Val the Brown Queen: 'I was homeless at 15 - now I'm a movie star'

Val the Brown Queen left her family home nearly 15 years ago - she's now appearing in a major film that's unapologetically queer
-Credit: (Image: Instagram/@valthebrownqueen)

As a teenager, Val the Brown Queen always knew she was gay - even if she didn’t necessarily know the words to describe it at the time. When her classmates would use homophobic jokes at her expense, it was something Val said she just went with as it gave her the opportunity to be her authentic self, even if it was only at school.

When Val, now 29, was at home, she’d fall back into a closeted version of herself in order to hide who she was to her family - until one moment, towards the end of high school, saw her entire life spiral out of control and led to her leaving the family home for good.

Val, who uses she/her pronouns, is now one of the most prolific south Asian drag performers in Manchester right now. Originally from Levenshulme, she has performed on the Manchester Pride stage, slayed it in productions at Contact Theatre, and even appeared on BBC Three. And she’s now starring in one of the year’s most anticipated movies, Unicorns.

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“Since leaving home at the age of 15, I’ve had to learn how to live independently,” Val tells the Manchester Evening News. “On the first day of high school, other people in my class called me gay and it’s just something I embraced. It was an opportunity for me to live authentically around my friends and not have to hide.

“When I went home, I closed myself off from all of that. I didn’t even worry that my family was ever going to find out as I was just so used to living in two different worlds that I think I was just prepared for that to happen forever.”

But, whilst in Year 11, a teacher overheard some of the homophobic name-calling directed towards Val and questioned her about it. “He was a south Asian Muslim, like me, and asked me why they were saying all of those things and calling me gay,” Val explained. “I just sort of shrugged it off and said ‘oh, well, it’s because I am gay’. The next day, the teacher had called my mum up, on a Saturday as well, to tell her what had happened."

Val claims it was then where things 'all blew up', and she eventually found herself moving out and living with a former primary school classmate’s family for a short while. She later moved into a homeless shelter at the age of 16 thanks to support from the Albert Kennedy Trust. She said she has had no contact with her family ever since.

Recalling the teacher’s actions, Val, who is trans, explained: “He thought he had a religious duty to tell a fellow Muslim parent what’s going on, but it just goes back to the whole trans guidance debate going on around schools right now about whether teachers should tell parents whether their child is questioning their gender or not.

“That happened to me - I went through it.. My experience shows that it’s not necessarily always the right way to go about things. Sometimes, school might be someone’s only safe space and it’s about letting them explore that safely under a watchful eye as they figure it out themselves.”

Val takes on the role of Zina in the film, seen alongside Jason Patel's Aysha
Val the Brown Queen first got into drag eight years ago

The story of a queer person finding their safe space to be who they are just so happens to be one of the plotlines in Unicorns, the latest film from directors James Krishna Floyd and Sally El Hosaini. It centres on the story of a south Asian drag queen called Aysha, played by Manchester’s own Jason Patel, who comes into contact with a single dad, played by former EastEnders actor Ben Hardy, who never expected to be in the position he finds himself in.

In the film, Val takes on the supporting role of Zina, one of Aysha’s close friends. Zina brings a lot of humour to the film, but also has a protective nature to her that comes out throughout. A fact likely to be unknown to anyone watching the film, Unicorns marks Val’s first ever acting role.

“I’ve got zero acting skills at all - it’s not something I was ever thinking of doing,” Val explains. “One of my close friends, Ali Afzal, was asked to audition for a role in the movie, and I had to put them in drag for it. They were talking to me about the script, and said there was another part that was literally me and said I should really go for it. They encouraged me to go for it.

Unicorns, starring Ben Hardy and Jason Patel, is released in cinemas on July 5
Val takes on the role of Zina in the film, seen alongside Jason Patel's Aysha -Credit:Signature Entertainment

Thankfully, both Ali and Val both got cast in the film, with Ali taking on the role of Karen. “It’s such an honour to be in this film,” Val said. “To have a bit of a serious side to my character was also very much appreciated. I wanted to be able to humanise Zina and show her as multifaceted - it was a real joy to play, and working with Ben was just really good. He’s such a talented actor, he made me a better actor.”

The film, which is being distributed by Signature Entertainment, and has been co-produced by River Road Entertainment, who were behind the likes of Brokeback Mountain and 12 Years A Slave, has garnered positive reviews since premiering at 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It was also first officially announced to Northern audiences during the Queer Asian Takeover at Manchester Pride last year.

The film was given a nationwide cinema release on Friday (July 5), after a series of special Pride month screenings at VUE cinemas last month. “I love the fact that this is going to increase the visibility of south Asian drag,” Val explains. “We have been here for decades, and the film is based on some of the real-life experiences of Asifa Lahore, who was Britain’s first out Muslim drag queen.

“It’s such a beautiful film for the Asian community, it’s so needed. I really do think it’s going to become a cultural staple and will be seen as essential viewing in the same way that East is East and Bend It Like Beckham are.”

For Val, she admits that playing a big role in such a ground-breaking film is a massive turning point for her - and has shown her that the struggles she has had to face in life have been worth it.

“I’ve got my chosen family now, and it’s been so long that I’m no longer affected by what happened when I was a child,” she explains. “It’s no longer a tragic story to me - it just shows how far I’ve come. I’m reaching new heights and new goals that I never even thought would be possible for someone like me

“I want people to look at my story and think that if I’m doing it, they can do it too. There’s no need to put into a box of what a south Asian should be. You can be successful at anything if you reach for the stars.”

Unicorns, starring Ben Hardy and Jason Patel, is released in cinemas on July 5
Unicorns, starring Ben Hardy and Jason Patel, is released in cinemas on July 5 -Credit:Signature Entertainment

Asked if it’s the type of film that would have helped her growing up, Val says she has no doubt in her mind that it would have given her reassurance that she was not alone.

“Seeing something like this which celebrates the queer Asian scene, I would have seen that it exists - there’s a lot of people that still don’t know that this exists,” Val says. “I hope this reaches far and wide and shows that there’s alternatives to having to hide and not being able to live authentically.

“Throughout all of my time as a child, it was just about survival, but now it's not only about me surviving but it’s about being able to thrive. I was here for more than just to survive, I was here to thrive and be part of a story that can hopefully be a real inspiration to those who need it.”

Unicorns is showing at cinemas now. Follow on Instagram for screening information. You can also follow Val on Instagram here.