Alumni Voices spoke to York alum Marcus Crabb aka ‘Kate Butch’, comedian and star of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK Series Five, the hit TV show where drag queens compete to win the title of being the next drag superstar.
How would you describe the history of drag and what it means to you?
Drag has been around for hundreds of years. It’s evident in the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, up to the Victorian musical, and then there was a huge explosion in the 20th century – with not just drag queens, but drag kings as well.
In Britain there were people like Danny La Rue and Vesta Tilley (who was a drag king), and then Paul O’ Grady. Pantomime has also been around for hundreds of years and has probably been a lot of people’s first experience of drag, mine included. In the 21st century Drag Race has even more exploded the art form. I think drag is quite an integral part of British culture, if not worldwide too.
When did you start doing drag and how did you become interested in it?
I officially started doing drag when I was the dame in my school’s pantomime in Year 2, so probably from the age of six. Actual Kate Butch drag started while I was studying ‘Theatre: writing, directing, and performance’ at York. In my second year there was a group of friends that I made in the Comedy Society. We were the only people we knew who watched Drag Race US. It was in its seventh season at the time, so it was still kind of underground, and not a huge amount of people knew about it. We’d get together and watch it every week.
And then we thought, why don’t we give this a go? So we started a drag club night in Fibbers. It went well because it was one of the only drag nights in York aside from the occasional night at Thomas’. We did a couple of shows a term and then some of us have stuck with it – it’s going alright I suppose!
The club night was called Lip Sync Lollapalooza. We got people to sign up and try out doing drag if they wanted to, or just do it as themselves. We even got the Cheeky Girls to come and do a performance which blew my mind. But overall it was just an excuse to have fun and be silly and be queer.
For a lot of people it was their first drag show that they were seeing, not just for the students but also for the residents of York. There are other drag queens who were in York before us, Velma Celli and Queenie Buffay. But you still had to look hard to find a drag show. People responded very well to ours and we just kept doing it.
Where do you find inspiration for your drag persona? You call yourself ‘The Comic Sans of drag’, what do you mean by that?
There’s a TV interview from the 90s where the two guests are Victoria Wood and Kate Bush. That’s my drag persona Venn diagram. Kate Bush because that’s where the name comes from. She’s fun and silly and theatrical, and she does her own thing and doesn’t seem to care what other people do. Now she lives in the woods and doesn’t have a phone – which is the goal, to be honest.
Victoria Wood because I came into drag through doing stand up with the Comedy Society at York. I’d love to do all the things that she did, like sell out tours, a sketch show, sitcom, musicals, all of that.
The Comic Sans reference was just an excuse to get away with not being the most visually polished drag artist. I could have not great makeup and say, ‘it’s intentional’. Kate Butch is that because she’s instantly relatable, but ultimately tragic.
“Kate Butch is that because she’s instantly relatable, but ultimately tragic.”
How did being a student at York impact your drag persona?
I was the marketing and events manager for DramaSoc. I’ve still got my jumper – how insufferable! I’ve also got my name painted on the Drama Barn (they better not have painted over it). DramaSoc allowed me to try stuff out with no consequences, to experiment, especially on their open drama nights on Mondays. They gave you 50 quid and you had to make magic from it. And if it didn’t work, it didn’t work and no one hated you. It was an opportunity to be silly and fun.
“They gave you 50 quid and you had to make magic from it. And if it didn’t work, it didn’t work and no one hated you. It was an opportunity to be silly and fun.”
In ComedySoc I was in the improv troupe ‘The Shambles’. I did some stand up and sketch writing and things like that. That was just a nice weekly opportunity to, again, try stuff out in a safe environment that was supportive and wanted you to do well. I could take all kinds of comedy styles and throw them into a melting pot.
Then I was also in Central Hall Music Society. That was just a really good way of brushing up technical skills. I’d never been able to do a harmony before I joined that, but now I can slightly do a harmony. I learnt how to tap dance too (Anything Goes).
What is your favourite memory from being a student?
I’ve got so many. The first Lip Sync Lollapalooza we did was up there. In that moment something clicked. I realised, ‘this could be a thing that I could do for a bit. Maybe I’ll even end up on TV!’ I’d be recognised around campus for them. In Courtyard someone would ask ‘was it you who did a Lip Sync to Tracy Beaker last week?’
“In Courtyard someone would ask ‘was it you who did a Lip Sync to Tracy Beaker last week?'”
What was life like after graduating? Did you go straight into performing?
There was a little moment where I fumbled around doing nothing and not really knowing what to do. But at the end of my third year, right after graduating, I went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I spent my student loan on that – I probably shouldn’t have, legally.
I spent the rest of that year living with my parents, just thinking ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’. Then, I moved to London and got a job in a box office at the theatre. I did drag on the side whenever I could. I didn’t have a big plan, which in hindsight seems really stupid. Then during the pandemic I couldn’t work in the theatre anymore, so I returned home and I kept getting gigs. Somehow I accidentally became a full time drag queen. In fact, I think I’m the only person to come out of the pandemic better.
That’s not to say it was easy, there were difficulties before the success. It was a lot of happy accidents and a lot of trying and not succeeding, hoping that someone would notice and would let me perform on their stage. You’ve got to have thick skin and a lot of perseverance.
Moving to London, did you feel you were representing drag queens from the North?
I hadn’t really thought of myself as that northern. I do think northern drag performers have an extra little something. I think we’re more open and unfiltered.
There was an episode on Drag Race where we performed as a girl group of Northern drag queens. We decided to call ourselves the M52s, but we didn’t realise that it doesn’t actually exist as a motorway. They take our phones on Drag Race, so we had no way of googling it.
Alongside fellow alum Caitlin Powell you run the ‘Queers Gone By’ podcast, revisiting childhood film and TV shows to ask the question: ‘did it make me gay?’ How did the podcast come about?
I met Caitlin at ComedySoc. In 2019, they were the only other person that didn’t go to Edinburgh Fringe Festival. So we were just sitting around being bored and not being funny. We watched ‘The Witches’, a film from the 90s and just spent the whole time criticising it. Being like, ‘she’s got a great outfit’, ‘she’s definitely gay’. We thought we could do a podcast, and got in just before the big podcast boom of COVID.
It’s been about four years running the podcast and we’re coming up to our 150th episode. We got to be in The Guardian’s top 50 funny podcasts. We’re third on the list – I don’t think it’s numerically ordered, but we’re still telling people we’re third. It’s quite nice that we are an independent self-produced podcast and we’re doing well and people want to listen to it.
We’d like to properly produce it in the future, because it is just me on my laptop every week. Initially we just sat around my kitchen table speaking into my phone. We’d also like to get more guests on, we’ve had some great comedians and drag performers, but now that I’ve got this profile, I want to exploit it. I’d like to know what RuPaul’s childhood TV show would be, but she’s not replying to any of my texts.
What’s one piece of media that you think has influenced who you are today?
Our first episode was Tracy Beaker and I think that was a strong part of my development, partly because I realised ‘oh, you can be an obnoxious child and have a TV show made out of you’. I admired iconic characters like Justine Littlewood and Elaine The Pain, who wore that gold lip gloss (a nice little relic of the early noughties). I was definitely a CBBC child.
How do you think that doing drag has had an impact on who you are as a person outside of drag?
I think it’s made me a lot more confident. I initially started drag because I was doing stand up and I thought no one wants to see another person who looks like me on stage. So I did drag almost out of a kind of laziness. A lot of jokes are written for you and people are laughing at you already. That has definitely gone into my out of drag life where I am now more confident. And even though I’m not the tallest sparkliest person in the room, I can still act like I am the tallest and sparkliest person in the room.
“I am now more confident. Even though I’m not the tallest sparkliest person in the room, I can still act like I am the tallest and sparkliest person in the room.”
It’s opened my eyes to other ways of living as well. The queer community in London is so diverse. Through drag, I think I’ve become a nicer, kinder, more understanding person – despite being a horrible bastard.
Do you think there’s anything that needs to change about the world of drag?
When you say drag, a lot of people just initially think of drag queens. Which is great for my ego, but I do think there’s definitely time to have more drag king representation on TV. I’d love for Drag Race to have drag kings. I recently saw a drag king do an act to Ratatouille with a rat on their head. I think it’s time for drag kings to be represented.
A lot of people also don’t see the real person underneath the drag persona. Kind of like how at Disneyland, there is someone inside that Mickey Mouse costume. I think because we are these characters, we’re larger than life and exciting and sparkly and different. The main challenge of drag is that people forget that you are a real person with feelings. I’ve been treated badly at various shows, and I hope that people can be more understanding.
“A lot of people also don’t see the real person underneath the drag persona. Kind of like how at Disneyland, there is someone inside that Mickey Mouse costume.”
I think that’s what Drag Race does well, it shows that we are human beings with the same problems as other people.
Do you have a piece of advice that you’d like to share to a queer person growing up?
Now more than ever is a scary time to be queer. There are very loud people who don’t agree with our existence. But even though they are loud, they are a minority. It’s very hard to block out that negativity, but there are people who are like you, and like you. It’s a difficult waiting game, but you will find people that are like you. Stick with it.
“It’s a difficult waiting game, but you will find people that are like you. Stick with it.”