Last year I was invited to attend a charity event for the Martin Fisher Foundation called Extravaganza 2 – Glamourpuss, and you can read my review of this Brighton bonanza here. Then last week I had the pleasure of interviewing the witty and fabulous Sister Brandy Bex during my visit to Brighton, the poet, drag artist, and real-life nurse who organised the event to raise money for the Foundation.
Tell me about how you got into drag.
I had a breakdown in 2016. I got diagnosed with depression. I turned 40 and it didn’t suit me. I would walk down the street and just sob for no reason. It was awful. I ended up seeing a psychotherapist, who used to teach creative writing, and she got me to start expressing myself creatively.
Have you heard of a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron? It’s about encouraging you to find your inner child and rediscover your creative self, that kind of thing. This started me off down a path, and I began writing poetry. Soon after I started performing my spoken word publicly.
Even though I had this terrible fear of public speaking, I knew it would help me get over that. I did the poetry scene in Brighton and then decided to take a standup comedy course. During the course I thought, “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to develop my own comedic character”.
I’d always quite fancied drag, but when you think about drag queens, especially on the Brighton circuit – they all sing. I didn’t think I would fit in as I can’t sing at all. I’d make your ears bleed.
I knew I could do a comedy character, and make her a nurse and talk about my experiences of nursing in Brighton. This meant I could take the piss out of nursing culture, the NHS, and everything that’s wrong with it. Lots of material to draw on. I knew I could be a bit cheeky and Northern, and she works.
Drag comes with other benefits too, because it’s basically armour. If I mess up on stage, it’s Brandy not Aiden, you know what I mean? It’s a shield. I can hide behind her. So I went to The Brighton Birdcage and I bought myself a pair of heels. This was in 2019 and I haven’t looked back! My first gig was online for charity during the first Covid lockdown in 2020.
How did you feel making that change from male nurse to femme nurse?
I did well with the online gig, and it was fine because it was pre-recorded. The first time I ever stepped foot outside the house in drag wasn’t in the nurse’s outfit. I didn’t perform, I just turned up in drag and it was hardly polished. It was for an anti-valentine cabaret in February 2020 and my first time in drag out in public. Leaving the house in a dress felt so weird. My husband was so sweet, he carried my heels as I walked down to the venue. He didn’t bat an eyelid.
It was during lockdown when I did started dressing in the female nurse’s uniform. That’s when it started building. It’s more fun because I always thought you can get away with more as a woman, or rather in drag as a man – the cheeky humour.
My act as a nurse taking the piss out of nursing wouldn’t work with me as a man. If I stood there being cheeky about nursing and taking the piss out the NHS, it might just come across a bit bitter and that’s where the drag gives you an edge. Brandy’s lovely, a tart with heart, and she’s full of innuendo. The character of this nurse who’s a Northern woman came to me because I was brought up on Coronation Street, mostly characters like Bet Lynch and Liz McDonald, as well as comedy from Victoria Wood and Julie Walters.
Where are you from in the North?
I was born in St. Helens, spent the first 11 years of my life there. After St. Helens I lived for 11 years in Wigan, and then 11 years in Manchester, so that’s why my accent’s a bit all over the place, it’s just Northwestern. Then I spent a year living in London and now I’m in Brighton.
Do you feel male and female nurses are treated differently?
It depends on where you work. You get a lot more male nurses in A&E and ICU. I mean, you get them everywhere. In my experience, there tends to be more straight male nurses in those environments whereas they’re more often gay in sexual health and HIV clinics. My history has been working in cardiac surgery in London, and then sexual health, and then cardiac surgery again here in Brighton. I’ve also worked for a long time in clinical research.
As a gay man, I think I’ve been treated differently in a good way. I think patients nowadays kind of like it. I haven’t really been discriminated against as a gay male nurse. Occasionally you get people refusing your care because you’re male, but that’s usually an older woman who just doesn’t want a young guy for the more intimate aspects of care. That’s fine, I understand.
It’s the same in sexual health, you’ll get some women who are perfectly happy for you to do an examination and others would prefer a woman. I personally prefer a woman. There’s a subconscious bias which makes you think nursing care from a woman will be less painful than from a man. It’s like how people perceive pain at the dentist, if you have a female dentist or nurse you’ll perceive it to be less painful. People assume women are more caring and more gentle, which isn’t necessarily always true but it makes sense psychologically. I think on the whole it depends who you’re dealing with.
How have your colleagues reacted to your drag persona?
Oh, they loved it! I work within sexual health and HIV, and there’s a particular type of person that works in this aspect of nursing. You’re talking very frankly about sex, sexually transmitted infections, and different practices. You have to be really down to earth and not at all uptight, and not really have any hangups in regards to sex. In Brighton everyone knows a drag queen so they’ve all embraced it. They’ve come and seen my shows. Everyone’s been really supportive.
Has your work as a nurse impacted the work you do as drag queen? Perhaps in terms of who you’re raising money for, and what you’re promoting?
Yes. I used to work with Martin Fisher. Martin came to Brighton in the 90s and he absolutely revolutionised HIV care. It was his vision of how people with HIV should be treated which informed how we care for patients to this day. He was very forward thinking. He was internationally renowned and he set up the research unit I worked at.
He sadly died in 2015, and they set up the Martin Fisher Foundation in his name. I’ve always championed the cause and raised money for the Foundation. In 2020 I did the first Extravaganza event, which raised over £3k for the charity, and then last year organised a second event – Extravaganza 2 – Glamourpuss – to which you were invited to write a review. I also wrote and performed one of my poems about HIV stigma for the Foundation, they had a campaign called ‘Making HIV Stigma History’, so I was involved in that.
More recently, I’ve been getting ready for Extravaganza 3 and my new show ‘A Drop of Brandy’ at the Brighton Fringe, both are to raise money for Nurse Lifeline. It’s a relatively new charity. I think they’ve been going for about two years or so now. They support the mental and emotional wellbeing of nurses and healthcare support workers, including friends and families of nurses. There’s a free helpline. They’re not there to deal with anything too heavy, and would refer you on to another service, but you can phone up and certainly let off steam.
What would your message be to the incumbent Prime Minister next year? Whoever they may be.
I do hope politicians start to take us seriously. It’s so important that they do. I’m so sick of shitty pay rises that aren’t actually pay rises, as in not in line with the increase in the cost to living. They say, oh, well nurses have had a pay rise. We had that three-year pay deal. It’s like, no, we didn’t. It was barely 2% per year. Over the three years it was practically pennies. They dressed it up very cleverly in percentages.
The way they spun it was very underhand. In real terms we suffered a pay decrease. It was hideous, and then they locked us into that. I don’t think the unions support us as much as they should. I was originally with the Royal College of Nursing, and in my first sexual health job I had a friend who got bullied and she said the union was absolutely useless – no help at all.
I was relatively impressed with Pat Cullen. She’s feisty. I thought she’d really fight our corner. They were doing great and then all of a sudden they’re on about accepting this 5% pay deal. I left them and went to Unison. I was with Unison for a while but wasn’t overly impressed with them. I thought they could have fought a bit harder. I think there was a vote a few years ago to do with pay, etcetera, again, and not enough of our members bothered to vote. They couldn’t do anything. It was all just very poorly done. You need to write up your members. You need to get people involved. I left them and decided to go to GMB because they’re meant to be a bit more ballsy, the Pit Bull of unions. If anyone’s gonna fight, it’ll be GMB.
Thankfully I don’t have a family to support. Thankfully, I walk to work, and don’t have to pay for petrol. Every time I go shopping, I’m just like, what? How’s that just gone up 50p? How’s that gone up by a pound? Everything’s rising apart from my wages. Don’t get me started on politicians and their expenses, and they only work half the year!
We’ve not got people going into politics for the good of the people. You’ve got politicians who are basically on the gravy train with huge expenses, working half a year, working a second job, writing columns for newspapers. The amount of corruption needs reigning in, and it’s people like nurses and firefighters who are suffering because of that, and then by extension everyone else who can’t afford private healthcare.
Do you see a political career in the future of Brandy Bex?
Oh God, no! Not a political future in the traditional sense, but it would be nice to get big enough to have an influence or to change opinions in a positive way. I’ve always supported the underdog and I work for charities so it would be nice to have some sort of influence over public opinion but I certainly wouldn’t go into politics.
Fair enough. I’ve got a degree in politics, and I won’t touch political responsibility with a barge pole. You are already doing that, already making a difference. You’re already inspiring people. You are already encouraging that kind of compassion and understanding with what you’re doing.
Hopefully. Thank you. It would just be good to expand on it.
What should people be looking out for with the next show, the Fringe Show? What’s different about this one?
I’ve got two upcoming shows. There’s one called ‘A Drop of Brandy – With Friends’, and that’s on the 18th and the 25th of May at the Caroline of Brunswick pub in Brighton. I’ll be hosting that one, but normally for the Extravaganza events Stella Pint hosts and I just do 10 minute set. This is me learning how to host. It’ll be me and other stand-up and character comedians.
Then Extravaganza 3 at the Ironworks Studios in Brighton, and this event will be another round of burlesque, drag, and comedy as usual. I think I’ve already overbooked it. I end up booking so many performers because I’ve got people who I want to watch! Yes, and then I get so stressed out behind the scenes that I miss the show. Nurse Lifeline are coming to do a raffle. There’s an amazing burlesque star from the London scene coming down. Dolly Trolley’s gonna be there. It’s going to be brilliant. It’s such a good line-up, it’ll just have to overrun. It always does.
What do you have in mind going forward with your poetry?
I always incorporate my poetry into Brandy’s act. My poetry is more funny rhymes anyway, so it works well with the drag. The first one I performed was at Hammer & Tongue, and it was ‘Man Meets Metal’, so it was about a genital piercing. That’s the type of poetry I do. I don’t like the serious stuff. There’s enough poems out there about depression, anxiety, and love. More is coming, but she’ll be doing it, not me.