Anything but a drag

speaks to the face of York’s own drag house – The Haus of Dench

Image: Kate Stephenson

Crudi Dench has always had an amazing stage presence. She looms over the crowd from the Fibbers stage, helped by impossibly high heels, and works them into a frenzy. Lewd and rude, she sets the mood; the perfect compere and host of York’s Lip Sync Lollapalooza. Crudi Dench is the queen of stopping a night out being a drag.

As the head of York’s very own drag house, Haus of Dench, Crudi Dench is the face of the group. With an inclusive mix of drag queens, drag kings, and bio queens, it’s easy to see why they have swiftly risen to popularity and prominence. They’re at drag races and Pride festivals all over the city and beyond, but their notoriety stems from a club night that’s the invention of a former University of York student – Lip Sync Lollapalooza.

While Matt Stallworthy, or Stalls as he is known by his friends, sits across the table from me in Courtyard, it’s difficult to see the physical similarities. Unassuming in appearance once the wigs are off and the beard is glitter free, it’s hard to believe his alter ego is the head of York’s very own drag house. However, as soon as he starts talking, it’s obvious from his voice that Stalls and Crudi are the same person.

“I’d always known drag queens were a thing, but I didn’t really get into drag until I was 21. It was a rainy Saturday in February 2015. My housemate at the time, Harriet, and I were bored. She suggested that we watch RuPaul’s Drag Race. I didn’t have any particular interest in it – it was reality TV, which I’m not normally a fan of – but we started watching Season 3, and I was absolutely hooked!

“It wasn’t until probably a year and a half later that I started doing drag myself. Haus of Dench originally started in September 2015 as a set of people who wanted to go and see live drag shows in other cities. James Gamblin, Molly Parker and I set it up after seeing Latrice Royale in Leeds. It was just a group of friends. We’d chat about drag and what we did and didn’t like.”

Image: Harry Elletson

Lip Sync Lollapalooza had initially grown independently of Haus of Dench. Created as part of a ComedySoc event, 24 Hours of Comedy, it was first held in 2015, on-campus and in a Vanbrugh lecture hall. As it grew, the decision was made by Stalls to turn it into a club night. It moved into Bierkeller in April 2016, then went on to take over the main room of Fibbers a year later, where it has stayed ever since.

“It wasn’t until we took Lip Sync Lollapalooza into town that Haus of Dench started becoming more of an identity and more of a name – more of a drag group. I didn’t have a drag name until a year after it was established, really. Kate Butch and Fanny Snatcher were the first drag queens to grace the Lip Sync Lollapalooza stage and were the first to actually perform. From there, the other members of the group started to get involved too.

“My drag identity was almost inspired by necessity. I’d come up with the name Haus of Dench before I’d thought of Crudi Dench as a name. A lot of American drag houses are named after the ‘house mother’, or person in charge. I thought, ‘Right, well I’m going to have to think of some sort of name relating to Dench.’ A couple of our other queens have names that are puns on famous theatrical women, so I wanted something similar with Judi Dench.

“I was known as Miss Dench for a while. Initially, I came up with ‘Prudi Dench’, but my drag’s not that prude – my drag’s a lot more crude – so I eventually decided on Crudi Dench.

Image: Jack Richardson

The best drag names do two things: they’re a pun and they really define the queen that you’re going to see. With Crudi Dench, it gives off the vibe of her being a little bit messy, a little bit funny, a little bit naughty. It really does match my drag personality.”

Haus of Dench is a rarity within British drag culture. Their willingness to perform together follows the American drag house format, rather than the stereotypical British way of operating alone. “We’ve found that having a house of drag queens is incredibly supportive. We couldn’t really do this on our own, and having a group of people to turn to, to ask if something’s alright, or if a dress looks good – someone for reassurance that an idea, or a lip sync routine is funny – it’s just so nice.

“Depending on the look, it can take any-where between two and four hours to get into full drag. Then you have to include weeks of researching different makeup and outfits, especially if you’re using prosthetics.

In terms of the night we put on, Lip Sync Lollapalooza, it’s normally a month of work. We have to design posters and event materials, edit background videos and music, compile DJ sets, and encourage contestants to apply. It’s a lot of work, much of which I do myself, but I have a very supportive house of drag queens, and my friends, to help me out.” I take a moment to ask Stalls about his personal drag icons, and his enthusiasm is infectious. He talks about being inspired by the comedy of Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova, who embody the comedic aspect of drag he really enjoys. “The Haus were all comedians before we were drag queens. A lot of drag humour can be very crass and sexual and sometimes inappropriate, whereas we know how to make people laugh and can do so without being offensive.”

He also mentioned more local influences for his act: “On a looks level, I’m very much inspired by the drag queens in Manchester. In particular, Cheddar Gorgeous and Anna Phylactic are fabulous queens that I’ve met at other shows – in fact, Cheddar Gorgeous was the first drag queen that I ever met in person! They were so lovely and they have very club kid inspired looks. They’re much more arty than fishy, visually, and that’s what I really enjoy. I never go onstage wanting to look like a woman. I want to go onstage looking like a pop star, you know? Something completely out of this world. A lot of the time, I’ll call my drag sort of space sci-fi kind of drag, or I will call myself a drag empress just to differentiate myself from the norm.”

For Matt Stallworthy, drag is a combination of all of his interests. The comedy is compatible with the improv he does on the side, and the extravagant costumes are reminiscent of when he was a member of PantSoc. His artistic pursuits are also fulfilled, a love of pop art and makeup being intertwined with Crudi Dench’s look. Stalls’ love of lip syncing also predates drag – “whenever I’ve been out in clubs or anything I’m always lip syncing to the track. It’s something that’s just always been with me.

Image: Jack Richardson

“Drag hadn’t really entered my life until I was in my twenties, but it’s naturally come about and I couldn’t be happier for it. It’s the perfect culmination of what appeals to me: events, comedy, looking fancy… I think a lot of queen’s drag personas are an elevation of their own personality.

“Crudi Dench is a louder, brasher, completely outrageous version of myself that is just a joy to play. She’s very much a character. It’s not me, Matt Stallworthy, in a wig. It is Crudi Dench. It’s somebody else. And I think in a lot of ways it’s quite nice to have that distinction between personalities because if I was Crudi Dench all the time I’d be exhausted! Drag is just another avenue of performance, but also possibly my favourite avenue of performance.”

While Stalls has never personally faced social stigma for his drag, there are some drawbacks. The main issue is actually sexual harassment, contrary to my assumption that it would be homophobic abuse. “If we’re in a club or a party, because we are not ‘real women’, occasionally people will think that it’s alright to grab certain parts of us.

“That is not okay. Drag queens, a lot of the time, are quite intimidating presences – you would think we wouldn’t get a lot of that sort of behaviour – but as quick as you’re walking past someone, they can grab you.

“A lot of the time, a drag queen will come back with a quick remark. But sometimes you don’t have the opportunity to do that. Fortunately, in regards to incidents that have happened with me or any of the other Haus of Dench queens, we’ve been able to get security on it immediately. The staff and security have been more than helpful at all the venues that we’ve worked at in York, and across the country, whether they’ve been LGBTQ venues or not.”

Although this isn’t ideal, Stalls doesn’t let it bother him, and considers it separate from the political side of drag. “A number of drag queens have said ‘drag is inherently political’. You get a man, or a woman, you put them in opposite gendered clothing, and you’ve made a statement already. You’ve gone against the status quo. It’s already political as soon as a drag king or queen walks onstage. Drag artists can, and have, helped sway certain political movements and campaigns.

Image: Kate Stephenson

“But drag is also a form of escapism. You can go and watch a drag show, and completely escape the horrible outside 21st century world for a couple of hours and just have a nice time.” He also had words of advice for anybody wanting to get involved in drag, but who are nervous about it. “Do it! I’m not going to lie – it’s not easy. But you get a lot of satisfaction out of it. It takes practice, but if it’s something you’re interested in, go for it while you can! Go for it while you’re young.

“We’ve recently set up a Facebook group called ‘Yorkshire Drag Performers Network’. We want to spread this page, which anybody can join if they’re interested, and perhaps even start some workshops in York to encourage more people to try drag, because it’s such an amazing form of self-expression and it’s also a massive confidence booster.

“If you contact a drag queen they’re not going to say ‘I’m too busy’, they’ll rarely ignore you. I have a set of drag starter tips that I send out to people interested in drag, and it just helps get them rolling. If you are interested in drag, the best place to try it in York is Lip Sync Lollapalooza. It’s such an open, inclusive environment; whether you’ve done drag for years or you’re doing it for the first time, you’re very much welcome to perform or to just chill out on the night.”

While Lip Sync Lollapalooza is a big focus for Haus of Dench, it’s not the only thing on their calendar. After performing in shows alongside the most recent RuPaul’s drag race winner, Sasha Velour, they have plans to take their drag acts on tours and to create an Edinburgh Fringe show. In the nearer future, on 18 February they have another Lip Sync Lollapalooza, and then on 7 April have their first wedding. They’re already booked for 9 June, for York’s Pride event.

“We established Haus of Dench a year after beginning Lip Sync, and from there we’ve done art exhibitions, Pride festivals and mu-sic festivals. It’s mad, it’s grown at an insanely fast pace since we founded it.” There’s even international interest – there have been enquiries from Switzerland about drag queens who can ski. Stalls laughed, saying, “It will be interesting to see if that happens.

“I can’t really believe this has happened. It’s a strange direction, but a very happy one. I have unending love for my friends and family for their support and getting involved. Drag came at a point where I wasn’t sure what I was doing; in my life, a string of unhappy experiences had left me incredibly low, but Crudi came into my life and brightened up my world and gave me new purpose.”

It is undeniable that Matt Stalls really cares about Crudi Dench, his fellow Haus drag queens, and the people who come to their events. And personally, I couldn’t wait for their next one. The club nights, reminiscent of Willow, have wormed their way into students’ hearts and grow every time. Inclusive and fun for everyone, Stalls has created the queen of club nights and changed the face of York’s queer scene in the process. M