He’s swapped Blue the boyband for the bluest of musicals, and he’s relishing the challenge of dancing in heels.
Donning lipstick and a sky scraper headpiece may seem an unlikely outfit for Duncan James, who shot to fame as one quarter of Blue, but he says appearing in Priscilla Queen of the Desert is giving him the chance to stretch his musical theatre muscles.
On Friday he makes his debut in the camp classic, which will be bringing its raucous blend of feathers and fabulousness to Sunderland at the end of the month.
Wearside will be one of the first places to see Duncan in his full glittery regalia.
In the midst of rehearsals, he says he can’t wait to pull on his platforms.
Speaking about what drew him to the role of Tick, the dad-of-one said: “I loved the script, I’ve seen it in the West End, and I love the show.
“It’s fun, it’s an interesting role that I can relate to – he has a kid, he’s had struggles with his sexuality. The only difference is he’s a drag queen and I was in Blue,” said Duncan who has spoken openly of his bisexuality. He added: “I’ve had fittings and the costumes don’t leave much to the imagination, plus I now know how difficult it is to dance in heels.
“I love acting and it’s got some great moments in it with Tick and his son. The dancing is something I’m really struggling with. I did boyband dance moves from the age of 20 to 37 but now I have to do everything in a feminine way.
“There’s so much to focus on: there’s learning the routines, learning them in heels, then learning the words. It’s a bit like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time.
“I’m not a dancer, they have the ability to pick it up more quickly than me, it takes me longer so I get frustrated with myself.”
It’s very current at the minute with Caitlyn Jenner and we have a transgender character in the show,Duncan James
Though the vertiginous heels may take some getting used to, Duncan is no stranger to the stage.
His stage credits include playing Warner Huntington III in the West End production of Legally Blonde and Billy Flynn in Chicago.
“It’s the first show I’ve done since Legally Blonde,” he said. “I studied theatre for A-Level. Theatre was a path I wanted to go down, but I never trained at a drama school. I grew up in Devon and there wasn’t the opportunity, financially, to travel to London and go to places like Italia Conti drama school, but I muddled in and did what I could, and did things with some great amateur dramatic groups.
“Then Blue happened and it’s helped me to do what I wanted to do and given me the opportunity. My first role was Billy Flynn in Chicago. In the same week I was also offered Fiyero in Wicked, but I decided on Billy because I loved that role. At the time I was one of the youngest to play him in the West End. It’s great to be getting back on stage.”
Based on the film of the same name, Priscilla Queen of the Desert follows the adventure of three friends who hop aboard a battered old bus searching for love and friendship.
Along the way, they don a dazzling array of outrageous costumes and dance their way through a hit parade of dancefloor fillers including It’s Raining Men, Say a Little Prayer, Go West, Hot Stuff and Always on My Mind.
Though it’s long been a popular show, Duncan says it’s becoming all the more current with the headlines around Bruce Jenner transitioning as Caitlyn Jenner.
“It’s very current at the minute with Caitlyn Jenner and we have a transgender character in the show,” he said. “It’s three characters who come together on a bus. One is full gay, one is transgender and Tick is a bit more closeted because he has a kid.
“Then we have Felicia who is so over the top, but I think that hides an insecurity inside.”
Duncan says it’s important for shows to feature such issues, for art to imitate life.
“We do live in an age which is more accepting, as a nation we approve of gay marriage and have passed that law. But there are still some people who don’t like it, who turn a blind eye and don’t want to talk about it,” he said.
“I think for the older generation it’s a big thing for them. In some ways it is in your face, there’s always a gay guy or a lesbian on reality TV shows and we’ve had transgender people win those shows in Britain. It needs to be like that because that’s what’s real, it’s really going on in the world. And everyone, no matter if they’re gay, transgender or whatever, deserves to be happy in their own skin.
“But what’s brilliant about this show is that its wraps those issues up with fun songs and a lovely story. Anyone can come along, even if they have their reservations, and leave with a smile on their face.”
Tick is the latest high-profile role for Duncan, who sold over 13 million records, had three number one albums and forty number one singles worldwide in Blue.
Today, the band is still going strong thanks, in part, to ITV2’s Big Reunion which brought a number of hit bands back together.
Duncan says it’s a pleasure to still share the stage with his friends, performing hits including One Love and All Rise.
“Since Big Reunion we’ve done back to back shows,” he said. “It’s a different industry to when we were first around, but as four people we’re really enjoying working together again.
“We have a genuine friendship and I think that shows, we’ve stuck together through the highs and the lows, which have been very well documented. “These days we don’t have anything to prove, but we still enjoy it.”
In Blue, he’s performed in the North East countless times and says he’s looking forward to returning in Priscilla.
“We love coming up north, the audiences always let their hair down, and you can feel that when you perform.”
•Priscilla Queen of the Desert is at Sunderland Empire from August 31 to September 5. Tickets are available from Tel. 0844 871 3022 or www.atgtickets.com/sunderland.