Diva Interviews


I was shaking like a belly dancer on speed, waiting to meet one of my favourite authors, Fiona Cooper. I had broken the spines on many of her books: Rotary Spokes, Jay Loves Lucy, Heartbreak On The High Sierra, The Empress Of The Seven Oceans and my absolute darling, A Skyhook In The Midnight Sun.

She was smaller and far more placid than I had imagined. "I'm actually an extremely quiet and shy person, but I love showing off," she reassured me, settling down to coffee, brandy and a roll-up.

It took me half an hour to switch on my tape recorder, and another fifteen minutes before she mentioned the new book, Blossom At The Mention Of Your Name. Meanwhile, we had talked about Newcastle ("I thought I better get out of London because I'd had it to saturation point, and this job came up so I went there to be a writer in residence for six months and that was six years ago") and the local football team ("Kevin Keegan is God up there"). We chatted about drag acts at the Black Cap and all that "frantic cruising and boozing" and ruminated on the wonders of nature.

"You can get into a rut, but if you can seize the fact that a dewdrop on a rose leaf is eternally beautiful, no matter how many times you see the bugger, it is gorgeous," she said. "If you're prepared to look, you can see magic everywhere. You can call it escapism if you like, but I have my feet very firmly on the ground and my head very firmly in the stars, because people like stories and fairy tales and happy endings."

Ah, at last! The new book! Blossom At The Mention Of Your Name is the tale of Callum (aka Queen Astarte of the Seven Veils) and Gerth, a salesman for a sportswear company, who meet in a gay club. Just one problem: Gerth is straight. I wondered why Fiona had chosen to write about gay relationships.

"There's a lot of reasons," she replied, sparking up. "One of main ones is as a tribute to all the gay men who've been friends and supportive to me over the years, a number of whom are ill, and some of whom are dead. I met a friend at Gay Pride, and it became apparent from the conversation that he was HIV+ and I said 'What are you going to do?'He said, 'I'm going to dance my tush off until I fall over'and it just hit me. I thought it was gross. We've got this disease and people are talking about it like it's a judgment from God, and this is real live people who are far too young to be thinking about dying and going to so many funerals. I started writing about Callum who was sort of in my mind as a feeling of gay men I have known."

We meandered on, talking about the meaning and importance of long friendships. One tape ran out and then a second, while Fiona shifted her chair to chase the sun and stubbed out another roll-up.

"Callum's actually carved out his own little space. He's not taking anything from anybody, he's not leeching from society. He's just decided I am what I am, to use the phrase. He's been through fucking minefields but he knows he can handle it.

"An awful lot of my friends do live and survive, dancing their arses off until 3am in the morning, or swimming in the sea at dawn or watching John Waters movies all night, stuff that gives them immense joy and makes you feel alive, and I thought let's have some of that: let's have the gay boys as I know them." The book does have a tragedy of sorts, and Fiona makes no apology for that.

There's even a moral. "I suppose it's about taking responsibility for your choices. Just think carefully about your choices because you have to live with yourself."

We talked of dealing with death, the unconditional love of dogs, about relationships and image ("I'm just a drag queen trapped in a lesbian's body and surgery can't help") and how she has "ceased to give a bugger about anybody's opinion unless I respect them as a person.

"I'm actually happy now. This is me. I love gardening, I love my dogs, I love walking by the sea. For the moment that's what feels good. I'm a spiritualist, and I'm learning about all sorts of eternal truths. People say 'What a load of hippy bloody bullshit' but I don't care. I'm not out to convince anybody, and I'm now at a point at which I feel I'm more myself than I ever have been before, and I like that."

© Megan Radclyffe Publ. Millivres 1996


Creator of the homicidal lesbian terrorist cartoon character, Hothead Paisan

Men might get 'road rage' but women get something else - street rage. For example: You're just ambling down the road with your girlfriend, amicably minding your own business, a responsible law-abiding citizen. Unbeknown to you, there's a pack of pubescent testosterone-challenged lads on the corner waiting to announce themselves. Some bright spark yells at you "Fucking dykes!" And suddenly, right in front of your very eyes, there's this grinning thick-necked moron standing there, poking his spotty nose venomously into your face. Now, you know you can't get mad and you can't get even. Yet part of your mind still flickers with visions of reaching for that baseball bat, squeezing that trigger, lighting that fuse. Of course, what you really do is walk on, mutter under your breath, stew with anger as your girlfriend drags you away, explaining patiently that you can't blow him away, not even if he's a poxy devil with brains the size of a testicle.

You can't kill him. But there is someone out there who can. OK, so maybe she is just a cartoon character called Hothead Paisan. And maybe she's rarely seen on these shores. But she's dynamite with the proverbial short fuse, borne out of the rage and frustration of her creator Diane DiMassa.

"I've always been an artist. As a kid, I was always doodling," DiMassa told me quietly on the telephone from San Francisco, "but I didn't get much done later when I was into drugs, and things were buried. While all my friends were getting art shows, I was getting high all the time. I was in recovery from drugs and alcohol, in therapy, and trying to work on my anger and a my huge creative block. "My therapist suggested I try art, so I went home, watched TV, got angry about something and scribbled four pages, including a graphic scene where HotHead rapes a man with a telegraph pole and a sledge hammer, which was really difficult for me to draw. Later, my partner [and now publisher of the comics] Stacey found them and said, 'How about doing a whole comic book?'

You could be mistaken in assuming that DiMassa is a latent psychopath. How does one get from gentle art therapy to a comic strip that has Hothead ripping a man's spine out with pliers and then guillotining his penis off? The softly spoken Diane explains : "I do Hothead specifically for the task of getting it all out of my system. "I'm drawing my guts out. It's a reaction to the whole way society is set up. The anger's gotta go somewhere."

That anger doesn't just leak out via Hothead. It gushes. And it's just as much a therapeutic process for the reader as the author. Hothead illicits a euphoria at seeing those who usually get away with things scott free getting their just deserts. She induces the same feeling of glee you get while watching the scene in Thelma and Louise when you can see that they've got guns stuck in their back pockets as the leery lorry driver approaches, but he can't. DiMassa says how "The biggest thing I get out of Hothead is that the sense of isolation has been changed. Here comes a voice saying 'Gonna fight back, fuck you!'" In this, her second collection of comic strips, The Revenge of Hothead Paisan 2, our heroine gets to kill loadsa men : she machine-guns an OJ Simpson supporter, puts a severed dick in formaldehyde and adds it to her ever-growing collection, brains a slimy office clerk, knocks down blokes in her car and pushes others under trucks.

Shamelessly violent and gloriously OTT, it's a Tom and Jerry terrorism transferred to the street. Needless to say, it has not gone down well universally. It may come as no surprise that DiMassa is banned in Canada. "Customs were randomly opening up boxes, with decisions being made on the title alone, so I was banned." Unrepentant, DiMassa observes, "After that, I got really popular in Canada!" She may not be the favourite flavour with the main comic houses in the USA either. DC Comics (Batman, Sandman and Superman etc) and Marvel (Spiderman, Captain America and the Mighty Thor et al) aren't renowned for their strong female characters. "I couldn't care less about DC and Marvel," DiMassa says sharply, her work firmly located in the the dyke universe.

Hothead's certainly carrying her own little banner for the cause, and she does it with unique audacity. DiMassa's talent for facial expressions and her range of drawing styles also gives the comic strip a subtley and post-modern cleverness (DiMassa's pen nib itself makes some witty appearances). She doesn't just draw out her violent fantasies, she also analyses the reasons behind the anger - Hothead stops off for philosophical ramblings in between bouts of rage. "Hothead bends the definition of comics for me," claims the creator. "The point is that I become empowered. I would never give her up, only if she ceased to be the excitement that she is."

© Megan Radclyffe Publ. Millivres 1996

The Topp Twins

It had been pissing down with rain all morning. I was due to meet Linda and Jools Topp - the infamous Topp Twins - at the Cafe Flo in Islington, and I was soaking wet. They arrived five minutes after me, shaking their umbrellas. Having ordered Earl Grey tea and coffee, they settled down to talk about their forthcoming attraction, "Topp Secret", running at the Drill Hall until 7th January.

"It's actually the life story of the Topp Twins," explained Jools, "so even though we're playing lots of characters, all the characters are the Topp Twins at different stages in their lives. There are eight characters altogether, so there'll be eight different Topp Twins to take us through the show." Linda butted in. "The audience are being taken through the show by a Private Eye and an ace reporter, who'll be telling the story of the Topp Twins. It's something of a weird concept that we play ourselves in a show."

Jools jumped back in. I began to think that these two were going to be hard to keep up with.

"The reason that we came up with the idea is because we know ourselves better than anyone else. We've never trained as actors, so when we get out there, we're just being who we are. We've got a lot of different styles of music, and we found that the country and western style, although it's sang in a lot of places, people haven't really made country and western funny, and we think it should be. It's hysterical if you get it in the right place, and so we don't take the piss out of it, what we do is send it up.

"We go from babies right through to where we are now, so we go through many different stages of our lives, from babies, through the Army, to coming out as teenagers, all those things, the whole story is there, plus a few surprises at the end."

I shuddered slightly. "You were in the Army?" Jools laughed. "We were in the Army for two years, I know it sounds weird. We were in the Territorials, and did two months of solid training, and learned how to meet interesting people and kill them. It was like Girl Guide camp rather than the Army for us, so it didn't do any harm. We sort of got a dishonourable discharge at the end of it, for being outspoken and dismissing ourselves from parades, but we're kind of proud of that. "

"Have you already tried this show out?"
"No," Jools replied. "This show's never been performed live. It's brand new..."
"It's a brand new show," Linda echoed. "We're still writing it! We like a challenge. The thing is that the majority of our show actually happens on the night. A lot of our stuff is very spontaneous, because of working with the audience a lot, so even though we're writing the show now, we pretty much know how the flow of the show will go, and as long as we've got that, that's all we really need. It's not like the show's not there. It is there, but it's sort of waiting, bubbling for an audience."

"There is a train of thought that says lesbians can't be camp," I said, running a pet theory past them. " So the the shows are your idea of lesbian camp?" "It is camp!" Jools almost yelled. "We see ourselves as lesbian performers. There are a few types of performers within the lesbian community: we're lesbian performers, and then there's shows about lesbianism, so there's this weird thing. A lot of our lesbian politics is very subtle... Once again, Linda interrupted. "I think we can afford to be subtle. Lesbians love that kind of sense of humour..."

"We're being lesbians on stage - they know who we are," Jools countered. "We're not stand-up comedians. We never will be, that's not who we are. Back home they call us vaudeville, which might seem like an old term, but the whole thing is that music, comedy and audience participation are involved. We're happy with that label in a lot of ways, because it says to people, "Wow, there's music, there's everything!" We're not just stand-up with a stool and a microphone. The excitement about doing Topp Secret is that really, we're portraying ourselves and in some ways that's a major risk.

"Topp Secret is very much our baby, our little baby," cooed Linda, fiddling with her knife.
"It's about fifteen years that we've been performing together," Jools informed me. "The nice thing about that is the fact that we've been able to do it in our own way, we haven't really been pushed or manoeuvred by anyone to try and be something we didn't..."
"Want to be..."
"Want to be, or didn't feel comfortable about doing. I mean, right now it's still exactly the same. We do the costumes, Linda does the lighting design, I do the set design, we produce the show ourselves - well, the Drill Hall produce it, we direct the show ourselves - and we've never worked within the actual theatre realms."

"And this is the fruition of fifteen years on the comedy circuit?" I ask. They nod, in unison and in perfect time. "So what sparked it all off?"
"We came from a rural community," Jools replied, "and it was almost considered rude to have the record player on at a party. It would be turned off you'd go and get your guitar out. I don't know whether I should be telling you this, but when we were twelve, we had this idea that we were singers at this beach resort. We'd come home from school and we would sing into this sort of hairbrush microphone, like everyone does, and then we would go swimming, and we would swim for miles on our beds! We did that for a really long time," she finished, looking somewhat embarrassed.
"How does something like that evolve into Camping Out or Topp Secret ?"
"That's our style," Jools continued. "That's the way we work, and I think it's a tricky way of getting someone to do it for you. There's a secret to it in a way. What you have to do is charm the pants off them first, and you charm the pants off them so that they will then do anything for you. It's just a polite way of just asking someone to help you with your show."

"How do you go about picking people?" I tentatively ask, hoping for some tips on how to avoid being dragged on stage.
"She's, Linda's the..."
"I'm the spotter," said Linda, cutting Jools short. "I'm the audience spotter, as opposed to the train spotter! When people talk to us, they do dwell on the audience participation..."
"No!" Jools parried. "But that is the thing that people come to see. I think it's more exciting. Even though there's no pantomime as such, the show..."
"...has got qualities..."
"...is going to be suited to pantomime. We want people to come to our shows and have..."
"...a good time!"

© Megan Radclyffe Publ. Millivres 1998

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