The box of delights

Some years I was rooting around in the cellar at my mum’s house when I found a battered cardboard box full of old film reels. They were films my dad had made in the 60s and 70s. We’d never watched them.

At the time I didn’t pay the films too much attention. I had better things to do than watch old films.

But now? As I approach the middle of middle age, nostalgia is starting to tug at me. And 18 months of sitting around during the pandemic made me realise that actually I don’t have better things to do than watch a box of old films.

So I went back to my mum’s and counted up the films – there were around 50 of them in all. I took a handful home with me.

The film reels. I love my dad’s handwriting

I knew the films were silent 8mm reels but I had no way to view them. I asked around and got lucky – someone on my street WhatsApp group had a vintage 1960s projector she was happy to lend me. (This is perhaps the first time a street WhatsApp group has proved useful for anything.)

I set the projector up on my bed, precariously balanced on a stack of books, and I loaded in a reel of film. I pulled the curtains closed, turned off the light and pushed the button. Magic happened.

The mechanism whirred into life and a misty image appeared on the bedroom wall. I adjusted the focus and there was my mum, in her 20s, chatting to my aunt on a beach in America. After a few minutes my dad appeared; younger than I’d expected but as bald as ever, ambling awkwardly onto screen. It was ridiculous – here were my parents as twentysomethings, striding across my wall, preserved like insects in amber. Some celluloid version of them had been hiding in the cellar all these years. 

Brighton in 1970.

I tried recording the projections on my phone but it came out juddery and unwatchable. If I wanted to watch the films properly (and share them with my family) I’d need to get them digitally converted.

So I called my local Snappy Snaps. The good news was that they could indeed convert the films. The bad news was it would cost £40 per reel. Now, much as I wanted to see more of the films, I wasn’t willing to spend £2000 on them. I looked on eBay instead and found a man in Hull who would do it for £3.75 a reel. Take note, Snappy Snaps. Well done, eBay.

I did spend a few anxious moments worried that I had sent a box full of potentially irreplaceable memories to a random bloke in Yorkshire but a couple of days later an email appeared in my inbox with links to the first five films. 

More films followed; faded, flickering messages from a disappeared world.

Some of the films were of London, viewed through the eyes of my dad, new to the city and fascinated by the peddlers of Petticoat Lane and the changing of the guard. (He infuriated me by spending ages filming random buildings or buses, before I realised that I do exactly the same.)

London, late 1960s. I think the market is Petticoat Lane.

There were countless films of my parents in America during the year they both lived there; my mum looks stylish, sharp, a London girl in the States. My dad looks like the cat who got the cream, not quite believing his luck. It was bittersweet to see them both so young, and to realise that the story of my family (which now seems so set in stone) was once fresh and unformed.

My dad’s footage of New York in the late 1960s.

There were also a handful of films from Argentina. Black and white scenes of long-gone relatives in Buenos Aires and family holidays in Mar del Plata. One film features my dad’s cousin Gregorio who died in his thirties (I was named after him) looking cool alongside my dad. His children, now middle-aged adults, had never seen any films of him. It must have felt like a miracle.

Mar del Plata, mid 1960s

I don’t know why my dad stopped filming; maybe the camera broke, maybe he ran out of film, maybe he got more interested in living life and less interested in documenting it. I’m grateful he made the films at all. When the final emails from the man in Hull arrived, I felt a pang of sadness: I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to imagine another box of films, and another, and another, an endless supply of footage.

The films mean a lot to me personally, but I also feel like they also deserve a wider audience; they contain some wonderful footage of daily life across three continents.

New York in the late 1960s. My dad helpfully labelled the film ‘Hippies’.

These days we’re all used to the idea of documenting every moment in photos and videos. Millions of hours of footage are uploaded to YouTube every day; I can’t imagine how photos are uploaded to Instagram every hour. So it must seem odd to people born into a digital age that relatively little everyday footage exists of the generations before them. There is no video of my childhood. And I’m not even talking about the distant past – I was at secondary school for five years in the 1990s and there are maybe two photographs documenting that time. There are whole chunks of my pre-Internet life that only exist within my memories. I went on whole holidays without taking photos! I didn’t take a photo of the food I was eating for the entirety of the 80s and 90s! Historians will have no idea what I had for breakfast.

Over the last year I’ve become slightly obsessed with the idea of filling in some of those blanks, of finding all my lost films and photos and fitting together the jigsaw pieces of my pre-digital life. In the last six months I’ve scanned in thousands of slides and photos and loaded up old hard drives in search of photos. I suppose I’m trying to neaten up my timeline. Yes, I am quite boring.

When I think about my dad’s films, sitting for decades in a cellar, hiding in plain sight, it feels faintly miraculous. What I love most of all is the idea that across the world, in backrooms and shoeboxes, there are millions of old film reels and faded photos just waiting to be rediscovered; lost universes waiting to be brought back to life. Go find them all. Bring them back to life.

Allanah Starr interview

Since I started the blog I’ve been interested in interviewing different people, and I thought I would seek out people who live other kinds of lives, or who perhaps have skirted beneath the mainstream radar – or just people I like or find funny. My first interview is with Cuban-American transsexual model Allanah Starr. I had hoped to interview Allanah in person as she is currently in London, but in the end we settled on me emailing her a series of questions, which she answered beautifully.

Anyone with a passing interest in porn probably recognises Allanah, even if they don’t know her name. She has her own website, has appeared numerous times on American television, hosts parties, has made a career in porn and filmed the first ever sex scene between a male-to-female and female-to-male transexual. She has also modelled for artists such as Marc Quinn in an exhibition at White Cube.

You were born in Cuba and then your family moved to the US? Did you feel like an outsider? Did you grow up feeling different?

I believe anyone who flees to a foreign country in search of exile initially feels like an outsider. We did not leave Cuba by choice; my father was a former political prisoner and we were in danger in Cuba. I was four years old at the time and I can only imagine what is what like for my parents moving to a foreign country without speaking the language, completely impoverished and having to somehow care for my brothers, sisters, and grandparents. As a child it was difficult because at the time I spoke no English and back then there was no assistance for non-English-speaking student immigrants. They basically put you in whatever grade level you were in and expected you to perform. It was sort of sink or swim and I sank for a long time. I had no idea how to even ask how to go to the bathroom in English, so there were many times when I just ended wetting myself in class because I could not hold it in any longer. And then of course I was highly feminine and different than the other kids and that of course set me up for the usual harassment and bullying one experiences at the hands of their peers when one is different. I learned that very young and I learned it the hard way. I never felt different until the other kids pointed it out. I was just being myself and I suffered for many years for just being me.

When did you decide to make the transition? How did your friends and family take your decision? Were they supportive?

I started playing with androgyny, make up, and gender bending when I was 14. I started doing drag when I was 18 and my transition began when I was 21. I don’t remember when there was a moment that I just decided that I was going to transition. I think it was more an evolvement of my femininity and consciously becoming aware of who I was. In hindsight, I now know that I this was who I was supposed to be and all of my thoughts and ideas when I was much younger finally made sense. Mine was never really a defining moment of sorts, it was just becoming self-aware. As anyone who has been in my position knows, there is always a moment of shock from those close to you as to your decision. I can’t say that my friends at the time were supportive. In fact they all pretty much discouraged me from doing so, except my early mentor India Brooks, who really believed in me. For her, I will be forever grateful because she really was an inspiration and gave e the courage. As far as my family is concerened, they believed at first it was a phase and then gradually they came to terms that is wasn’t and  just got used to it. My mother since has been wonderfully supportive and she is really my best friend. I am quite lucky in that respect.

You went to art college. What were your artistic influences? In some ways, it seems like you are your own greatest artistic triumph, in that you’ve had over 60 cosmetic surgeries. You’ve totally transformed who you are. Is that your art?

Beauty and glamour have always been my artistic influences. I have spent the greater portion of my adult life in search of beauty , glamour, and to be surrounded by beautiful things. If I were to pick my beauty ideals I would have to say Jayne Mansfield, Sophia Loren, Marlene Dietrich , Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Elizabeth Taylor and Marylin Monroe would be at the top of my list. Those carefully constructed beauty icons I admire greatly because it takes so much discipline and effort to be those women. That is lost in today’s culture.  I am also a great fan of women like Grace Jones  and Diana Vreeland because they define a different type of beauty and are supreme definitions of style. Fashion has always played a big role in my life as well. I am very much into dressing for a purpose and not comfort. Clothes are my armor and a reflection of how I am feeling at that particular moment. As far as my cosmetic surgery, they definitely have been a means to obtain a certain look and maybe, yes, an art form. Marc Quinn told me that he thinks that I am an artist and that I am my own art work. I think that was a great compliment from a great artist.

Your look is very glamorous and over-the-top, almost a burlesque of femininity. Some transsexuals just want to blend in and look like the “average” woman. Did that never appeal to you?

No, it never appealed to me to blend in and look like the average woman. I could have gone that route and I think in many ways that does make life easier for some. I respect everyone’s opinion to define what they wish to look like, so if that is what someone chooses, I am certainly not critical of it.  I am a person who shies away from conventions and am definitely not afraid to stand out. As Truman Capote wrote: “I have always lived the life I liked. I have never skipped a pulse beat over what others thought”.

In terms of looks, who is your role model? You seem to go for a very curvy, retro type of glamour – more Jayne Mansfield than Kate Moss.

I think Kate Moss is beautiful but my aesthetic definitely reflects Jayne Mansfield much more than Miss Moss. I was always attracted to that kind of explosive beauty. Bombshells who were formidable women and took no prisoners along the way. I definitely molded my body that way. A femme fatal of sorts – though Miss Mansfield always played the sex bombshell who really wanted to be a housewife.

Do you ever wake up in the morning feeling low and just wanting to be anonymous – to walk down the street without being noticed? 

Yes, I have days like that, but unless I wear a burqa I know I will get noticed. That is the only drawback to being over the top. There are times when you don’t want to be bothered or want any attention and it always is there one way or another. Those are the days I don’t leave the house unless I have to. And If I must,  I put on my tunnel vision and don’t pay attention to anyone or anything.

It seems that there is greater public acceptance of transsexuals, but that there is still a pressure for male-to-female girls to “choose one side or the other”. That is to either live as a man or have a full gender-reassignment. Have you ever felt that pressure?

First of all, I certainly don’t think choosing not to have full gender reassignment surgery means you are living as a man. There are pre-operative transsexual women and post-operative transsexual women and the choice to have genital surgery for anyone is very specific and the reasons why or why not to are very individual.  Society is always trying to dictate others on how they should live their own lives and what they should or should not do with their bodies. I am a fierce opponent of that. You only have one life and one body so you should do with it whatever the hell you like to. I have heard post-op transsexuals criticize pre-op transsexuals and vice versa, and they both make me angry. From a personal point of view, yes it is something I have thought about it but something that I obviously have not done yet. And if I ever do, it will be a personal decision that will only concern my feelings.

You made the move into working in porn. Do you enjoy it or is it just a job?

It’s a job like any other. And like any other job if you don’t enjoy doing it, you will hate it. When I was actively involved in porn I enjoyed it.

You filmed a sex scene with Buck Angel, who is a female-to-male transsexual. How was that?

It was amazing. It was the first time ever a sex scene had been filmed between a female to male transsexual and a male to female to male transsexual, so it was porn history in the making. I am very proud of it because I think it transcended a sex scene and  became a commentary on gender and sex today and it’s interchangeability. Plus, I love Buck as a person. He was the one that got me involved in the Marc Quinn project, and I will be forever greatful.

In general, do women accept you or do you still feel resentment or jealousy?

I think jealousy and resentment can come from anyone. I  think I am accepted by anyone who is well evolved and open minded and non-judgmental, whatever sex they may be.

How many times a day do you meet guys who say “I’m straight, but I’d love to sleep with you.”?

More than I care to remember. The ‘am I straight’ card is the most annoying thing I hear because I hate when a man has to validate his masculinity if he is attracted to transsexuals. The one thing I loathe in a man is insecurity and that to me represents insecurity. The kind of sex you enjoy does not make anyone any less than a man or a woman – what you do in bed is not a testament to your masculinity or femininity.

Would you ever like to have children?

No. I think that is a very difficult and selfless job and one that I am not cut out for. I commend anyone who does the job of a parent well because it is a very hard job to do well.

Does size matter?

Of course. I am not sure which size you are referring to, but isn’t size and measurements everything in life :)?

What is your favourite David Bowie song?


What’s your favourite book?

Currently it is Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut, but I mostly read biographies of people I find interesting-mostly the Hollywood stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

When was the last time you fell in love?

I am immune to that disease.

You have to spend an evening with Bruce Willis, Johnny Depp or Angelina Jolie. Who do you choose?

Angelina Jolie, because she seems the most interesting and dangerous.

If you were having a date over for dinner, what would you cook?

I would go to and order food. I can’t cook, darling. Cooking is not one of my talents.

You’re currently living in London? What have been your highlights so far? What’s been the biggest surprise/disappointment about living in London?

I love London, I always have. To me it’s like a marriage of European capital and New York City (the only relevant city in America in my opinion, because everything that is of any importance culturally happens in New York). I do miss my social life in New York City because in a sense I was very established socially in New York and here it seems like it has been harder to meet people here in London.  Also, I find London a tad bit more conservative than New York but I love the style of the people here. Nonetheless, I am happy being in between here and Paris. It’s a nice change to New York but I love all three cities equally.

Tell us a joke:

If I did so, I would have to charge you