In Conversation: Mark Anthony

In Conversation: Mark Anthony

Mark Anthony is not your typical drag king. After studying archaeology at a prestigious university, he moved to the bustling and vibrant city of London, where he discovered his immense passion for cabaret through an impromptu open mic night. His upcoming book, Life as a Cabaret, written alongside photographer Veronika Marx’s show-stopping images, displays the reality of cabaret divorced from its mainstream perception. Instead of highly manicured cis women, the stunning 120-page book features cabaret stars of all genders and styles, some with disabilities. However, Anthony is quick to assert that Life as a Cabaret is not merely a check-boxing exercise. Instead, it celebrates the diversity present in cabaret, in all of its gritty, subversive glory, without making it the sole focus.

Life as a Cabaret: A Modern Portrait is available for pre-order and will be released late May 2024.

Life as a Cabaret: A Modern Portrait


How long have you been involved with cabaret and what initially drew you to the art form? 

I started in 2016. So, seven years now, but only full-time professionally for about four years.

I fell into it accidentally. It was never a thing that I planned to do as a career, or at all, but I lucked out. I've always wanted to be a performer growing up, but I didn't have the right outlet. Especially being trans, all the roles that were available to me I didn't feel comfortable in. I thought “Wow, this is obviously not for me,” when it came to the female roles, so I just didn't bother with them much. Then, when I was at university, someone I knew showed me a video of a drag king on YouTube and was like, “I just feel like you might enjoy this.” So I watched drag race. I knew about drag but never thought that it was a thing for me. But then I saw the drag king and something clicked.

When I moved to London, I started going to shows to be a part of the queer community and meet other people. On a whim, I signed up for an open mic and tried it and loved it. It just happened to be that someone was watching my open mic that ran a drag king show, and they wanted me to do that show. They mentored me and it all just went from there.

The book is very inclusive — we see stars who are disabled, stars who are trans, who are cis, who are black….why is this so important to the culture of cabaret?

For me, the book is not a check-boxing exercise. It’s the reality of my experience working in cabaret. These are all the people that I work with on a regular basis. It baffles me that whenever cabaret is given a mainstream platform, you don't see any of these people. The mainstream portrayals of cabaret to me are just completely inaccurate. They're a sanitized, scrubbed clean version of what seems palatable to most people.

I hate the word diversity in some senses because it makes it sound like you're manufacturing something that isn't real. Cabaret is a place where all these people end up. Everyone I know that works in cabaret either went to theater school, and then found that there were no roles for them because people didn't want to cast people like them, or they're trained dancers, but again, didn't have the right body type to work commercially. They couldn’t find any other outlet that would allow them to perform or give them the validation that they needed by saying, “There is a space for you on stage”. These are people whose creativity would be limited by working in any other way.

 Tell me a little bit about what you mean by the mainstream sanitized version of cabaret. What is that to you?

Have you ever seen the movie burlesque? For starters, it’s not burlesque at all, it’s just sexy women dancing amazingly well. With drag race, even though it does give a platform to mostly cis gay men, it’s still a very particular box of the art form which is expensive, highly polished, and featuring tall slim bodies, because that tends to be what you see. If you see a cabaret artist on television, it tends to be a drag queen, and it tends to be a particular type of drag queen. 

If you see a cabaret in the West End…it’s funny to me that they're 100 meters down the road from the real thing. But the real thing doesn't get that large-sized stage. There are plenty of people down the road in the basement who are equally talented, but never get that opportunity. 

Do you see the type of inclusivity of your experience of cabaret mirrored in the culture of queerness as a whole?

The queer community still has massive growing to do. In some ways, it’s increasing divides between trans people and gay people. There's definitely racism, body shaming, and a lot of the venues that I work in are not accessible at all. And if they are, the stages are not, and that sends the message straightaway that there’s definitely a long way to go.

I think that the queer community is like a microcosm of the rest of society. It’s not immune from the same issues. It's maybe more prone to think about those issues and do things about it, because if you're already a marginalized person you're able to empathize with someone else who's marginalized.

How does identifying as trans and non-binary affect how you approach cabaret?

It's a blessing and a curse. There's the danger of making your identity your brand.

I’m sometimes on stage as the only trans person in the lineup, or maybe as the first trans man that audience has ever seen, and then I'm taking my clothes off. It’s a powerful thing for me to be able to do that and not be questioned. Like, of course, this person belongs on stage and you should be looking at them. It’s not a shameful, hidden thing.

But on the other hand, I have felt that in the past I’ve fallen into the trope of being the inspirational character, and then you're not a real person. People expect you to be covered in the trans flag at all times, and always have something to say and be a campaigner and activist. That's a lot of pressure to put on yourself. In the later stages of my career I’m going more towards, What do I actually want to perform? What do I like that doesn't have to be about being trans? It’s enough to be trans and be on stage, and that is a statement in and of itself. I don’t have to milk the trauma.

Tell me a bit about your selection process. How did you go about getting to know the performers, and choosing them for the book?

We put a call out on our social medias, just an open call. We didn’t want it to be… “Oh, that's the best friend of the person that made the book.” A lot of times you see lists like, 10 drag queens to watch out for, and it’s just people that the writer knows. It’s not necessarily a realistic portrayal of the community. 

The other thing we didn't want to do was rank people. We just wanted a cross section of everything. Some people have been doing it for years, and some people have been doing it for less time. Some are touring internationally full-time, and others do it four times a year when they can. For everyone that applied, we made sure that they were working cabaret performers that had an interesting aesthetic from Veronika’s perspective. There weren't too many aesthetics that were the same to show as broad of a range as possible. We also kept the diversity idea in mind. Once we got the applications in, we looked at where we were lacking and then reached out to people in our networks. We wanted to make sure that the overall book had the right mix of people.

What advice do you have for other queer folk who are interested in cabaret, especially those who might not have come out or fully embraced their identity yet?

Cabaret was the single biggest vehicle for me figuring out my identity. I would say just go and watch shows without any expectations. Watch a wide range of shows. If you go to a drag show you're not necessarily going to see someone that looks like you or that represents you. But if you find the kind of venue that caters to people like you, then what you see on stage tends to be more reflective of you.

There’s something about watching someone on stage being completely liberated and taking things to such an extreme that something that might seem extreme for you, like putting on a binder or going into the men's clothing section of the shop, suddenly doesn't seem quite as extreme or terrifying anymore. If that person can do that, then you can deal with this shit. Seeing the narrative and the story played out in front of you sometimes helps things click in your own brain.

Queerness can be very lonely experience, especially if you grew up somewhere where you didn't have other people like you to talk to about it. Cabaret is just one place where it doesn't have to be internal. You can watch someone else's journey and just let it wash over you.

Mark Anthony

Learn more about Mark Anthony.