“I wish I had someone,” Scarlett Harlett light-heartedly tells Sam Bennett on Valentine’s Day, “I don’t even have my animals, they’re all at my mum’s, so I’m completely alone right now – except for talking to you, of course.” A contestant on the third series of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, where she placed in the top five, this year Scarlett Harlett makes her Oxford debut at The Jolly Farmers on Paradise Street. Here, from her home in East London, she talks to Sam about the upcoming gig, as well as bleeding at work, and – of course – the sex lives of Roman emperors.

Two weeks ago, says Scarlett Harlett, she was leaving her East London flat in full drag. “Normally I like to jump right into the cab,” she says, “but the [driver] didn’t show up for a while.” As she stood waiting, a man she didn’t know came out of her block, spotted her “in this big puffy dress and went, ‘Well, Cinderella will go to the ball, won’t she?’ I was embarrassed,” she admits, “I thought, ‘This cab better show up now.’ As soon as it did, I leapt in like you wouldn’t believe.” From her anecdote, I can’t work out if said man was making conversation, threatening her, or chatting her up. “If he was flirting,” she reasons, “he was a bit of alright so I would have gone there.”

Whenever her queer friends visit her hometown, “they’re always like, ‘Oh girl, this is rough.’ But I don’t ever notice it because I grew up here.” Thus, she’s not uneasy about the lads smoking cannabis on the corner or “the ones that look like they’re going to beat you to a pulp – they’re fine.” In younger years though, “I was kind of targeted for being gay. People have thrown stuff at me, chased me down the street – I’ve had all of that.” She struggled as a teenager, trying to hide her queerness and femininity, “but now I want to live my truth no matter what.”

From the start of her Drag Race ride, she was open about her working-class background. “I’m like Marilyn Monroe,” she told us in episode 1, “if she grew up in a council estate.” This embrace of upbringing truly came about when she was cast in Drag Race, for which “you need to brand yourself. I used to sit and think, ‘What would be my USP?’ – to use the right lingo.” Then she looked around and realised: “I live on a council estate, why don’t I just play on that? It was right in front of me.”

She’s also always admired women on TV who spoke like her and her family, a vernacular that “lends itself to the camp and fun”, which – as a drag queen – she naturally magnified. She was aware too that she wouldn’t have much cash to spend on Drag Race. “I almost had to be like, ‘Look, I’m working-class, I haven’t got enough money to be looking gorgeous all the time, sometimes I might go out there wearing a lettuce.’ And it happened,” she says, remembering the bright green garment she donned in episode 6. Lettuce is quite posh, I offer. “Is it?” she asks. “Well, I wouldn’t know, I’ve never eaten it.”

I watched her series again in preparation for our interview, and unsurprisingly found myself rooting for her more than I did first time around. “I’m glad you’ve said that,” she says, “even if it is a lie, because I didn’t root for myself. There are a couple of moments on there that I really enjoy,” she continues, but other parts are very difficult for her to watch. She didn’t hold back on her feelings during her time on the show, I say, which perhaps made her all the more interesting. However, “That’s the thing that makes me cringe.” She can’t watch herself in confrontation with the other competitors, she says, “because I see what’s going through my head, I see I’m so insecure in myself that I’m projecting it onto other people.”

One such exchange took place between her and Ella Vaday. “You’re not a ‘ha-ha, yak-yak’ person,” she tells Vaday. “I don’t even feel that way,” she tells me now, “me saying she’s got no personality – I’ve known Ella for ages, I know she has one, she’s an amazing queen.” Re-watching that segment, I don’t think at any point she explicitly tells Vaday she’s lacking character, she can even be heard to say the opposite, I point out. “Oh God,” she replies, “I don’t even – sorry – I don’t even want to talk about it, it’s embarrassing.”

I move on to the cocktails the queens sip backstage after a challenge – I want to know if they’re nice. But like lettuce, she wouldn’t know, as “I was always drinking water, the only one in the room that was drinking water every time.” I learn she’s an IBS queen who, in hip pads and five pairs of tights, “wanted to avoid getting trapped should I get a stomach ache – I tried to put that as nicely as possible.”

With the cocktails dealt with, I move on again to her impending gig in Oxford, where she’s never performed. She did attend a campus open day at Brookes, but ended up studying in Birmingham. She’ll be hitting the Paradise Stage at The Jolly Farmers, one of the UK’s oldest queer venues, fitting for a self-confessed “history nerd”. We diverge slightly from the show to chat about Roman emperors having gay sex, in a society arguably more liberal in that respect than those of following centuries. “We managed to go backwards,” she suggests, “which I find stupid. We could be living in a society so well developed in terms of how we view gender and sexuality, but just sort of got lost [along] the way.”

With regards the Jolly Farmers show, she doesn’t like to over-plan, preferring “to read the room, the audience, and then play off the back of them and what they want. That’s my vibe – very much within the cabaret zone.” She sings live, is learning new material, and planning fresh costumes, “bored of wearing all the Drag Race outfits”. The tracksuit in which she was evicted from the show, for example, is currently sat bloodied in her bedroom, the result of a recent onstage incident. “I must have hit my hand on something and it sliced my palm open. I didn’t realise because I was performing, came offstage, looked down and there were blood patches all over my tracksuit.” Its rhinestones make it tricky to wash, she says, hence it currently being sat in a corner like something from a crime scene.

Well, every Cinderella needs the odd risky moment.

 Scarlett Harlett is live at The Jolly Farmers, Oxford, 20 March 7:30pm, tickets here…


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