DJ Paulette fleshes it out

Interviewed by Bill, 5.10.21

Music-obsessive Paulette went to her first club aged 14 and never looked back. From 1992 she was resident at Flesh, the mixed/gay spectacular at The Haçienda, and as British clubbing discovered glamour, she was welcomed into a flamboyant nationwide family, where her fiercely expressive approach to DJing (and DJ attire) earnt her residencies at many of the best nights across the UK. After a sojourn in Paris she’s now back in Manchester, writing a book and creating unapologetically fabulous shapes out of dancefloors worldwide.

Can you remember the first time you ever went to a club?
I started clubbing in Manchester when I was 15, but the first club I went to, I was 14, it was 1980, and I went to Cagneys in Liverpool to hear Steve Proctor play. At the time, I was buying Melody Maker, NME, The Face and New Sounds New Styles. They were my magazines. I was into post-punk, Sheffield electronic sounds. So, Cabaret Voltaire, early Human League: Travelogue, Reproduction. And Gary Numan, John Foxx, all sorts of electronic. And then post-punk: Dead Kennedys, Killing Joke, that kind of thing. I was really into that.

It was the Blitz Kids in London, Princess Julia and Rusty Egan who were playing all this. And I couldn’t get that far, but Liverpool seemed doable. And in all the magazines, they talked about this DJ in the north of England who was playing that kind of music. My sister’s friend Karen was best friends with Steve Proctor. So she was like, ‘Oh, just come to Liverpool and I’ll put you on the guest list.’ Never mind the fact that I was 14, but these were simpler times in the ’80s, when you could just take somebody else’s paper birth certificate to the club as proof of age and look a bit grown-up.

Photo: Lee Baxter

And I went wearing a really beautiful big print, it was like plants and leaves, big Monstera leaves on this jumpsuit which was green and olive and gold. It was beautiful. You know, one of those jumpsuits with the diagonal zip. And yeah, I went to Cagneys in Liverpool. The first record he was playing when I walked in was Gary Numan, ‘Cars’, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is fantastic,’ I got on the dance floor, and that was it. I think I was going once every two weeks or once a month or something. And then I started studying for my marks and it got a bit of a drag going all the way to Liverpool after school on a Friday.

Then my sister Elizabeth started working at a club called Pips behind the bar, and she said, ‘Why don’t you come to Pips? They’re playing your music.’ Because I was the only one in my family that was into that. Everyone else was into soul. They were following Greg Wilson, Colin Curtis, Mike Shaft, Ewan Clarke. They’re like family friends. And I was just like, ‘I love that music, but this is what I want to follow.’ So Liz is just like, ‘Come. I’m on the bar, so I can keep my eye on you. I can get you in, but you know, you can get a membership.’ And that’s what I did, and I was there probably three nights a week until it closed. I was a steady 18 for three years, because I just used to use different sisters’ birth certificates to get membership.

And Pips became your home from home
It was absolutely fantastic. First of all, Pips has everything to do with how I built my record collection, because it was a bit of everything. It had four rooms; a ’60s room, a soul room, a Bowie room, and a Roxy room. You had all the punk stuff in the Roxy room, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Dead Kennedys, Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft, all that kind of shit. And the Bowie room was where they were playing all their new romantic stuff: Bowie, Roxy, Simple Minds, which was more self-expressive, Visage, that kind of thing. The dress-up, the performance thing.

And Pips had everything to do with why I DJ the way I do, because it’s all to do with expressing yourself to the music at the same time as it’s playing. So, dancing along, singing along, miming along. Every time they played a Bowie record, everyone moved off the dance floor, and the Bowie-heads moved on, and it was a dance floor full of Marcel Marceaus miming along to it. I used to be really good at it.

Was it quite big?
Yeah. It was massive. It was a massive basement club, four rooms. You could definitely fit I would say 150, 200 in each room. Probably about 800 in total, maybe 1,000 at a squeeze.

Did you ever go to The Haçienda before acid house kicked in?
Of course I did, yeah. Because we used to go and listen to Hewan Clarke and Mike Pickering at Nude and go to gigs there and everything. It was just a place to go and listen to music and dance, you know? Sometimes really empty and sometimes really good. It was a really good place to dance, a really good dance floor. It was like a playground to me. The Ritz, The Gallery, Pips, Haçienda, Boardwalk, DeVille’s, Berlin, Legend, I’ve done them all. I was there on the dance floor. That’s how I grew up. I was clubbing probably three nights a week from 14.

Out of all of them, you would say Pips was the most formative.
Yeah, there’s never been another club like it, and I don’t think they could ever make it again, just because of the mixing of tribes. Even at festivals, you don’t really get that mixing the way you did there. Because at Pips, you’ve got the ’60s room, you’ve got the soul room, you’ve got the Bowie and the Roxy room, but people didn’t just stay in those rooms. Everybody moved around. So you’d get the soul boys in the Bowie room in their waffle cardigans and their cords and their loafers watching all the dressed up new romantics dancing to Grace Jones or David Bowie. And then you’d get these six-foot-four punks with full mohicans, chains, makeup, the lot, standing in the soul room, dancing to flippin’ Donny Hathaway. You know? It was just like a real mind meld.

Though culturally, 1980, 1981, and 1982, if you looked even remotely different, you were a fag, you were a queer, you were a puff. And if you actually were, then it was even worse, you know? You got it in the street, but you didn’t get it in the club. People seemed to leave that outside the door, and once in the club, everyone was alright with everyone being there.

All of the different tribes would mingle in one space, because you knew you wouldn’t get beaten up and you knew you could hang out there.
I suppose Pips and then DeVille’s and Berlin were my soft introduction into the full gay scene of Manchester. That was kind of how I drifted into finding that side of myself.

“The reason it happened in gay clubs is because they didn’t see having women behind the decks as a bad thing or a weakness. They saw it as a strength.”

When did you start hearing house music?
I think I was more aware of house music coming through my sisters, because Paula and Elizabeth were raving and I wasn’t, and they were bringing the music back, and I was hearing it on the radio.

But not in clubs?
I was married really early. And my ex-husband didn’t like clubs at all. And for the years I was with him, we kind of went to clubs, but it was all very polite. So it was only really like the wine bar-y ’80s, and Simply Red-y sort of stuff. We split up after seven years. So probably the first time I heard house music in a club was after I went, ‘Fuck this, I’m out of here,’ and started dancing at The Number One, in 1991.

Tell me about The Number One. I used to go there as well.
The Number One was funny. I always seem to be attracted to these dark, seedy basements where all sorts of shit happens. You lose control and you find yourself. I was working for Piccadilly Radio, and me and my friend went to The Number One one day after work, and it was chrome and mirrors and carpet, and they were showing Divine on the videos: Female Trouble, and I remember that very clearly.

Then fast forward to 1991, I went back. The carpet was sticky and dark. The chrome was there but it had all been painted over black, and it was a proper rave spot. I was there one night dancing, and I remember dancing to Prince’s ‘Gett Off’, and I lost the plot. Absolutely lost the plot. I don’t know whether it was because I was free from my husband for the night. I remembered Tim Lennox played this Junior Vasquez mix and I went into this routine which just was a complete release, and when the manager saw me dancing, he just came over at the end and he went, ‘Oh my God, that was fantastic. Do you want to work for us?’ So I was like, ‘Doing what?’ And he said, ‘I’d like you to dance on a podium every Friday and Saturday night. If you can do that from nine till two, I’ll pay you 50 quid.’ And I was studying, so it was quite a lot of money. I said yes, much against my husband. He wasn’t happy about it at all. It was nearly all of the mortgage though. So he’s like, ‘Okay, then.’

But I wasn’t allowed to leave the house in the clothes I was wearing, so I had to change at the club. It was all a bit mental. But this club was, wow, because Tim Lennox was playing. And that was where I heard DSK, Inner City, Kevin Saunderson, Mr. Fingers, Larry Heard, and then all the vocal stuff that was coming through.

Who were the DJs who influenced you most?
There was Hewan, there was Tim Lennox, there was Mike Pickering, and Barney – Michael Barnes-Wynters from Bristol. He used to run a party called Hoochie Coochie in Manchester. He’s just a incredible, switched on, very politically black, very right on, black power, civil rights kind of person. He’s an artist now. And musically, because he was from Bristol, he had an edge that Manchester music didn’t necessarily have. They were the four pillars of my understanding of what it takes to build a set, play a set. What kind of music can you play all night, which is basically fucking everything. And the quality, really, and also vocals. They all played vocals.

Any women?
I didn’t have any female influences. There were never any women behind the decks when I started DJing. Even on the posters, on the flyers, there were no women’s names on them ever. Ever, ever, ever. I wasn’t moving in the lesbian circles either, so I wasn’t aware of that side of things. From my tunnel vision I was always following male DJs.

When you first started DJing, all of the women seemed to come through the gay scene, even if they weren’t actually gay. Princess Julia, Vicki Edwards, Rachel Auburn, people like that. It was like female DJs hardly existed on the straight scene.
Well, they didn’t exist on the straight scene because it was big boys club, and they were never going to give any woman a job. There’s a reason why there weren’t any women on the flyers or the posters, because there weren’t any there. It changed a lot in the ’90s, but in the ’80s the only women you really saw in clubs were behind the scenes. They could manage the bar. They could manage the kitchens, the offices, the record labels, everything, but they weren’t the high profile figureheads. Ang Matthews was managing The Haçienda, but you never saw her giving any comments on the news. It was Tony Wilson, Peter Hook, Rob Gretton. You wouldn’t have been aware that women were running anything to do with The Haçienda, or the Factory, but they were.

There was a woman who designed The Haçienda who never gets mentioned: Sandra Douglas. It’s always Ben Kelly.
I mean, it’s in everything. It’s not just in clubbing. It’s the same in the arts. It’s the same in science, politics.It’s not unusual to clubbing, per se. We live in patriarchal society. That’s how it is. Things are systemically embedded in society. That’s when it becomes political, because it’s not just an isolated case of you not knowing there were women there, or they’re not promoted, or they’re not pushed, or they’re not accepted. That’s just the way it was. And there weren’t really very many women.

I think the reason why it happened in gay clubs is because they were alright with having women around. They didn’t see having women behind the decks as a bad thing or a weakness. They saw it as a strength. They saw it as something else that would attract another crew of people.

And also, they knew that if you had a lot of women there, it changes the environment completely. You know yourself, if you play a record that brings all the boys to the dance floor and makes all the girls disappear, your dancefloor will go really quickly, because you really do need to keep that balance of men and women. With the gay clubs, they were working more on the holistic atmosphere of the event, rather than it just being a club playing records.

How did you get the gig at Flesh?
I started DJing in 1992. It was by accident because I never planned to be a DJ. I didn’t set out thinking, ‘I want to DJ at The Haçienda.’ I was offered a spot at a party that a friend of a friend of mine was running, and she’d run out of money because she paid for the hire of the club, she paid for the posters and everything, and then couldn’t afford to pay for a DJ. So she asked her friend Tommy, did he know anyone? And he knew I had loads of records because I’d been secretly building this record collection, even though my husband had said no, I couldn’t. I spoke to Adele. She said, ‘I want you to play at The Number One from nine till two. I’ll give you 30 quid,’ which seemed like a really good deal to me. So I said yes, spent my entire grant for that term on records, which was 150 quid. I played that party, and it went really super, super well. I did it on my own. I’d never played in a club before, and I played the entire night. I didn’t lose anyone. You know, nobody walked out. Nobody said it was shit.

And from that, it had really good feedback from the gay community, because it was a gay party. And news filtered back to Paul Cons and Lucy Scher, who were moving Flesh from The Academy to The Haçienda. And then Adele said to me ‘I think we should ask them if we can play their second room.’ So we did. Lucy Scher, there’s another woman, god rest her soul, she died three years ago. If it hadn’t have been for Lucy, neither myself nor Kath McDermott would have played at The Haçienda.

Before this, Lucy did a party there, I think it was called The Summer of Lesbian Love, and it was one of the biggest parties they’d had – absolutely packed and made loads of money. So that persuaded the people at The Haçienda that maybe it was a good thing to start a new gay night, so they started Flesh. I was downstairs in the Gay Traitor. They renamed it the Pussy Parlour, and I played there every month from ’92 till ’96, bar two when I took my finals.

When all of the problems were happening at The Haçienda, with gangs taking over the door, was Flesh unaffected by that because it was a gay club?
It was for a while. At some point, some of the gangs used to come into Flesh, and it was just a place where they could hang out and be left alone, and nobody would bother them, and they could enjoy the music. They did occasionally come in. Certain of them, not all of them, but in large, it was a safe space for gay people and their mates.

And you juggled DJing with a career in promotions
I moved to London in ’94. and I’m working at Mercury Records. And by 1996, I’m full on into Talkin’ Loud, Manifesto, Ibiza, you name it. It was just too much. Flesh was a Wednesday monthly. I couldn’t keep taking a Wednesday every month off work, so I had to stop. Also, they didn’t want to pay more, and they didn’t want to pay my travel. I was at Mercury Records from ’94, and then I was at Azuli and Defected in ’98, and then by ’99, I was just working solely on Azuli as the promotions and art director. And then 2000 I was really struggling to keep the timing of working a full-time job as a promotions director for a record label and my weekend DJing which had really picked up. They wanted me to do an American tour, so I made the leap in 2000 to go full-time.

And you lived in Paris for a while
I started touring internationally for the Ministry of Sound, and various other things happened. I had a load of problems with my flat and then I sold it. I met someone, and it was just like … I’d always wanted to live in France anyway, so I just decided that it would be a good idea in 2004 to make that leap. So December 2004, I moved to Paris.

One of Paulette’s low-key outfits for Flesh. “If you’re gonna make yourself visible make yourself really visible” Photo: Daniel Newman

Did the novelty factor of being a woman help or hinder you in the early part of your DJ career?
Both. Both. I mean, in terms of bookings, I would say absolutely helped on the gay scene. It didn’t help me on the straight scene at all. I had to kind of divorce myself from playing those nights in order to start playing on the straight circuit, to start working at your Ministry of Sounds, your Cross, your Bagleys. You didn’t get gay DJs playing on this straight scene and you didn’t really get straight DJs playing on the gay scene. They just didn’t meet. I was with Concord Artists, and when they were suggesting me for booking, people wouldn’t book me because I was ‘that gay DJ’. So I had to lose that tag, which is really upsetting. Looking back on it, that’s fucking discrimination. You really wouldn’t be able to do that now. And if people found out about it, they could rightly kick off.

But in gay terms it was fantastic because the persona that I had built meant I was picked up by Wayne Kurz at The Zap for a weekly residency. And the same with playing for James Horrocks and Thomas Foley at Garage at Heaven with Princess Julia and Rachel Auburn and Stephen Sharp. James Bailey had seen me, so I went to play at Venus in Nottingham, and Trannies With Attitude booked me for Vague. They had all seen me and heard me play out Flesh. Patrick Lilley was always, always at Flesh. And when I moved to London, I became a good friend and consequently played for a lot of his nights: Queer Nation, One Nation Under A Groove, you name it. All of those big mythic gay nights and gay locations. Everything those people did, I was able to play because I was part of the family. It enabled me to meet all these really powerful, important people and play at some of the best parties in the world

And in what ways did it hinder you?
I was thinking about it the other day. When I started DJing I didn’t know, how do I get these cool records? It was about ’93, so I’d split up from my husband and was seeing Simon Bushell, who was in charge of a distribution company that supplied all the record shops in Manchester. One Saturday afternoon, he took me to Eastern Bloc, and he says, ‘You should put a bag of records aside for Paulette. She’s a really good DJ. She’s up and coming,’ and somebody said ‘Why should we give her any records? She only gets the gigs because she stands there playing records in a fluffy bra and bikini knickers.’

It was just like, god, the straight guys don’t think I’m remotely relevant in terms of music. All they can see is a woman behind the decks. And not just a woman, because I think if you’re going to make yourself visible, make yourself really visible, so I’m not standing there in twin set and pearls; I’ve got fuck-all on. It was just clear that they didn’t think I deserved the term of DJ, because all I was to them was window dressing. For people who know me and know what was in my head musically, they would know my life is music. But for the people that couldn’t be assed, all they saw was a fluffy Wonderbra.

“David Guetta’s around 20 million a year. There’s not a female that’s earning even close to that. “

Have you noticed things change over the past 25, 30 years?
I think a lot more in the last four years. We can talk about this stuff now, and we can actually say, ‘Hey, this is right. This is wrong. This needs changing. This doesn’t. We’ve got a whole new generation of females that are running things. They’re running their own labels. They’ve got radio shows on Radio 1, 1Xtra, Reprezent Radio, Rinse, you name it. They’ve all got their brands. They’ve got their labels. You’ve got people like Anz, and Jamz Supernova, and Jaguar, and Afrodeutsche. There’s a whole new generation of really powerful, vocal, political black women coming up. And that’s where I would see the change as well because I’m seeing a lot more black women too in there. When I was doing it, I was a bit of a needle in a haystack.

Is it really that recent that it’s changed?
Yes. Absolutely that recent.

Are there places even now where you still get treated differently as a female DJ?
Yeah. I mean, of course there are, because there isn’t a single place that pays women the same money as they pay men. That gender pay gap is absolutely horrific. For one of the projects I’m working on I was looking at the statistics for wages for female DJs. The highest paid male DJ, I think it’s between Calvin Harris and Marshmello. I think Calvin Harris earned 80 million last year. And Marshmello earned 38.5. The highest earning female DJ, I bet you can’t even guess who that is.

Nina Kraviz?
Not even close.

One of the Eastern European techno DJs?
Not even close.

I’ve got no idea, then.
The highest earning female DJ, and this is such a con even putting her on the list because she is an heiress anyway…

Oh, God.
…is Paris Hilton.

There isn’t any female DJ that is earning even remotely near the amounts the guys are earning. I think David Guetta’s around 20 million a year. There’s not a female that’s earning even close to that. There isn’t a female equivalent to Carl Cox. There isn’t a female equivalent to David Guetta. The closest you can get is Nervo, and I’m telling you, they are not earning anywhere near the same.

Annie Mac is just an absolute mega-god in terms of what can be done and what can be achieved. But if Annie Mac doesn’t come up in the 20 highest earning DJs, then seriously, we’ve got a problem. When she left Radio 1, the last post she did said, ‘There’ve been so many changes and it’s great to see so many women at Radio 1, but we still have so far to go.’ And it’s just really frustrating. I’ve been DJing for 30 years and I think it’s changed a lot in many ways. But really, when you put the stats together, it’s not changed at all.

Is dancing political?
For me, yeah. Everything. Everything’s political for me, everything from my head down to my toes. Everything is political, much to the annoyance of my family. But I really do see that if we have this platform, it has to have some use. It can’t just be, oh, I’m playing this nice record and then that nice record. If you’re going to influence people, make it count. If you’re going to entertain people, entertain them in such a way that they can take some kind of message away. A positive message, a positive political message.

Music is universal. I will never stop loving music, and I’m not going to stop playing music unless the ears fall off the side of my head or I go deaf. And I think even if I go deaf, I’ll still have a go. Everything about dance is political, down to the colour I am, the gender I am, the age I am, everything. Absolutely everything is political. And I hope that just by my even standing there, I am saying to people it is okay. And that’s why I keep going. It’s okay. Just whatever you want to do, if you have that dream, if you have something you want to do, just do it. It’s okay to be who you are. Just be who you are when you wake up in the morning. It’s fine. Go party.

And yes, dance is political. We have a platform that we can use to transmit messages. So, I do occasional bits of fundraising. I will use my music and my platform to transmit that message and to raise money or to raise awareness. And I think we can really make a difference in that way. So yes, dance music is political and it always should be. We’re fucked if it’s not. We really are.

Why is music such a force for rebellion?
It isn’t for everybody. There are some people who manage to use dance music as just a money-making tool to line their own pockets and to buy huge mansions. But music has always been a tool for rebellion, right back to Negro spirituals and gospel music. It wasn’t just a nice song. They were giving directions to people to get out of the fields. The songs they were singing, they were maps. Music has always been really political. I think if you can get a song that sticks in people’s heads, it’s a lot more powerful than a pamphlet or a politician.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton