On May 17th 2007, when I was just the tender age of 22 years old, a book was published that changed my life. A book about a boy, a fabulous boy named Billy Bloom, who refused to deny who he was because of bullies and homophobes. The book was Freak Show by James St. James, and it burst into my life at a time when I really needed it. It’s a fantastic book and has recently bloomed into a fantastic film. It takes the words which the bullies use to hurt us and claims them as its own. It teaches us to be fearless in a world filled with fear. And it shows us that we are special and that that’s nothing to be ashamed of. So join me, fellow freaks, as I look at why Billy Bloom is a role model for young LGBT kids making their way into today’s scary world.
I was living a double life at the time of the book release. Quietly gay in my personal life and closeted gay in my home life. I didn’t find the courage to come out to my family until I was 29. But at college, I was more open about my sexuality. I wasn’t screaming it from the rooftops, I was far too shy, but I didn’t actively keep it secret as I did at home. It all seems really strange looking back on it now, but that was just my life — straight, nerdy Tony at home and gay weirdo Anthony with friends. So by the time Freak Show was published by gay scene legend James St. James, I needed a role model like main character Billy Bloom. Billy wasn’t afraid of letting his family know who he really was, or anyone for that matter. Billy wasn’t afraid of anything it seemed. So reading Freak Show for the first time was like reading a self-help book on confidence and accepting who you are. I’ve held a special place in my heart for Billy ever since my first reading.
To give you a flavour of the book, in case you haven’t read it yet, Freak Show follows young and fabulous drag enthusiast teen Billy, as he leaves his glittering life with his mother to go and live with his boring father. Billy is encouraged by this boring father to swap his heels and wigs, which his mother encouraged, for polo shirts and jeans, when the super-rich kids at his new school don’t embrace him the way his old friends did. They don’t think Billy is fabulous at all; they think he’s a freak. He’s bullied, quite severely by the narrow-minded, religious mean girls. He’s spat at and heckled by the cliché meathead jocks. And he’s hospitalised when a gang of masked attackers jumps him. None of this makes Billy change who he is though, and that’s the message that is the heartbeat of this story. Do not change who you are to make other people happy, just be you. Without spoiling too much of the story, Billy stays true to who he is and gets his (Semi) happy ending. And for someone like me, hiding who I really was, he was a breath of glittering fresh air. It’s a great book and an inspiring tale for any confused little boys and girls.
Any fan of James St. James would not be blamed for thinking that Freak Show is actually an autobiography. He was one of the original club kids, taking 80’s New York by storm with outrageous outfits and even more outrageous club nights. Best friend to Michael Alig, the club kid who went too far and was sentenced to prison after killing his drug dealer, St. James is still wowing his fans today with regular YouTube videos featuring the most popular drag queens in America. Seth Green portrayed him alongside Macaulay Culkin in the film based on Michael Alig’s glittering crime Party Monster. In this film, we see a young James, forced into friendship with Michael, who arrives in 80’s New York seeking fabulousness. We see him struggling to start his writing career due to the insane club nights and drug use. Party Monster is another great film, with Green and Culkin portraying the club kid kings perfectly. It was this film that introduced to me to the talents of St. James. So, when I heard that Freak Show was being made into a movie, I was overjoyed. Then I found out it was a film starring Bette Midler and I almost passed out.
In my opinion, the film adaptation is just as fabulous as the book it is based on. The main character Billy Bloom, is portrayed flawlessly by the marvellous Alex Lawther. I had already seen his acting skills in the TV series End of the F*cking World and thought he was a brilliant choice for Billy. He has a look of Ellen Page, whom I adore, so maybe that’s why I was excited to see him bring Billy’s drag to life. If you haven’t seen End of the F*cking World already, I highly recommend it. It’s dark and witty, and not afraid to bare its soul. And Lawther is fantastic in it, so I had a feeling he’d be great for Freak Show. And I was right. His performance encapsulates the essence of Billy and you can tell Lawther did his research before stepping into Billy’s heels. Bette Midler is, of course, fantastic, playing the drunken mother Billy idolises. He calls her ‘Muv’ which we think is a fun nickname at first as they are so close. We later find he calls her that as she hates to be referred to as his mother, as this reflects her age. She’s not the greatest mother in the world, and when Billy realises this, he gets the relationship with his father he didn’t realise he needed.
Supporting characters include Abigail Breslin as bitchy prom queen wannabe Lynette, resuming the same kind of character she played in short-lived TV show Scream Queens. Then we have Ian Nelson as the only friendly jock in the school Flip Kelly, Billy’s friend and secret crush. We are also treated to a small appearance from Laverne Cox, playing TV News reporter Felicia Watts. One of my favourite characters has to be loving nanny Florence, played by the fantastic Celia Weston. She is one of the few people who understands Billy and quietly encourages him to be himself as the film progresses. She is also pivotal to Billy’s father realising his son needs him. She sticks up for Billy against both of his parents, and we feel she genuinely loves him. While other characters in the film feel a little flat, these are the few that stand out alongside Billy, as opposed to being outshined by him. Billy is, without doubt, the star of the show, but his supporting cast play their parts wonderfully as well.
So, to focus on why I wanted to talk about this film in the first place, Freak Show sends a positive message to viewers who may identify with Billy and his struggles. It’s a comedy film for sure, but at its core, it hides more than one little life tip for the LGBT community. First of all, do not be ashamed of who you are. If you’re a boy who wants to wear a dress, wear a dress. If you’re attracted to someone of the same sex, maybe you’re gay, big deal. Being gay is nothing to be ashamed of. Wanting to do drag is nothing to be ashamed of. Being trans is nothing to be ashamed of. This film teaches you to accept yourself and have fun with it. There is no need to hide away under the kitchen sink, as Billy does when he is upset, be loud and proud. You’re fabulous. The second message I got from this film is that you should love your parents, whether you see them as fun party goers or boring old farts, they are your parents, and you’re going to need them. It may take them a while to accept who you are, but no one’s perfect. They won’t be around forever and when they’re gone, you’re going to miss them. So be good to your mothers, make an effort with your fathers, and show them how fabulous it is to have an LGBT child.
When I first watched the film, I was transported back to the first time I read the book. I was cripplingly shy, I had zero confidence, and I was ashamed of who I was when around my family. I wasn’t ashamed of being gay; I was ashamed of myself for not having the courage to come out. And that wasn’t an easy burden to carry. But reading this book switched something in my brain and helped get rid of a lot of the self-doubt. I still wouldn’t be confident enough to go to high school in drag, as Billy does. We live in a world were worse things than getting beaten up happens in schools, so I wouldn’t advise that. But just to accept yourself, to tell yourself you are perfectly normal, better than normal, you are fabulous, and most importantly that you are loved, will work wonders for your self-esteem and inner demons. Seeing Billy Bloom on screen was like seeing an old friend after years of being apart. And it wasn’t just the story that brought a tear to my eye. It was being reminded of how much the book helped me back when I was that shy little weirdo at college.
Freak Show may not change your life, as it did for me, but I do think it will make it easier to love yourself. If you are in the closet, if you’re thinking about being trans, if you have a crush on your best friend who is the same sex, read this book and watch this film. It won’t answer all of your questions, but it will start you on an exciting journey of self-acceptance and warmth. It will help you bloom into the person you are destined to be. Billy Bloom is the idol the LGBT community needs right now. He’s confident, he is unashamed, and he fights for the ‘Shadow People’. The ones who get ignored, the ones who get bullied, the ones with no voice. We live in a world where money and beauty are held in higher regard than kindness and talent. What if you don’t have money? What if you don’t have beauty? Does that mean you get ignored? No. Not anymore. Billy Bloom is inviting you to stand up and be counted. You may be a freak, but you are not alone. And freak is the new black darling, embrace it!