Ray Millington's drag queen alter ego Bobby Mandrell still going strong after 40 years (video)
He’s spent about £200,000 on his alter ego Bobby Mandrell during his 40-year career. Katy Forrester steps into Ray Millington’s world of drag
BY DAY he's a quiet man who wears track-suit bottoms – but by night he takes to the stage in sequined gowns and glorious wigs.
Ray Millington was paid just £3 for his first gig as drag queen Bobby Mandrell at the Vauxhall Tavern in Hessle Road, west Hull.
Since then he has travelled the world, toured with Chubby Brown and inspired people to be open about their sexuality.
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Back in the early 1970s, a man dressed in women's clothing was a rare sight and often only seen on TV or in theatre.
But when Ray put on a dress at a friend's party and pranced around the living room, his audience was in hysterics.
It's where his addiction to dressing up first began, and it was not long before he was asked to step into the spotlight.
"I was married at 17 and came out as gay two years later. It was a difficult time but I wanted to perform," he said.
"The guy who was going to do a drag show at the Vauxhall was sick and someone told the landlady I'd done it before.
"She said she was desperate, so I went home, raided my mother's wardrobe, and went on stage, that's how it all started."
Ray's shows include a number of comedy sketches, and he pays homage to the likes of Tina Turner, Lady Gaga and Dame Shirley Bassey.
He most enjoys paying tribute to the goddess of pop, Cher.
"She was never as fat as me, but I get away with it," he laughed.
"I have spent about £200,000 on costumes over the past 40 years, but some of them are a size six, I definitely couldn't squeeze into them now.
"I have lost half a stone recently, which I'm very pleased about and I still buy for Bobby when I'm out.
"I'm like a magpie, I see something twinkly in a window and I have to have it – shoes, jewellery and accessories, everything."
The Mail was taken into Ray's walk-in-wardrobe for a rummage through all of Bobby's hand- stitched outfits, wigs, glass-soled boots and stiletto heels.
He has collected more than 480 dresses, which were made especially for his drag acts, along with 400 pairs of shoes, 250 wigs and boxes crammed full of handbags and costume jewellery.
"I've done thousands of shows and Bobby was inspired by my grandmother Mabel. She was a fantastic woman and so funny," Ray said.
"I've had sketches written for me but also take note of everything around me, on trains and buses, I love people watching.
"The name Bobby Mandrell came from Bob Monkhouse and singer Barbara Mandrell, I thought it might work but others laughed and said it sounded like a cheap country and western singer.
"My family were always very accepting of me in drag, including my mother Winnie.
"Although my father George was amused when I first started doing it, when I turned professional it took him a while to truly accept what I was doing."
Ray served in the Merchant Navy for 27 years as a captain's steward and used to entertain on the ships.
He once welcomed back friends from the Falklands by standing, arms stretched, wearing a Union Jack frock on an airport runway.
"I opened up for Cilla Black, worked with comedian Jimmy Cricket and toured with Chubby Brown," he said, triumphantly.
"At one gig with Chubby, I was being heckled by a table of young lads in their early 20s, and one was starting to get the better of me.
"When I came off stage, Chubby asked if I'd been given a hard time and I pointed out who it was. He went on and ripped him to shreds and the lad actually came into my dressing room afterwards to apologise."
From then on, Ray vowed to never let anyone bring him down, but in the early days it was not easy being a drag queen in Hull and he was subject to a lot of abuse.
"I've been beaten up and had my nose broken and once I had hot curry thrown all over me when I was coming home from a family party," he said.
"A lot of people have said if it wasn't for me the gay scene wouldn't be what it is in Hull, which is very humbling.
"Back in the 1970s it was all cloak and dagger and gay people only went out after dark."
Ray has been through the mill, he went bankrupt after taking over St George's Pub in Hull, and was cheated on by his former lover.
The father-of-two also lost his son Carl to cancer six years ago and had a cancerous mole removed of his own, after a number of scares.
He said: "I have been through hell but Bobby has been good to me over the years and I've earned a good living.
"After 40 years in the business, I am most proud of the money I've raised for good causes.
"I've raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for hospitals and charities at events. It's something I rarely talk about, because I don't like to blow my own trumpet, but it has been very rewarding."
Despite Ray's struggles, he's had a blast on stage in Hull and at gigs in Germany, Holland and Tenerife, to name a few.
"Dressing rooms can also be a challenge, I once had to get changed in a potting shed next to a man potting plants, it wasn't the best."
Ray said he started keeping his makeup in a toolbox, and now all of the drag queens are doing it.
"Normally it takes a full half an hour to get made up and I love the glamour," he said.
"I'm 60 this year and may not be able to commit to pantomime work or gigs abroad, but I still perform every month at the Vauxhall Tavern," he said.
"There's life left in the old girl and I still have the most fabulous legs."
See Ray Millington as Bobby Mandrell at the Vauxhall Tavern in Hessle Road on Saturday, February 23, from 9pm.