Young Instagram and YouTube influencers who spend hours perfecting their makeup might raise an eyebrow at David Raven’s approach to preparing for a performance.
Spitting into a small container of eyeshadow, he smears it across his eyelids. He then roughly glues two massive, Peacock-feather eyelashes to them. One sense’s he’s not one to waste hours on contouring.
Perched on a stool and peering into a small mirror, the 85-year-old legendary British performer wears nothing more than a pair of tights and underwear as he prepares himself to go on stage.
We’re in the kitchen of the flat above the Old Ship in Stepney: one of London’s last remaining East End gay boozers. Tonight, the kitchen is doubling up as Raven’s dressing room. As any cabaret performer on the gay scene will confirm, behind the glitter, there’s little glamour in backstage life.
Not that Raven is complaining. As Britain’s oldest working drag artiste (‘Never drag queen – I’m a drag artiste!’), he’s at a stage in life where he’s happy to still be working and counts his blessings.
‘I’m very, very lucky,’ he tells me as he powders his face.
Despite living in Brighton, Raven remains a regular on the London scene. A friend and driver, Allan Cardew, ferries him around. He also helps Raven into his dress tonight, while we both steady him while he balances himself into his high heels.
Raven was born in St Ives in Cornwall in 1933, but his family moved almost immediately to Suffolk, where he spent the best part of the next 26 years. His family had a pub, meaning he’s been used to the above-the-bar life since he can remember. Boozers are simply part of his DNA.
His father died shortly after the Second World War, leaving David and his mum to run the pub. He had two brothers and two sisters.
Raven trained as a grocer with British store the Co-Op, but in his late 20s, as a trained publican and waiter, also did a stint at Gorleston Super Holiday Camp in Great Yarmouth. It was where he first began to rub shoulders with showbiz personalities of the day, such as Lonnie Donegan and Matt Monro.
He wound up in London in 1960, working at Liptons, Harrods (‘which I hated’) and eventually as a master grocer at Selfridges in his 30s. He was a regular at a pub called The Cricketers in Battersea.
‘They had singalong nights. And one night they had a fancy dress night, and people were doing drag but no-one was singing live.’
The birth of Maisie Trollette
It was here Raven experimented with drag for the first time. His performance immediately clicked with a friend, James ‘Jimmy’ Court. The two went on to win a talent competition at the Black Cap in Camden. Maisie and Jimmy Trollette were born. As a duo, the Trollettes went on to become regular faces on the drag circuit.
‘We were unique because we were live,’ he recalls, noting that many drag queens of the time simply mimed to backing tracks.
By day, Raven continued to work at Selfridges, keeping his cabaret life a secret – even from other gay members of staff. That was until one of the other men at the store told him all about a hot new cabaret act he’d seen.
‘They were like, “Oh, you’ve got to come down the Vauxhall [Tavern]. There’s these two guys who are doing something. They sing and everything, and I think one of them is from the same part of the country as you!”’
Raven couldn’t keep his secret life a secret any more.
The football pools and Don
Jockeying the grocery trade with drag life would probably have continued, were it not for the intervention of Lady Luck in the early 1970s.
‘It might be before your time,’ he asks me, smearing on more rouge, ‘but do you remember a thing called Littlewoods Football Pools?’
‘Well, I won,’ he offers matter-of-factly. The Football Pools were a pre-lottery, weekly competition in which people would try to guess which football teams would score a draw on that weekend’s sporting fixtures.
Raven doesn’t say exactly how much he won, but says it was ‘well over £10,000’ ($13,150/€11,200), which back then was a huge amount.
He was able to leave Selfridges and concentrate on performing and new business ventures.
Raven met his partner, Don Coull, in 1965, during a brief acting stint in a theatre show in Scotland. The two were together for over 35 years.
With drag partner Jimmy, Raven performed in pantomime as the ugly sisters at the Theatre Royal, Brighton. While there, he and Don fell in love with the south coast city and its liberal, gay-friendly atmosphere. With the help of their pools winnings, they bought a guesthouse on St George’s Terrace in the late 1970s.
‘Don ran it, and I went full time into the drag scene.’
He has worked all over Europe, including regular bookings in pantomime and at private parties. He says he still does about two bookings a week.
Don, sadly, passed in the early 00s. Raven now lives alone. At a time when others have long since retired or leading a quiet life, why is he still performing?
‘I’m working because I love what I do,’ he shoots back. ‘I’m very lucky in having my own property and things, and wonderful people about me. Besides, have you seen the prices of bread and coffee?’ he laughs.
Raven handles all his bookings himself. Resolutely old-school in approach, he doesn’t have email or a cell phone.
‘I don’t have an agent. I think if they [publicans and club promoters] want you, they can bloody ring up.’
‘I’ve always worked hard’
Raven is a throwback to a different era of cabaret, one closer to Music Hall than to RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Although he now sits on a stool to deliver showtunes such as ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ and ‘Anything Goes’, and crack jokes at anyone foolish enough to sit close to the stage, his act has remained largely unchanged over the years. But his fans love him for it.
He’s also a true survivor. He tells me he’s outlived all his four siblings. Then there was HIV and AIDS, which took many that Raven knew. Over the years, he has helped raised thousands in funds for numerous HIV charities, such as the Sussex Beacon.
He puts his own long life down to ‘working hard. I’ve always worked hard.’
I tell him that many younger gay men fear getting older. Can he pinpoint any benefits?
‘You get a pension from the government and a free bus pass,’ he says with an arched eyebrow, while giving himself a last look over in the mirror.
Raven says he’s had some ups and downs with his health. He has arthritis in his hands. He recently fell on a trip to Sitges and bruised his legs and chest – from which he is still recovering. I protectively walk in front of him as we walk down the stairs to the main floor of the pub. I’m conscious he’s in heels and it’s a carpeted staircase.
‘A very lucky man’
‘What are his hopes for the future?’ I ask before he takes the stage.
‘That I get a telegram from the Queen!’ he chuckles. The British Monarch traditionally sends a message to all citizens who reach the age of 100 – a tradition dating back to when such a milestone was exceedingly rare.
‘No, I’m just a very lucky man. I don’t think about that sort of thing at my time in my life.’
And what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from your years of performing?
He takes a moment to consider.
‘Recognise the good side of people…’ he says with warmth, before adding a caveat: ‘but don’t allow yourself to be taken advantage of!’