Thursday 23 March 2017

My mother said: 'Sex, I did it once, and didn't like it'

Alan Amsby - aka Mr Pussy - tells Barry Egan about the suicide of his first boyfriend, opening a club with Bono, his night with Rudolf Nureyev, and how Naomi Campbell handed him her knickers

Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Alan Amsby aka Mr Pussy in The Front Lounge. Photo: Tony Gavin
Alan Amsby aka Mr Pussy in The Front Lounge. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mr Pussy with fellow drag queen and friend Panti Bliss

The interview over, I casually ask Alan Amsby - the man behind the make-up of Mr Pussy - what his plans are for the afternoon.

He delicately raises a eyebrow. "Oh, I'll probably go shoplifting, dear."

Panti Bliss writes in the foreword to the new book, Mr Pussy - Before I Forget To Remember: "As a popular T-shirt says, 'It takes balls to be a fairy', but to be a fairy in full drag in 1970s Ireland (and with an English accent to boot!) took more than mere balls. It took nerves of steel, a mischievous sense of humour, a delight in the ridiculous, a steely determination, a quick wit, a brazen disrespect for authority, and a fabulous wardrobe."

When Alan makes his grand entrance to The Shelbourne at the appointed hour for lunch in a long cashmere coat and swishy scarf, the attributes Panti described are soon in evidence.

Mr Pussy with fellow drag queen and friend Panti Bliss
Mr Pussy with fellow drag queen and friend Panti Bliss

Chief among them, of course, the aforementioned mischievous sense of humour. Not that you should be entirely surprised - Mr Pussy once told the audience at one of his shows: "A friend of mine used to wear a poppy up her backside. She said it was in memory of those who had died at the front."

Not to mention this ribcage-rattling zinger - "I know him, he comes from a very poor family. If he didn't wake up on Christmas morning with a hard-on, he had nothing to play with all day."

It is perhaps not that difficult to see why people like Mel Gibson, Van Morrison, Gavin Friday, Naomi Campbell and Bono are among Mr Pussy's biggest fans.

In 1992, during his duties as the MC at Gavin Friday's wedding reception at the Clarence Hotel in Dublin, Mr Pussy brought Bono up on stage during his performance of Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me and, he recalls - "I half stripped him. As part of my act, I always get someone up on stage. So, of course, I got Bono up! We had a drink afterwards and a good old natter. I thought he was lovely; very, very funny with a dry sense of humour. People think Bono takes himself seriously, He absolutely does not." Two years after he attempted to strip Bono live onstage, he was opening a club with him - and Gavin Friday and Jim Sheridan - called Mr Pussy's Cafe De Luxe on Suffolk Street. It lasted only a year but what a year.

The exalted clientele who visited to hear Pussy sing and sample fare like Pussy Pies and Pints of Pussy (a large glass of milk) included: Ali Hewson, the rest of U2, some of the Rolling Stones, all of REM, Mel Gibson, Michael Flatley, Barry Manilow, Sean Connery, Sinead O'Connor, Daniel Day Lewis, and former US Ambassador to Ireland, Jean Kennedy Smith, among many, many others from the galaxies of entertainment, politics and beyond.

Michael Flatley visited straight from Riverdance after the famous night on the Eurovision in 1994 and danced with the furiously back-combed and camp host. (Mr Flatley was almost as furiously back-combed and camp as Mr Pussy).

On another enchanted evening Mel Gibson - who was filming Braveheart in Ireland - visited with Bono and Ali Hewson. At the end of the night, Mel and Mr Pussy in full drag walked up Grafton Street to Mel's waiting car.

"We must have looked like the oddest couple on the planet," he says, "Mad Max and Ireland's Most Misleading Lady."

Van Morrison and Michelle Rocca were regulars, too. "I would sometimes go back to their suite in The Shelbourne and, while I drank and talked to Michelle, Van would play us songs on the guitar at 4am," he recalls. "Van is such a sweetheart. I love Michelle too."

Perhaps his fondest memories are reserved for two supermodels who used to frequent his establishment...

One evening in 1994 Mr Pussy, in his customary sequinned frock and immaculately coiffed bouffant blonde wig, greeted Naomi Campbell at the door. Whereupon the towering black narcissus handed him her knickers. There was a note attached: "From one pussy to another'" (Mr Pussy promptly put them on display in a glass case alongside Bono's MacPhisto gold boots).

The second supermodel to show up, on another night, was none other than Christy Turlington, who arrived in the club with a bra dangling from the top pocket of her designer jacket."'Ohhh', I said to Christy: 'You dirty cow, what are you doing with them there?'" he said.

"Just out of bed and no time to dress!" she replied. (The bra went into the gold cabinet along with Naomi's knickers).

Was Mr Pussy ever tempted to perform in Naomi's knickers and Christy's bra? "I prefer my own."

An only child, Alan Amsby was born in Hillingdon, Greater London, to a lorry-driver father Bill ("who looked like John Wayne, without the mincing walk") and a barmaid mother May ("she was the life and soul of the party"), "once upon a time". He doesn't want to say when he was born.

He jokes of his only-child status that his mother "said she did it once and didn't like it!" Alan adds that every time he starts to put on his make-up before a show he suddenly sees his late mother - who died at 82 a few years ago - looking back at him from the mirror. Alan says that he loved being an only child, because it gave him the time and space to go into his bedroom and fantasise and be the characters in different plays. He believes that's where the theatrical side of him developed from. There were other reasons too. Alan and his mother and father lived on the middle floor of a small house in Peckham, with a toilet and an old tin bath outside in the garden. They shared the house with two other families.

One man who lived upstairs, says Alan, turned out to be "an old queen - he always used to dress up in drag at Christmas. I used to watch".

Another possibly equally important moment in Alan's life occurred when his father died of a burst appendix when he was 10. Alan was sent to his cousin, Betty Hebden, and told nothing. When he returned, he saw his father's wedding ring on his mother's finger and knew his father was dead. His mother told him that his instincts were right. "I was devastated," he said.

The landlady of London's The Royal Vauxhall Tavern was almost as devastated when Alan, apropos of the drag acts she was booking, told her: "I could do much better than them, dear."

"I dare you to do it then," she replied, throwing down what turned out to be a very kitsch gauntlet.

Alan teamed up with a fellow called Jeffrey, and formed Pussy and Bow. It wasn't long before Judy Garland went to see Pussy.

This was in June 1969, remembers Alan, adding that after the performance, she invited him back to her house in Chelsea where she made him sandwiches and engaged him in a game of cards.

She told him he had the best legs she'd ever seen in her life. "She said she couldn't tell that I wasn't a woman on stage." Ms Garland died a few weeks later."

Another admirer of Mr Pussy during his London heyday in the swinging (literally in Alan's case) 1960s was Reggie Kray. Alan remembers the gangster shouting up at him during one of his drag shows: "Cor! What a waste!" "Everyone laughed. It would have been dangerous not to. Thankfully, he didn't pursue me," he says. And if he had pursued him? "I probably wouldn't be here talking to you now, dear."

Someone who did, briefly, pursue Mr Pussy was the cross-dressing entertainer Danny La Rue. They shared a moment of intimacy in the toilets of a club in Pimlico in the late 1960s. What was it like to snog Danny La Rue? "It was like kissing Hitler. I always associate Aramis aftershave with Danny. He wore it that night."

Mr Pussy seemed to know everyone of note who lived, or passed through London in the mid-to-late 1960s: Noel Coward, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Kenneth Williams, Brian Epstein...

"One night I was trying to save money by walking as far as I could when a green Rolls-Royce came towards me. He rolled down the window. 'Would you like a lift?' It was Epstein. I got in thinking, 'Oi, oi, he'll be trying it on with me'."

He didn't. The manager of The Beatles gave him a lift to Alan's home in Peckham instead. "There was no nonsense between us. I wouldn't have been Brian's type. He was into 'rough trade'."

There was also a night out with Rudolf Nureyev, where they got "appallingly sloshed" together in a lock-in in a pub in London. "Nureyev was a God. He had high cheekbones, a cute little scar on his upper lip,and a body to go nuts for. He used to go to the Turkish baths and stand under the shower for half an hour showing himself off. He was such a tease."

Was his night with Rudolf consummated? "I couldn't tell you that, dear. You'll have to guess."

He wasn't to meet the dancer again until 30 or so years later, when Alan saw someone at a nearby table in the Trocadero restaurant in Dublin in 1992 who he couldn't place.

"I thought: how do I know that face? Then the penny dropped. It was Rudolf. He was HIV positive and his health was fading. He looked very frail. I went over and chatted about London and suggested we meet for a drink.

"He declined saying he had to rehearse every day. I didn't take it personally: the man was very ill and had probably given up drink as well. He passed away the following January."

His mind turning to death, Amsby remembers a male friend, 10 years his senior, "committing suicide over me" when Alan was 16. Alan and this man had been seeing each other for a few years.

"He was a big influence in that he used to take me to museums and art galleries, the theatre. He taught me more than I learned at school, actually." Alan says the relationship was platonic but that he was aware that the man loved him. He adds, however, that when "you're young you don't think the way you do when you're a lot older".

The man, he believes, took his own life after Alan ended the relationship.

"He just got too possessive. I just wanted to enjoy myself. I was just going off into the world and doing my own thing.

"He hanged himself," Alan says. "He was in a mental hospital quite a bit, off and on, but whenever he was out he was OK. You forget about things when you're young."

In 1969, Alan travelled to Dublin for a week of shows, but as he writes in Mr Pussy - Before I Forget To Remember, he was "an overnight sensation, and made Dublin my home."

Charles Haughey, he says, used to come to his shows in Dublin in the mid 1970s. "Charlie was very dapper. I was never sure whether he talked to me because he wanted to or because he felt he had to."

Alan established himself in Dublin, befriending Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLiammoir - who went to his shows and to his parties in his flat in Lower Mount Street.

"My parties were outrageous, because they were no nightclubs in Dublin back then." His artistic reputation spreading, Alan's shows soon established him around wider Ireland, too.

He remembers that he once broke into a garda station "down the country" because he had left "all my gear overnight" in there (the mind boggles), and when he came back the next morning "it was closed for the weekend. So, I smashed the window and left a fiver and a note saying: 'Sorry!'"

He also recalls the story of a bishop in Longford eviscerating Mr Pussy's act from the pulpit at mass in the mid 1970s; telling his flock that any of them intending to go to the show would have the eternal fires of hell waiting for them.

"I had a huge crowd in that night. They were queueing up!" he says. "I forget that bishop's name but I should probably find out and send him a thank-you card for his help in ensuring that I'd be so successful in Ireland for 35 years. God bless him!"

Alan Amsby has a kind word for pretty much everyone he ever met in his life - be they homophobic bishops or not. He has as many stories in him as wigs in his closet at home (he used to make wigs for Marlene Dietrich in the mid 1960s in London, he says.

He recalls meeting the "absolutely adorable" Terry Keane after the premiere of Robert Altman's Pret-a-Porter movie in Dublin in late 1994. Mr Pussy was in a full drag in a gold Rolls-Royce leaving the cinema en route to the party when the grande dame of goss approached his car: "Can I get a lift?"

"You could do with a lift, dear, but not in a car," he told her jokingly as she got in and they sped off. "I loved her," he says of the dearly departed Ms Keane.

Also dearly departed are Alan's two dogs Danny and Lily (named after the late Danny La Rue and Lily Savage). Their ashes are over the mantelpiece in his home.

He lives on his own in Drumcondra. "Who would put up with me?" he cackles. "I'm not the marrying kind, I suppose. I'm done with romance, and sex. I can't be doing with any of that any more," he laughs like a heyday Kenneth Williams.

I say that Williams's philosophy seemed to be summed up by his alleged dying words on April 15, 1988: "Oh, what's the bloody point?"

The philosophy by which Alan Amsby lives his life appears to be far more cheerful, hopeful even. "There'll always be another tomorrow," he smiles, delicately raising an eyebrow. "Until there isn't..."

Mr Pussy - Before I Forget to Remember by Alan Amsby with David Kenny is published by New Island Books, €16.95. Alan will be in conversation with David Kenny at the Dublin Book Festival in Smock Alley Theatre today at 4.30pm, free admission

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