Brighton-based babe Miss Jason is one of the scene’s most popular and best-loved drag acts, and later this month she turns 50. But behind every great woman is a great man and here creator Jason Sutton tells us how Miss Jason came to be.
Where are you from originally, Jason?
And what was your childhood like? What was baby Jason like?
Aww, well my childhood was really, really lovely. My mum and dad, they were actually very camp people; my dad was a butcher and my mum was a baker lady on the provisions stall, and they worked for a company called Victor Value, which later became Tesco, and that’s how they met. And they were very camp people, they both had fabulous sense of humours; my dad was tiny in the way Mrs Moore is, and my mum was massive in the way Davina Sparkle is. So how they every managed to get me I’ll never know.
So you’re the love child of Mrs Moore and Davina Sparkle?
Yeah… Sort of. Yeah. But the only way I could describe what they looked like would be Mrs Moore and she was Davina, yeah.
What were you like as a kid?
I was very shy as a child. I hated school. I hated anywhere that my mum wasn’t, really, because my mum spoilt me rotten always. I was just a shy kid. I didn’t even like going to my friend’s parties. I just liked to be with my mum and dad. We were all so close that we were like a little unit on our own really. And every year we used to go to the Isle of Wight for our holiday, exactly the same weekend every year, and we’d stay in exactly the same caravan in the same caravan park. And the site was run by a woman called Mrs White, and my mum and dad convinced me that the Isle of Wight was named after her.
What was your first exposure to drag or cabaret?
Ahh well the first time I ever saw cabaret was in a pub in Portsmouth called the Old Vic, and it was Dockyard Doris.
And when would that have been? How old were you then?
Well I would’ve been about 21 or 22 then. Although actually, having said that, although it’s not really traditionally drag and I don’t like to refer to it as drag, my mum and dad when I was 12 took me to see Danny La Rue at the Mayflower in Southampton.
Right, because he always famously said “I’m not a drag queen…”
Yeah. But I wouldn’t of really understood what a drag queen was a that age I don’t suppose, but he was the first man in a frock performing I saw. We went with our local social club. But when I saw proper drag it was Dockyard Doris.
And what were you doing at that point when you saw Doris?
I was on Portsmouth City Council and Hampshire County Council, so that was in my political days.
So how did you then go from being a civil servant watching Dockyard Doris to becoming a performer?
I’d always wanted a job that impressed my mum and dad, because they always worries about me because I was shy. But after my mum died I just kind of had this big change and I thought ‘I want to do what I want to do now’. And I started to do a little bit of drag but I didn’t tell my dad until a good few months into it, and I was a bit scared. So I went down to visit him and I showed him this picture of me in drag and he said “What’s your mother doing there?” So that was that. But when I came out to my mum and dad – my mum only had one leg so she was in a wheelchair, she’d had her leg off – and I knelt down to her in front of the wheelchair and I said to her, “Mum, I’ve got something to tell you…” And she put her hand on my head and she said, “Son, you don’t need to tell me anything.” And she looked up and she said, “Jim, put the kettle on, he’s a homosexual.”
What were your first gigs like?
Terrifying. I used to bits at the Old Vic in Portsmouth, but my first proper out-of-town gig was in Brighton at the Queens Arms with Phil [Starr]. And Phil had been on on the Sunday in the Queens Arms and I went up to him and said, “Look, I’ve got an act but I don’t know how to get it on the road.” And Phil gave me an offer, he was over in Margate at the time. And he said, “Phone me tomorrow.” So I phoned him and I was so scared, Dave, I can’t tell you. My stomach was going round and round and round. And he said, “OK, I’ve got a booking for you, you’re on with me on Wednesday night at the Queens Arms at my piano bar.” And I honestly hadn’t even got a pair of tights, let alone an act. So I had Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to get tights, frock and an act together. And I rewrote the words to These Are A Few of My Favourite Things, and of course messed it up terribly. And then afterwards, big fat Beryl who used to run it there, said, “Oh I liked you, I’ll give you a booking.” And when I went back I’d really rehearsed and had it spot on, and he said, “Whatever’s happened to your act – it’s not funny anymore?” And I said, “Well I’ve been practising, I’ve been rehearsing, so I know what I’m doing now.” And he said, “Never rehearse again.”
What were your first gigs in London?
There used to be a place called the Coronet and the man was called Bob, he died, he only had one leg. Do you remember him?
No I don’t, no.
Well there was a pub called the Coronet, and it had all the new drag acts. And Bob was in charge, he was ever so nice. But he had this awful, manky old dog with long nails and as it walked across the wooden floor it was like it tap dancing, this dog; you could hear it coming across the floor. So the Coronet would’ve been the first and then I think I did a fundraiser in a pub called the Woolwich Infant, and that was run by I think her name was Shane, the woman, she was a lezza anyway.
And what year would that have been when you started getting gigs in London?
Oh God… I’ve been going 20 years… Oh I can’t work it out… Help! It’d be about 19 years ago now.
Right, so 1999.
Yeah. And then of course the [Two] Brewers kicked in for me, which was nice, and Central Station. And from those gigs London starts to take you a bit more seriously and that’s when the other London jobs came through. And now most of my work is in London.
And how has Miss Jason as an act changed or evolved since those early days to now?
Oh very much. I used to be very uptight about it all the time, and then I’d get myself worked up in the morning if I was working that night. Now I get worked up if I’m not working, because I’d rather be out working. It’s a dangerous thing, really, because there’s not much difference between me and me as Miss Jason, and I always think that’s unhealthy actually, there should be a difference. It’s quite bizarre. If anything’s happened I’ve grown into Miss Jason and she’s grown into a bit me. We’re so integral now that I don’t think that will ever change. I couldn’t ever imagined doing anything else.
Next week you’ve got a busy week because on Friday you’re doing a birthday party thing at Halfway II Heaven.
What does Halfway mean to you?
Oh I love Halfway. Do you know why I love Halfway? Because it’s traditional and I love the fact that it feels exclusive. That cabaret bar in Halfway reminds me of when I was a nipper and out drinking – you’d ring the doorbell and they’d look at you and if you looked gay enough you’d get in; I never had any problems getting in. I feel very safe in Halfway. I like it. And I like it because they’re a listening crowd. You always get a good dollop of tourists in there, so you get fresh meat to play with. You’ve always got someone to explore with, not pick on, but just play with. And it’s nice because it’s a journey for them because they’ve never seen you before, and it’s a journey for me because I’m finding out new things about them. I do enjoy it.
And then on Sunday they’re doing a birthday thing for you at the Two Brewers – what does the Brewers mean to you?
The Brewers is my therapy. I always say it’s the Brewers and Legends that get me through my week. And this is probably very controversial for me to say, but the Brewers is, without a shadow of a doubt, the Brewers is totally and utterly my favourite place. I love the Brewers. If ever I lost the Brewers I’d be devastated. That’s why I do my best never to upset Jimmy Smith but I know I do sometimes but I don’t mean to I promise.
And then on Saturday you’re doing another performance of Twinkle, which has been so well received and been so successful for you. What has that meant to you to do something like Twinkle?
Twinkle’s been really good for me because it’s nearly two hours long, it’s just over 8,000 words and I’m all on my own. And it’s the story of someone that I admire, I can relate to some of what they’re saying but not all because I haven’t got their range. But for me to do it it’s been the most scariest thing I’ve ever done. And it was a solid month of rehearsals every day full time and it was really, really hard work. And it scares me. But it changed my mind, it changed the way I think about things. Because I’m dyslexic, Dave, so it’s difficult for me to pick a script up. It was such a mountain to climb but when I did it it was so worth it, and it’s completely changed how I feel about anything. I don’t think anything will ever scare me like Twinkle did. I’m a firm believer in the only way you achieve is if you’re outside your comfort zone; if we all stick with what we’re comfortable with no one ever progresses. So to get the chance to do it again is wonderful and I’m really looking forward to it.