One of the best-known and hugely popular drag queens throughout the UK and across Europe, Stephanie Starlet, is the alter ego of Stephan, a multi-talented actor and entertainer.
But behind the glitz and glamour is someone with much greater hidden depths, committed to animal welfare and human rights.
As the vision and creation of a classically-trained actor, Stephanie has been delighting audiences and crowds at countless clubs and significant events since the early 1990s, achieving cult status with her crazy and outrageous performances.
But along with this, in recent years Brighton-based Stephan has been studying hard, and by January of 2021, he will be a qualified LLB solicitor who aims to specialise in human rights.
This means his life will have turned full circle as before embarking on a theatrical career, he had been destined to study law.
“I’d wanted to be on the stage since I was a child,” he says. “It had been mapped out for me to train as a solicitor, but at a very early age, I ran away from Lincolnshire, where I was born, and moved to London.
“I’ve sometimes wondered what my life would have been like if I had studied law then. I’d probably have been a wealthy solicitor by now, but I have no regrets, I love what I do.”
Just 15 years old when he arrived in London, Stephan trained in mime with the famous Lindsay Kemp, who had taught David Bowie and Kate Bush, and he studied jazz dance technique with Molly Molloy, choreographer of Chess and many other west end shows.
He also worked as a model, appearing in Italian Vogue and at London Fashion Week, and was hand-selected as a Yoji Yamamoto model which led to work with the So Damn Tuff agency.
Fate took a hand when he saw an advert in The Stage newspaper that led to an audition in Brighton for Pirates of Penzance with Regency Opera, which in turn led to a tour as well as roles in West Side Story and Blood Brothers.
Stephan fell in love with Brighton and decided to make the city his home.
“I used to think that London was the be-all and end-all, but once I got to know Brighton, I realised there is life outside the capital, and I’ve loved living here ever since.”
Stephan joined the Liquorice Allsorts cabaret group, an award-winning fast-paced spoof act performing across the UK and all over Europe. For three years running, they won Disco Mirror’s award for cabaret group of the year.
“That was when I got my Equity card. It was essential to have one in those days, but it was a real struggle to do that. Despite all the stress involved in getting my card, no-one has ever asked me for it!
“When I first came to Brighton, I started clubbing, dressing up a lot. I also went out in drag a couple of times. But although I’m still doing stuff on the gay scene, I’ve always maintained my acting and musical theatre work at the same time. I still sing and have recorded with some great people.”
Stephan’s theatrical work led to lead roles such as Bennett in Another Country, Edward in King Lear, the young Elvis in Are You Lonesome Tonight, playing the devil Crispin in the alternative adult panto Little Devil, and Frankenfurter and Riff Raff in the Rocky Horror Show.
“As Riff Raff, I used to hurtle on stage on roller skates and nearly killed myself in Germany as I almost flew off the edge of the stage.”
As he became well-established as an enormously popular entertainer on the Brighton scene, Stephan was asked to be the hostess at The Pussycat, the famous Brighton nightclub where many of the country’s top DJs played and which attracted a considerable following.
“One thing about me is that I don’t stick to just the gay scene,” he explains. “The idea was that as the face of the club, I would make things more integrated, bring everything together and have a club full of cool people with the right mentality.
“Back then the gay scene could be quite dangerous and secretive, people going into clubs through the back door. Thankfully times have moved on a lot now. At the club, I was integrating people a lot more, creating the right kind of vibe I felt was an essential part of bringing things together. I’m quite proud that I was a kind of pioneer in that.
“I probably didn’t realise at the time how important that was, but looking back I can see what a difference it made. I had a couple of unpleasant incidents with idiots, but I was good at sussing people. Thanks to that we never had any problems because as the hostess, meeting and greeting people, I was good at picking the crowd. The people I attracted to the club weren’t the kind to cause trouble.
“It’s a bit of an art form to get it right. A lot of clubs nowadays let anyone in – I don’t think there’s anything wrong about being picky!
“We were very blessed at The Pussycat because we had brilliant DJs who came to play there. The atmosphere was all about loving each other; the only drug you saw then was Ecstasy. People look back at it with great fondness, and it was amazing how blessed we were at that time.”
Stephan also became the face of and created many other club nights, including Dynamite Boogaloo with Boogaloo Stu and Dynamite Sal. Here he created the Naked Drag character, an inter-galactic 500-year-old android stripper.
“She attracted a big student following with her crazy acts and became a bit of a cult,” says Stephan.
“I coasted for a while, doing more and more clubs and cabaret, but still keeping my hand in with acting. In the meantime, I learnt a lot about make-up and glamour from someone who did Joan Collins’ make-up. I’m a bit of a chameleon and experimented with many different looks. It hasn’t always been glamour, I once did Bette Davis in Baby Jane, and that was far from a glamorous look. I wore a white clay mask and cracked it on purpose.”
Stephanie Starlet became Stephan’s exceptional creation. Having worked the doors at many club nights, greeting and selecting, hosting and performing, she compered nights for The Ministry of Sound, Miss Moneypennies, Brighton’s Zap, Honey Club, The Escape and Audio, Ocean Rooms, Wild Fruit and its offsprings nights, as well as many others.
“It reached a point where more and more, everyone wanted to book me as Stephanie,’ recalls Stephan. “I felt I was pimping myself!”
As Stephanie’s appeal continued to grow, she regularly put on huge Brighton Gay Pride events and had the honour of compering and hosting the Brit Awards’ after-party with the theme of Brighton Beach.
“Madonna gave me the nod of approval, and for me, that was like being knighted,” Stephan says. “The party was fantastic as a beach had been created in this huge room. It was like being on a set at Pinewood Studios.
“I got incredibly drunk and ended up at 4 am on a train back to Brighton, still in my costume.”
Among Stephanie’s, many and varied achievements was being awarded Scene Personality of the Year, voted by Brighton’s public through G Scene magazine. She won the title Miss Alternative Brighton and at a huge event hosted at Brighton’s Dome, she came out as a human aeroplane on roller skates in a Virgin Atlantic-style costume, to the song Like a Virgin.
Stephanie presented her trendy magazine-style TV show, Out of the Closet, for UKTV.
“I had Andy Bell of Erasure in the bath while I interviewed him, with us both sipping champagne. He nearly corpsed a few times with my lustful eyes meeting his. Great fun.”
Stephanie has also appeared in many music videos, including those for her friend Norman Cook (Fat Boy Slim), Elton John, Aha, Boy George, Phil Collins, and Eric Clapton’s Tearing Us Apart with Tina Turner.
As Stephanie is such a well-known personality in Brighton, do people recognise Stephan in the street when he is out of character?
“I don’t mince around town in high heels,” he says with a laugh. “In Brighton now most people know me as a boy. But sometimes I say hello to people who don’t realise it’s me as they have only seen me as a girl.
“It’s like being two people. I’ve been playing the Stephanie role for so many years it’s as though they have morphed together.
“When I was training in mime with Lindsay Kemp, he was very into Method acting. He told us to look at things through the eyes of children, who have no boundaries and express everything through their faces. If you can see something through their eyes, it’s second nature for your body to follow, it will be fluid without you even thinking about it.
“I’m told it’s quite surprising that as soon as I put on my make-up, I become Stephanie. My manner of walking changes, I take on all her gestures, yet I don’t even know I’m doing it.
“So Stephanie and Stephan are two very different people. In acting, you can go a long time without work, so I believe you have to do other things in your life. I’m quite a spiritual person and think life should be all about quality, fairness and balance.
“I’m a vegan and heavily involved with animal rights, so a lot of people know about me through the animal welfare stuff I do.
“The reason I’ve studied law now is that I have a strong social conscience. I live alone, so the coronavirus lockdown has been difficult for me, but I think it will make a lot of people think about their lives, realise that different values are important.
“I’ve put the time to good use, getting my head down and studying for my bar exam. As you get older, your values change, and I think that as a mature student, you absorb things better and your thirst for knowledge increases as well as your desire to change things and make a difference.
“I’ve also been doing pro bono stuff to help people, including a woman who faced the threat of having her electric wheelchair taken away, leaving her bedbound. I’ve also helped another lady who has cancer.
“By January next year I shall be a fully qualified lawyer, hopefully specialising in human rights. But I’ll still be Stephanie as well and will be back on stage as soon as clubs and theatres can re-open. I do sometimes wonder what would have happened if I’d studied law and stayed up north. But I would have missed out on so much fun!” •