In what feels like at least a decade ago, 2017, the only exposure I’d had to drag was being terrified of Lily Savage in her Blankety Blank days, and having my mind blown that Bruce in Finding Nemo is actually Dame Edna Everage. Drag to me wasn’t pretty; it was bawdy, it was messy – it was crunchy wigs, alcohol, crude jokes and too much alcohol (it still is to be fair). I remember once catching a snippet of Drag Race, I couldn’t tell you which season, having no idea what it was, and being turned off by how overproduced it was; not understanding the language and an inability to see past the men or women.
I was with the same person I had been dating since I was 18; it was my first serious relationship. In May of 2017, I had a huge anxiety spiral about my health, and unbeknownst to me, that spelled the beginning of the end. In July of the same year, my Dad was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. Everything had started falling apart.
Then in December, my relationship ended. The one person I wanted to talk to about how sick my Dad was, was gone. Had really been gone for months but was too cowardly to say anything.
11 days later, my Dad passed away.
Within a fortnight, I lost my partner and a parent.
During this time, I would call on three close friends, and they would speak with me for hours on end. One in particular would say to me “if you can’t love yourself…etc”. When I visited my best friend’s place, she was watching All Stars 3, and showed me season 4 of Drag Race, knowing that Sharon Needles would more than likely appeal to the 15 year old emo I had once been. My best friend had smashed the champagne bottle on the newly christened HMS OBSESSION. And boy did that ship set sail, straight into 2018.
I devoured Drag Race, escaping to the Werk Room for hours on end. My first love was Bianca del Rio – I had watched a compilation of her best bits and couldn’t wait to get to season 6. She was just the right amount of hate I needed at the time – the anger I felt inside being projected through this hateful clown. I realised that there was so much more than the makeup, the challenges, the looks, the jokes and catchphrases. Here were a group of humans forced together. Some hurt, some still hurting, some soaring, some outright crushing their competitors, some figuring things out – yet they were able to transform themselves into beautiful, stunning creations. They could walk with confidence, even if their ankles shook a bit in their heels. They could apply precision eyeliner even if they were holding back tears. They would fight and they would argue but they could love, and support. Drag Race changed my entire idea of what drag was, is and can be. I’m not saying the whole of Drag Race is one huge sob story, but it wasn’t afraid to show that though we may look perfect, we’re not. I saw aspects of myself in so many of the queens, and I didn’t feel so alone, watching them at 3am through blurry eyes.
By the time I got to Season 7, it sort of came and went, I barely remember any of it. But as I watched her flop her season, Trixie Mattel won All Stars 3 in real time. With that victory, she released Moving Parts (Acoustic). When I heard it, I was stopped in my tracks. Here was this mid-western Dolly Parton Barbie doll creature singing about losing every single part of you, except the parts that move. Those essential pieces of you that you will always have, no matter what. It sounds cliché, but it was exactly what I needed to hear. I fell in love with Trixie’s message, the way she looks like a Barbie while delivering offensively killer jokes, whilst simultaneously breaking your heart with her voice and guitar.
The next few months of my life were shaped by Two Birds and One Stone. Little Sister pushed me to move out, to believe that staying in one place will never make you grow, that as much as I thought I had experienced in the last 8 years – really I had got nowhere. I Know You All Over Again made me realise that hurting as much as I still was, was okay. I started saying Yes to things, I picked up my ukulele and started performing again. I binge watched UNHhhh over and over and over again, quotes embedding themselves in my lexicon – greeting my rabbit with “Bunny? Oh bunny, buuuuuunnnyyyyyyyyyyyy”, fully invested in Trixie and Katya’s folie a deux. And what lunacy it was. Katya had shocked me once upon a time, “is she always like this?” I had asked my friend. Yet now here I was, invested in her well being while she was on hiatus, following Trixie online through her Moving Parts tour wishing I had known about it before so I could have gone to see her.
I decided for Dragworld that year, I would attend as Trixie – I would make the outfit, practise the make up and have the time of my life. I’d never really sewn before, so making a jumpsuit from scratch was a bit of a tall order, but I made it work. Self doubt definitely started to creep in though; I knew that cosplaying as a Ru Girl would make me one of “those” fans, the ones who only care about Drag Race. I was terrified as soon as I walked in that I would be met with scoffs, and rolled eyes.
What actually happened was further from that than I could have possibly imagined. As soon as I walked in through the Olympia doors, heart pounding in fear, I knew I was home. From the huge D R A G letters at the front, from the pink carpets, stalls and meeting booths – I just wanted to drink it all in. My makeup wasn’t great on reflection, but back then I thought I was THE SHIT. I met Katya, who made approving faces at me from the middle of her meet and greets, people asked for my picture – I was beyond happy. For the first time in almost a year, for once I wanted to cry because I was so devastatingly happy, not just devastated.
I started wondering whether there could be a place for me here. I’m not a man, I’m not trans, I was questioning my sexuality – a biological woman who felt like an invader. But I couldn’t deny the way that drag made me feel – confident, deliriously happy, excited. I’d found the parts of me that I had given up for so long, and dressed them up as a big pink auto-harp playing idiot. I went in search of female and non-binary identifying drag artists, and was shocked to see so many amazing performers carving their space. The ever stunning Creme Fatale, Venus Envy, Fauxbia Queen, Porter Bella, Moxie Heart, Crusty the Queen, Scarlet Fever, Miss Disney, Courtney Conquers – the list is incredible and I continue to be inspired by them all.
It’s all very well breaking into the world of drag, but with so many performers, how do you make yourself stand out? As Trixie says, make sure you’re the only one people can call on for your talent. I started thinking about my open mic performances, and whether there could be an opportunity to marry the ukulele and my drag. When I was offered the chance to audition for a national ukulele festival, in drag, I jumped at the opportunity. I was already performing covers of Trixie’s songs, and I wanted to get back into performing in front of bigger audiences. I took Performing Arts at college and missed the pageantry of it all. My audition videos are truly cringey – I rushed the makeup, it was really only saved by the huge lashes, I kicked my flatmate out of our flat because I couldn’t sing with him around, I sang a Trixie cover and one of my own which I have never sung since because it’s just…awful. But it was the first original song I had written in a long time, and it was about my first crush I had after my breakup, and that meant something to me back then. Surprise of all surprises, I got in! And so a drag-ulele foetus began to be formed.
The name came to me as I was creating a performer website for myself, I typed “Amber Sands” as a filler name, but I found I actually liked it. After some Googling and Instagram searching, I was fairly certain there wasn’t another Amber Sands in the drag world. What there were, however, were 100s of one star reviews for a seaside holiday camp called Camber Sands here in the UK. My best friend and I read every single one, in tears of laughter, and I decided I had to keep the name. Here in the UK it sounds like a trashy holiday park, I like to think that elsewhere it sounds classy – like “ampersand” – I’m a drag queen & performer & ukulele player & singer & songwriter & you will love me etc.
In February I met the biological woman herself on her Skinny Legend tour. By this point I had my first tattoo, inspired by Trixie, that reads “never losing all your moving parts” as a reminder of my strength. She asked about it, and was so incredibly sweet. I had written her a horrifically heartfelt and cringey letter (which I honestly hope she burnt), but I wanted to thank her for everything she had done for me, like so many others. I asked her permission to sing I Know You All Over Again, she replied “of course! It’s a sad song though”; but to me, it’s something I needed to work out of my system. The Skinny Legend show was incredible, I saw her twice and was beyond excited each time. I was full blown nutso for Trixie. It was also at the London Skinny Legend show that I met my future girlfriend, in a crazy smashing of drag fate, something which I will always be grateful for.
Back to performing, my debut gig as Amber was back in March 19, supporting three local bands in Farnham. I was terribly nervous, but something about wearing a huge wig, dressing like a flower pixie and with glitter everywhere I could glue it, I found confidence. It’s not quite like having a mask, after all it’s still your own voice and you’re still relying on your own hands to play the right chords. Regardless, I felt like me, but with an extra added Amber layer. Someone who could gently banter with the audience, toy with their emotions a little bit – hush them all the way down to silence singing I Know You All Over Again, and then raising them up high with Genie in a Bottle and Jolene to finish (always a crowd pleaser). It was magical, and I couldn’t wait to get to The Grand Northern Ukulele Festival (GNUF), in Huddersfield.
So in May, I drove the 6 hours North, alone, further than I’d ever been before, not quite believing what was happening. In true drag queen style, I was late to my performance the next day, but I was a very popular. I performed three times over a Saturday, and I like to think I went down well (what a sentence). I was the only drag performer, aside from the fabulous Tricity Vogue, and though I had to explain how women could be drag queens a few times, I felt accepted and loved. I signed a couple of festival programmes with my picture in, I had a T shirt with my name on it, I was on festival posters. I was finally creating a space for myself.
In October I appeared in Uke Magazine, with a double page spread and full interview. I’ve never been so proud of myself.
And really, the rest is history. I’m now working on my first EP of original songs, I have a small but devoted Italian and UK fanbase, I have a few performances already lined up for 2020, and am ready to push Amber further than ever before. I want to sew more, and create costumes and outfits for performances. I want to get myself seen in more venues, create more music and start creating a face for myself. I want to grow my online following, grow my confidence and grow my reach. Trixie has taught me that there is absolutely a space for me and my drag in straight places, in queer spaces, at festivals usually dominated by the middle aged, in quiet country pubs, behind a ukulele just singing my heart out.
Drag is everything to me, and it has given me so many things I once thought I had lost. It has taught me not to give up, it has taught me what I’m not prepared to give up. It has brought me so many kinds of love, opportunities, experiences and wondrous memories.
I can’t wait to see what’s to come next.