(A version of this piece was published on the Indian news site WSN)
First though, this coming Friday, are the semi-finals of the live part of the Erotic Awards, which are taking place in London’s Shepherds Bush at an event called Great Sexpectations.
“What’s the venue?” I asked Grace yesterday.
“Bush Hall,” she told me.
“That seems appropriate,” I said. “Is there a dress code?”
“Kinky Dickens and Victorian Erotica is the suggested theme, but it’s not compulsory.”
“Kinky dick ins?” I asked.
“Kinky Dickens,” Grace corrected me. “It allows gentlemen to jazz up an outfit with nothing more than a top hat.”
“An Artful Roger?”
“Possibly. The costumes that people are dreaming up sound quite exciting. Ladies are doing corsets and frilly things. The Bush Hall is just such a gorgeous venue. It has Viennese chandeliers, deep red velvet stage. It is a beautiful room, a music hall in its first few years.”
“So,” I asked, “do you see Great Sexpectations as a return to Victorian values?”
“It is celebrating the venue and getting everyone dressed up, but with a modern twist.”
“I don’t think in the Victorian era what we’re doing would have been quite so publicly advertised. Perhaps, on the surface, Great Sexpectations is similar to a lot of other cabaret nights. But one difference is that we have strippers coming who would normally work in a strip bar; usually, in cabaret, it’s more burlesque. We have the burlesque, but we’ve also got the striptease category.”
“It’s a lot of work for you,” I said. “setting up an event like this.”
“Well,” said Grace, “we’ve had lots of support and advice from Tuppy Owens, who organised the event previously and I’m doing it with Lianne Coop, who is a radio producer. We’ve got a complementary set of skills. I’ve worked a lot in theatre and I’ve got a background in erotic photography. She worked at the BBC for a number of years and produced the New Comedy Awards for two years, so she’s got fantastic event production skills.”
“But isn’t this just trying to make nudity and lechery sound posh?” I asked.
“Well,” said Grace, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with admiring people who are comfortable to be on stage with gorgeous bodies and happy to perform in a sexual fashion. I also feel that, in the world of erotica – because it’s been such a taboo area in our culture – there’s a lot of people who do really essential work and who are regularly entertaining hundreds of people every week that don’t get the respect they deserve.”
“So,” I said. “I am Fred Bloggs. Why should I go along to see Great Sexpectations next Friday?”
“It’s going to be a fantastic visual feast for the eyes,” explained Grace. “Lots of amazing performances.”
“So you’re selling it as a Las Vegas cabaret event rather than a sleazy Soho event?” I asked.
“I think it really bridges everything. It’s visually-beautiful, cheeky, saucy but filthy in places. We’re trying to cater for everybody, because this is The Erotic Awards and erotica doesn’t just mean one thing. We’re trying to cater for people who might want something more extreme. We’ve got a woman called MisSa Blue who does fantastic performances with candles.”
“She’s burning the candles at both ends?” I asked.
“All I’d say,” continued Grace is that MisSa Blue is definitely one to catch. And we’ve got some fantastic burlesque, some fantastic drag performances. One of our judges – Rubyyy Jones – has been a massive help to Lianne and me. She is all over the London cabaret scene and is also a drag performer in a troupe called ‘&?!’ (pronounced And What?!). They will be doing a special performance for us. The idea is to make the night as diverse and celebratory as possible.”
“Have you ever had the urge to dabble in burlesque dancing yourself?” I asked Grace.
“We studied Latin at my school,” she replied, “and, when I was 11, I had an amazing Latin teacher. She wrote a school play set in Pompeii. My character’s name was Ava Gropadis – Ava-Gropa-Dis – and I was a prostitute. I had to stand there in a really short skirt and fishnet tights, being a bit tarty.”
“Was your mother proud of you?”
“She came to watch the play with my dad and was pregnant with my younger sister and she thought it was good. It was a good script. The loan shark was called Callus Lenda… and Sicka Fant was some grovelling bloke.
“Later, I was in Bugsy Malone as a flapper and then, when I was 15, I was in the musical Cabaret at school, as one of the slutty dancers. I loved it. It’s not completely out of the realms of possibility that I would stand up on stage and do that one day. It’s just not where my life’s leading.”
“Where is your life leading?”
“Much more into the photography. I do a lot of work with women to help them reclaim their own sexuality.”
“Their self-esteem?” I asked.
“Definitely,” agreed Grace. “There’s such a lot of fear of the male gaze. One of the things that annoys me in discussions of pornography is that some people assume all these women couldn’t possibly have actually chosen that career.”
“So,” I asked, “you don’t see the Erotic Awards as just putting on a show for a bit of fun and entertainment, it’s more an ongoing project?”
“It’s actually turning out to be really exciting,” Grace told me. “Lianne and I have both said it’s got masses of potential. The world has changed in the last 25 years it’s been running and we think we can expand it, raise its profile…”
“Expand it,” I asked, “in what sort of way?”
“Expand it in an awareness way, so people have more knowledge about what’s going on. We chatted to Brooke Magnanti (Belle de Jour) who wrote Secret Diary of a Call Girl about her book The Sex Myth – that’s been nominated. She’s hopefully going to attend the finals at the Night of the Senses in May.”
“And that bigger event will include…”
“The finals of the Erotic Awards… The finalists in the performance categories will perform and then it’s the prize-giving ceremony up until about midnight. And then it’s an after-party with lots of different areas where you can try out lots of different things with an emphasis on it being playful, inclusive, very diverse. You can have a massage, you can get spanked, you can spank somebody, you can get tied up, you can go and do some sock wrestling, you can…”
“Whoa!” I said. “Let’s do a re-cap there… Sock wrestling?”
“You have to take the other person’s socks off,” said Grace matter-of-factly.
“I feel I am an innocent in this world,” I explained. “Is sock wrestling an acknowledged sexual pastime?”
“I think it’s been quite popular on the festival circuit in recent years,” replied Grace.
“And the object is…”
“…to get the other person’s socks off.”
“While retaining your own socks?” I checked.
“Yes,” confirmed Grace.
“And are you wearing anything else while you do this?” I asked.
“That depends on the event you’re at,” explained Grace.
“But at this event you would not be?”
“It’s optional,” said Grace. “There will be a nudist disco at the event which, obviously, speaks for itself.”
“What happens when you get the socks off?” I asked, pursuing my research.
“You’ve won,” said Grace.
“Then what happens?”
“You probably get a prize.”
“A pair of socks?” I asked.
“Could be,” said Grace. “I think someone’s going to be running it as an area.”
“So it’s not just one couple wrestling each other for their socks, it’s an entire sock wrestling area…. Are there any other things happening I would not guess about, having been brought up a Presbyterian?”
“There’s usually a nocturnal area,” explained Grace, “where you can be blindfolded and tickled.”
“Ah” I said.