Vesta Tilley was born in poverty in Worcester in 1864. She never went to school but started work at the age of 5 and soon became the sole provider for her parents and 12 brothers and sisters. Vesta Tilley becamse the most well known music hall male impersonator. She gently parodied different types of men, from soldiers on leave to social climbers.
Vest Tilley became a new type of star, making a fortune through the sale of postcards with her image on them and by lending her name to brands of men’s waistcoats, socks and cigars.
In 1912 she performed at the first ever Royal Variety Performance. It was considered to be a very daring choice of act for the royal family to see. The press reported that the Queen and her ladies lowered their eyes during her act, shocked at the sight of a woman wearing trousers. He show was always very carefully staged. She spent a lot of time studying the typical gestures, ways of walking and the language and habits of the men she was imitating.
During WWI she earned the nickname ‘Britain’s best recruiting sergeant’ thanks to her speeches at recruiting rallies and songs such as ‘It’ a Fint Time for a Soldier’, and ‘There’s a Good Time Coming for the Ladies’. Her hit ‘The Army of Today’s Alright’ was sung by troops on the march and appeared on recruiting posters.
Unlike many others she never went to the Western Front to entertain the soldiers claiming that it would be too difficult to transport her costumes and accessories.
Despite of her support for the war she could sing songs containing social comment or even mockery. ‘Jolly Good Luck to the Girl who Loves a Soldier’ satirises smooth talking but unfaithful military men.
More seriously ‘Six Days Leave’ which became very popular, talks of the suffering of soldiers who came home to England knowing that they must soon go back to the massacres and unable to communicate to their loved ones the hell they were going through.
In her 1916 hit ‘A Bit of a Blighty One’ she played a soldier delighted to be milly coddled in a military hospital in Britain, rahter than having to survive life in the trenches. When he finds himself being fed on expensive desserts and plenty of meat he is delighted to have been wounded. ‘When I think about my dugout, where I dare not poke my mug out’ he sings that he has been pleased to have been hit with a Blighty one.
In society of teh day women were supposed to be subordinate to men. Vesta Tilley’s act was therefore laden with meaning. Yet most of her most enthusiastic fans were women who no doubt appreciated this staging of forbidden roles. The woman in trousers who mocked, even in fun, the dominant sex might well be considered to be representing a subversive message. To compensate for this, she had to take care not to appear too masculine. She hid her hair but never wore false beards or moustaches. Usually she played androgynous young men.
After the war Vesta Tilley left the stage. Her husband was standing for Parliament and a wife as a music hall singer would have been a significant obstacle to him. At her last ever performance on the music hall stage she had 17 curtain calls.