the untold story of lgbt pioneer lanah p

From the darkest depths of Grimsby, to sharing a flat Corrie’s David Barlow, to pop singles, Top of the Pops, Keith Allen and The Comic Strip Presents, Lanah P has been there, done that, and pioneered the way for every other mixed-race LGBTQ person who...

i-D Staff

i-D Staff

I was born in the darkest depths of Grimsby Town. 108 Guildford Street. I believe they've pulled it down -- in my honour -- now. Grimsby is a very dull and parochial place. Not that I want to demean the people there who want to escape, get on the yellow brick road the same as I did. It's funny. I was talking to the podiatrist earlier. He said to me, "Where did you come from?" I said, "Grimsby Town". He went, "Oh my God, I'm from Cleethorpes." I said, "I can smell the pier on you."

My father was from Durban in South Africa and my mother is half Irish, half Bajan, but my upbringing was archetypally English. When people talk to me about black history it's kind of alien. I've got my own brown history -- as any 5ft 8', agendered, brown person has -- and I've certainly experienced racism and aggression on a lot of levels. Especially in the 80s, walking around as Lana Pellay, there was a lot of "batty this, batty that".

I'd always got abuse as a teenager. Coming from the age that I did -- I was born in '59 -- it was inevitable. I was very effeminate, very girly. If you're working class you have this narrow box that you're supposed to fit in and I always fought against that. It resulted in me being quite badly beaten by my family, at one point and I ended up in hospital with a broken nose. After that I was taken into the care of the local authorities and was in a kids home called The Cedar's in Nunsthorpe from 14 to 17.

From about the summer of my 18th year, I was living in a bedsit on Princess Avenue, Grimsby Town. It was getting to the point where Grimsby was becoming more and more claustrophobic and narrow minded -- there was too much attention on this exotic bird. That's the thing when people are small minded, what they don't understand they want to destroy... I just had to get out.

The rehearsal for London was Manchester. About 1978/79 I moved around Didsbury, Collyhurst, Chorlton-cum-Hardy and, finally, Cheadle Hulme, where I lived in house with Alan Rothwell -- who played David Barlow on Coronation Street -- his wife Maureen and their two kids, Toby and Ben. I started playing the clubs, doing a tribute to Shirley Bassey -- who I can't stand, because she's a Tory and I have an aversion to Tories -- but I made quite a good living out of it.

Through Maureen and Alan, I met up with somebody called Joe Quinn who had an antiques shop on Stockport Road, and through him I met Mark E. Smith of The Fall and Kay Carol, his girlfriend and manager at the time. I ended up supporting The Fall at a few gigs at the Russell Club on Moss Side and even appeared in some of their videos as well. It was by becoming friends with Mark and Kay that I met someone called Adrian Sherwood who managed On-U Sound Records and a band called The London Underground. They were coming to play the Hebden Bridge Festival, and then they persuaded me to come down to London, like Judy Garland, with all my belongings in a trunk.

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It wasn't my ideal situation. It wasn't a penthouse apartment with a revolving roof to look at the stars over Hyde Park but a squat by Clapton Pond. We got chased out of it by the National Front in the end. My friend Trevor had a bedsit on Bayswater at the time, right at the top of this five story townhouse, and as I was going down the stairs one day there was this tall blonde in a black puffy shirt that he'd obviously made himself. All I could think of was hairdresser, struggling with his myriad of suitcases and black bin liner bags. I said, "Can I help you with that?" and this Australian voice said, "Oh, yeah, I'd love you to." It was Leigh Bowery. We started chatting on the phone and he started making my clothes. I used to feel very elegant in them.

I suppose you could say I've got one foot in the Ritz and the other in Grimsby docks. We'd spend Sunday after Sunday on Leigh's balcony, eating cheese and cress sandwiches and drinking big pots of Earl Gray. Talking and talking and talking, measuring me for clothing, shopping for fabrics on Brick Lane. People used to laugh at him because he'd wear these wigs. It's was like, "Leigh, take it off." He thought it was realistic. I went, "it looks like you're wearing Ann Widdecombe as a pom pom hat. Take it off." I used to go and get a paper bag and put it over his head. Sue Tilley wrote that Leigh had "met his match in sick and twisted minds" with me, which I thought was hysterical.

I'd done some really punky stuff in the early 80s; Parasitic Machine, Spirit Soul, Closet Queen. Then I did two numbers with Stock Aitken and Waterman -- Pistol In My Pocket and I Can Make A Man Out Of You -- and regaled the nation with Gary Clail and Human Nature. Pistol In My Pocket which was number one on all the dancefloors in Europe. It was a top ten hit all over Australia. I was on Molly Meldrum's Countdown. Even on a chat show with Samantha Fox. I did Top of the Pops twice, it was like doing Prisoner Cellblock H. People think you have this glamourous life. Where's my dressing room? It was a big, fucking broom cupboard.

It was a kind of good experience but it was a very, very bittersweet time also. I let them call me transexual, but I kicked against because I just thought, I'm not into your respectability politics. I don't feel like I have a gender. I'm agendered. Gender neutral. Non-binary. I always felt like that. And I always felt that their transexuality label was imposing their idea of respectability on me. You must be in this box because we don't understand you if you aren't. Well, if you're that evolved why do you have to look between my legs -- or anybody else's -- and decide how to treat them?

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One afternoon in the summer, I was swinging on the swings in Powis Square when this guy came over. I thought that he was trying to get off with me but it was Keith Allen, the comedian and actor -- I always thought with that description he should have been done under the trades description act -- but anyway, he said there was this new channel opening up called Channel 4 and he was presenting the first "yoof" programme, Whatever You Want, and would I like to be on it? I said, "Yeah, as long as I don't have to be on anything else." So we did these embryonic episodes of The Bullshitters, which became a full length version in 84, directed by Stephen Frears. He later directed the movie The Queen with Helen Mirren, but I was his first. She got it all from me.

It was through doing these embryonic episode-ettes that I met Peter Richardson of The Comic Strip Presents who became my svengali, if you like. He rang me up saying, "I want to write you into this series called The Comic Strip Presents, but I want you to be yourself in it." I was like, "Who's that then?" So early Comic Strips you see me as Alan.

Photography Thurstan Redding

I've always been the same person. Back then I was Alan. So it's been Alan, Alana, Lana, Lanah. I've always used my name as a piece of art really. A moniker. Because that's all it is, a moniker. It doesn't define you. It's like gender. It doesn't matter to me if you're Caitlyn Jenner, Germaine Greer, Jenni Murray. You can only be an idea of something. And being male or female as far as I'm concerned is not gender behaviour, it's human behaviour. Cock and balls does not a man make, if you want to be very Grimsby about it.

So I ended up in The Comic Strip Presents. I used to write all my own lines with the cooperation of Peter Richardson and Pete Richens. Then they decided that they wanted to write a big screen movie for me called Eat the Rich. It was a relatively successful. It was amazing how many people would recognise you from it. In fact, when it was showing at Clapham cinema and they were all waiting to see what film Diana Ross was going to see, apparently she said, "What's the movie that Lanah was in?". Then when I met Michael Jackson in 1991, he said, "I know you because of Diana. She went to see your movie and I have your movie in my library." I said, "Oh, that's nice. You should have brought it with you, I'd have signed it."

I fell out with The Comic Strip over payment and treatment during the making of Eat the Rich and haven't done a movie since. I did some stories in the paper that were... Well, I should have known better than to talk to the Sunday People because, of course, they over elaborate everything and you just come over as very despicable and vilified. The instigator who can't keep her gob shut. Now, I just think, you know, fuck it.

Lots of doors were closed for me. I'd do the James Whale show. Craig Charles with Funky Bunker. I was the film critic on that. And I did quite a bit on cable television, which of course is where the mainstream types go when they've fallen off the shelf. I used to look in the mirror when I was on cable TV and think, "What did you do to get here?" I'm not playing the victim. I have no self pity. I'm just very aware of how the system is rigged against you when you don't appeal to the establishment.

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Photography Diana Thompson

I'm in Grimsby next month. They're filming me as part of a documentary about 15 of us who made an impact in the 80s. Fifteen non-white, brown, black LGBTQ people who made quite a dash. So they're taking me back to film there. I've always been very good at smother-cating things to oblivion and pushing them around to places where they don't affect you or hurt so much, but without sounding twee, you don't get rainbows without rain, do you? And, at the end of the day, it is all about how I perceived things. Somethings you perceive and experience very accurately, very crystal clear. And somethings are just a bit perplexing.

When you take hormones it's a whole different ball game, a whole different journey down the neural pathways and it can cause a schism between thought and feelings. Oh, I have to be a woman now or I have to be a man. Well, why? Why can't you just be? I'm me. That mystical me, before ever I'm Lana Pellay or Lanah P or male or female. I've never been interested in being a second rate somebody or something else. I've always known I was a first rate me and and I urge any young person to do whatever you can, wherever you are, with whatever you've got, rather than wanting to be a gender. Just cultivate enough confidence to allow yourself to be.

Lanah was most recently seen in Barney Ashton's Torsten the Beautiful Libertine alongside Andy Bell. Her new single, Revelation Revolution, will be released later this month. 


As told to Matthew Whitehouse