Creativity and Transformation with Jonny Woo

Drag performer Jonny Woo discusses his transformation through makeup, and considers whether it is art. 

Jonny Woo is a performer and part owner of pub-meets-cabernet venue The Glory, in London’s East End. We catch up with Woo, who is currently touring his Lou Reed show (TRANS)former, to watch him transform into one of his fabulous drag creations; and discuss whether makeup is an artform. 

Do you see the application of make up as a type of art? When it comes to drag, the application of the make up is part of a bigger collage of throwing wigs and costume into an improvised pot for making a character. It helps enhance and create something.

How did you learn how to do your make-up for your transformation into character? I didn’t formally learn, I taught myself as I went along, and I’ve done everything from greasepaint, to watercolours, to more traditional make up. With me, it’s very much trial and error. And sometimes, you have to run with the error, because that is going to be the look for the night. If it goes well, brilliant, if it goes badly, that also has to become brilliant too. 

Is make up important to your identity, or is there a relationship between make up and your identity? I don’t use make-up outside of doing the performance. So obviously on stage, make up is very important because it helps with the transformation. And so, in that respect, it is integral and vital to whatever character I’m creating onstage. 

What artistic disciplines do you admire? I trained in dance, so I see a lot of dance; and I also trained in theatre, so I go to the theatre a lot too. They’re the two big passions of mine outside of doing cabaret and performance. I like to live experience of entertainment, I prefer that far more than going to the cinema.

What else do you like that is not necessarily art, but artistic? I get a lot of inspiration from rubbish TV and general trashy culture. And I think there’s a lot of unknown artistry in this kind of stuff, or things you could pull from to create shows. I think people and life itself gives you artistic ideas. And if you look around for it, you can see it and create the artistic picture in your head. Something doesn’t have to be given to you in a frame to be art, you can find the artistry in lots of things. You can impose that yourself by how you might look at something or interpret it.

Who’s artistic talent do you admire and why? At the moment, I’m doing a show about Lou Reed, so I’m reading a lot about that period, so I’ve obviously - really getting into him as an artists, as a musician, and as a poet and lyricist. And in turn, I’m also doing some reading around Andy Warhol, so I’m kind of getting a slightly different take on him, by learning about him as a person rather than as this kind of mythical super artist. 

Can you tell us a bit more about your show? My show, ‘Transformer’, is based on Lou Reed’s album Transformer, which was created in 1972 and produced by David Bowie. A lot of the songs are from the late 60s/70s, when Lou Reed was hanging around this restaurant called Max’s Kansas City, so the narrative of the show turns anecdotes that I’ve picked up from research and various books about the characters in the scene at the time, but the show itself is mainly about the music. 

And also can you tell us about your new bar? I’ve just opened a bar called Glory with three friends, Zoe, John and Colin. And it is a pub-cum-cabaret space-cum-disco, and is an evolving project that we’re continuing to work on. We’ve only been open five months but it’s already really popular, which we’re incredibly grateful for. We just want to make the shows and the experience as good as possible, and create a genuine fun, welcoming but also creative and inspiring space for the local queer and otherwise community here in east London.