Why Girls Got a Kick out of Dressing Up as Men; THE Forgotten World of the Male Impersonator Is Recalled This Week. Jess Walker Tells DAVID WHETSTONE about the Girls Who Played Men

Article excerpt


ASHOW recalling some of the biggest stars of the Music Hall era will prove it wasn't only the men wearing the trousers.

Mezzo-soprano Jess Walker is bringing her one-woman show, The Girl I Left Behind Me, to the North East this week, shedding light on changing tastes in entertainment.

The male impersonators she brings back to life did indeed leave their femininity in the dressing room when they faced their admirers under the spotlight.

They were stars like Vesta Tilley, Ella Shields and Hetty King who made their names dressing up as soldiers, policemen, spivs or - to revive an old word - swells.

And if the idea of women impersonating men seems bizarre today, the rewards were clearly ample a century and more ago.

"The reign of the male impersonator was a short one," says Jess, who devised The Girl I Left Behind Me with director Neil Bartlett for Opera North.

"It went from the late 19th Century to not much after the end of the First World War.

"But they were amongst the highest paid entertainers in the world. They were the Madonna or the Kylie of their day.

"Vesta Tilley was earning pounds 1,000 a week in 1902 which was an enormous amount of money. She was idolised and sung at Royal Command Performances."

Clearly there is a long tradition of cross-dressing on the English stage.

You've only got to think of Shakespearean heroines such as Viola and Rosalind, who donned manly garb in Twelfth Night and As You Like It respectively, and all those pantomime principal 'boys' who are in fact girls.

But Wee Jimmy Krankie (alias Janette Tough) aside, the spotlight seems to have fallen more frequently in recent times on men dressed as women: Dame Edna, Madame Doubtfire and the late Danny La Rue.

But in the 19th Century music halls, audiences clearly got a kick out of women dressed as men.

Jess's interest in the project was fired by a previous Opera North show called Mercy and Grand in which she sang Tom Waits songs written to be sung by a man to a woman. Someone compared her to Vesta Tilley and she was off into the realms of research.

She has become extremely knowledgeable, telling me that Vesta - born Matilda Powles in 1864 - went on stage as a little girl but never looked back after her father, also a music hall entertainer, dressed her up as a boy when she was eight as a novelty act.

Jess says: "Once these women performed as male impersonators, that's all they did because, I guess, the truth is that once you'd performed as a man no-one was really going to book you as a woman again."

Jess also surmises that it was perceived as sexy.

"It was not really acknowledged at the time but it was incredibly exciting for men to see women in trousers back then."

On a purely practical level, Jess says the male impersonator enjoyed a sense of liberation. Vesta Tilley, who married a Conservative politician and became Lady de Frece, apparently wore male underwear on stage. …


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