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'Naomi Campbell handed me her knickers'


Alan Amsby,aka Mr Pussy

Alan Amsby,aka Mr Pussy

Alan Amsby, aka Mr Pussy, with Bono

Alan Amsby, aka Mr Pussy, with Bono

Alan Amsby, aka Mr Pussy, with Colin Farrell

Alan Amsby, aka Mr Pussy, with Colin Farrell


Alan Amsby,aka Mr Pussy

MR PUSSY is a riot. He is remembering the distinguished evening in 1994 when supermodel Naomi Campbell turned up to his celebrated establishment on Dublin's Suffolk Street, Mr Pussy's Cafe De Luxe, owned by Bono, Jim Sheridan and Gavin Friday.

"She handed me her knickers," he says, without missing a beat. "So I put them on display in a glass case alongside Bono's MacPhisto's gold boots. She signed them, 'From one pussy to another'," he says of U2 bassist Adam Clayton's one-time fiancée.

A different night that passed into legend in Mr Pussy's Cafe De Luxe, was when Christy Turlington, another exalted model of that golden age, arrived in the club. She had – remembers the drag queen host who greeted everyone in his customary sequinned frock and perfectly coiffed bouffant blonde wig – a bra and knickers in the top pocket of her designer jacket.

I ask him what does one say to one of the world's top supermodels turning up like that.

"Oh, I said to Christy: 'You dirty cow, what are you doing with them there?'" he recalls, smiling mischievously, and then cackling with laughter like Oscar Wilde on too much brandy.

Mr Pussy recounts the many kitsch nights when he would start bingo for his A-list clientele at 4am – just after Chutney Heuston, another drag superstar, had sung a smattering of shiver-inducing Whitney Houston classics – and people would ask him was Bono in the building. "Yes, he's in the back peeling the potatoes for the chips," Mr Pussy would reply, then as now, without missing a beat.

The tales of his world-famous – and much-lamented – club with Pussy Pies and Pints of Pussy (a large glass of milk) alongside sausage and chips on the menu are as legendary as the stars who frequented it: Sean Connery, Barry Manilow, Michelle Rocca, Van Morrison ("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"), Ronnie Wood, Jean Kennedy Smith, Michael Stipe and REM, Michael Flatley, Adam Clayton ("I loved Adam and I still do") and Mel Gibson.

These are but a few of the patrons whose presence made the beautifully bizarre bolthole in Dublin the most interesting place on the planet for the all-too-brief year it was open, and added to its immortal lustre.

There was the night Mr Flatley came in from Riverdance on Eurovision and danced with the host, who was in full drag, he recounts. Or the night Mel Gibson walked Mr Pussy, again in full drag, up Grafton Street to The Pod nightclub on Harcourt Street, whereupon Pussy "sat on Bono's lap next to Ali". As a testament to his enduring friendship with the U2 singer, Mr Pussy is wearing a diamond tiepin given to him a few Christmases ago by Bono and his wife Ali.

"It's a little diamond in the shape of a pussy," he positively miaows over lunch in The Shelbourne last week.

Despite all the famous names, Mr Pussy was, inarguably, always the star of the show.

"He's 58 but he looks amazing. He's camp, but sweet, not bitchy. Sort of like: 'How'ye doing, get that aul' sausage in ya!" Gavin Friday described him at the time. He went on to immortalize him in the song Mr Pussy on his 1995 album Shag Tobacco.

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"The lyrics to the song sum him up," Friday says now.

'In '67,' goes the song, 'his debut year, a pussy cat did appear/In Soho bars rather shady, a most discerning, misleading lady/He knew Marlene, Judy was a friend/

'Hey! Johnny ray, all those that bend ... '

"Gavin sang the song in New York's Carnegie Hall for his own 50th birthday a few years ago, which Bono organised," Mr Pussy says proudly now.

Once upon a time – he doesn't want to say when – Mr Pussy was born Alan Amsby in Hillingdon, Middlesex to a lorry-driver father and a barmaid mother in London.

"I was an only child," he says.

"My mother said she did it once and didn't like it!" he says with a smile.

"But I loved being an only child. Often I used to go into my bedroom and fantasize and be characters in different plays. I think that's where the theatrical side of me developed from," he says, adding that he believes he got his character and his heart from his mother.

"She was full of jokes... She was the life and soul of everything," he says of his beloved ma who worked at The Gregorian in Bermondsey.

"We were like mates, really. We never talked about my private life. We weren't that way."

I ask him did his mother – who died a few years ago, aged 82 – never expect the big wedding for her son? "She may have expected a big day out but she never talked about it!" he laughs. "I don't think she'd have been one for having another woman in her son's life anyway."

And, equally, was his mother the only woman in his life because of the way he was brought up as an idolized only child?

"Could be! Absolutely! But she was the only woman in my life," he says before fixing me with a gaze. "You are trying to get all psychoanalytical on me, aren't you?"

Alan and his mother and father lived on the middle floor of a small house with a lavatory and an old tin bath outside in the garden in Peckham. There were two other families living in the house.

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

Alan's father died – from a burst appendix – when he was just 10.

Young Alan went to stay with his cousin, Betty Hebden, when it was happening. When he got home, he can remember seeing his father's wedding ring on his mother's finger." (He breaks off to say: "I haven't got it on today but usually I wear it.")

"I thought: 'He's dead, isn't he?' And then she told me, and of course it was awful. I was devastated."

His entry into drag as entertainment came in the late Sixties when young Alan told the landlady of The Vauxhall Tavern that the acts weren't much cop. His exact words were: "I could do much better than that, dear."

"Well – I dare you to do it," she told him.

So he did. Alan teamed up with another man, Jeffrey, "who I couldn't stand, but he was quite good looking and I said to him: 'Do you fancy doing an act?'"

They formed Pussy and Bow. It was an immediate success. Dusty Springfield, Ringo Star et al were regulars.

"One night," he says (practically all Alan's sentences begin, as well they might, with "one night"), "Judy Garland came to see me in 1968. She was with Johnnie Ray at the time." After watching him perform his drag show and being enthralled, she invited him back to her house in Chelsea in London. "She made me sandwiches and we all played cards and drank. She couldn't get over my legs. She told me I had the best legs she'd ever seen in her life. She said she couldn't tell that I wasn't a woman onstage. She was a scream. When I asked could I use the bathroom, she said [puts on raspy, if camp, American accent] 'Honey, use my can! The can is in there!'"

"She died a few weeks later," Alan says.

Like something out of a faintly melancholic old Judy Garland song, Alan says, "The love of my life hasn't come along yet. I've had a few bits and pieces over the years."

His is a story sprinkled with sadness as well as stardust. Asked about major loves of his life, he says there was "one person in England. It was more of a platonic relationship".

"He committed suicide over me when I was very young. That affected me the most.

"We were going out for about two or three years. He was a big influence in that he used to bring me to museums and art galleries, the theatre. He taught me more than I learned at school, actually.

"Nothing sexual ever happened. 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 was 10 years older than me."

Was he aware how that person loved him?

"Oh yeah, but when you're young you don't think the way you do when you're a lot older. I was about 16 when it happened. I had ended the relationship. Then he hung himself. He was in a mental hospital quite a bit, off and on, but whenever he was out he was okay. It happened. Then I had all my mates, and I used to go up to the West End. You forget about things when you're young."

It isn't in his make up – psychological or cosmetic – to be dull. He knew the Krays in late Sixties London and recalls Reggie shouting up at him during one of his drag shows: "Cor! What a waste!"

"I knew Violet, their mother, the best," he says, "but I did shows for the Krays. They loved them."

In the early Seventies, having made a name for himself in England, Alan decided to move to Dublin. He put on drag shows in The Baggot Inn for three years. "That established me, actually. I loved it. Everyone used to come to the shows. Politicians. Showbands," says Mr Pussy, who still gigs regularly around Ireland.

"There is no town in Ireland that I haven't worked in. It was like the dark ages in Ireland, but I livened them all up, didn't I?" he giggles.

"I once broke into a garda station down the country because I had left all my gear overnight and I came back the next morning and it was closed for the weekend. I smashed the window and left a fiver and a note saying 'sorry!'

"One of the first people to get me a major gig in Dublin was a top rock manager. He came to see me in The Baggot Inn. He got me to a talk in Trinity about women's lib in full drag."

There was liberation of another kind in his basement flat on Lower Mount Street. "I used to have parties nearly every night. My parties were outrageous, because there were no clubs back then."

He says he isn't defined to any degree by his sexuality. In the course of a two-hour conversation, later an hour long chat and then an equally long chin-wag at a reception, Alan never once uses the word 'gay'. Perhaps because it would be more accurate to say that Alan Amsby was never heterosexual rather than he was gay. He thinks such terms are reductive and almost laughable.

It isn't necessary to call Bono a heterosexual singer or Gabriel Byrne a heterosexual actor in the same way as it isn't necessary to call Alan Amsby a gay drag artist.

"I think in this day and age people are just so sick and bored with people talking about their sexuality.

"There are still a lot of old ladies around Ireland think I am the butchest thing going!" he laughs. "So I'm not going to shatter their illusions."

He is Danny La Rue, and Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLiammoir rolled into one very entertaining force of nature. He was friends with La Rue until the end of his life in 2009; and hung out in Dublin in the early Seventies with both Edwards and MacLiammoir.

You can see why he has mixed so successfully in so many worlds. "They were lovely, lovely people, I had drinks at their place in Harcourt Street,"he says.

He emceed Gavin Friday's 1992 wedding in the Clarence Hotel and put on quite a performance for the guests. "As part of my act, I always get someone up on stage. And of course, I got Bono up – he was his usual charming self – and attempted, unsuccessfully, to take his shirt off," Mr Pussy throws casually into the conversation as if it is the most ordinary thing in the world. The point is, however, when you exist in Mr Pussy's world, it is the most ordinary thing in the world. "I still see Gavin and Bono and Jim Sheridan and Harry Crosbie and all those people. Nothing has changed, really," he says.

The man who created the drag queen industry in Ireland puts his shoulder pads squarely behind his camp comrades in the recent Pantigate national brouhaha. He believes that in 2014, "We should be talking about human rights not gay rights. Gay Pride is ok, but why don't you have Straight Pride? I wouldn't be banging a drum for gay rights any more than someone would bang a drum for being a redhead or left-handed."

"But Panti has proved his point and he was absolutely right," he continues. "Fair play to him. They all call me the Drag Mother." He has also referred to himself as Queen Mother Pussy. Before him, there was nothing.

A few years ago Panti, Veda, Davina, and Shirley Temple Bar et al put on a tribute night to Mr Pussy in The George Bar on George's Street in Dublin.

He is certainly the doyen of Irish drag. He doesn't use bad language, only the occasional bad Wildean quip. Alan Amsby is a lady [impersonator] of a certain age. Yet he isn't giving up on life. Just sex. "I can't be bothered with sex any more," he says.

He is staunchly – even sadly – single. He says he isn't interested in relationships, not even for the companionship. "I have enough friends if I want company," he says.

"I can't be bothered with all that nonsense," he says of sex. "I'm a bit like Kenneth Williams now, I think," he says.

I ask him was he always like that.

"No. I was a bit of a slut in my time. If the mood takes you, you just go for it, I suppose. I'd dragged 'em home!" he laughs.

He says he had "the odd romance here and there but it never lasted. I can't keep a relationship. I'm still self-centred and selfish. I think once you hear those three words – 'I love you' – it puts me off. Once you start hearing that it's – 'Oh no! Go away! Get out of my life!'"

"To be perfectly honest with you, I wouldn't be interested in romance now."

You can watch Mr Pussy's video interview on www.independent.ie

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