Words: Alastair James; pictures: Provided and BBC
In the UK, Covid-19 cut deep. The death toll was steep, but a ‘hidden crisis’ was growing in mental health. Social isolation in lockdown hit the LGBTQ+ community the hardest — but some had already been struggling.
Nick Collier - better known to some as Ella Vaday - who's about to compete on RuPaul's Drag Race UK - spoke in the Attitude October issue, out now to download and to order globally - about his experiences with mental health and life during lockdown.
"It was quite testing"
“It was probably the best thing for me,” is not something you’ll find many people saying about the last year and a half. As an actor and performer in the theatre, Nick Collier was among those whose industry closed practically overnight.
But he’s used the time productively, and the results may be about to pay off.
I'm speaking to Nick the day after he, or rather his alter ego Ella Vaday, has been announced as one of 12 queens who will appear on the third series of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK on BBC Three. “A national lockdown and a worldwide pandemic is probably the hardest time you could possibly decide to do one of the biggest competitions in the country,” Nick muses.
Nick thinks people should be open about experiencing negative emotions
“It was also hard to get ready with no shops open! It was quite testing.” I guess we won’t be seeing any H&M this series...
But this is certainly not a position Nick expected to find himself in this time last year. Since graduating at 19, Nick has worked on many of the top-billing shows including Wicked and The Book of Mormon. Pre-lockdown, he secured a role in Hairspray! but, three days into rehearsals, production shut down.
“I went from doing a job I’d waited five months to do to suddenly having no job whatsoever and no income. It was a horrible time to be stuck without a job or foresight of when the industry would pick up. At first, everyone thought we’d be off for two weeks. So, it was quite fun at first. Then it just kept going and going...”
"The struggle was not having a purpose"
Thirteen years in show business had given Nick a thick skin. Even so, he describes the sudden shift from being very busy, which he likes, to having almost nothing to do as the most difficult part of the last year and a half.
“The struggle was not having a purpose and having a career that was so easily shut [down]. In an instant, any show just closed.”
Not only was his theatrical career stopped in its tracks, but his burgeoning drag career was also halted. “It was so annoying because I was getting booked at new venues. I got booked for one-hour gigs at places and it was starting to get somewhere. Obviously, it got cancelled.
"And every time we came out of a lockdown, I had gigs booked, and then it got cancelled. It was like Snakes and Ladders.
“I like to have a reason to get up and do something — to have a job, to go to the gym. I couldn’t do that. So, yeah, I spent days watching TV and being really lazy and eating more and drinking more.”
Nick used lockdown to hone his drag craft
Taking a job in Morrison’s helped take up some of Nick’s now abundant time, but this came with its own challenges, as anyone who works in retail will know.
But Nick had a saving grace and was able to use his spare time to hone his drag and saw a huge growth in followers during lockdown. If he was feeling a bit useless one day, he’d paint his face. Try a new look. There he found a purpose again.
And while there were days sat in front of the TV, Nick was able to channel his energy, usually spent singing and dancing on the West End, into something positive. “I think had I not had that lockdown, I wouldn’t have gone on Drag Race and have perfected my makeup as much as I have.
"I wouldn’t have had the time to do it. So, in a way, being locked in my house with nothing to do has benefited me.
“I think as an artistic person, being able to paint my face and use my creativity was soothing. So that was a saving grace definitely. It would have been a lot worse if I’d had nothing to do.”
"Too many people don’t want to talk about it"
Eventually, work began to creep back into Nick’s life. Starting with virtual drag bingos, he began booking gigs in between lockdowns, and since the last lockdown he’s been doing drag full-time. He now has to remind audiences they no longer have to sit still with masks, and that they can sing and dance again.
“It is strange now because I’ve got used to it being a certain way and it’s taking some adjusting to remember how it used to be,” Nick laughs.
All the while Nick was preparing (and then filming) the third series of Drag Race UK. But the appearance of two bright red dots on our foreheads signals we need to move on in the conversation.
It’s clear that Nick was able to find something that helped keep him afloat during a troubling time. He recognises not everyone was so lucky, and that many have struggled, but he still believes in having conversations around mental health.
“I think too many people don’t want to talk about it. And I think it should be the norm that everyone talks about it because everyone goes through it. I don’t think there’s somebody who’s never had a down day or a time where they can’t do anything as much as they want to.
“When I was struggling, I would share that and say, ‘I’m having a day off or a mental health day today’, because I think it’s important, especially with a large following, to show people that it’s actually fine for you to have days where you can’t get off the sofa, and you can’t do anything.
“I do it because I have friends that openly talk about it as well. I think they’re really powerful and strong for doing that. When I’m feeling a certain way, I’m not ashamed to admit it because a few of my friends and family have had depression. It used to be such a taboo and it shouldn’t.
“I think for me, you’ve got to keep trying to find something to get you through it, whether it’s getting a chocolate bar or a bag of crisps and eating them. Get your favourite things, do something you enjoy.”
RuPaul's Drag Race UK series three premieres on BBC Three on the BBC iPlayer on Thursday 23 September at 7pm BST.
The Attitude October issue is out now.