an audience with princess julia
“In my mind, everything is drag…” Get to know i-D contributor, counter-culture commentator and a woman who has been going out every night for the past 34 years, the inimitable style icon Princess Julia.
Starting life as a hairdresser in the seventies, Princess Julia is now a DJ, a writer, a performer and a sartorial iconoclast. She has been in the midst of some of Britain's most influential sub cultures, starting with the tail-end of seventies punk, the eighties New Romantics era, the days of nineties rave, and through the ever-changing face of the capital's gay scene. Deciding to collate her adventures into a performance piece based on her memoirs, Julia has hooked up with Dalston's The Glory for 'An Evening With Princess Julia'. She's even enlisted some of friends to help; Gary Card designed the set, Jeffrey Hinton provides visuals, Ed Marler and Ryan Lo donate the wardrobe while Jonny Woo is on directorial duty. There are also guest stars each week, like Ian R Webb and Judy Blame. 'An Evening…' is as hilarious, camp and enlightening as you could hope for. "I can't believe people wanted to hear an out trout like me spouting on," she told i-D, in typical disarming style. In fact, so popular is the night that she's extending the sold out show until early December. With the second performance taking place last night, we caught up with Julia to ask how life in music, style and culture has changed over the years…
'So An Evening With…' is a journey through the counter-cultures of London?
Yeah it's a theatrical journey through London counter-culture and it's basically an insider view taken from my own experience. It's at The Glory, so there are some camp elements, because my life is camp really.
In what way would you describe your life camp?
I think it started off quite early. I start the whole proceedings of the night in 1973, with the Ziggy Stardust moment, which I would say most people of my generation that are at all interested in expressing themselves via dress or make-up or art or performance, they would use that moment as a moment of revelation, of sorts.
Where were you when you first saw Ziggy Stardust?
Watching TV, because I learnt everything from TV. I was a schoolgirl - I was 13 in 1973 - and it opened my eyes to the whole wider way of dressing. And also the fact that the character of Ziggy Stardust was a complete androgyny, you know. At that age you're becoming very aware of your own sexuality and your place is in the world; you're either aware of it or you're finding ways to be aware of it. So, this whole glam rock scene that was going on began to cross over into pop music. There was shops like Biba and Ossie Clark. There was a London scene going on which seemed very far away from where I was. But within a few years of leaving school, I had met most of those people.
Just from going to clubs. When I left school, in '76, I had this idea that I was gonna be a make-up artist but I couldn't do that because I was too young. Even though I grew up in North London, I didn't feel that I could go into London's glittering West End, which is where I wanted to go. [School careers advisors] were trying to make me do jobs in like Walthamstow and I was like 'No, no, no, no, I'm gonna work in the West End. I'll get my own job thanks'. So I did. I got a job in a hairdressers salon called Crimpers in Montpelier street and from there I made friends with lots of different people. I was in a whole another realm that I wanted to be in. At that time, '76, it was the end of the cool punk scene really.
What was it about the idea of counter culture that attracted you so much? Especially when most people tend to want to fit in and not stand out?
Lots of people do yeah!
Well, first of all, there wasn't really that term - counter culture - I just had a feeling that I didn't fit in with what people were aspiring to, or the way that I was educated. Which was basically training me to be a housewife and I could maybe be a secretary in between. On so many levels I felt like a complete outsider and the music I was veering towards wasn't fitting in with the standardised mainstream idea. I didn't really think 'I'm gonna be in a subculture' (laughs) cause I don't even know if that had really been bandied about that much. Anyway, one of the girls I was working with at the hairdressers was a girl called Kiki, and her boyfriend was Paul Cook out of the Sex Pistols. I remember one day I was in the hairdressing salon, Paul came in and he bought like all of the Pistols in and they just ran riot around the hairdressers, hilarious. So suddenly it was like, 'This is really exciting'. We'd just go down the pub together and I used to hang out with them, and then I made another load of friends who worked at a salon called Smile which was a much more progressive hair salon. I was just meeting lots of people my own age, a bit older some of them, and this whole other world opened up.
When did the Blitz years happen?
So the Warren Street squat was the late '70s and the Blitz came about at the end of punk. It all dissipated because all the bands and the people involved were going off doing other things, they were getting signed, they were leaving college, getting on with their lives and the cool scene sort of dissipated somewhat. Steve Strange I actually knew a little bit from the punk scene. He got me a part time job in this shop called PX and from that he decided to do a one nighter- a Bowie night at a club called Billy's and that lasted about three months and then moved it to a club called the Blitz, which became the Blitz. The Blitz lasted from 78-1980.
Short but sweet...
Yeah, a lot of these things only really lasted a couple of years. Taboo only lasted a couple of years, actually
What are your memories of those times?
Well, you know for me, dressing up, there's an element of humour attached to it, even now. I maneuvered my life into a place where dressing up was part of my job. But I think we were all just having fun, expressing ourselves and taking elements of things that had gone before or ideas that we felt were quite sort of futuristic and mixing them all up. The Blitz scene was a mish mash of people, people from the soul scene, people from the rockabilly scene, the gay scene, students. I was actually living on the Kings Road for a little bit and then somebody offered me a room in a squat on Great Titchfield Street. There was a row of houses with all the Neo Naturists which Grayson Perry was part of. They all came to the Blitz as well so it wasn't necessarily about dressing up it was actually about being completely naked with body paint. Whatever way you want to express yourself.
It's easy to look back nostalgically on these things, but do you think London of 2015 is still able to produce subcultures in the way that it used to?
Yeah. Because the Blitz came from something that went before; we were inspired by Ziggy Stardust and we were also inspired by the punk scene. It meant you could go out in a bin liner if you wanted, and use very mundane items and turn them into fashion. I always think of the punk scene as the first DIY counter-culture. It didn't have to be all finished off, everything could be slung together and you could go out in a bin bag or put the dog collar on. We referenced things from surrealist art movements, film noir, all sorts of things. We looked way back into history; if you were a Neo Naturist, then you referenced cave men! So with people now, well, you put your twist on things. You might reference Taboo or Leigh Bowery, or the Blitz or punk or take all those elements, and put them together, and make your own style. You make your own translation and that makes something new and that's how things move forward.
Even though lots of venues that welcome sub-cultures seem to be closing down at rapid rates?
It seems like a lot of them have closed in a very short amount of time. Apparently there's never been more cranes in London than there are now and maybe it appears that way - because our communication is so quick now - but things do reopen. The team at The Glory, they put a lot of energy into making a new space and then there's other places that are carrying on, like Dalston Superstore. London has always been a shifting city; back in the 80s Shoreditch was as ghost town. It's nothing new for areas to change, but people always sniff out the cheap rents and the squats and the warehouses. There are little scenes going on you just have delve a bit deeper to find them; little pockets of people performing, dressing up on the fringes that haven't been discovered by mainstream media as much.
What do you want the audience to take away from 'An Audience With…'?
One of the reasons I decided to embark upon doing this show is because I'm quite often asked the question 'What was it like then compared to now'? What I wanted, having been in the counter-culture thread through the decades, I wanted to explain that actually it's kind of the same.
What I love about you is that you're a walking talking archive.
You know what, I feel like that as well. Mind you, today I think I look really normal [Julia does not look 'normal' by any perceived notions of 'normal'. She does of course look amazing]. I've got a little bit of colour coordination I suppose. I've got classic references.
What do you think the world would be like without style?
I think that's one of my favourite subjects actually, the human compulsion to dress up. There's a thesis I particularly like, it's all about the dressing up box and what is it that compels people to dress in a certain way. Because we all have to wear clothes don't we? So in my mind, everything is drag. So even if you wear a functional outfit, whatever that may be, you're putting something on that's reflective of your personality and what you have to do of a day. You're in drag now. It defines who you are and who you are and what you want to do and how you want to present yourself, and it's fun. Actually, it's fun.
How big is your wardrobe?
It's not that big, because I've lost things along the line. I've lost lots of things.
What advice would you give to budding style warriors?
Dress Fancy. I used to say 'dress fancy not fancy dress' but I've changed my mind about fancy dress. I accept it now. Because some people are in the performance realm. Whatever reason you want to present yourself, in whatever way, whether it is fancy dress or dress fancy, it's allowable and it's fun, it's fun to do. And not everyone has the privilege of being able to do it every day.
Text Hattie Collins
Images Rebecca Phyr-Thomas