Life is a drag for John Inman's cousin, Wiganer Chris D'Bray, as he teaches the next generation of drag artists - and he has his sights on Blackpool
From an early age, Chris wanted to act. He worked in 'fun pubs' and variety shows, which led to a career in drag and several TV appearances.
But it was years later that he discovered his cousin was Are You Being Served actor John Inman.
Chris reveals: “In 2000, I traced my mum’s family history all the way back to Ambleside in the Lake District. And when I first met John, I told him and he said his we were probably related, so he asked to see the family tree. I sent him a copy and the next thing was he was phoning my mother, chatting to her about common relatives.“Following that, he would phone whenever he came to the North West and I would pop round and meet him and he always introduced me as his cousin.”
Chris is no stranger to celebrities, as he has worked with the Nolan sisters and Coronation Street actress Sue Nicholls. He has also attracted glowing praise from the likes of Alan Carr, Su Pollard and even Zac Efron.
He says: “I’ve done loads of stuff, especially charity work, for celebrities. The Nolan sisters are friends and I did a Halloween show for Coleen and Denise Welch. I’ve got on well with Sue Nichols, who plays Audrey Roberts in Coronation Street, every time we work together.“When I worked at the old Flying Handbag, from 1999 to 2004, one of my regular customers was Alan Carr before he was famous. And when I was a DJ at Funny Girls on a Monday evening, from 1999 to 2003, loads of comedians would come and watch me, including Danny La Rue.“Christian McKay and Zac Efron, who were working on Me and Orson Wells in 2007, came to the bar where I worked in the Isle of Man with the rest of the crew on a number of occasions and said they loved the bar and my drag entertainment.”
The 58-year-old, who grew up in Wigan, admits he struggled with his identity as a gay man, as it was illegal.
But as he entered the world of ‘fun pubs,’ he discovered a new set of ideals where he could express himself as a drag act. Now, more than 40 years on, under the guise of 44-year-old
Chris D’Bray, he is helping to inspire and lead the next generation of drag artists.
He explains: “I always wanted to be an actor, from being a child. I went on family holidays to Pontins in Southport and I wanted to be a Blue Coat. I asked how to get a job and I applied to head office in Blackpool.“I went down for an interview and they gave me the job on the spot, I told them I was 17, but I was only just 16.
“I was one of the general entertainers and one of my first jobs was being in control of the spot light.“I also took part in the Donkey Derby every Thursday where everyone was dressed as cowboys and as I was the last to join, I was the Indian, so I was chased around and thrown into a pool. I also led the bingo calling.“This was the period that I had really flourished as I met other gay people and realised I was not the only one. At the time, it was illegal to be gay. I was bullied at school and I was a bag of nerves, as I suffered alopecia following the trauma.“But now was my time and I had become a different person.”
At the time, fun pubs were emerging, which combined an element of fun, music and quirky entertainment.
He adds: “It was at the fun pubs that I started doing drag as it was the right audience for it.“My first drag experience was as a dancer at the Silvers Night Club at Park Hall Hotel in Charnock Richard in 1981. Every Sunday it was New Romantics night and I did a lot of robot dancing, which everyone loved. So I got a job as a robot dancer at Silvers.
“I then did Sweet Transvestite from the Rocky Horror Show, wearing a basque, fishnet and suspenders, dancing to the music. Everyone would stop dancing to watch it, which the DJs hated as they wanted everyone dancing. But people loved it. I then thought, why not dress as a woman from the 1960s, a bride, nun and did a doctor and nurse routine.“It progressed from there and I dropped the dancing to focus on drag as people were asking for that.“I was building up a repertoire of work and I partnered up with a friend of mine, whose stage name was Roxy Duvalle. We performed in drag as a double act in Salou, and then as both a double act and individually in Benidorm.”
With a passion for the theatrics, Chris applied to countless drama schools in London, but did not get in.In the meantime, he was fuelling his passion for acting by appearing in TV shows, including Brookside, Emmerdale and Lost Empires, as an extra.
He says: “Nigel Smith, who later managed Take That, was my agent and he got me my first TV job in 1984 in The Krypton Factor. I was one of the actors used for competitors to spot who was in the film clip they watched.“Jean Alexander, who played Hilda Ogden in Coronation Street, was really nice to me on very first train journey to Granada in 1984, and every time after that, when I got on a train in Wigan going to Manchester, if Jean was on it she would always ‘You-hop’ me to come and sit with her. She always called me ‘laddie’ I called her ‘Miss Alexander.’ That went on for two years.”
Chris finally got accepted at Sandown College in Liverpool, studying performing arts from 1986 to 1988 and finished with a diploma in theatre studies.To fund himself he continued working at fun pubs, as well as in a hair salon. He was also training to be a nurse.
He got his first stage job touring as Professor Cold Heart with The Care Bears Magic Show in 1988 for a year and returned to cabaret acts in fun pubs across the UK. He performed in La Cage Aux Follies at Albert Halls in Bolton.
In 1999, he joined Funny Girls, in Blackpool as the Monday night DJ and compare, where he recently celebrated his 20th anniversary.His TV work continued, with roles in Waterloo Road, Hollyoaks, Heartbeat and Peter Kay’s Britain’s Got the Pop Factor. He was given a featured speaking role as Lola Cabana in Emmerdale in 2005.He moved to Gran Canaria in 2006 to be the ‘star of the show’ at the legendary Cafe la Belle show bar for a year.
He now entertains at The Bridge, Lytham Road, Blackpool, every Friday night.
Chris takes his work very seriously and in 2010, he completed a masters degree in contemporary theatre practice at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, (LIPA) and he is keen to encourage the next generation of drag artists by lecturing at Edge Hill University, Wigan and Leigh College and Bury College.
Chris adds: “The tradition dates back to cross dressing performances in Athens more than 2,000 years ago. As the LGBT scene is becoming more mainstream and fun pubs, gay bars, drag could soon be forgotten. It can be political and get highlight equality and rights for the LGBT community, or it can be entertainment and escapism, which is what I prefer. It is about bringing variety theatre back to life.”
Earlier this year, Chris was in talks with Blackpool and the Fylde College to organise a training course in the art of drag. Plans have temporarily stalled but Chris is hopeful there could be a bigger interest in Blackpool, which is seen as the frontrunner of the drag scene in the North West.He adds: “Blackpool has a massive history of drag performers and so if any place is perfect to host a drag course then it’s Blackpool. I am continuing to drum up interest in all the bars I perform in and there are a number of other establishments who have expressed interest in me giving individual drag tutorials.”