The journey to drag and Rent Party: an interview with Edward Smith

by Iqra Saeed

“I think drag or cross-dressing has always been a part of my life really. It first started when I was seven, I wanted to be Baby Spice. I wore my mum’s white dress and her big white shoes.”

It has taken many years for Edward Smith – or Teddi, the drag persona he performs as in Rent Party – to grow his confidence. Dressing up has been a journey from childhood fun to a way of life. When he was 27 years old, he began going out in drag on Halloween. This then led to him attending a party dressed in drag.

“I thought to myself, I might as well just go out and do it,’ he says. ‘It was like a political statement. I would enter straight spaces in drag to make them queer, even if it wasn’t the best and then I would leave. Just to be like actually, you know what? Queer people exist.”

However, this all took place in London, where Edward lived for five years, from the age of 20. It wasn’t until he joined Peterborough Pride Committee in 2018 that he realised the need for drag and queer visibility was higher in Peterborough. The following year he began drag networking with a colleague – meeting with disapproval from some. Now aged 31, Edward tells me what that experience was like.

“I had people calling me up saying it was outrageous, saying I shouldn’t be mixing business and drag”, he says. “I asked what made it taboo? They couldn’t give me an answer to why it was taboo. That’s their experience of what drag is. There is a taboo to drag, but that’s normally for businessmen who stay over in hotels on the weekday. Not necessarily the true art of drag.”

Through drag networking, £500 was raised for Pride. But this was about more than money. Edward practically created a safe space for people to try on a wig or put on a feathered boa. He also gave them a show. This was the first stage of Teddi becoming a performer rather than a political statement – and his confidence grew as there was a cause behind his drag persona.

Even so, Edward had to take one more leap. “I knew the owner of The Chalkboard, he approached me and asked if I would like to run their drag bingo nights. I sat there for what felt like five minutes. Then I heard a voice within me saying just do it, just do it. I agreed to do it. Then I was a bit terrified for about six weeks. Then I did the first one and I’ve never looked back.”

Previously working as an actor in London, Edward had never performed as a drag artist. An agent told him it would be the end of his career – even though ‘Ru Paul’s Drag Race’ is part of mainstream TV. Hosting award ceremonies, running events and being casted in Rent Party are some of the doors which were opened for Edward thanks to drag.

“It gives me a little bit of an exterior,” he says. “I can sort of get away with a lot more than what I would be able to as Edward. I could go out there and actually be really hard hitting. We need more rights than what people realise. As me it could feel awkward, but as Teddi it is what it is.”

He also believes that the queer community in and around Peterborough need spaces of their own. Peterborough does not have an LGBTQ+ venue, however venues such as The Ostrich and Charters hold Pride events and welcome a variety of communities. ‘Teddi’ also hosts evening events in Market Deeping, where a Pride event is planned to be taking place in 2022. But in Stamford, which is under an hour away, there is nothing at all for the local queer community. Edward points out that LGBTQ+ venues in and around Peterborough wouldn’t just provide safe spaces but would also assist local economic growth, as residents wouldn’t have to look to other cities such as London, Manchester or Leeds. 

Edward brought this thinking into Rent Party too, telling a story about a safe space that is actually in outer space. Darren Pritchard, the writer of the show, worked with him to create this fantasy – taking into consideration that Edward is a Star Wars fan. Although the need for safe spaces is serious, Edward’s performance was light-hearted: making it a fantasy removed the themes which could have made it upsetting. 

It didn’t, however, mean that Edward wasn’t speaking from personal experience: “Rent Party is your story,’ he says. ‘You have to be comfortable speaking about yourself. If someone had offered me the role two years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to. It’s a personal story and there were certain themes I just wouldn’t have been able to explore or deal with. Because I was also dealing with gender identity, gender journey and all that kind of thing along the way. For the show, you can’t lie about it. You have to be real, you have to be authentic, you have to be true. The audience knows and you see that in performances because people get emotional.”

When asked if working on Rent Party brought up any past traumas for him, Edward smiles to himself. “When I first wrote my speech, I completely broke down,’ he admits. ‘I hadn’t thought about Edward – school Edward – for a long, long time. Because it was a very dark place, being the only queer kid in the school. Also being rather large, I was an easy target for bullies. It’s sad that I had to survive all of that. However, with the same token, it has made me a better person for it. I can walk into any situation whether that be a heteronormative venue or a place which isn’t LGBTQ+ friendly. I can deal with it because I’ve dealt with it before.

“Having my parents in the audience, whilst I was talking about the past traumas that they didn’t know about, was also quite eye-opening for them. When I was at home, I could be myself and I was happy. But they didn’t know about half the stuff that went on. I wasn’t sure how they were going to take it.”

For Edward it was a hugely positive experience. “Rent Party is a celebration, essentially it is a party,” he says. “It’s a celebration of you and what you’ve overcome or what you’re dealing with at the moment. They did offer counselling but for me personally, I didn’t feel as though I needed it. When I was growing up there was a lot of conversation around how being gay would mean you live a hard life. I had that in my mind anyway so I knew I was going to get picked on and bullied. Which I know is an odd thing to say in this day and age. People wouldn’t be able to say that now, back then they would tell you that you couldn’t be gay because you would get beaten up. That was fine to say back then.

“If someone says to me ‘you’re gay!!!’ I just respond with ‘yes I am, thank you for categorising me’. They then leave you alone. It speaks volumes about those people and what their story is.”