Sophie Ellis-Bextor speaks to PinkNews about her stint as a guest judge on Drag Race UK, why she’s grateful that drag has gone mainstream, and her Christmas collaboration with Save The Children.
It’s early November, and despite growing pressure from TV adverts and shop windows, many of us are still refusing to admit that Christmas is just around the corner. Not Sophie Ellis-Bextor, though: the British dance-pop chart-topper, author and podcast host has had Christmas on the brain since August.
“I’m already fully immersed in Christmas in my head,” she tells PinkNews. For starters, the singer and pandemic hero has been planning her Christmas Kitchen Disco Tour, which she’s taking on the road from 23 November until mid-December.
Sophie promises that the show will be “all the best aspects of a Christmas party,” – think trees, festive hats, “antlers on a horse” and, of course, an unhealthy dose of Christmas tunes.
“I have remembered to put some of my songs in there as well,” she laughs.
Secondly, over the summer, she began working with clothing brand Chinti & Parker to create a Christmas jumper, inspired by her famous “Family” tattoo, for Save The Children’s Christmas Jumper Day on 7 December.
When we speak, she’s calling from a Save The Children centre in London, where she’s spent the day taking part in parenting support groups, one for dads, and one for children with special educational needs.
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Sophie has five children of her own, all boys, with her husband, The Feeling bass player Richard Jones. “I can speak from first-hand experience on the importance of community when you’re a new parent. I think you can feel quite isolated,” she admits.
“It’s so important, in all aspects of your life, if you’ve got a community of people keeping an eye on one another. It’s a powerful thing.”
The star became one of the organisation’s ambassadors in 2018. She’s also a supporter of premature birth research charity Borne, following the premature births of two of her sons, an ambassador for Ovarian Cancer Action, and works with children’s charity Lumos and HIV charity mothers2mothers.
She’s vocal about social issues too, having thrown her support behind the LGBTQ+ community, particularly the trans community, when it was needed most.
So, why does she feel it’s vital to use her platform to support the causes she cares for?
“I suppose the question would probably be more why not? I don’t know another way to be with stuff. It’s a very natural thing to do,” she says.
Through her celebrity status, she’s been able to meet people from all walks of life, going through all sorts of hardships – from queer people marching at Pride events, to children orphaned in Ukraine.
“Even things like doing my podcast [Spinning Plates] means I can sit at the table with people and have conversations about other life experiences.
“That’s kind of the experience of being human. We’re all sharing the planet at the same time. It feels good to empathise with people.”
Sophie has spoken a lot about the love she’s received from LGBTQ+ fans in return for being an enduring, supportive presence, but watching the crowd at her set at queer music festival Mighty Hoopla earlier this year was overwhelming.
Standing on stage, dressed in a silver, iridescent mini-dress, and orange, fringe shoulder piece, she remembers getting “a bit weepy” looking out at the crowd.
“Particularly with the LGBTQ+ crowd, it’s funny, it’s always been such a significant part of what I do, and I don’t think I would be the kind of artist I am without that relationship,” she admits.
Now in her forties, she’s used to seeing younger queer people in the audience. “I feel this real affection and – I hope nobody minds me saying it – but quite a maternal feeling. It’s really special to me.”
There’s a particularly warm place in her heart for drag performers. Last month, she was a guest judge on Drag Race UK season five, and dedicated one episode of her BBC Sounds radio show, Kitchen Disco, solely to playing songs used as Drag Race UK lip-syncs.
When the British version of the show was confirmed in 2018, Sophie was straight on the phone, asking to be a guest judge. “A lot of my music is influenced [by] the same culture that bore drag queens. There’s a lot of crossover. A lot of it really resonates,” she explains.
In fact, it was one very famous, much-memed drag queen in particular who “changed” how she performs on stage.
“Alyssa Edwards was doing some gigs with me in Australia, seven or eight years ago,” she says.
“The absolute commitment and conviction of performance that drag queens can have when they enter the stage is phenomenal, and I was watching Alyssa. Right down to the fingertips, every part of them was completely committed to performing the song.”
Alyssa, Sophie says, taught her how to put on a “tough armour” while on stage.
“The bit about Drag Race that has always been really affecting is the stories behind it and the vulnerability.” That’s probably why, she believes, the show has found as much an audience with teenage girls as it has with queer adults.
Overall, drag has brought joy to Sophie and her family’s lives: she watched the Drag Race UK episode she guest judged on with two of her sons, aged seven and four.
“It’s just flipping fantastic that drag is so part of the mainstream now. We take it for granted a little bit, but what RuPaul has done with that show is incredible.”
Even down to her costumes, from the glittering green eyeshadow in her “Murder on the Dancefloor” video, to her gorgeous Mighty Hoopla get up, drag has been “massively” influential. She’s not always wearing a Christmas jumper.
“Much to my sons’ horror, I’ve got more and more confident the older I’ve got,” she laughs.
Christmas in the Ellis-Bextor household is always a busy time. It’s her, Richard, the children, her mother, brother, sister and Richard’s family, plus neighbours and friends. “I’m a bit of a magpie, so I think Christmas is just… it’s quite extra,” she smiles.
They start it with stockings being opened, finish it with a mulled wine martini, “and see what happens in between”.
When she heads out on tour, no doubt Alyssa Edwards will be on her mind, ensuring that she remains… as camp as Christmas.
Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s Chinti & Parker Christmas jumper is available to purchase now, with all proceeds going to Save The Children.