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Davina Devine: ‘I pick stuff that feels good to me. It’s not just about picking up a cheque’

The drag queen hosts a weekly club night in Dublin and appears often on TV and radio, but we still know little about Davina 20 years into her career

In the hubbub of laughter at a house party in Dublin, the unmissable drag queen Davina Devine seems almost lustrous. A bright blonde wig descends in long wavy locks, framing a face bronze with tan. At one point in the evening, another guest smugly holds up their phone displaying a photograph of a svelte man in his 30s. “Is this you?” they ask.

In recalling the encounter, Davina – who opts never to be seen out of drag in social media posts or photo shoots – beams a grin. “Someone was thinking they were being a sleuth,” she says, with a laugh. It’s an interesting paradox; we still know little about her 20 years into her career.

That is surprising because Davina tends to pop up quite a bit. Of course, there are those who know her as the glamorously absurd host of a weekly club night at queer venue The George. The show, titled Thirsty Thursday, preaches indulgence in a grimly corporate world (the running gag is that tomorrow is Sick Day Friday) and it features lip syncs from a light-footed cast. In between performances that plumb the pop music connections between the 90s and the present, Davina makes quick-fire comments from the mic and invites audience members to compete in amateur gymnastics onstage for free drinks.

There are so many people who know me only as Davina, and I enjoy that mystery

Outside the reaches of Dublin’s drag scene, she appears time and again on television and radio chatshows, usually promoting upcoming parties. She voiced firm opinions on polite society in Virgin Media’s reality programme Eating with the Enemy and discussed romantic faux pas on the RTÉ Player comedy Love Bites. Most memorable was a promotional photo for the broadcast of Vincent Browne’s current affairs programme from The George during the marriage equality referendum. Davina is dramatically windswept, towering elegantly over the grey-haired journalist. (Browne was so fond of the broadcast, he had Davina make an appearance on the final episode, where she read out viewers’ tweets).


Exposure is not always a good thing. “Drag is so saturated in the mainstream,” she says, referring to how drag’s position in culture changed in the 2010s, having been brought from the subterrain of cabaret to the reality television mainstream of RuPaul’s Drag Race. That led to a wave of drag artists who are not only seen onstage but on social media as influencers and make-up tutors. While they allow viewers to witness the minute details of their transformations, Davina held on to the old-school idea of sustaining the illusion and keeping the manipulations hidden backstage. “There are so many people who know me only as Davina, and I enjoy that mystery,” she says. For our interview, a request was made not to print her real name.

Intriguingly, that automatically sets a different course from the generation of drag queens who came before her. The delightfully unhinged Shirley Temple Bar (aka Declan Buckley) eventually preferred to un-drag while hosting RTÉ gameshow Telly Bingo. Panti Bliss showed up as Rory O’Neill on an electrifying episode of Brendan O’Connor’s Saturday Night Show that made her a household name. The artfully alternative Veda Beaux Reves occasionally appears as Enda McGrattan in interviews raising awareness about HIV. Perhaps, in an era where social media gushes with people’s personal lives, a private identity could be a canny marketing ploy.

The decision is part of a persona that dates back 20 years. In conversation, Davina is fast-talking and candid, but she admits to being reserved in the beginning: “I was a bit socially awkward and I didn’t have much confidence.” Despite that, she performed a lot as a child, whether singing in choirs, securing a small role in Jim Sheridan’s film In the Name of the Father, or as a dancer in Michael Jackson’s world tour promoting his album Dangerous. By 2002, she had become an immediate fan of The George’s drag shows and accepted an invitation to join the performer Miss Misdemeanour at an event in Ballina hosted by LGBTQ+ advocacy group OutWest.

For the baptismal lip sync she chose a cover of the post-disco standard It’s Raining Men by a favourite artist, Geri Halliwell, who had recently shed her Spice Girls image to become a sandy blonde, yogi pop star. “I always loved that big glamour – loads of lippy, big hair, big boobs,” says Davina.

She would seize the connection to similar idols (she had a Pamela Anderson poster hanging in her childhood bedroom) in the mid-00s when, while establishing herself in Dublin’s drag scene, she encountered comparisons with Shirley Temple Bar, who had crafted a storyline as an inner-city teenager pursuing gymnastics as an escape from Dublin’s heroin crisis. Early sightings of Davina similarly describe her as a “schoolgirl”, something she puts down to the fashion of the time: “It was Avril Lavigne. It was rock chicks, and lots of check skirts and faux denim.” Besides, Davina was still in her early 20s and was not much older than a teenager.

As time went by, I realised I am kind of silly and clumsy. I didn’t want to always be this glamorous dancer

To distinguish herself, she leant into those references she loved. “The hair got bigger, the skirts got shorter,” she says about a new appearance that some people have described as “Barbie”. The transformation coincided with a period where she worked for cosmetics company Mac. “That make-up culture came in where tan became prevalent. False eyelashes and bigger hair came in. There was a change in how I looked, but I think it was kind of just growing up”, she says.

Speaking inside The George, in a room decorated with gigantic mirrors and gilded picture frames, it is heartening to hear Davina describe her drag as an ongoing evolution and as something to prevent from becoming stagnant. She agrees that there was a turning point midway through the past decade, when her lip-sync catalogue felt dominated by gladiatorial dance-driven performances, and she began to orientate more syncs around comedy gags. “There’s been a conscious effort to connect more with people. As time went by, I realised I am kind of silly and clumsy. I didn’t want to always be this glamorous dancer,” she says.

A talking point this summer was a lip sync to Miley Cyrus’s mash-up of Wrecking Ball with Sinéad O’Connor’s break-up song, Nothing Compares 2 U. What’s notable is how choke-full it is with comedic flourishes, among them a preposterously large inflatable ball that Davina swings near-dangerously fast above her head before launching it into the crowd to volley back and forth.

“The joke can’t be a throwaway thing, you have to be able to elaborate on it,” she says. Indeed, when the lip sync reaches the widely memorised lyric, “I can eat my dinner in a fancy restaurant”, she reveals another major gag: a McDonald’s bag, from which she throws parcels of chicken nuggets to the audience. I ask if she prefers to pinpoint jokes in her performances rather than transmit the song’s original emotion (her performance of Nothing Compares 2 U does not feel set in the aftermath of a relationship), but she says it is important to have a variety of comedy and sincerity. For instance, she insists a much-beloved dramatic lip sync to Celine Dion’s It’s All Coming Back to Me Now is faithful to that song’s original meaning.

Moving forward, she sees her priorities as different from before. “Ten years ago, I said yes to everything. Now, I pick stuff that feels good to me. It’s not just about picking up a cheque,” she says. She speaks complimentarily of drag queen Victoria Secret, with who she hosts the podcast Petty Little Things. One of their early subjects was a sad dispute that disrupted their friendship for years. “Now that we’re back together, we appreciate each other a lot more. It’s great to have someone who gets it all, who you can offload to,” she says. At the time of writing, they are preparing a Christmas party in a gigantic glass diningroom at the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

Davina is planning another event: a queen’s jubilee celebration for one of her Thirsty Thursday shows to mark her 20-year anniversary. She has secured Melanie C as a special guest, who is part of the same family of music artists that inspired Davina in the beginning. “It makes so much sense because she fits into my story,” she says.

That is the tale of a cool professional, whose drag puts all eyes in the room on her, but who does not allow them to see any more than she wants to show.

Davina & Victoria’s Christmas Cracker is at Royal Hospital Kilmainham on December 3rd. Davina’s China Jubilee is at The George on December 8th;

Chris McCormack

Chris McCormack is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in culture