MEET JOE BLACK
Words: Hugo Harris Photography: Greg Bailey
When I heard I was interviewing the macabre delight, Mister Joe Black, in his own home, I rather expected to be greeted on arrival by Tim Burton’s version of Ab Fab’s Patsy Stone: I pictured Black opening the door with a gin clutched in one hand, his long, flowing red locks cascading down the side of a porcelain complexion, inviting me in through pursed lips: “Would you like to follow me into my gracious drawing room?”
My expectations of Gothic decadence and glamour were not without good cause. Black’s notoriety precedes him. Recent years have seen him become one of the leading figures in cabaret; he has performed with the likes of Eddie Izzard, Toyah Wilcox and Marcella Puppini; he has been described by Paloma Faith as being like, “A dark musical. Rah rah!” Amy Winehouse called him, “Brilliant!” and Vanity Fair Italia said Black was one, “Not to be missed.” It was with these things in mind that I arrived at his home, mentally readying myself for the wonder, darkness and madness of Mister Joe Black.
It was a distinctly un-Gothic sunny afternoon; reclining upon a floral printed chair that I had not been anticipating, was the impressive figure of Mister Joe Black. In a long, gold gown, giant, black sunglasses and with his flame red hair perfectly Marcel waved, he did not disappoint.
I started with the logical question…
So describe Joe Black to me? Who is Joe Black?
Clowny, ridiculous, frantic, slightly aggressive, but warm with it.
Yes; it’s aggressive, but you know it won’t go too far and if it does, then it’s going to be more on me. I’m just a fool for hire: A musical comedian.
Some say gin-addled even?
Yes! Do you know where that came from? I googled, ‘Gin Addled Whore,’ one day to try and send a picture of what I thought would be some mad, drunk, old woman for a friend on her birthday and I came up as the number one googled image, followed by Adam Lambert and Paris Hilton.
The number one googled search for a gin addled whore! Is that how you wanted to start out?
Well, no. It kind of accidentally happened. It’s a very easy 1920’s-style thing to play with. Twenties press flyers for cabaret nights would describe them as, ‘gin swilled,’ so I kind of came from that. It’s got a very easy visual thing to it, like if you say, ‘Gin soaked den of iniquity,’ you already have a sort of image from it, and I think it was almost a way of putting it into practice. I did use to drink a lot of gin too. I even have ‘GIN’ tattooed onto my fingers. It’s when I wanted to go for that whole Weimar-Sex-Club-Clown kind of thing, but make it more decadent.
Was it not decadent when you first started out?
I started doing street theatre, a bit like Tom Waits, in a suit that didn't really fit me – almost like you wore your dad’s suit to the prom – A big baggy suit jacket with skinny jeans, shirt, a cravat and some eyeliner. My hair was short, spiky and purple. A lot of Tom Waits shouting, meets the Cockney guy from the Mighty Boosh that shouted, ‘EELS EELS EELS!’ I was always meant to be ridiculous, like that was always meant to be the point. I was never meant to be serious, but I didn't really understand comedy. I just went with being so over the top that I hoped people would just get it; just being so ridiculous that people laugh. Then I moved into comedy and then I started refining who I wanted to be. It was a good 2 years before I really found a ‘look’ and, even then, it’s changed so much because it’s coming on for 9 years now.
I remember reading one of your first interviews which described you as being, “Gin soaked in a wheelchair on fire, rolling down a hill into a Victorian pillow case factory.”
Yep. I’ve done my very best to hide recordings from around that time, but, yes, that would probably be a suitable description. It was terrible. I think about some of it, or listen to EPs from around that time and I had no idea what I was doing – literally no idea – and I thought, “Fuck it, I’ll just give this a go.” Terrible lyrics, terrible instrumentals – just a bang-y, growl-y sound.
But you must have been noticed for having a talent?
I think it was most mostly because I was willing to be so completely ridiculous; people either really liked that they were seeing something really different, or they were really fascinated, thinking, “What the fuck was going on?” That helped propel me. I could then take that and mould it into something a lot slicker.
And you have performed with some amazing people. I think my personal favourite was Marcella Puppini.
I’m actually performing with her again this Saturday. I met her when Marcella and The Forget Me Nots added me on Myspace and I got chatting to her and I just thought it was this really cool band, not making the Puppini Sisters connection what so ever. Then, one day, she asked me to be in one of their live shows as a support act and it was only then I looked further into her and I realised who she was. I really liked Monster Mae and I remember emailing her asking if she would do it together with me. It’s on YouTube actually. I stayed at her house and made a lovely new friend. We stayed in contact and she did my Portsmouth show for me; I’ve done more Forget Me Nots for her and now she's gone solo. She also did backing vocals for a song called, ‘How to get away with Murder,’ which was on my last album; it plays in the background when you walk into Jinx Monsoon’s, The Vaudevillians. I love Marcella so much. She is so inspiring.
Had you ever had a normal 9-5 kind of Job?
The only other job I have had was a Night Porter at a Premier Inn and this was just after I had been booked for Torture Garden in 2008 and I lasted about a month. They were really rude. After Torture Garden it kind of snowballed from there and I have never really had to ever have a normal job again.
So what was your act like at Torture Garden?
It was still quiet bangy. It was getting more cohesive. I got booked there quite often, then people noticed me there and I got booked for things like Dusty Limits show in London. I got booked to support a steampunk band called Abney Park. The guy who got me the support for Abney Park was the same one who got me support for Torah Wilcox. With live shows, I always did band nights. I was always this weird oddity, so I’d be on rock line ups, but also acoustic line ups, and I would be in the middle, like this weirdo. Then I got booked for burlesque shows as the interval set.
I was very lucky with burlesque shows because people normally have to work their way up, but I got noticed and made friends through Myspace with a lady called Beatrix Von Bourbon, who ran a night in Reading. That’s when I started getting paid for Burlesque shows. Then it just went Bang! and I started getting fans. I remember I was walking down Oxford Street and this girl came up to me who recognised me in Bizarre magazine and said, ‘I can’t wait to see you at the Bizarre ball!’ It was all very sudden. In 2009 I went on a tour of Europe; I think I would have been around 18-19 years old then. Even when I was doing Burlesque shows I was underage, maybe just 17.
Weren't you quiet a continual feature in Bizarre Magazine?
I started in the magazine as a Spotlight feature, like a “One to watch,” and then Bizarre Magazine got me a lot of attention and I was in it like every month for like a year to two years, even if it was just “Here are some funny tweets from Joe Black.”
So when was it that you started working with performance artist Mr Pustra? Was that through Bazaar Magazine?
He was in a show I got booked for when I did the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 2008, but he left because he got in a fight with the producer. We stayed in contact and I met him again at a show in London and we thought we should do a double act together. He wrote this show called Villains, which I did the other part for. This started up in a West End supper club that was called Voluptate and they bought the show for four nights, which was a show that essentially didn't exist. It was meant to be me and him with special guest, Marcella Puppini, then she got taken on tour with the Puppini Sisters, so we had a different guest every night. It had a vague story line where we would do a series of performances and skits.
In the audience one night was the woman who was going out with the booking agent for the Micca Club in Rome and she liked it. She convinced her boyfriend to buy it and give it massive production; it went from this small variety show in a supper club to this full scale play with a band and big projections at the Teatro Olimpico in Rome. Things always seem to snowball from one thing to another with me.
Then Snowballing to RuPaul’s Drag Race UK Ambassador try outs.
RuJected! Well, I suppose I should start with RuPaul’s Drag Race. I didn't want to watch it. I didn't Drag, but that was because I had only ever seen that really awful misogynistic lazy pub drag. I was convinced to watch Season 4 with Sharon and it became a sort of cultural phenomenon. Obviously, I had been performing for years, but now I think Drag has had a massive influence over the way I look. It’s really helped shaped my image; I don't think I would be doing some of the things I am doing without RuPauls Drag Race. People may say, ‘Ah but you’re not a Drag Queen!’ Well, no, but I still take massive elements from it. I’m Drag, but not a Drag Queen or King, and that’s why I entered the competition. I wanted to prove a point.
A point that Drag didn't have to mean a pretty girl in frock?
Well, in the end, I guess for them, it did mean that, because it became clear quite quickly that was what they were looking for. When the judges came out they asked Katie Price what she was looking for, and she said she was looking for the prettiest girl. I entered to prove a point that drag is not just one thing; it’s influenced me so much that I must be a part of that world – a world that I have become involved in.
I don't remember very much when I was on stage. I saw Meth giving me a cheeky little smirk, I remember turning to see Katie Price’s incredible stank face towards me, Ru looking sort of baffled and Jonathan Ross open mouthed, wondering possibly why I was dressed as a man.
Well, I wouldn't say, ‘man,’ exactly.
It was sort of genderless. It didn't fit into a gender stereotype and that’s why I wore what I did. Everyone else went as feminine as they could and I didn't want that, so I wore a playsuit, a monocle, a top hat, latex gloves, stockings, heels and my own hair; I didn't wear a wig.
Unlike Katie Price, I’m guessing!
Oh, her hair was bigger than her head! It was like a lion was hiding behind her! Afterwards when we all did a final photo, I was hiding behind her. You can literally just see my top hat behind her hair in the photo. Anyway, she turned to me and said, “I’m really fucking sweaty.”
I said to her, “Well, you are wearing latex.”
She responded with, “Yeah mate,” and that was all the interaction I had with her. Backstage, though, Jonathan Ross came to say hello. Katie Price didn't and security made sure that we didn't cross paths with RuPaul.
So RuPaul didn't interact with the audience or anything?
Well, he did walk out onto the stage and pose. I thought it was disappointing that he didn’t come to meet anyone backstage, but I suppose that keeps the smoke and mirrors alive. Then, when they crowned the winner, he gave her the sceptre, posed for a photo and then he was gone. Just in and out. Yeah, Mamma Ru wasn't so keen to meet people.
Perhaps she had a long day?
It was a long day for everyone. We were there from 2pm and people came from all over, from Manchester to Glasgow and Northern Island. All to be eliminated in the first 15 minutes.
So with today’s shoot you are very much in the style of Marlene Dietrich. When did you first start doing impressions and performances such as Dietrich?
I first did her just for a night out, but I’m very much into the 20/30s thing of which she's the poster girl for all things film and glamour. After that night out where she was a bit wonky, I did it again and then I did a double act where I was Dietrich and my partner, Arran, was Edith Piaf. I loved it, so I kept doing it, and I realised just how much I love impersonating people. I also now do a Drag King impression of the James Bond villain Blofeld. I remember at the Drag Race UK thing, the Drag Queen, Cheddar Gorge, asked me how I would describe myself: You know, Drag Queen? Drag King? I said “Drag Clown.” Even when I do female characters, they are so “clowny.” It is such a piss take of them that I don't think it’s a Drag Queen; it’s a total clown. I’m not being the perfectly poised, sex kitten Dietrich. (I’m sounding like I’m chocking on my own tongue and I can’t get my words out.) It’s taking the facts, and what people take the piss out of, and hyping it. Like with Edith Piaf as well; I made her so fucking ugly because she was a weird looking woman. Wonderful singer, but she does nothing. She just stands there, so I did this jittery thing.
Is there anyone else you plan to impersonate?
I started doing Lucille Ball. It’s funny because Dietrich put out this image of being a sexual, severe image, like she would eat a man, then you would hear stories and actually she was really nice, pleasant, friendly – maybe a little guarded – whereas Lucille Ball put out this fun, all-American girl; apparently she was fucking evil.
So what’s next for Joe Black?
I’d like to write a new show. I’d like to do more solo shows, maybe be on a little reality show, like Game of Thrones or Keeping up with the Targaryens.