Blackpool is the Las Vegas of the north, but back then we weren't sure it would last a season

A painting of drag act DJ Zoe
-Credit: (Image: HIVEArts Gallery)

As Blackpool filled with the colours of the rainbow this weekend, the community came together in celebration.

With parades on streets and vibrant, dazzling costumes everywhere, yesterday (June 8) the seaside resort was all about celebrating individuality. It's something Blackpool prides itself on.

It's also something the town is keen to make official. Dickson Road, Lord Street and Queen Street have been earmarked as an LGBTQ+ quarter. Future plans could see street art, sets for fun picture opportunities, planters, street furniture and visual representations that define the area.

But these aren't new ideas in Blackpool. A walk down Dickson Road will take you past establishments proudly flying multicoloured LGBTQ+ flags in their windows. It's a sign they're a safe space many of them have been for decades.

For years, to many the seaside town has been somewhere you can truly be yourself.

It has been helping its residents for generations, including some of the town's most prominent drag queens and performers. Some of the top brass in the game, including Betty Legs Diamond, CeCe D'Vyne and DJ Zoe have all seen Blackpool as a place of solace and the epitome of entertainment culture.


Along with the council's 'Be Who You Want To Be' campaign, HIVEArts Gallery, in collaboration with Funny Girls Blackpool have now established a brand new exhibition celebrating the Art of Drag and its history in Blackpool. The brainchild of local photographer Dawn Manders and gallery curator Kate Yates, the exhibit showcases sculptures, photography, fashion and high culture of the resort's entertainment industry.

Celebrating the opening of the exhibition and the almost 30-year anniversary of drag show Funny Girls, some of the performers spoke to LancsLive about their thoughts on the drag scene in Blackpool and their experiences in the industry.

Basil Newby started the now hugely-popular Blackpool show in 1994. In its infancy, it was a million miles from the success of today.

DJ Zoe has been part of the show since it first opened. Back then, she says, they had no idea if anyone would even attend the first show.

"I thought it was going to last a season," Zoe told LancsLive. "A season in Blackpool lasted from May to November, the illuminations in November when they first switch off, that was the end of the season.

"All the hoteliers would go on holiday and the whole town would just go dead. All the shows would finish, the pier shows and theatre shows. We opened in July in 1994 and I had already been doing drag for 10 years at that point, up and down the country.

"I was just getting a bit like I needed to find something else and then Basil who I worked for in the past as a barman, he knew I did drag and DJ'd and he told me about this venue he was opening. He asked if I fancied being a DJ."

Wanting to return home, Zoe took the job opportunity. But didn't expect it to last longer than six months.

Basil Newby (right) started Funny Girls in 1994
Zoe is the longest serving cast member at Funny Girls

Growing up in Blackpool, she remembers seeing drag acts at around the age of 13 and being "mesmerised" with them. She didn't think of becoming one herself until later in life. She recalls being empowered by the love and support of her family who have been accepting since the start, including when she came out.

"I always said, as long as my mum knew I didn't care about anybody else accepting me or not," Zoe said. "I told her and she said, I've known for ages - that's mums isn't it?

"I said, why didn't you tell me? She said 'Well I was waiting for you to tell me'. I think she knew before I did. I've been very lucky family wise, all of my family have been fine. Even when I started doing drag they were like, yeah that's you."

Later on in life, when Zoe made took the plunge into the drag world, her mum replied: "as long as you're happy".

At Funny Girls, CeCe D'Vyne has filled the stilettos of Betty Legs Diamond as the show's leading lady. In the role for around a year and a half, she hopes to stick around for many years to come.

She told LancsLive the town has played a massive role in her own life: "Blackpool's huge for the LGBTQIA+ scene. I first came to Blackpool 13 years ago and I came for college and I just remember thinking, this is amazing!

CeCe in yellow, with some of Blackpool's drag performers
Basil Newby (right) started Funny Girls in 1994 -Credit:HIVEArts Gallery

"I lived in Preston and we had one gay bar, that was it. It was like down this little back street, just there and there was no other sort of gay scene or anywhere where other gays could come.

"Or anyone from the LGBTQIA+ community, for them to congregate and meet each other. I came to Blackpool and saw all these different bars, drag bars, gay bars and lesbian bars.

"It was amazing and having people that are trans and being so open, saying 'I'm trans and isn't this amazing!'. It was outstanding really."

CeCe attended Phil Winston's Theatre College in Blackpool, but says she "fell into" drag performing.

"I was a male dancer and I got a phone call one night saying one of the cast of a separate show had fallen ill, it wasn't Funny Girls but it was at Funny Girls. They asked would I be able to fill it. I said I hadn't done it before, but I'll give it a go. That particular show then said, can you come back and do it every week?"

In a full circle moment, CeCe then got the phone call 18 months ago to see if she'd become the lead of Funny Girls, an institution of Blackpool.

"I'm a performer and I went to a theatre college called Phil Winston's," CeCe explained. "I went off around the world on cruise ships, performing, singing and dancing.

"Then I was working in Blackpool at a different venue as the creative, I was the host and the compere and doing all the choreography. I got a phone call from Basil that Betty was unfortunately going to be stepping down from her role and would I like to join the team?

"My answer was, when do I start? Of course, it's a legendary place but my first thought was, God I'm going to have to diet for a while."

CeCe says it wasn't the world of the unknown, as she had performed at Funny Girls before, but the lead is a "huge accolade". Talking about the importance of events such as the History of Drag, CeCe said: "In this town, there's a lot of entertainment.

"Going from things as small as cabaret in the B&Bs and hotels, to going to other venues that are around the town such as the Viva Club Blackpool, the Winter Gardens, The Grand, Funny Girls. There's so many different venues providing so many different outlets of entertainment.

"It's like the Las Vegas of the North!"

Ava, along with her sister, sister-in-law and girlfriend have formed a DJ, dance and drag collective, Her House. Most of the group originate from Blackpool

"We host and put on events, but we also get booked for events and do things like Pride," Ava told LancsLive. "We also do daytime gigs, nighttime gigs, some shows and we're in the works of putting a show together so we've got a quite lot going on really."

Her avenue into the performance space in the town originated by working behind the bar at Funny Girls three years ago. Then very quickly, Ava moved on to the stage at the show, before being booked for her own gigs as part of Her House.

As a female Drag Queen, Ava says these performers are "more up and coming". She says drag is not just self-expression, but nowadays it's seen as an art form, involving clothes, make-up and onstage antics.

Talking about why Blackpool is so important for the drag and LGBTQIA+ scene, Ava said: "I think because there's such a rich history in the queer scene and it's always been a place for people to be comfortable with who they are.

"I think it's quite important to keep the queer culture up-to-date, so that everyone has a place to feel comfortable here. I think it went through a phase where it was actually dying out, but there's such a rich history and culture it's quite important to keep it up-to-date and fresh so that the younger generation have a place really."