went to her middle name which is Evelyn and that’s how Dave Lynn came about.”
So it seems that Dave’s drag was a family affair. He revels in the fact that his mother loved his makeup skills so much so that he’d have to go to her house to do hers before making his way to his own show. She was very exacting about Dave’s own makeup. He smiled, remembering, “She did not like me with heavy lips. She did not like me in headdresses.”
Does he remember what he borrowed from his mum that fateful night at The Black Cap?
“I was a big fan of Liza Minnelli, big fan. Huge. In fact, I think she made me want to be in “it” (showbiz) really. So obviously I wanted to do a number by her. I borrowed a gold, lurex halter-neck off mum. She was a wonderful mum.”
After The Black Cap, he was given a stint in the East-end bar, BJ’s White Swan. He started off, surprisingly as a mime act, which gave him the opportunity to observe and learn, “I had seen all the characters and the patter. I was shown Hen-Night patter, basically, us being married to men and what they did…”
By the time Dave Lynn became a talkie as it were, progressing on from mime, his evolved style was considered “dangerous” for the time.
“Everybody said I was dangerous, I started to talk about real stuff, real-life stuff that was part of me. I never ever claimed to be a woman, I just took on what was going on. What I thought. Very rarely were there jokes. I tended to talk about my background, truthfulness. I found wit very much in my family.”
Was his family witty?
“On the Jewish side,” he explains, “I’m not saying this because I love my religion, but I think it’s given me a lovely wit. My mum was great like that. She just said things and I would just laugh at her. My parents together, even their rows were funny. Hysterical.”
Learning his trade, he stumbled upon a winning formula. That ‘danger’ would manifest itself beyond telling jokes, lip-syncs or just singing songs, he went to the audience. “I would actually talk to the audience and go amongst them. I think I was one of first to do that. Nowadays, of course, everybody does that.”
Times have changed in the 40 years that Dave Lynn has been dragging up. Looking back, he tells me that drag was always key to gay bars thriving and was an essential part of gay bar culture. He recalls fondly, “A lot of it was underground. The scene was absolutely fantastic. Getting around was so easy. The world’s busier. I’m really proud that we kept the scene going. It could have died a few times, I’ve seen probably about three generations of people go by. I believe that today is exactly what it should be. I don’t wish for the past.”
I ask what he thinks about the growing number of shuttered gay bars across the UK. He pauses and with a considered tone tells me, “I think what’s happening, this is my opinion, the bars went through a change. It was very much: everybody got dressed up, went out, to have fun, you’d know the drag act. Then it all changed. It got more drinky. That was okay – you could deal with that. Then hours got later, then you had the smoking thing, that changed a lot”.
There was also the 80s and 90s AIDS crisis, did that have an effect on the scene? “I remember going to work one night. I came off (stage) and I said to my friends, God, it’s like a cloud above the audience. It was unreal. But it changed. I found out if you’re on stage that you’re an aunt. They come and talk to you. They needed to be entertained. We needed entertainment.”
He looks down at my phone – which is recording our conversation and says, “Then you had mobile phones” – our relationship with our phones has changed the way we socialise. The jury is still out on whether dating apps are to blame for the decline of the traditional gay scene, but Dave Lynn intimates that it’s more about concentration – that perhaps bars – and drag queens have to work harder to engage with today’s audience.
“I think it needed a kick up the arse. I think it’s up to people now to say “right I’m out for the night, I’m gonna have a good time, I’m gonna put my phone away for half an hour, I’m gonna be part of the act… leave the phone at home because it’s taking over life”
And has drag itself changed?
“I think it’s developed a new life of its own, in the last decade. Since I started where you didn’t really talk about it. I’m happy now to go into a shop to buy high heels, but I remember taking a shopping list and pretending to buy it for ‘my girlfriend’,” he chuckles and leans in, “there are some newbie artists that are a bit too near the mark for me but actually the quality of acts is probably the highest standard I’ve ever seen.”
Our interview is coming to an end, Dave is anxious to get over to the theatre to prepare for the show.
There’s a poster outside and Dave Lynn in all her glittery finery is smiling at us… It’s about 45 minutes before the show. I ask how long it takes to get from man Dave to lady Dave. He chuckles, looking at the poster and tells me he’s “gotten quite quick at it these days”.
As he walks away to his dressing room he looks at me one last time and says with a smile – “It’s been a fascinating career and time.”
I don’t doubt it for a moment.
This interview was taken from Issue 22 of THEGAYUK.