Have We Had The Pleasure?A Tête-à-Tête with Velma Celli

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When we think of Velma Celli, (‘the UK’s Queen of live vocal drag’) C.U.N.T. is absolutely the first thing that springs to mind. Blessed with enough Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent to take on all 11 seasons of Drag Race and the upcoming British version, Velma is one of Balans Restaurant Soho Society’s most favourite drag performers with an absolutely incredible, spellbinding voice and a wicked sense of humour. We were delighted when she and her alter ego, the lovely Ian Stroughair accepted our invitation to pop by Old Compton Street for a Negroni or two and a chat prior to performing her upcoming show ‘Equinox’ at Underbelly on The South Bank on the 15th and 16th of July.

So what can we expect from the new show?

Equinox is really all about witches and magic and outcasts and freaks. It’s a kind of my love letter to all those magical creatures from stage and screen we all know and love so there’s a bit of Ursula, some ‘Wicked’, but there’s some Eurythmics in there too as well as Radiohead…a bit of everything. Basically, it’s every song that’s got the word ‘magic’ in it. I’ve got my fantastic friend Miss Betsy Rose, the absolute queen of burlesque as a special guest doing a witchy number and I’m thrilled to have my dear friend and circus/aerial superstar, Katharine Arnold “flying in” to duet with me as well. Something fabulous this way comes… It’s a fun show.

Where did it all start for Velma Celli?

I was in West End shows for ages – things like Cats and Rent, (playing Angel as the whitest Puerto Rican ever) and Chicago, getting a bit bored of musical theatre and wanting to do something new. I went out one night in drag with the girls from Priscilla and La Cage aux Folles, ended up in Madam Jojos rather worse for wear, sang a song as you do and that was that. I was invited back the following week to perform properly, got offered a regular gig there and Velma was born. That was 10 years ago now.

So you must have seen the drag scene changing dramatically over that time…

It’s true, it has changed. Drag Race certainly opened things up to new audiences. To be honest, I’ve never really described myself as a ‘drag queen’ though so I’ve never felt especially part of that world. Velma has always felt more like performance art to me. She’s a way of presenting myself as a singer, as a performer. She’s not so much a character that I’ve invented – she’s a bit more like a really enhanced version of me that I can introduce through this persona. As Velma, I can be really fearless. Ian’s not that brave really.

Is she someone you can hide behind?

Definitely. She’s much more out there than me, much more capable of doing stuff – even singing. She’ll go for a note that as Ian I might think twice about. I quite like taking off the makeup and nobody knows who I am too.

What does the future hold?

I really love the creativity of writing and performing new shows. I can get a bit restless doing the same thing all the time, but having said that it might be time to think about going back into musical theatre again or maybe doing a straight play. I started as an actor when I was a kid and I’d love to go back into that. I’ve written another new show for Velma too called ‘Me and My Divas’ that has its premiere at The Brasserie Zedel on the 18th July. It’s me belting out all those Mariah, Celine and Whitney big ballady numbers. No diva is safe.

You’re not tempted by Drag Race UK?

I think I’ll reserve judgement on it until I’ve seen it. It’s going to be hard for them to get it right, I think. British drag is so different from American. It seems to be more about creating personalities and makeup and lip-synching rather than actually being able to actually do something. I’m not sure how Velma would take to it or indeed how it would take to her…

To book tickets and for more information about ‘Equinox’ at The Underbelly Festival go here

To book tickets and for more information about ‘Me and My Divas’ at The Brasserie Zedel go here

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