BY Sean Burns in Opinion | 25 MAR 24
Featured in
Issue 241

‘Stay Strong and Stay Fabulous’: Celebrating David Hoyle

A personal response to the influential artist and performer ahead of his homecoming retrospective and residency in Manchester 

BY Sean Burns in Opinion | 25 MAR 24

In the winter of 2014, after a confusing breakup, I found myself on YouTube watch­ing old episodes of Stars in Their Eyes (1990–2006) – a British talent show in which ordinary people boldly lived out their transcen­dental fantasies as famous singers for one night on television. I drifted from that family­ friendly fare to an alluring sidebar suggestion, titled ‘Melancholic Youth’ (2009), which felt befitting of my mental and emotional state. That was when I first encountered David Hoyle.

The fan­-shot footage features the performance artist on stage at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern (RVT), a storied south London pub where some of the UK’s most prominent queer performers, such as the late Lily Savage, cut their teeth. Hoyle stalks the boards with a lit cigarette dangling from his elongated fingers in a white jumpsuit redolent of an embellished mechanics overall, a loose baby­-blue belt tied at his hip, a face of explosive make­up, and fragments of red and orange plas­tic in his voluminous wig. His sharp humour and acidic delivery spoke to me more directly than anything had since my teenage obsession with the Ramones.

David Hoyle Manchester 2022
David Hoyle heading a procession through the streets of Manchester to celebrate his induction into the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a worldwide order of queer ‘nuns’, 2022. The canonization event was organized by artist Jez Dolan as part of his residency at the Manchester Art Gallery. Courtesy and photograph: Lee Baxter

What followed was an immaculate ad­-lib tirade on the complacency of young people, how privilege often enables our melancholia, the anxieties of live performance and the virtues of white wine. Hoyle concluded with a perform­ative ash tap of his burned­-to­-the­-filter fag and said: ‘I’m leaving you with some little thoughts that I hope will chew away at your fucking brain stem tonight, and I’m doing it motivated by love.’ This line captured an extraordinary paradox: his rage stemmed from a faithful hope for a more equitable life.

Hoyle is known to take his community to task and to fly in the face of convention, offering a reprieve from the fluff of polite society with its unchecked codes of acceptability. At that time, my understanding of my own queerness had become introverted and overly concerned with how the world might accommodate me. Hoyle seemed to signal that younger generations are actively responsible for advancing the hard­-won rights of their predecessors. ‘People went through real hell and had to fight for you to be as complacent as you are,’ he says in the video, referring to the sacrifices of activists in the 1970s and ’80s.

 Hoyle’s influence is evident, and his generosity in sharing his platform has supported countless upstarts.

Hoyle’s isn’t the sort of performance you could learn at art school: he pulls from a deep well of complex personal experience. After decades spent honing his craft at venues such as Manchester’s Paradise Factory and London’s Duckie, he makes it all seem effortless. (In 2023, I witnessed him seduce a sober art crowd at Palais De Tokyo, Paris, that primarily knew nothing about him; by the end, they were eating out of his bejewelled hands.) Hoyle’s words spill out in the drawl of his native Blackpool, a northern British seaside town known for its cabaret, illuminations and donkey rides – undoubtedly an environment rich in irony. He annunciates like no other: a simple ‘OK’ can be deployed at an innocent audience member like an unforgiving full­stop.

Lee Baxter and David Hoyle in 1993
Lee Baxter and David Hoyle outside Paradise Factory, Manchester, 1993. Courtesy and photograph: Dave Kendrick

‘Melancholic Youth’ is from a 2009 series of shows titled ‘Dave’s Drop­-in Centre’ – one of Hoyle’s many live residencies at the RVT – each loosely structured around a particular theme. The marketing image for his 2023 show ‘Coronation Straẞe’ saw him don a 1960s­-style headscarf like those worn by female characters from the popular British television soap Coronation Street (1960– ongoing). Hoyle’s mischievous blue eyes sparkle on the poster as if to say: ‘You may think you recognize this, but all is not as it seems.’ Indeed, Hoyle doesn’t offer the cushioned embrace of a television soap. During his live shows, he’s prone to comedically shouting: ‘Headfirst into the woodchipper!’ It’s an invitation he primar­ily extends to members of the UK Conservative government, which he berates for its self-serving policies and cronyism. It’s often said amongst his fans that his performances are a ‘community ser­vice’ because he allows himself to become a vul­nerable conduit through which we can access the pain we often hide on a day­-to-­day basis.

Though his live show has altered over the years with the addition of other performers – including Travis Alabanza, Penny Arcade and Shon Faye – it always follows a consistent path, culminating in a live painting session. Driven by what he refers to as ‘energetic forces’, Hoyle selects an unwitting punter to be ‘immortalized in a photographic representation’ – shorthand for an impressionis­tic portrait rendered on a ‘primed canvas’, often a precarious fragment of card propped up on a makeshift easel. His regular stylist and makeup artist, Thom Shaw, assumes one of two characters in the show: an old church lady, Pam, who reads profound poetry, such as by Siegfried Sassoon; or Simone Simone, a fictional, smacked­-out, former Andy Warhol superstar, who can barely stand up and talks in riddles. One of Shaw’s early outings as Pam in 2010 saw him serving refreshments in the RVT’s bathroom, which Hoyle had rebranded as the ‘Parallel Universe’.

David Hoyle on stage at RVT
David Hoyle on stage at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, London, 2012. Courtesy and photo­graph: Holly Revell

Following a brief period on BBC’s Comedy Nation (1998), the artist’s next foray into television arrived in the shape of two late­-night Channel 4 variety offerings: The Divine David Presents (1998) and The Divine David Heals (2000). Each punchy, half­-hour dose is a psychedelic trip containing absurdist skits to camera. In one episode, he bounds on from the right side of a flashing back­ drop in make­up not dissimilar to Peter Criss from American rock band Kiss and announces: ‘Hi, good evening, welcome. I’m on ampheta­mines, and they’re absolutely fantastic!’ This was television for a hedonistic generation craving something glitching and technicolour as the drugs wore off after the rave.

In another sketch, Hoyle parodies the ridic­ulous pomposity of haute couture, creating a DIY fashion look from bandage strips, which he places across his midriff, and tinfoil earrings on bits of wire. ‘If you were to go to a banqueting suite or a masonic lodge looking like this,’ he says, ‘you really would be a head­-turner.’ In another, he invites us to a rundown canal towpath. ‘I just thought you’d like to join me at one of my favourite places, where I do a lot of thinking,’ he proffers. ‘Plotting and planning the overthrow of the government and the total destruction of the 20th century’ – surre­alist social bloodletting at its finest.

The Divine David Presents
David Hoyle as the Divine David in The Divine David Presents, 1998. Courtesy: World of Wonder

Today, I often see young performers doing Hoyle­-isms, be it in a deviant pronunciation of a word or the wholesale appropriation of one of his many aphorisms, such as: ‘Good evening, ladies unt gentlemen, and those clever enough to have transcended gender.’ But no one can do David like David. His influence is evident, and his generosity in sharing his platform has supported countless upstarts. He recently shone as the com­pere in Mark Leckey’s Salamagundy (2022), an art cabaret commissioned by Turner Contemporary in Margate, starring young artists, such as Alpha Maid and Ebun Sodipo, whom he empowered with his raucous introductions, as he has always done.

 The artist’s true legacy is empowering the disenfranchised to embrace themselves.

Now, he’s 61, and I wonder what the pension is like for a club icon who’s given so much of himself to his community. Historically, art like Hoyle’s has been overlooked by museums and galleries, as evidenced by the title of his retrospective at Aviva Studios in Manchester in April: ‘David Hoyle: Please Feel Free to Ignore My Work’. To me, he’s one of the UK’s most important – and influential – performance artists. (The RVT website proudly cites Justin Vivian Bond’s description of Hoyle as ‘the greatest living performer’.) The Divine David Presents and The Divine David Heals are also ach­ing for a contemporary reappraisal.

David Hoyle, Musing on War
David Hoyle, Musings on War, c.2017, mixed media, 70 × 50 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Goswell Road, Paris

His true legacy, however, is empowering the disenfranchised to embrace themselves, which is, of course, infinitely more meaningful than institutional cachet. Asked in an interview with the Liverpool­-based festival Homotopia in 2014 how his ‘otherness’ manifested as a child, Hoyle responded with a knowing grin: ‘Some of us are a giveaway.’ It’s a line I think about often, because it agitates ideas of queer assimilation and speaks to the need many of us feel to express ourselves flamboyantly and unapologetically.

Nowadays, Hoyle exhibits his caustic paintings and collages, including at Goswell Road gallery in Paris last year, acts in independent films and occasionally serves as a muse to fashion designers Michèle Lamy and Rick Owens. However, shows such as those at RVT remain his staple. In 2022, he became the first English inductee since Derek Jarman to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a San Francisco­-based worldwide order of queer ‘nuns’. The criteria for entry: ‘The promulgation of universal joy and the expiation of stigmatic guilt.’ Arise, Saint David of the Avant­-Garde! Organized by artist Jez Dolan and coinciding with Jarman’s posthumous retro­spective, ‘PROTEST!’, at Manchester Art Gallery, the ceremony commenced with Hoyle leading a celebratory procession through the streets of the city that has been his home for more than 35 years. Hoyle usually ends his RVT shows with a rendition of ‘Maybe This Time’ (1964) – I once witnessed him belt it out over the recorded sound of an MRI scanner – and these enduring and con­soling words: ‘Stay strong, and stay fabulous!’

Alex Matraxia
David Hoyle in Alex Matraxia’s Goodnight Ladies, 2024, production still. Courtesy: Alex Matraxia 

David Hoyle‘s ‘Please Feel Free to Ignore My Work’ is at Aviva Studios, Manchester, between 10 and 28 April 2024. Holly Revell's photobook chronicling Hoyle's performances and Goswell Road's anthologies of his paintings are out now.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 241 with the headline ‘Arise, Saint David!’

Main image: David Hoyle at Queer Up North Festival, Manchester, UK, 2010. Courtesy and photograph: Lee Baxter 

Sean Burns is an artist, writer and assistant editor of frieze based in London, UK. His book Death (2023) is out now from Tate Publishing.