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Is there life after drag?

Is there life after drag?

David Hodge, aka Dusty O, at home with some of his artwork

If you’ve forged a successful career in one field it can be hard to reinvent yourself.

That’s the situation that London’s David Hodge, aka drag queen Dusty O, currently finds himself. It’s partly through necessity and partly through desire.

Heralding from the Midlands, Hodge moved to London in 1989. He threw himself on to the gay scene and quickly cultivated his Dusty O drag alter ego – hosting club nights such as Pushca and DJ’ing at the likes of Bang, Limelight and Ghetto.

One of the most recognizable faces on the London scene, he featured in the free scene magazines on a weekly basis. Previous to host venue Madame Jo Jo’s abrupt closure in 2014, he presided over London night Trannyshack UK for ten years.

His sudden withdrawal from the scene at this point confused and surprised many.

‘I literally haven’t been out in two years,’ he tells me over coffee in his King’s Cross basement flat.

Instead, he got himself a day job (first at the Museum of Comedy and now at a hair salon in Hampstead), and has thrown himself into a new, creative sideline as a painter.

This weekend, his first solo show will open at Oliver’s Village Cafe in Belsize Park.

Let Them Eat Cake: One of the pieces in Hodge's first solo show
Let Them Eat Cake: One of the pieces in Hodge’s first solo show David Hodge

To an outsider, Hodge – as Dusty – appeared to be living the epitome of the glamorous, successful, scene queen lifestyle. Why did he decide to turn his back on it all?

In short, because his life changed, and with it, his priorities.

‘When we lost Trannyshack at Madame JoJo’s, that was a huge chunk of my income that vanished overnight,’ he says now.

‘That basically was the thing that had kept me doing what I was doing: I had been too lazy to change, and too frightened to try and change. I’d developed my personal “Dusty” brand so far that I thought it was me. And it wasn’t.

‘Losing the club was a revelation moment. Truth be told, it had become a slog. It becomes harder as you get older.’

Hodge is soon to turn 50. Transforming himself into Dusty – renowned for immaculate make-up, couture gowns and wigs – could easily take up to three hours at a time.

‘It becomes more difficult to maintain what people expect visually, and I think I’d taken it as far as I could take it without surgery and things like that. I didn’t want to go that route.’

David Hodge in 2013 as Dusty O
David Hodge in 2013 as Dusty O David Hodge

Secondly, he’d met his soon to be husband, Marc Abe.

‘I was in love. My lifestyle had changed. I wanted to be with him. And thirdly, I’d developed other interests.’

In 2012, Hodge was asked to perform in his first professional pantomime. He found the change from hosting and DJ’ing refreshing, if not challenging. But he found that he enjoyed performing for a wider audience.

‘I’d started doing the theatre. I’d experienced things and stepped out of the club circuit that I knew, and I was enjoying the other stuff much, much more.

‘It’s a different set of rules and a different schedule and it’s more structured and professional, and I actually responded really well to the hard graft. I loved it and I still love it.’

Hodge will bring Dusty back to the Leicester Square Theatre for six weeks this winter, taking center stage in the venue’s pantomime, Dick!

Crisis point

The closure of Trannyshack was just one life change that prompted Hodge to consider his future.

‘We had this week of absolute nightmares,’ he reflects, while his beloved Siamese cats pad around his legs.

‘On Monday we were told that Jo Jo’s was closing. On the Tuesday I went for the first rehearsal of that year’s panto and was told that we were moving into the main theatre – going from a room for a 100 people to a room for 600. That was terrifying.

‘Then I came home that evening and found out we’d been burgled. They’d taken everything electronic that they could take, which was all Marc’s work things – the stuff he relied on for his job – and his job was the thing that was keeping him in the country. Keeping him with me.

Abe is from Japan. At the time he met Hodge, he was a student at Chelsea college of Art.

‘So, all his stuff had to be replaced. Basically, we went out and replaced everything on my credit cards, and I was thinking, “Oh fuck, how am I going to pay all that back?”

‘And then the next day, I had a letter from the tax people saying that they were conducting a full audit of everything I’d done for seven years. To cut a long story short, I owed them money – which basically took all of my savings.’

‘I put out a few feelers on the scene: “Do you need any DJs?” The response I got was really … well, nothing came.

‘I was in a bad place. Marc was trying to keep it all going, but he could see things weren’t right. He just said to me, “You really don’t want to be doing that anymore, do you?”. And I said, “No.” And I didn’t. Times had changed.

‘Eventually, I just thought, “Right, I’m just going to have to change. I’ll do something else. I’ll step away from it completely. I’ll do panto and then I’ll get a job, and whatever I owe, I’ll pay back one way or another.”

Acid Betty (2016) by David Hodge
Acid Betty (2016) David Hodge

‘Marc and I planned to get married that year, and I thought I’ll get married and try a different way of being. And that’s what I did.’

‘And it was really, really, really difficult,’ he admits with a laugh. ‘Much more difficult than I thought it would be. It’s still difficult to this day, to be honest.’

Hodge says he had become accustomed to attention Dusty O enjoyed, and losing that took some personal adjusting.

‘I felt like I’d lost my identity’

It was Abe, who Hodge married in 2015, who made the suggestion he take up painting.

‘Obviously, I’ve been painting my face for years. And no-one looked as good as me. I’m sorry, but it’s true. I can say that after being away for two years.

‘That was my art at the time but I never really realized it. I was putting all my creativity into the look. When that went, I had no other outlet. I just didn’t feel that I was expressing myself in any way.

‘Marc suggested the painting. Marc had done fine art at college and he one day was rummaging around in the spare room, and he found three different canvasses and a little bag of acrylics and some brushes, and he said, “Draw something.”

‘I’ve always doodled and I always drew loads of funny faces, which have become a part of what I do now.

Hodge initially did three paintings and posted the results on Facebook. Almost immediately, someone offered to buy them.

‘I started doing more and more, and every time I put it up, it would sell.

‘And I just got really into it and it was very therapeutic. You can lose yourself in making art, and that was very necessary at the time because, looking back, I was not particularly well. I felt like I’d lost my identity.’

Hodge describes his work as creative expressionism, but that’s as far as he goes in analyzing it. He specializes in brightly-colored, trippy portraits that often focus on people he admires or have fascinated him: from historical figures such as Marie Antoinette to camp icons like Divine.

Icon: a new work in tribute Hodge's late friend, Pete Burns
Icon: a new work in tribute Hodge’s late friend, Pete Burns David Hodge

From simply painting, he’s developed a process of painting, then photographing and digitally manipulating images, before re-printing on acrylic board. Fifteen pieces will feature in his first show, aptly titled From Face To Canvas.

Until now he’s showcased his work primarily to friends on social media. He’s both nervous and excited to showcase them to an audience who will be coming to him afresh.

It’s a transition he couldn’t have envisaged just a couple of years ago: one that he still finds challenging after so many years spent as ‘her’.

Before leaving, I ask him if he’s happier now than he was five years ago?

‘A million, billion, trillion times happier!’ he says emphatically. ‘I don’t get up in the morning thinking in the same way that I always used to think. The ego’s gone.

‘It [the drag scene] was a difficult world to exist in because there’s not that many jobs and there’s a lot of people after them.

‘It’s pretense. You’re not really some big diva. It’s dressing up. I made a good living for a long time, and a few people can, but not a lot of people, there’s not enough room.

‘And being with Marc has totally changed my life. I’m quite happy to stay in at night now, him doing his stuff and me doing my stuff. We’ve got a life together, and I never had that before. That’s been the most amazing thing.’

From Face to Canvas runs from 13 November-January 2017 at Oliver’s Village Cafe, 92 Belsize Lane, London, NW3 5BE.