Shhh! What’s my secret ...?
In spite of the flawless make-up and glamorous clothes, Lady Portia is not all she seems. Stephanie Bell reports
Marcus Hunter Neil has the kind of fine bone structure and flawless complexion that most women would gladly trade their favourite designer heels for.
Meeting this immaculate 27-year-old, it is easy to see how he makes the transition into one of Northern Ireland’s best known drag queen’s Lady Portia.
So pretty is his showbiz alter-ego that it is not unknown for people to mistake Marcus the Drag Queen for a female.
And it is not just in the Province’s now thriving gay social scene that the glamorous Lady Portia has been making her mark, but recently one of Belfast’s most popular working men’s clubs can’t get enough of his very slick and entertaining persona.
While naturally petite for a man, Marcus is a larger than life personality who comes into his own on stage.
He said: “I was always performing from I was no age. I was in the drama club at school and all the school plays.
“I’ve always been flamboyant and really out there. I am now and I was as a child.
“I remember one family gathering when I was about seven. It was Christmas and there were aunts and uncles and cousins there and all the children were reciting rhymes and singing Christmas songs.
“I nipped upstairs and put on one of my sister’s outfits and came in and performed for everyone.
“I feel very comfortable on stage; it is very easy for me.
“I am fine featured anyway and so it’s not as if I look like a big butch man in drag, people always tell me I look well when I do Lady Portia.”
Lady Portia is part of what was until recently, a three-man drag act called The She Degrees, also featuring Tina Legs Tantrum, and Trudy Scrumptious but now with a fourth star, Miss Bunny.
Together they bring the house down every Sunday night in Belfast’s buzzing gay bar The Kremlin with their cabaret Bingo Show.
The trio first launched their act started off in the former Parliament Bar 10 years ago.
Marcus explains how his show career as a drag artist came about: “Trudy was into fashion design and he had made this very revealing outfit that no one would wear because it was so skimpy.
“It was a very short mini skirt and a one shoulder belly top and I offered to wear it.
“That’s when we decided to get together and do the act and it started with the Parliament on Saturday nights and we also did the odd show in Milk.
“We also took it to Dublin, Waterford and Liverpool. When we decided to leave the Parliament, I will never forget our last night, the place was bunged to capacity.”
Lady Portia also led Marcus into his current full-time career as a cosmetics specialist.
While doing a charity event in Boots as Lady Portia, Marcus made such an impression that he was approached by the area manager of cosmetics company Benefit and asked if he would be interested in training as a make-up artist.
“It was so unexpected and the last thing I would have considered but I thought why not and I was amazed at how much I liked it,” he said.
“I took to it like a duck to water and ended up touring Northern Ireland, Scotland, London and the Republic with Benefit and also became the first male account manager in cosmetics in Northern Ireland.”
While concentrating on his new career in cosmetics, The She Degrees went their separate ways only to reform three years ago and launch a new show in the Kremlin Bar.
Their act proved so popular that it was soon moved from the bar to the main clubroom to accommodate the crowds.
Said Marcus: “It’s a sort of cabaret bingo show. We have a backing band and several costume changes and it is very entertaining and a lot of fun.
“Most people’s experience of drag is when they go on holiday and see these big tattooed men like rugby players dressed as women.
“Our show is very different and not many people know that this cabaret is going on in Belfast.”
Gay Pride and the proliferation of gay bars in Belfast has encouraged a more open society in Northern Ireland in recent years, although the gay community still laments the fact that there are many, especially in rural areas, who are still too frightened of public reaction to come out.
For Marcus his sexuality is something which he has always been comfortable with.
He said: “I don’t think I have ever been ‘in’ to come ‘out’ because I never hid my sexuality.
“I didn’t go around saying ‘I’m gay, I’m gay’ but if anyone asked me I would have said yes with no hesitation.
“I have a great family, not just my mum and dad and my immediate family, but uncles, aunts and cousins who never had a problem with it.
“I’m very lucky and very blessed in that respect. I just never felt I couldn’t be who I am.
“I really believe you have to live your life for yourself and not other people.
“The drag queen act is purely a stage show, there is nothing sexual in it for me. The way I see it, if you work in a chippy you don’t sit around in your chippy uniform outside work and just like that, I don’t wear women’s clothes outside of Lady Portia.
“It just so happens that my job involves wearing evening dresses, make-up and wigs but while cross -dressers get a kick from it, there is no form of sexual pleasure in it for me.”
Marcus has managed to break a major taboo recently by moving his act from the gay scene to make it more mainstream with a weekly show at the Trinity Lodge Working Men’s Club in Turf Lodge.
He explains how it came about: “I was asked to do a guest spot as Lady Portia and host an entertainment show called The T Factor which is a b it like the X Factor and my role is like Dermot O’Leary’s.
“It went down so well that they asked me to stay for the run of the show which is 12 weeks and they have now also offered me my own night every Wednesday which is called ‘Oh Mummy It’s Portia.
“I was stunned and delighted as you wouldn’t think they would have been up for it. These are honest hard-working people and they love the show.”
Lady Portia is only a very small part of this very busy and exceptionally caring man’s life.
Outside of his stage show, Marcus keeps himself busy working in cosmetics in Debenhams in Belfast and organising major charity events.
He uses his skills as a make-up artist to help people with cancer through the charity Look Good Feel Good which holds beauty courses for patients to help them cope with losing their hair. More recently Marcus set up his own weekly classes called “Staying Beautiful No Matter What” in association with Macmillan Cancer, giving cancer patients make-up tricks for dealing with the loss of their eyebrows and eyelashes.
He said: “The classes are very motivational. My attitude is that it takes the same amount of effort to put on your jammies as it does to put on something nice.
“But even on down days to put on something nice, and maybe even a wee bit of lip gloss, can make you feel so much better.”
Like everything in his life, charity work has become a passion for Marcus who this year, for the third year in a row, will be staging a fashion show in aid of cancer.
And also like everything he does, The Uber Chic Fashion Show is no ordinary catwalk presentation but one which is in complete harmony with the cause for which it is staged.
He explains: “Cancer doesn’t discriminate and so instead of professional models we used a range of people from aged 19 to 62, size 6 to 24 and from five foot three to six foot four.
“The first year it was a sell out and last year it took on a mind of its own and we had to change venues because we couldn’t fit everyone in.
“This year we hope to stage it in the Europa sometime in early August.”
Marcus is also behind the now annual “Portia Presents” charity night in aid of the Belfast Rape Crisis Centre and earlier this month organised his second annual Inspirational Women’s Evening in Belfast which aims to honour Northern Ireland’s unsung heroes.
He says: “I feel very lucky that I am able to do charity work.
“My dad lived in Africa for six years and I got to see how some people have to live with very little and I suppose it brought home to me how fortunate I am.”
And his hopes for his future: “My dream job would be to do an Anneka Rice-style TV challenge show or to present a show on Radio 2, which I absolutely love and listen to day and night.
“If I got a spot on there I would die happy.”
Queens of the drag trade
There are different views of how the term drag queen came into existence, but the phrase was used to describe transvestites as early as the 18th century, owing to the tendency of their skirts to drag on the ground. The queen part of the phrase refers to the affectation of some practitioners. Some of the most prominent drag queens are:
Danny La Rue (1927-2009) was the 20th century’s most famous and successful drag queen. Born Daniel Patrick Carroll in Cork City, La Rue moved to England with his family when he was six and was brought up in Soho. During the Blitz, his mother moved her family to Devon, where young Daniel developed an interest in dramatics. “There weren't enough girls so I got the pick of the roles. My Juliet was very convincing.” La Rue became the first drag queen to appear at the Royal Variety Performance in 1969.
Ru Paul, American drag artist who duetted with Elton John in the 2007 remake of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, illustrated the complexity of the drag queen’s art when he said: “I do not impersonate females! How many women do you know who wear seven-inch heels, four-foot wigs, and skin tight dresses?”
Lilian May Veronica Savage (Lily Savage) is a fictional prostitute and the alter-ego of comedian Paul O'Grady. In 1977, O'Grady went to Manila where he worked as a waiter in Gussy's Bar and came up with the idea. He returned to London in the early 1980s and subsequently achieved fame with his creation of Lily, initially playing to gay clubs and pubs, including Goldsmith’s Tavern, New Cross, London where he'd often precede Vic Reeves' three-hour show. O’Grady won a Perrier award nomination as Lily at the Edinburgh Festival. Since 2002, |O’Grady (who was married and has a daughter) has appeared on TV more often as himself.
One of the top drag queens in Northern Ireland, apart from Lady Portia, is Titti von Tramp who demonstrated against Iris Robinson’s remarks about homosexuality being curable during Belfast’s Gay Pride Week in 2008. Titti added: “That poor lady has her views, but we have our lives.” Titti appears regularly at gay bars and clubs in the city.