Twenty four years after Kes, Ian Stroughair returns home to York Theatre Royal stage in guise of drag diva alter ego Velma Celli

“I feel over-excited! I cannot wait! Get me on that stage!” says Ian Stroughair/Velma Celli ahead of Saturday’s Love Is Love: A Brief History Of Drag show at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

YORK musical actor Ian Stroughair will return to the York Theatre Royal stage for the first time in 24 years on Saturday, in the guise of his cabaret alter ego, drag diva deluxe Velma Celli.

“I last performed there in Kes, appearing in the ensemble, and sadly I’ve never been back,” says Ian, 38, who has settled back into his home city since Lockdown 1, leaving London behind.

“I’ve tried to do shows at the Theatre Royal but it’s never happened, so it’s great to be back now. I love what Tom [chief executive Tom Bird] is doing there.”

Love is the drag for Ian this weekend when Velma Cella takes part in the Theatre Royal’s spring-reawakening Love Season, performing one of Velma’s regular shows, re-titled Love Is Love: A Brief Of History Of Drag specially for the 8pm occasion.

Ian has taken A Brief History Of Drag to New York and Australia and on a British tour, as well as staging performances in London and York. “I’ve been doing it for four years now on and off, and I’m so glad the Theatre Royal wants the show,” he says. “I feel over-excited! I cannot wait! Get me on that stage!”

Ian created the show when he was in “stuck in Africa for a few weeks”. “I was in Dar Es Salam, in Tanzania,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘let’s write a show’ and it ended up being about how I got into drag and a celebration of the impact of drag in theatre, music, film and popular culture.

The regular poster for Velma Celli’s A Brief History Of Drag, retitled with the precursor Love Is Love for The Love Season at York Theatre Royal

“It’s part-story, but most definitely a celebration, and it’s an ever-changing show. I find new nuggets and add them in all the time. There’s so much stuff to cover in our story.”

Should you be wondering how and why the term “drag” was coined, let Ian explain: “Shakespeare! It’s a script/stage direction abbreviation. ‘Man enters stage dressed as a girl’. D.R.A.G.”

The drag persona of Velma Celli emerged 13 years ago when Ian was playing Mary Sunshine in the West End run of Chicago. Did she arrive fully fledged or bloom gradually?  “Progression. Like developing any role or idea, time is needed,” says Ian, who remembers exactly how he felt when he first took to the stage in drag. Confident? Nervous? Born to play the role? “Unleashed,” he says.

Velma Celli, who made a sassy cameo appearance in EastEnders, draws inspiration from “the greats”. “Lily Savage, Dame Edna Everage, Bowie, the movies, musicals and many unknown queens who blazed the trail,” he says.

Now, Ian is planning a Velma Celli show built around David Bowie: singer, songwriter, actor, artist, cultural icon, iconoclast, fashion shaper and androgynous shape-shifter. “I think Bowie is a master at illusion and character development but also reinvention. Something I completely relate to as an artist,” he says.

Meanwhile, Velma Celli’s regular York residency is on the move. Out goes the Covid-suspended monthly camp cabaret Friday nights at The Basement, City Screen, York.

“Velma loves the limelight; Ian enjoys the anonymity,” says Ian Stroughair, who “repels fame”

In comes a resplendent residency from last Friday at Impossible, York, Tokyo Industries’ new tea-room, cocktail bar, restaurant and speakeasy enterprise in the old Terry’s café in St Helen’s Café, latterly home to Carluccio’s restaurant.

“The first show was incredible,” says Ian. “The atmosphere was electric. I’ll never forget it. The new venue is so plush and the staff are excellent.”

The Velma Celli Show residency will not be Velma’s only gig in the first-floor Impossible Wonderbar. “On June 5, we’ll be holding the first Drag Brunch, with Velma, surprise guest drag queens, bottomless cocktails and brunch,” says Ian, looking forward to hosting the “ultimate diva brunch in homage to all the queens”, from Whitney to Tina Turner plus many more besides.

That day, there will be two 90-minute sittings, the first from 12 noon, the second from 2.30pm. Tickets are on sale via info@impossibleyork.com or on 01904 864410.

Last year, Ian had to forego a long run in Funny Girls in Blackpool, thwarted by Killjoy Covid, and the pandemic strictures put paid to his international travels too.

Already he has had his two Covid-19 vaccine jabs to enable Ian to take a week’s travel to Mexico for a Velma Celli show in Cancun, however. “Thank god for that because the next cruise is not until October. I lost all the cruise-ship shows last year, and I’d already lost five cruise bookings this year, when in one day I lost three more cruise bookings,” he reveals.

Ian Stroughair on the balcony outside his new abode In York after moving back to his home city from London

The ships may be down, but Ian has shown resilience throughout the pandemic, streaming Velma Celli concerts, first from a Bishopthorpe kitchen and later from a riverside abode by the Ouse Bridge. Last December was spent playing the villainous Flesh Creep in York Stage’s debut pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, at Theatre @41, Monkgate.

Just as this interview moves freely between Ian and Velma, where does Ian, son of Acomb, stop and Velma, drag diva alter ego, start? “She arrives during the make-up process and getting into costume. But human interaction is where it clicks in,” says Ian. “I need my audience.”

Repelling fame, Ian defines the distinction as “Velma loves the limelight; Ian enjoys the anonymity”. “Fame isn’t necessary for me,” he says. “In fact it makes me uncomfortable. I like my private life with my loved ones and I’m very protective of that and mostly them. A stage: that’s where I come alive.” 

Tickets for Velma Celli’s Love Is Love: A Brief History Of Drag can be booked at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or on 01904 623568. For the latest Velma Celli trailer, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a005o6eGZWI. Hit it!

Just One More Thing…

What do you think of the RuPaul’s Drag Race TV shows? Good news for drag?
“It’s made it more mainstream but I don’t think it’s the essence of drag. Gentrification, for sure, but a celebration, of course. That can only be a good thing.”

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