Tuesday 30 August 2016

Faking It - Part Two

It's taken me a while to come round to writing the second part of this article. You can read the first one (written in March 2015) here. Now that I read that article again, I am amazed to realise how far my journey has come.

Much as I adore Freakonomics Radio, that wasn't where I first heard the idea of Faking It. Instead, it was a British TV show which premiered in the year 2000. The premise was simple: they would take an unlikely ordinary person, have them intensively transformed and coached by a team of experts in a particular field--for a short time--then the contestant (known as the "faker") would have to perform in front of a panel of judges (who know they are looking to spot a fake), to see if they could pass.

Title card for the show
As one example, take the very first episode. Alex Geikie, a gentrified English youth from the Home Counties of England, who liked to ride horses, had to pass as a hard-man bouncer in an East London pub. He was coached by Tony Agastini, a kick-boxing champion. Alex shaved off his hair, gradually ditched his pukkah accent in favour of East-End hardman talk (think Guy Ritchie movies), learned to fight by getting beaten up by Tony's girlfriend (!) in the boxing ring, got fake tattoos, and finally worked as a bouncer for a night, among real, hard-bastard bouncers.
Guardian: At RADA, Alex was coached in talking common: "The word fuck is desperately important to all Londoners. Fuck you, fuck me, fuck off! Lengthen the vowel. Let the breath be the impetus. Farkin' 'ell! Don't smile! Mean it." In grammar: "I was, you was, she was, they was."

After a month's training, Alex was one of several bouncers at the Hippodrome on the night of the England v Germany match and the head of security failed to spot the imposter ("Nah! Honestly?") Tony was much moved. "It's like seeing your kid walk and talk for the first time, innit? Very proud. Very proud. But he should be proud of himself too."
The show drew very positive reviews (such as this one from the Guardian, which is where the quote above comes from, written by Nancy Banks-Smith). Subsequent episodes featured burger flipper Ed Devlin who was trained to be a chef (by Gordon Ramsay, no less); classical cellist Sian Evans who was trained to be a nightclub DJ; and cleaner Sharon Pallister who was trained to become Scarlet Fever, a burlesque performer, by Immodesty Blaize with input from Dita von Teese. You can see this last one starting here on YouTube.

Not yet faking it: Spence Bowdler
I've already mentioned on this blog how I believe that there is something liberating about stepping outside your normal life, and being someone else for a while, and how I wonder if some actors and other performers enjoy this aspect of their work. It's this, I think, which the show attempts to recreate.

The show has several brilliant features. First the "fakers" are deliberately selected to be hopelessly inappropriate for their adopted roles. Almost all are quiet, soft-spoken, lacking in self-confidence, set in their ways. They all have a metaphorical mountain to climb to pull off their new roles. Second, the mentors, often in initial despair or exasperation, become fond, and eventually proud of the fakers. Third, the fakers almost always manage it: to pass unnoticed by judges and onlookers. Finally, it's clear that the experience of the training--and the faking--opens up new and undiscovered vistas for most of them; they discover qualities in themselves that they never knew they possessed. In short, it is visibly life-changing, and often this is very emotional for them. It all makes for extremely compelling television.

The producers made at least one follow-up episode, where they revisited the fakers a couple of years later. Almost without exception, they had reacted positively to the experience. I notice, for example, that the Scarlet Fever episode was uploaded by Scarlet Fever herself on her own YouTube channel.

Drag: Dave Lynn
And that brings me on to Spence Bowdler. If you live in the UK, this episode (in fact, the whole series) is available to watch, free, on the Channel 4 website. If you live outside the UK, you may as well forget it: I've been trying for days. There are only a few episodes of Faking It available on YouTube, and this is not one of them. However, the Guardian reviews are very helpful and give a real flavour of the episodes.

Bowdler, a 30-yr old ex naval officer, and self-confessed macho man, was to fake it as a drag queen. His mentor for the show was veteran British drag queen Dave Lynn. This episode was one of the most popular episodes of Faking It ever produced. The normal hour-long episode was stretched out to 76 minutes, because there was so much good material to include.
Guardian: There's an ancient affinity between drag queens and sailors - where you find one, you will usually find the other at no great distance.
Lynn and Bowdler strike up an unlikely friendship, helped perhaps by Lynn's straightforward, matter-of-fact approach to a man shaving his legs, wearing stilettos and false eyelashes, tucking ("you sort of shove them back in their sockets"), and all the other activities required to become a drag queen.

We follow Bowdler through a series of increasingly uncomfortable experiences. The most powerful is when Lynn shows him a rack of frocks to try on, and it dawns on Bowdler that he is going to be expected to wear a dress for the first time ever in his life. He has a visible meltdown, retreats from the camera, and won't come back into the room. The producers may have thought that was the end of their show.

Getting the lippy on: Spence
But come back he does, and carries on. Later, he struts his stuff on the stage, in full drag, under the drag queen name Britney Ferry. And the judges don't spot him as the fake. At the end of the show, Bowdler muses about his initial prejudices; how he felt he had overcome them, and how shallow and misplaced he now felt they were. It's a powerful moment.
Guardian: But what made Faking It so gratifying were the clear, measurable results of the experience for both student and mentor. Spence was euphoric in his realisation that life is a great big fruit salad, and that "prejudice is just balls" (and therefore best tucked out of sight). Dave Lynn, the hardened old pro, softened up and admitted that he'd learned even more about his place in the world. The two bosom buddies closed with a duet of Stand By Your Man; seldom have the words "sometimes it's hard to be a woman" rung so true.
The episode resulted in Dave Lynn getting a considerable boost in popularity, and he made several subsequent appearances on TV. There is a great interview with him here. And the Guardian review of this episode, written by Rupert Smith, is here.

So what relevance does this show have for me? I don't especially have any affinity for drag as an art form. I've never been to a drag show. I think drag is a form of performance art, whereas Vivienne feels very much part of my identity; an inextricable part of me, not some persona that I adopt when I get dressed.

I suppose the first part of it is that I am envious. Bowdler gets four weeks of intensive tuition in performing as a woman: make-up, clothes, hair, shoes, gait, the works. Perhaps four weeks would be too much, but I certainly feel I could use a few tips from the experts about how to improve my overall look as a woman. (Clue: I'm trying not to look like Bowdler in the picture!)

Second, there is permission. All of the fakers in the show get encouragement, verging on a requirement, to step outside their ordinary world and embrace something entirely new: a new way of doing just about everything. Some of the rest of us (i.e. me) hesitate at every tiny step outside the comfortable boundaries of what others expect of us. The fakers blasted those boundaries wide open, and did it with the support of those around them. And for each of them, that must have been a very powerful and long-lasting experience. Faced with the end of my marriage, I am contemplating what the new me will be like. Some of those boundaries will need to be redrawn: but which? And I will need to make my own permission to make it happen.

Finally, though, the people in the show are faking it. After the credits roll, they can, if they choose, return to their previous lives and pick up where they left off, as if nothing had happened. This is not true of me: Vivienne remains an awkward, uncomfortable part of my life, and my future life will need to include her, one way or the other. The faking it, for me, was pretending Vivienne didn't exist.


  1. well said Vivienne...little steps and at your own pace.

    1. Thanks Joanna. A lot of little steps add up to quite a big journey!

    2. I agree with Joanna..Great piece of advice ;)

  2. Yes, Vivienne, you're real, valued, and undeniable. No point in pretending Vivienne doesn't exist, she's always been and will always be part of you. And that's a good thing. Without her you wouldn't be the lovely person that you are.

    1. Thanks Emma. It is taking me a while, but I am realising that gradually!

  3. Vivienne, I am very sad to hear that your marriage is coming to an end?! I have not read all of your posts, perhaps I missed a post where you talked about that?

    Was it because of crossdressing?

    1. Yes it totally was Thorin. You didn't miss a post. I have one written all ready to upload, but I am choosing my moment!

    2. I'm really sorry to hear about the end of your marriage, Vivienne. I do very much enjoy your thoughtful and intelligent blog and always look forward to reading your posts. Good luck for the future - you seem very positive, which is wonderful.

  4. I can only hope there is great wisdom and generosity on both sides in this difficult situation. I hope for the best for each of you.

  5. Vivienne this is Spencer from Faking It - would be great to chat please- read you blogs. Would be good if you can help me try to be me as well?

    1. Er, no it isn't. That's because his name is Spence, not Spencer.

    2. Spence is short for Spencer. Not sure how we can discuss off this forum? It’s ironic that your post about you wanting to be who you want to be, is affecting who I want to be so many years after the programme. Would appreciate a discussion of this forum. Spence

    3. Hi Spencer. I'm still a bit dubious, but if you really want to send me email, my email address is on my About Me page.

  6. Vivienne, Spence is short for Spencer, I can assure you it’s me. Please, would be good if we could discuss how your blog (particularly the pictures), from all those years ago is affecting me and my young family. Not sure how we discuss without revealing contact details here but I’d really appreciate it. The irony is that by you trying to be yourself back then and having these images still available online, I’m not able to be who I want to be over 20 years later - hope that makes sense?