In conversation with: Barbara Brownskirt

by Isabelle Proctor | June 4, 2024


Coming out via the front page of The Independent, shouting “who put the word ‘men’ in menopause?” outside Penge Conservative Club, and writing poetry at bus stops, Karen McLeod tells me about her reverse-drag act: Barbara Brownskirt.


Barbara is cagouled, pop-socked, Judi Dench-obsessed. She does her best work at the 197 bus stop in Penge and performs her provocative, comedic, painful poetry all around the country. A personal favourite is ‘The Static Caravan that Shook.’ Sat outside Kent House Coffee and Flowers, Karen McLeod is enigmatic and funny. The complete opposite of her character, I marvel at how chic she is and make a mental note to buy more interesting glasses.


McLeod studied Art at Cardiff University, later working as a flight attendant and spending lots of time writing in hotel rooms. She published her debut novel In Search of the Missing Eyelash in 2008 and Barbara Brownskirt emerged when a second novel did not. A contributor to Queer Life, Queer Love 2, McLeod’s memoir Lifting Off will be released in June 2024. She tells me it is, among other things, a reflection on how she was advised to hide her sexuality whilst a member of cabin crew, “what happens when you stop being yourself and the damage that happened when I was censoring but also pretending.” Growing up under Margaret Thatcher’s Section 28, McLeod didn’t feel she could acknowledge her sexuality—“No-one talked about it. The 90s were a really homophobic time. People were scared to come out.” That was until she appeared in ‘The World’s First Lesbian Beauty Contest’, organised by the now- ‘Night Czar’ of London, Amy Lamé. The next day, a photograph of her in the beauty contest on the cover of The Independent announced her sexuality to her parents. McLeod remembers, “I went about it rather cowardly-waited to be on the front of a newspaper!”


Barbara emerged from McLeod’s impersonation of drag queens at art college. She said, “I was very jealous that gay men had all these outlets and I liked musicals and dressing up, I used to impersonate Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music and those sorts of things… we started our performance club, MOONA, because we wanted to be silly and wanted to have fun.” But, years before Barbara was born, in an attempt to come across as “dynamic” and “memorable” (we’ve all been there), McLeod created a Hotmail address using the surname “Brownskirt”. The actual brown skirt followed later, along with the cagoule and the pop socks. When I ask about the cagoule, McLeod gently explains, “people in cagoules are kind of shapeless,” and that she wanted Barbara “to escape that restriction of femininity.” She hid her hair, as well, and angled for a “lonely person in the street kind of look.” The conversation sobers a little and an image of Barbara all alone at the bus stop makes me quite sad.


But there is no need to be, as she is not sad, “she’s otherworldly,” and with her glasses and pop socks she eludes self-consciousness. McLeod thought of pop socks because she saw older ladies wearing them and wanted Barbara to have the “freedom to not have to be attractive, to not have to be thin.” The final touch was choosing “little, tiny deck shoes because they add vulnerability to the look.” Barbara has the “kind of outdoorsy look of women who like walking” and an “arrested development kind of thing going on with her.” I ask McLeod if Barbara is reminiscent of a certain era and she responds thoughtfully: “the ‘70s, ‘80s when there was a militancy amongst certain women about not wanting to look a certain way. Barbara comes out of that second wave feminism” and was inspired by Cindy Sherman, and McLeod’s fascination with what it means for “women to apply a daily drag: hair, lipstick”. Crucially, McLeod tells me that John Berger’s aphorism in his book Ways of Seeing: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at,” stuck with her throughout college.


Barbara’s obsession with Judi Dench, which is intense but not quite Baby Reindeer level, stems from McLeod looking “for things that weren’t really acceptable in our culture like a woman fancying a much older woman.” The infatuation comes from a “lesbian sensibility of what people don’t ever discuss.” I ask if art imitates life and McLeod pauses, “I have watched Judi and she’s very attractive but she’s an interesting woman in the fact that she’s been in the public eye forever. I just thought it was quite inappropriate to talk about her in a sexual way.” You’ll be pleased to know that Barbara has an entire poetry collection dedicated to Judi, at one point declaring to the “sexy grandma,” “I would like to travel my hand over your wobbly belly.” Always looking to unsettle, Barbara performed her poem ‘Who put the word ‘men’ in menopause?’ outside Penge Conservative Club, to the apparent discomfort of its members. You can experience it for yourself on YouTube. When asked about the community’s response, McLeod grins, “Oh yes, they loved that… I did it just to sort of annoy them.” In many ways, the poetry reading seems like an anti-anti-abortion protest, the perfect antidote to those who stand outside abortion clinics intimidating patients. The woman pushing her pram, scandalised in the background, could almost be a paid actor. Though you wouldn’t know it, McLeod is “quite wary of getting in trouble in a strange way” and didn’t intend to be quite so anarchic in her etymological protest. Barbara’s ‘uniform’ is a kind of “safety blanket” for McLeod as a performer because “there’s who she is, but there’s also me who I am. I often put on lipstick to differentiate. It’s a disguise but it’s a freedom to allow me to do exactly what I want to do and go places I wouldn’t go myself.”



McLeod was recently asked if she thinks Barbara is autistic, which she thought was a “really interesting question” but one she couldn’t answer because Barbara is “otherworldly”, she can’t quite be explained. “Barbara is a person of the people, she has a rented room in a house, she has no money, she’s a suffering artist. She just can’t stop writing poetry, she’s at the bus stop every day, it’s her job, she sees that as her job.” But, apart from her inherent feminism, “she wouldn’t read the news, she doesn’t have opinions—outside of her protest against the patriarchy” because fundamentally, she is “short-sighted, narrow-visioned”.  To be fair to her, she does wear glasses. There’s something fleeting about Barbara which McLeod captured at the launch of one of her self-published poetry pamphlets—because, apparently, “all the publishers are bent”. It was a 15-minute event, Barbara was going to read an excerpt from her work for 10 minutes, there would be five minutes of book-buying, “cash only”. When some people turned up just as the launch was ending, Barbara simply told them “I’m sorry you’ve missed it” as she walked off. McLeod values the importance of being in a real place at a particular time, Barbara’s work is quite “anti-streaming, which is potentially missing out on an audience, but I don’t care, I’ve only got a certain amount of time.”


Barbara is a difficult muse, causing McLeod all sorts of problems like having to write poetry which is “bad enough that it works as comedy,” resulting in masterpieces such as ‘72 Hours on Peckham Rye’: “the moon came up, across, and down” (repeated three times, complete with plodding choreography). Barbara’s work channels McLeod’s years of suffering sitting through “hours of people who don’t want to get off the stage” at poetry cafés. She takes full advantage of repetition “it makes the audience feel uncomfortable because they don’t know if it’s ever going to end, and that comes from me feeling uncomfortable at poetry readings when I didn’t know if it would ever stop. You’re held captive because it would be rude to leave.” Let that be a warning to us all. McLeod clarifies: “It was never really my intention to take the piss out of poetry but of poets—or people who put on the poet voice.”


Her family and friends remain bemused by Barbara, “not really that bothered, they think oh it’s just Karen doing her thing and she’s a bit eccentric anyway.” It seems the only people who are bothered are the members of Penge Conservative Club.∎


Words by Isabelle Proctor. Image courtesy of Claire Tailyour.