The Trannies of Bethnal Green
Hessel St is named in remembrance of Phoebe Hessel (born 1713), known as the “Amazon of Stepney” who dressed as a man to enlist in the army to be with her lover – an honourable example which demonstrates that trannies are an integral part of the culture and history of the East End. And I am proud to report that this venerable tradition still flourishes today, reaching its exuberant zenith each year at “London’s Next Top Tranny Contest” held at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Social Club.
It was my privilege to sit at the head of the catwalk, surrounded by a raucous and appreciative crown, to witness these glamorous extravagant flowers at close quarters as they competed furiously in last week’s nail-biting contest finale. Yet before proceedings commenced, Russella – our long-legged pole dancing hostess in pink glitter – confessed her motives with a refreshing lack of false modesty, redefining the terms of the contest unambiguously.
“Why would I want to give the title of London’s Top Tranny to someone less talented and less good looking than myself? That’s why I am the host tonight, because the winner will be London’s Next Top Tranny – after me. They will be London’s Next Top Tranny when I die. In other words, over my dead body…” she declared, fluttering her spidery eyelashes as she twisted her sparkly lips into an insouciant smile and tossed her blonde locks with self conscious grace.
Once the unassailable Russella had asserted her alpha-tranny status, it was time to bring on the contestants, Miss Cairo, Fancy Chance, Stephanie, Polly Sexual, Jean Benett and Strawberry Pickles, and what a gorgeous display of unapologetically ambiguous gender they presented – to delight the most jaded eye and uplift the weariest spirit. Six brave souls who had cast aside conventional notions of dignity in the quest for greatness. Lacking breasts, possessing male body hair (and in one case having a beard), none of these contestants aspired literally to be taken for women, instead they had adopted female trappings to aid them in exaggerated variations upon the performance of femininity. And, as if to emphasise the point, Russella even staged an uproarious cookery demonstration making pancakes on stage.
Running through the evening was a compelling dramatic tension between the trannies’ performances that invite our suspension of disbelief and their clunky pantomime outfits which simultaneously remind us of their wearers’ inauthentic gender. These fearless trannies incarnate a persuasive poetry. It is a question of how far are you prepared to go to humiliate yourself for the sake of becoming fabulous.
And these trannies held nothing back, embracing challenges to retain dignity while walking in wildly mis-matched ill-fitting shoes, displaying extreme emotions while blasted by a wind machine, drinking copious amounts of of cider, and eating live worms, raw meat and dog food. Stephanie, a shy senior tranny in a bridal gown, won affection early on for tottering in ill-matched heels displaying swollen ankles and varicose veins, and then, as if to dispel the audience’s pity, won a round of applause for eating a whole can of dog food. Other memorable highlights included Miss Cairo’s supermodel walk sustained while wearing a wooden clog and a five inch heel, Polly Sexual’s glorious dress woven from yellow and black hazard tape, Strawberry Pickles’ soulful appeal for drag queen asylum to prevent her being sent back to Sarah Palin’s America, Jean Benett’s curiously Gwyneth Paltrow-like enactment of constipation, and Fancy Chance’s performance as the artist formerly known as Prince, which made such ingenious use of an aerosol of cream and drew deafening shrieks of joy from the crowd.
It all came down to two contenders. Strawberry Pickles, distinguished by her relentless cheerfulness and Fancy Chance who accomplished that rare stage feat of being mean and charming at the same time. She was the dark horse of the contest, wearing trousers and exuding masculinity, I wrongly assumed Fancy was a man performing as a manly woman. Only part-way through the contest did I realise that Fancy Chance was the only entrant going in the opposite direction to the others, from woman to man. She had taken me in from the start. So it was only just that she won, though friends were surprised next day when I said I had been to a tranny contest and a woman won – though I have no doubt Phoebe Hessel would have approved of the result.
There is a strange nobility in the trannies’ condition, emerging from the shadowlands of gender into the limelight, so proud and flamboyant, craving attention like children, and seeking affection and respect for their fabulousness. We love them for their excess, their devotion to sentimental songs and inability to lipsynch, their make-up that smears, their wigs that come off and their trashy costumes that come apart. We cherish their magnificent failures. We love them for their audacity. They are delicate creatures of the nighttime and we do not want to know where they go in the daytime, because there is an elusive magic to these vibrant personalities unlocked by cross-dressing.
Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie
Find out more about the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Social Club at www.workersplaytime.net