Sunday 18 September 2022

The Truth in Disguise

I started working for a Theatre this year. Not in a practitioner space, I hasten to add, but you know I love theatre and being around people who are more talented and interesting than me.

It got me to thinking about performance and character. How we have the ability, with the aid of costume and acting, to transform into another person, and live their experience for a short time; or at least, what we perceive their experience would be. Through fiction, the audience takes that journey with the artist, and if we empathise with the character, we’re able to experience the perspective of this other person. I strongly believe that the art of storytelling has the potential to make us more compassionate and powerful humans. But what’s the effect of fiction on the artist creating it, particularly when the art is derived through physical imitation and performance? Because every artist brings themselves to their work; and the best art is created when the artist is truthful in what they expose of themselves and their experience through that character.

I’ve acted in plays before. Not through choice, usually, but through virtue of being a director of amateur performances staged by volunteers; the odds of someone dropping out at the last minute are fairly high. On one occasion I had to ask someone to leave halfway through a run (that’s the only time I ever had to do that, but he was being a proper arsehole), which led to me playing the role of Prospero in Return to the Forbidden Planet (a musical set-in space based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest). For those that don’t know the role, it’s basically a mad genius old man scientist… not the easiest character for 20-year-old me to pull off when you consider that it’s a musical. I can’t sing, under normal circumstances, but directing a musical meant I’d absorbed the words and music so completely that for that short space of time, I could and actually did sing. But, oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood, I’m not so interested in the roles that are forced upon us, but the roles we choose to play and what they reveal about ourselves, to us and those around us.

I then realised I had the perfect metaphor I could use to explore this idea: the Halloween characters I’ve chosen over the years. My ex and I used to host a Halloween party for our friends every year from ’09 to ’13. I think the first one was also a housewarming, but it was so much fun the idea stuck. We took our costume competition SERIOUSLY, some of us spending months planning, designing, and constructing them. And some of us did not (TOM Error #404 costume not found). But we all looked forward to these parties, and they were always one of the highlights of the year for me.

When you take having fun so seriously, the whole process transcends simply throwing on a stupid costume, it becomes cosplay, or Drag, or straight-up theatre. We had lots of parties over those years. Celebrating birthdays, milestones, holidays and sometimes for no real reason at all (like the infamous hat-wearing-party…). But none were quite so special to me as those Halloween parties. In terms of the costumes and characters, a party is quite possibly the best place outside of a theatre to perform, largely because at parties, people tend to… well, party. And in that context, with inhibitions lowered and perceptions skewed, it’s much easier to suspend disbelief and go with the illusion. Some of those characters were insanely transformational, far more so than any of mine were! But if they want to talk about how awesome their costumes and performances were, then they can write their own fucking blog, can’t they? 😉

Buffy the Vampire Slayer 2009

Now, I don’t share photos of myself on this blog, for the same reason that I don’t share my address or credit card details: because it’s open to anyone on the internet, not just the 12 people reading it (HIYAAAAAAA, did ya miss me?!) But the good part about writing on the theme of role-playing is that most of my costumes serve as pretty effective disguises, and I feel more comfortable sharing them for context. But that’s not the case with my first character: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m not going to bang on about what that character and TV show mean to me. If you’ve met me, even in passing, you probably already know. And if you’ve read this blog before, you definitely know. It was an obvious choice for me, Buffy is my hero, innit? But the costume was essentially just me in a blonde wig and a fake-leather jacket, there’s nowhere to hide. I knew there wouldn’t be, so the illusion rested heavily on the quality of the wig. In the end I spent quite a few quid on it. How many quids, I’ve genuinely blocked out, but if I remember about 50 it was probably at least 20 more than that. And that’s 13 years ago, so if you account for inflation, it was a large investment. And I regret nothing – nothing, I tell you!!

The main transformation for me that evening was one of confidence. Dressed as my hero, I felt fearless and invincible. One prop I had was a wooden stake made especially for me by a carpenter friend. In retrospect, I’m not sure how wise it was to fanny about all night with a prop that could’ve so easily killed one of us. But, I mean… is it even really a party without a couple of near-death experiences?

It was also the only time in my life I got to (sort of) experience what my life could’ve been had I been born a blonde. And even though it was all fake, at some point my brain forgot that and I found myself behaving differently. All hair twirly and flirty in a way I’m generally not in real life. I also noticed I was being treated a bit differently. In subtle ways, like I needed a lighter and suddenly four appeared and that made me laugh because on any other given day my male friends would, and literally have, pushed me face-first into a wall to get near to a pretty girl. Whether or not blondes really do have more fun was a theory I didn’t explore as I was in a relationship and partying with my friends, not single and out-out. But I suspect that, at the very least, they don’t have to work as hard.

Lady Gaga 2010

The main requirement for the next character had to be: wearing the goddamn wig again. I was therefore looking at blonde characters, and my thoughts went to Gaga. I’m not a big fan of pop music, as a rule, but I’m a fan of her. She’s super talented and super fucking weird. I respect and connect with the honesty and vulnerability in her songs. Basically, without even realising it, I was giving myself permission to be loudly confident and unabashedly bizarre, in a feminine yet kinda grotesque way.

When putting together the outfit for Gaga I was drawn to items of clothing, costume jewellery, and make up that were just… too much. Big, bold, clashing, revealing, ridiculous. All those things on their own were terrible nonsense but when put together in certain combinations delivered the bombastic style of Gaga. It was an opportunity to express femininity and confidence in a deliberately over the top manner, with lace body suits, snake-skin hot pants, oversized sunglasses and clanky metallic accessories. And, of course, I got to wear the damn wig again! This time cutting a fringe into it. Which brought the cost per wear down to 50… I mean, 30 odd quid. I had so much clutter than I decided on two looks, with the intention of changing mid-way through the party and creating a surprise reveal - that felt like something Gaga would do. My 1 a.m. reveal felt magical at the time, and while photos show that the actual effort was pretty shambolic, reality was immaterial in that moment. I was also doing my best to win the costume competition. I don’t think I did but I honestly don’t remember either way. That’s because over time we only remember the things that matter, and the rest becomes a bit burry.

The Dude 2011

If there’s one fictional character that I relate to on a deep, comfortable, soul level, it’s The Dude. If you haven’t seen The Big Lebowski I’m not going to explain that film and The Dude to you, you need to go away and watch it. Of course, The Dude, played by Jeff Bridges, is quite clearly, well… a dude. So, this costume also counts as male-Drag. The term Drag dates back to Shakespeare’s day, when women weren’t allowed on stage cos we’re witches or something (and here’s the truth – we fucking are, that’s why men in power have always been so goddamn afraid of us… but let’s not digress). The acronym either stands for DRessed as A Girl or is a reference to the dragging of a dress on the ground. Either way, all female roles in Shakespeare’s day were played by men. And in order to perform as a gender different to the one you present as (and thankfully, in this day and age, the one you identify with and present as), you need to hype up the gender signifiers, both physical and behavioural, to reinforce the illusion.  

I’m going to sidebar here. In 2017 I discovered RuPaul’s Drag Race, and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since. From the first moment, I felt an affinity with the Queens on that show. Not because I’ve had to struggle with my sexuality or gender identity, because I had the random luck to fit into the preferred mould that society tries to pressure us into based on the gender we’re born as. It wasn’t a choice, it isn’t a choice for anybody, we are who we are. And sadly, even though great progress is being made, we still live in a world where people are inexplicably invested in trying to control what other people do with their own bodies and relationships. But back to the point - I’ve always felt like an outsider. So many other parts of who I am, and what I want, appear to be at odds with what the world expects of me. Growing up was a painful and lonely time. Fuck, being alive now can be a painful and lonely time. But the first time you learn those lessons is always the hardest.

I love Drag Race because the contestants are challenged with taking their Drag characters and applying them to different challenges and performances. The trick is to be able to take what’s special about you and your character and run it through that challenge to create something new and unique. Of course, the real trick here is that through playing a character of your own creation, you can reveal more about yourself than when you’re playing yourself. Because when we’re not being judged as ourselves, but as another character, or an abstract or exaggerated version of ourselves, it creates space to be more confident in what we’re trying to say. It’s why fiction is more revealing than the ‘truth’, usually… or what we want to present as the truth. It’s how and why I can sing and act as another character, but I fall apart at the concept of public speaking. The only time I can speak to a large group of people is when it’s spontaneous in the moment, because there’s no time to focus on what other people think of me, I’m only thinking about the context of the situation at hand.

Now, what I’m going to speak about next is my journey and nobody else’s. But because of the aforementioned insane people who can’t stop judging others cos of their own damaged relationships with themselves, I feel compelled to preface this with: trans women are women, trans men are men, end of fucking story.  

As a child I was a tomboy, and often felt like I wanted to be a boy. But looking back, I know this was more related to the things going on in my life than a true internal drive. I had the feeling that my life specifically would’ve been easier if I’d been born male. Which is probably a true statement. But as a I grew up and grew into my identity, I settled into being very happy with it. I do think I have quite a male brain in some ways, but if I do, it’s one that’s absolutely delighted to be in a female body and super into men. But I think it’s fair to say that wherever you fall on that spectrum, we’re all a complex mix of greatness and fallibility that’s far more intricate and beautiful than the sex organs we carry or the people we like to bang.

But if there is a dude inside me, it really is a close soul brother of The Dude. Fundamentally, The Dude doesn’t judge. He’s a slacker, and in some people’s eyes, he’s a loser, but all he wants to do is live his life and do his thing and let the rest of the world be. I relate to that so strongly. I’m not a very judgemental person. And ironically, all the things that have happened in my life that are dark, have only made me less judgemental. You’d have to go quite far out into the universe to find something you can confide in me than that will shock me. That doesn’t mean you can’t surprise me, I’ve not yet developed the ability to read minds or see the future, but not shock me in relation to what I understand about us as flawed humans. I’ve known some really messed up people in my time, and I still have compassion for the ones that hurt me. Because the old adage is true – hurt people, hurt people. But some of us choose to wake up and process our trauma rather than continuing to make it somebody else’s problem. So, trust me when I say that 98% of the wankery people carry around and judge themselves for is complete nonsense. I can say with a certain amount of confidence that you, reading this right now, are being too hard on yourself. Stop it. Stop it now!

Dressing as The Dude was deeply liberating. For the first time the costume I was to wear all night had nothing wired, or corseted, or revealing, or uncomfortable, and I was able to party away in a big soft cushion belly, cargo shorts, flip flops and a dressing gown the size of a duvet. I was possibly the most chill I’ve ever been at a party and by far the most comfortable. The more I looked like everything I wasn’t, the more like my true self I felt. And isn’t that just the very essence of Drag?

A final note on this. The one costume I always wanted to do but never got round to was Han Solo. But not a straight-up cosplay attempt at Han Solo, a sexy-gender-fuck version. I’m not sure what this says about my brain, but probably a lot, because I’m deeply amused by the potential confused thoughts this mash-up could induce. Maybe one day…


Catwoman 2012

One costume I’d never really tried was a traditionally slutty version of anything. One of my best friends is one of those naturally sexy human beings (although, just to be clear, all my female friends happen to be sexy as fuck. And my male friends… have done well for themselves). The running joke was that she would always go to the party as the sexy version of any character – a sexy vampire! Sexy… Cleopatra! Sexy… bride! Sexy… Lara Croft! You get the idea. And when you think some of those characters are already imbued with sexiness, finding a way to turn those speakers up to 11 was an impressive feat indeed.

For my part, I’ve never been very comfortable making the best of my… assets, so to speak. That’s why Gaga was a good segue because her femininity was at the time expressed in a hyper-absurdist way that more resembled Drag. You can hide in a performance that loud. But I had a moment of clarity, almost like it was me looking back at myself now saying, girl, you’re going to reach my age and have the confidence to do this, and regret not doing it now. So, I did my best to embody a character that’s more of a traditional sex symbol. The Dark Knight Rises came out that year and my ex was going as Bane, so Catwoman seemed like an obvious thematic choice. My friends told me it turned out alright, and I honestly do feel that if you stood 20 feet away from me at the end of a dark alley in the middle of the night wearing sunglasses and facing in the opposite direction, you might catch a passing resemblance to Anne Hathaway.

But there’s a not a lot more to say on this score. It’s fun to dress up like that and not be afraid to do so, but I’m always gonna be the person who changes into pyjamas at midnight cos I’m a pumpkin at heart. It’s fun to know I can play the part, though. And I do wish I had more occasion to carry a whip in my everyday life.

Sadako 2013

(Monster from Ringu/ The Ring)

For what was likely to be last Halloween party we were to host, I wanted to do something actually Halloween themed. Something scary, horrible and unsettling. Something guaranteed to fuck with you after too much lemonade. Having long black hair at the time, my mind immediately went to the image synonymous with Japanese Horror – the wide-eyed, long-haired monster of films like Ringu and The Grudge. As I’m typing this in 2022, I now worry that this was a form of appropriation, but I really wasn’t thinking of it in those terms. I was thinking of it being a classic horror monster that I could potentially resemble without having to do too much in the way of costume construction. Because I’m not so good at that. And I’m not sure what the answer is here, but I think I probably wouldn’t today based on the more nuanced understanding of what can constitute appropriation that most of us now have.
But I promise you, at the time, I had nothing but horror pastiche in my heart.  

It was really thrilling to have the focus of that performance being to freak people out. It’s fun to scare and be scared in fiction. I followed a YouTube tutorial for the rotting face make up and the end result was appropriately unsettling. The white dress I found in charity shop and it still puzzles me as to how such a thing was ever made or worn by anyone. But that always happened with the costumes, things found their way to you that worked perfectly for it. A kinda magic, really.

This character allowed me to play with my ideas around storytelling and what I think is scary and interesting. I wanted to go out on a high. I might’ve even won that year… not sure that’s true. It could be. But I’ll also put big money on nobody else who was present remembering, either, although I hope they remember how freaky I looked.

Now, when I chose these costumes the main objective I had in mind was fun. But it’s interesting how in retrospect I can see how most of these costumes in some way either connected to, or helped me to bring to the surface, values or qualities that I either already possessed, or in some way aspired to. That, for me, WAS part of the fun of it. The formula doesn’t work neatly, Catwoman is a bit of an outlier here, but it still took me out of my comfort zone and there’s always value in that. With Buffy, it was about my personal power. The lesson the character of Buffy, and indeed that whole show, taught me, was that we have the power to transform our trauma into strength, and you can do it while staying true to who you are. That darkness doesn’t necessarily beget darkness. I know this from my own life experience now, too. I’ve been in situations where my humanity was very much tested, and I was relieved to find that no matter where I am or what’s happening around me or to me, my humanity and my humour are things that can never be taken from me. I was so fucking proud to discover that about myself, because that is a super-power.

With Gaga, it was about allowing myself to be vulnerable and messy, with The Dude, it was about being honest and comfortable, with The Ring character, it was about creativity, having fun with horror, a genre that you well know I love.

Who are we all, really?

Just as role-playing and transformation can help us to explore who we are and bring out qualities in ourselves that we aspire to, the relationships we have with the people around us do the same. I look at it like this, every single time I have a relationship with anyone, of any kind, romantic, friendship, colleague, whatever it is, a new reality is created.

Bear with me on this.

Nobody can really know anyone else, not really. This reality is bizarrely exemplified by the phenomena of para-social relationships, this year’s Depp-Heard trial being a clear example. I’m not going to comment on what I think happened there, it’s irrelevant to the point I’m making, but what was interesting is how so many Johnny Depp fans felt a real connection to, and trust in, this public figure. The problem with these relationships is that a. they’re one-sided, and b. they’re based on poor data. I, too, have loved the character of Depp that I’ve had in my head for as long as I can remember. But I have no fucking idea who Depp the person actually is. Although I’m sure aspects of who he is can be found in his performances. The difference between those relationships and the relationships we have with the people we actually know and who know us, is that we have data. Sometimes vast amounts of data, that give us an idea of who a person is or might be, and we have to use that data to work out how we feel about them. The more amazing thing is that, in a way, a new version of you is created every time you form a relationship with someone else.

I’ve no idea whether you guys feel this way, but I look at every relationship I have, especially those with people I love and choose to have relationships with, as its own unique universe. It’s this private little world that belongs only to me and that other person. And while undoubtedly there are people I’m much closer to than others, I have a lot of people in my life that I love, and I don’t really rate or compare – each connection is vastly meaningful to me in a myriad of ways. But what I have become more mindful of is how those relationships make me feel, and I’ve been reassessing how healthy each of these connections are, whether more boundaries are needed, or whether the connection just isn’t a good fit for one or both of us from my perspective. Because just as we can take on aspects of the roles we play, we take on the impact of our relationships. They might bring out the best in us, or the worst, things we like about ourselves and things we don’t. That’s the alchemy of the world created in the space where who you are connects with who someone else is.

Just like everyone else, I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to work out who I am, and said life is too short to spend time on a connection, or playing a role, that’s not going to make me happy. There is no formula for this, it’s highly subjective, but the roles we play in every aspect of our lives ultimately feed back into who we grow into. Who we are in the world is as much about the influences around us and the nature of the relationships we have, as it is about how we choose to express ourselves and the choices we make.

So… yeah, there y’go… I didn’t know I was going to go that deep with a blog about Halloween costumes! But ultimately, I feel it’s important to reflect on these things, on how the roles we play and the relationships we form impact the people we are. I can’t not think about it, because these things do have such a direct impact on who we are, so I’ve learned to become more mindful of it. Especially if I want to work toward a life that best reflects who I am and have mutually respectful relationships that help me to be the best version of myself I can be, right here in this reality.

Finally, if I ever get the opportunity to go full tilt at a costume again… I’d want to do Tank Girl. That’s very much a character I’d like to play right now. I mean, she’s insane, but she’s also an anti-establishment rebel who literally doesn’t give a fuck about anything. And as much as I don’t expect to ever end up roaming a post-apocalyptic Australia while fucking a genetically mutated kangaroo… I have to admit, after the last couple of years, the concept is no longer as inconceivable as it once was… and Australia isn’t that far away.


This one is dedicated to the memory of my friend, Dave Thorpe. Dave always took everyone for who they are and was always himself no matter what. He had a brilliant sense of humour and fun, and always accepted me and supported me as exactly as I am, from the odd child I was to the fully realised nutter I am today. I’m so sad that he’s not here anymore but I’m so happy and proud to have known him. And I will be for the rest of my dumbassed life.





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