Drag queen jailed for benefit fraud
A man who wrongly claimed £88,000 in benefits while performing as a high-heeled drag queen on stage has been jailed.
Mark Hawthorn, 49 - better known on the entertainment circuit as part of duet act Glitterlips - was jailed for six months for making fraudulent benefit claims between November 2003 and March 2012.
Sentencing him at Stafford Crown Court, Judge Michael Challinor said Hawthorn was guilty of "breathtaking" fraud. He said: "You should have confined your acting ability to female impersonation rather than defrauding the state."
Prosecutors for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said an anonymous tip-off prompted its investigation into Hawthorn's "systematic fraud" of the benefits system. Trevor Meegan, for the DWP, said he failed to declare his status as "a self-employed drag artiste" despite claiming to suffer a host of health problems which meant he needed help "both night and day".
The judge heard Hawthorn, of Coleshill Street, Tamworth, was claiming disability living allowance, income support, council tax benefit and housing benefit, and had also failed to pay income tax or national insurance contributions from his on-stage earnings as alter-ego "Tilly". Admitting five counts relating to benefit fraud and non-payment to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, Hawthorn, wearing a smart black suit, tie and designer glasses, looked over to loved ones in the public gallery as he was led away to begin his jail term.
Mr Meegan said Hawthorn fully admitted wrongdoing in his interview, when confronted with the facts of the case. The DWP's investigation found he had been performing on and off for 25 years, but failed to tell the DWP of a more recent change in circumstances from 2003. "He made several declarations on a claim form in 2001, declaring the information to be true, but never notifying of a change in circumstances despite an annual reminder," he said.
Mr Meegan said Hawthorn claimed the highest level of disability living allowance, stating he was "only able to walk a short distance", suffered from "nausea, moodswings, and headaches" and needed to use inhalers "three or four times every two hours". These declarations, Mr Meegan added, were directly contradicted by the DWP's surveillance showing Hawthorn at the gym "loading up and lifting weights, using the cross-trainer" and "taking part in step aerobics - sometimes while using dumb-bells". Hawthorn made his trips to the gym in his Nissan Qashqai, a car provided under the Motability scheme, said Mr Meegan. His performances in Glitterlips were also uploaded to video website YouTube, and Facebook entries advertised the act online.
Hawthorn pleaded guilty to failing to notify the DWP about a change in circumstances relating to his claims for disability living, income support, and failing to notify North Warwickshire Borough Council in relation to housing benefit and council tax benefit claims. In total, he fraudulently claimed £84,534. He admitted two further counts of knowingly and fraudulently evading national insurance payments and income tax to the tune of £3,759. The judge was told Hawthorn had repaid £4,100 to date.
In mitigation, Kate Thomas said her client had had a "horrendous" early life and was then diagnosed with a "severe illness" which, although not disclosed in court, had seen him given a year to live by doctors, when first identified more than a decade ago. It was this condition which led him to make his, she claimed, initially truthful benefit claim. However, Miss Thomas said a "cocktail of drugs" meant Hawthorn was able to manage his condition, although until recently he had been living "an unsettled life which clearly has caused a great deal of psychological and psychiatric trouble". "Medical evidence shows ongoing evidence of depression," she added. She said his occasional performance as a drag queen was a way of boosting his self-esteem. "It allowed him an opportunity to step out of his life which until recently was horrific and unsettled," she said. Miss Thomas said Hawthorn expressed remorse and regret about his fraud but that he had carried on making the claims because the money represented a "safety net".
Judge Challinor told Hawthorn: "You have been claiming disability living allowance for almost nine years and during that time you have represented to the authorities that you were almost physically helpless, needing help to get out of bed, wash, and attend to your daily needs. Your allowance was made at the highest level, but in fact we know you were regularly going to a gym and appearing on stage as a female impersonator wearing high heels and displaying a good deal of physical agility. The duration and scope is breathtaking. You should have confined your acting ability to female impersonation rather than defrauding the state. There are many other dependants in this country genuinely entitled, and they get little enough as it is without people like you diminishing what is available to them." Conceding the mitigation in the case was "considerable", Judge Challinor decreased Hawthorn's sentence from a possible 18 months, taking into account his troubled early life and his genuine mental health issues. But he told Hawthorn that, given the scope of his fraud, the concurrent sentences leading to a jail term were necessary to serve as "a deterrent" to others.