More fabulosity would be the Cherrie on Top for Co Antrim actor Matthew Cavan

Jenny Lee chats to Carrickfergus actor Matthew Cavan about donning his bright orange wig to become drag queen Cherrie on Top, and about the importance of teaching children about diversity at a young age

Carrickfergus actor Matthew Cavan sitting alongside his alter ego Cherrie On Top
Carrickfergus actor Matthew Cavan sitting alongside his alter ego Cherrie On Top

BOOKS and storytelling are crucial for fuelling children’s imagination, teaching important life lessons and helping them develop empathy, self-expression and openness to acceptance.

Carrickfergus actor Matthew Cavan, whose alter-ego Cherrie On Top is one of Belfast’s most loved and respected drag queens, will host a fun-filled afternoon of laughter, glitter and stories in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter this weekend, as part of the Belfast Children’s Festival.

Dragtime Stories with Cherrie On Top aims to celebrate individuality, imagination, inclusivity and the importance of being yourself, using examples from a wide range of children’s literature.

One of the books Cherrie will be reading is Julian is a Mermaid, by Jessica Love.

“It’s a beautiful story about a young boy who is at a Mardi Gras parade with his grandmother and catches a glimpse of these fabulous women dressed up as mermaids. He comes home and makes himself a tail, transforming himself into a mermaid. He thinks he’s going to be in trouble, but his grandmother accepts Julian for who he is,” explains the 30-year-old.

Cherrie took part in a previous Drag Queen story event in Holywood Arches Library last year, alongside fellow drag artists Portia Di’Monte and Onya Becks, and is looking forward to re-engaging with young audiences.

“I love working with kids and I think it's so good for them to see drag queens from an early age and to show that people don't just wear suits and ties when they go to work, but that people work in a variety of jobs," Matthew says.

“At the last event I simply told the children that I was a boy but I was playing this character called Cherrie. Children are driven by their curiosities. They were fascinated and were totally accepting. It’s us as adults that are questioning.”

Matthew first questioned his own identity at the age of 10 after watching a clip from the TV drama Queer as Folk, starring Irish actor Aiden Gillen, which chronicled the lives of three gay men living in Manchester.

“I knew there was something different about me when I was growing up. I wasn’t like the other boys. I would much rather have played Barbies or put on little song-and-dance shows with the girls than go outside and play rough sports with the boys," he tells me.

“When I saw the two boys kissing on TV I was fascinated and life started to make sense.”

Although Matthew came out as gay when he was 16, he admits it took him longer to comes to terms with his own identity.

“For the first few years after I came out I admit I was a bit of a prat and wasn't very nice to my parents. I was this affected pink-haired, fake tanned, fluffy sequence wearing person who worked in a gay bar.

“As gay people we live a lie for so long that you have to unpack all that. But as you start to accept yourself, all of that can fall away and you're left with the person that you are.”

Matthew is a successful actor and singer who recently completed a run in Northern Ireland Opera’s production of Kiss Me Kate at the Lyric Theatre. He is also a member of The Belfast Ensemble creative collective and is production managing their new Kindermusik Project for tiny ears, which will premiere at the Belfast Children’s Festival.

The persona of Cherrie On Top was created eight years ago, after he was seen by the entertainment manager of Belfast’s Cabaret Supper Club playing the part of Frank N Furter in a cabaret version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

“I never really wanted to be a drag queen but I was approached to take part in the Cabaret Supper Club’s New Year’s Eve show and I’ve had constant work ever since,” he explains.

Cherrie allows Matthew to express a different side to his personality.

“Cherrie is definitely a lot more outgoing. She gives me the opportunity to be loud, crass, crude and funny. As Matt I'm not the funniest person but there is a freedom around drag that allows you get away with saying a lot more.”

At this stage of his career, Matthew admits he now has about 150 wigs and 10 massive boxes of costumes dedicated to Cherrie on Top.

“For a long time I used my spare room for Cherrie but now I have a house full of Cherrie’s things, with boxes stuffed in any hole I can find, as well as in storage at Cabaret Supper Club,” he laughs.

And how would he sum up Cherrie’s style?

“For a long time she loved Hollywood red-carpet glamour but then I went quite camp with the big orange wig and bright coloured clothing. She also looks good in 1950s rockabilly gear.”

Cherrie’s Dutch-manufactured orange wig has become a big statement of her character. It featured in his documentary, Cherrie, Me and HIV, which has been shown in film festivals all over the world, and in the Belfast Ensemble’s opera Abomination – The DUP In Concert.

The wig hit the headlines in November 2018 when it was stolen outside Belfast’s Errigal bar, where the cast had called in after a performance of Abomination. Thankfully Matthew was reunited with his wig after a girl admitted taken it “as a bit of a gag” during a drunken night out.

Although over the busy Christmas period Matthew managed the transformation into Cherrie in just 45 minutes, he likes to give himself two hours to get ready.

“For drag queens the foundation is the most important aspect, as you have to change your facial shape. I use TV paint stick and also a lot of bPerfect cosmetics, which are a local company from north Belfast who over the past five years have become a worldwide leader in the cosmetics world.”

Infected with HIV 10 years ago, Matthew has battled death threats and online trolls in the past but, with the support of his family and friends, is using his position to be an activist for others.

“I want people to see in me a guy who is living life to the full. With the medication I am on, I am now undetectable, with no risk of passing on the disease.

“Due to medical advances, HIV is no longer a death sentence; but what is killing people with HIV is the stigma and people's attitudes and views.

“I am very lucky to have the support network I have but I know many in Northern Ireland who haven’t been able to tell anyone because they are so terrified of what people’s opinion will be.”

While Matthew welcomes the recent introduction of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, he says many attitudes still need to change.

“I think the majority of people in our country want to move forward and want a bit more fabulosity in our community. But the only way we can live in equilibrium is to be a more accepting society – accepting of gay people, accepting of those from a different community and accepting of those from a different ethnic background.”

:: Dragtime Stories with Cherrie On Top takes place on Sunday March 8 in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter. Session one will be in Established Coffee Shop on Hill St, (2-3.30pm) and session two will be in the family room at the MAC theatre (4-5pm). The event is part of the Belfast Children’s Festival, which runs from March 6–11. See for programme and booking details.