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Interview: The real-life story of the drag-queen bin man

Image: Joe Leather performing Wasteman, Vault Festival, 14-16 February.


Wasteman will resonate with many. A one-man play drawing on those great qualities of grit, resilience, charming quips, and clever wit. The Covid-19 pandemic threw the lives of thousands of creatives into an unforgiving nose-dive. Performer Joe Leather was among that throng, and like so many quick witted types hellbent on defying defeat, he pivoted with characteristic flare and panache. Wasteman is based on Joe's real-life experiences of going from succseful stage performer to an ambitious combo of refuse collector turned drag artist. Here Joe unveils the origin story of Wasteman, and what we can expect from the show, running at the VAULT Festival, 14-16 Feb.


Run Riot: What's the origin story of Wasteman?


Joe Leather: I was working in Shanghai when COVID happened. I came back for what was meant to be a week at home at the start of 2020 and ended up stranded up North with no clue when I’d be going back. For a survival job, I got a retail gig at a jewellery shop…which then closed down on the day I was due to start. In need of something that wouldn’t be going anywhere, tempted by the high hourly wage and sure I would only be committing to a month or two at most, I started as a refuse loader. I wound up doing it for seven months.


Lots of things about the bins were hard; the early starts, the smells, walking fifty thousand steps a day (if my phone can be trusted). I faced off against all the natural enemies of refuse loaders: ice patches, guard dogs, care home residents…I even had a curse put on me by a local witch! But the scenery was beautiful, there was a sense of camaraderie, and it was unlike anything I’d ever done before. Keeping my queer-ness close to my chest to assimilate into an environment dominated by working class heterosexual men actually felt a lot like doing ‘masculine’ drag. It was here that the idea of Wasteman took root. 


Run Riot: Tell us more about your alter-ego Mariah Scary.


Joe: Mariah Scary was purely an excuse to dress up in a £7.99 Santa dress and a very nice blonde wig. She was the host of a Christmas quiz on Zoom for my school-friends and was a huge success. Since then, she’s had quite a packed Zoom calendar, a lot of makeup lessons and was actually out in public at 21Soho just the other week. She’s a confident, gorgeous, intelligent, highly flexible superstar who is also very modest and humble. 


Run Riot: How much of Mariah is in the protagonist in Wasteman?


Joe: She’s inside of him for sure. Just like Mariah, Wasteman is fiery, foul-mouthed and quick-witted. I think the protagonist of the piece is still searching for his own version of Mariah. He’s eager to tap into the liberation that drag can give, but has a long way to go on his journey to self-love (despite being very loveable).


Run Riot: Can you tell us how working with Punchdrunk, or in big shows like Jersey Boys and Oklahoma!, and writing and performing in your show The Lost Works of Willy Shakes could have all rubbed off in the creative process of devising Wasteman?


Joe: I believe that whenever you create anything, all your life experiences come into play. I’m grateful for my background in commercial musical theatre and performance, as it gave me an exciting toolkit to play with; the show features original songs and dance as well as comedic monologue.


Writing and performing in The Lost Works definitely informed how I worked, giving me a much better understanding of how to create something  while providing me with some really nice reviews to market this show off the back of. 


However, I think the show owes the most to the Fringe jobs I did before Jersey Boys. Performing at LGBTQIA+ theatre Above the Stag in Vauxhall taught me how to perform in an intimate setting, and connect with an audience on an individual level, while exposing me to the London ‘scene’. It also exposed me to an entire body of work that centred queer-ness, and I wanted Wasteman to be an authentic piece about the queer experience as a result. 


Run Riot: Wasteman and the environment seem obvious bed fellows. Is there a role to play for creatives wanting to tackle climate change? 


Joe: Working as a bin-man was definitely eye-opening. It’s pretty humbling seeing the quantity of waste that humankind produce, and you also see the blazé attitude many people have to the environment. 


As residents of planet Earth, we all have a part to play in tackling climate change. It’s our duty to safeguard the future of the world for generations who haven’t even been born yet. As creatives, we’re adept at and accustomed to expressing ourselves and using our voices; so it’s important we use our position to raise awareness of and put pressure on legislators regarding this issue. 


Extinction Rebellion are aiming to gather 100,000 people at the Houses of Parliament for ‘The Big One’ on the 21st of April and I’m hoping Mariah will be free to drag her diamante-studded wheelie bin along.


Run Riot: Should we be expecting a sequinned sequel starring Wasteman? 


Joe: Never say never! For the time being the original Wasteman Part 1 still has quite a lot to do on her rounds. The show is performing at the Brighton Fringe on the 25th and 26th of May, going back up North for the Greater Manchester Fringe on the 5th and 6th of July, and we have some other, longer runs which aren’t quite ready to be announced. Anyone interested can stay abreast of the show’s development via its website.  


Run Riot: What are your hopes for the non-straight boys from Bolton?


Joe: Growing up in Bolton and Nottingham, far beyond the boundaries of Greater London, not only did I not really know much about queerness, I also didn’t know much about being a performer. I hope that queerdos of all identities from hometowns similar to mine are aware that their voices matter and their stories deserve to be told…and not only told, but told by them. In a more general sense, my hope for all of us who are different is that we can step out each day into a world where we feel safe, loved and valued.


Run Riot: Lastly, what do you hope audiences will take from the show?


Joe: Wasteman is a roller-coaster. It’s packed full of jokes, but also does not shy away from the hardships LGBTQIA+ people face. The journey to happiness for its protagonist is not an easy one. Still, I hope audiences will leave feeling uplifted, and confident that in life you can always take the garbage and make it gorgeous. 


Find more about Joe Leather at



14-16 February

Vault Festival, Waterloo, London

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