My first physical encounter with the world of leather and…
Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger, Whitney Houston- we know the names of the famous, who lost their lives through addiction. But every day, people without a high public profile battle with substance abuse- and many of them don’t make it. One of those was Siobhan ‘Shoehorn’ Grier. She’s remembered, revered, cursed and missed by her friends and family.
An addiction to alcohol killed one of my most loved sidekicks, Siobhan Grier. She was 41. She boasted above average IQ and had a wit that could silence a room. Now, there’s just silence.
There comes a point in every teen’s life when an incident fuels an accelerated maturity. The innocent child becomes a stunned adult- and there’s no reverse gear on that transition. For some, it’s a sexual experience, a death or a parental separation. In my case, it was meeting Siobhan Grier.
It was 1984 and aged 14, I’d been invited to a party in Tolworth, thrown by the slightly wild Kathleen Sheehy. The theme was Vicars and Tarts. After ringing the doorbell, me and my mate Sebastian waited anxiously on a suburban doorstep, listening to the seeping sounds of Bananarama, clutching bottles of Bulgarian Chardonnay.
When the door opened, it was a like a scene from an ‘80s sex comedy. A woman stood there, in a white basque, stockings and suspenders, Wayfarer Ray-Bans, rosary beads and heels. She dragged both of us into the house with gleeful abandon. She boasted the body of a lingerie model and we’d only ever seen schoolgirls. This was a woman. Her name was Siobhan Grier.
Force of nature
She was a force of nature like nothing I’d experienced. There’s no character in literature, cinema or art that can match the volatile, theatrical, slightly scary young woman who dominated that party with a Molotov spritzer of sex and a barely restrained threat of violence. Just because she made out with you, didn’t mean she wouldn’t punch you ten minutes later.
At the time, she modelled herself on Madonna. Occasionally, she channelled Monroe. She certainly had the figure of a pin-up, but she also boasted the vicious tongue of Tallulah Bankhead and the vampy fire of Liz Taylor. It was quite a combo and didn’t endear her to everyone. Not that she gave a fuck.
Girls were threatened by her. Men were confused, turned on and terrified. Gay men adored her. She could upstage anything by her sheer existence. When she chose to wilfully seek attention, it would often end in tears. But never hers.
We nicknamed her The Shoehorn and she was never far from my side for the next ten years. We went to college together, but the only class she really turned up to was Contemporary Dance. She never missed a party. It frustrated me that as a member of MENSA and far sharper than any of our crew, she treated education with utter disdain and chose to read The Sun.
‘Oh, fuck off you poof,’ she’d snap, if I dared question her. That would be it. No discussion. She worked at McDonald’s in Twickenham and revelled in my disgust that she choose McNuggets over ‘A’ Levels. She lapped up low culture with glee and often, it seemed, because it drove me crazy.
Fighting the diva
Two years after my mother died in ‘85, she turned to me at a party with tears spilling down her face. ‘What are you gonna do?’ she asked, utterly perplexed. ‘You’ve got no mum.’
She’d never acknowledged my mother’s death prior to that moment, so it was an emotional curveball. Shoehorn didn’t do crying either. We talked it out, hugged and drank ‘til we both felt better, then passed out, like teenagers do. The following day, I thanked her, but she furiously denied the conversation had occurred.
Rather than fight the diva, I cherished the 5am glimpse of her heart. She viewed emotional honesty as a weakness and was a firm believer in tough love. I learned very quickly that The Shoehorn wasn’t ideal for tea and sympathy. If you wanted to get arrested, banned from a bar or kicked off a nightbus, she was your girl. I loved her for that.
Just before she died, I learned that Siobhan had spent six weeks in hospital following a haemorrhage from her oesophagus, where she lost four pints of blood. She had varicose veins, lesions and serious cirrhosis of the liver.
She was unable to walk due to her yellowed and puffy legs. She was unrecognisable. The foxy chick who’d turned heads and caused riots had been reduced to a shuffling old woman. On her Facebook page, she said,
‘YO Gleeks. Been in hospital in Brighton for 6 fecking weeks, internal bleeeding-gastro-ops-wheelchair- blah-blah. SO bored I want to give the place a 60 minute makeover. THEY HAVE NO TV!’
One wouldn’t guess she was staring death in the face unless she stopped drinking and secured a liver transplant. Even without the glib updates, I knew that Shoehorn was not a lady for turning. An unwillingness to accept responsibility and a lifelong rejection of authority are not attributes which compliment recovery from addiction.
Unfortunately, I’ve learned these lessons the hard way. It’s got to the point where the amount of friends I’ve lost through substance abuse has bubbled into double figures, especially when suicides and overdoses are taken into consideration.
Two of those were boyfriends. At least 50% of my friends are in 12-step recovery and large number of mates are accidents waiting to happen. Even those in programs are but one step from relapsing- and that’s a lifelong threat, which can easily prove fatal. Rock and roll, eh?
Wild and wilful
It seems that the price for having friends who’re talented, rebellious and brilliant is that they can depart very quickly. There was much hand wringing in the press about Amy Winehouse; her demons, her dealers, her do-bad boyfriend.
It was all just ignorant speculation, ’cause blame doesn’t help anyone in this delicate gamble with life. Reasoning with an addict is like trying to catch the wind. It’s a fragile game. If you push too hard, they’ll cut you off forever.
If you say to an addict, ‘It’s the drink, or me,’ they’ll be at the bar before you’ve said goodbye. They’ll hate you for making the threat and hate themselves for provoking it. The more isolated they become, the greater the self-loathing and ultimately their condition will accelerate.
So, you have to brush off the insults, blink back tears, witness the decline and just pray they’ll stop and listen to somebody other than their demons. Sometimes, you have to walk away before their addiction destroys you too. It’s an exhausting and unrewarding nightmare. It haunted the Winehouse family for the best part her career and The Shoehorn’s mum and brother for her last few years of her life.
There was never a dull moment with The Shoehorn, though sometimes you wished for one. Every social occasion she attended became one of high drama, so it’s hard to select an anecdote which sums her up, because there are far too many.
Fighting at a funeral? Check. While high on E in Heaven, convincing a bunch of trans women that she’d also transitioned from male to female? Check. Climbing up the drainpipe of an famous actor’s house in Swiss Cottage, breaking into his 3rd floor window, eating his biscuits and writing a note after skulling 5 Valium and four pints of snakebite? Check, check, check.
Anarchic erotic cabaret
One night, Shoehorn came to see me DJ at Bar Code in Soho, where the decks were positioned in the window. She decided to dance suggestively while I mixed. This caused something of a sensation with the passing trade.
Unfortunately, her moves attracted beered-up geezers looking for hostess bars and pole dancers. This created a headache for the security on the door, who couldn’t convince the gangs of lads that they were leering outside a gay bar, not a brothel.
The bouncer told her to stop the one-woman show. It was causing conflict on the street and there was a danger of it spiralling into a violent misunderstanding. Gay men and feral, horny straight lads are not a good mix. She wouldn’t stop though. In fact, her dancing became more frenzied and provocative.
She goaded the boys on the other side of the glass like Britney in the ‘Slave 4 U’ video.
‘Since when has dancing been a crime?’ she asked, with a pout. She hid from the bouncer and co-opted customers into helping her escape. I nearly lost my job. She was in her element and utterly unrepentant. She called me, ‘a boring old poof’ for even suggesting she’d gone too far.
Well, she did go too far, regardless of medical advice or the concerns of friends and family. Oddly enough, she never seemed like much of a drinker when we were young. No more than anyone else, anyway.
It was her wild, independent spirit which made me love her. Unfortunately, when you combine that invincible and stubborn nature with an addiction, it’s a toxic mix. She e-mailed me after being discharged from hospital, called me a cunt and asked if we planned to attend Brighton Pride.
If I hear or see ‘80s Madonna, I think of Shoe. Margaret Thatcher? Same. Mel + Kim. Rocky Horror Show. Olives. Alcoholics. The Colherne and any mention of Margate ALL provoke memories of Shoehorn.
When the TV presenter Magenta Devine died in 2019, I thought of Shoehorn, ‘cause she LOVED Devine and totally stole her look. For a least a year, she could have passed for her twin.
Far and away
Our close friend, Vicki McGuin lives in Australia now, but distance is no contest for memory. She’s triggered into thinking of Shoehorn by similar cultural flags.
‘Bad jokes. Anything camp. Kylie. Madonna. Betty Boo. Margaret Thatcher. Greasy spoons. Making up dance routines.
‘I still miss her and think of her so much. My boys know her well through my stories. And I swear she is with me regularly, putting jokes and funny moments in my path to make me smile.’
Scars of love
Shoehorn isn’t my only friend to have struggled with drink. Several times, to a variety of loved ones, I’ve hissed with bulging, tearful eyes,
‘I watched my best friend drink herself to death. Don’t put me through THIS again.’
That’s one of her legacies, I can spot a boozy storm brewing, before the slide into oblivion. It triggers anger and despair. There was no stopping Shoehorn, but I’ve thrown a lilo to a few drowning friends since. Or at least, I’ve walked to them to the door of an AA meeting. If you get them that far, there’s a shot of hope.
Sophie Smeeton was part of our crew and ponders Shoehorn’s life, had she lived to see 2022,
‘I hope she’d have continued her path as language tutor and married an Italian stallion living in a vineyard.’
Strangely, the day of Siobhan’s funeral remains one of the most vivid and joyful days of my life. How about that? It’s what she would have wanted.
The old gang came together again. Well, those remaining and able. We’d once been a suburban tangle of teen misfits; goths, poseurs, queens and arty pot-heads. Together, we experimented with drugs, sex, fashion and clubbing.
We splintered and drifted into adulthood, loosely linked by postcards, rumour and chance encounters. That was life before social media and mobile phones.
The funeral was in Brighton and we gathered at mine for a breakfast bash before falling onto a train, laden with beers and the buzz of shared history.
We reverted to our teen selves, upsetting commuters with our screaming and hijinks. We didn’t care. WE were in mourning and that meant mayhem. Lord help anyone in our path. It’s what she would have wanted.
Back to black
Of course, we went into stunned shock on arrival at the funeral. Fun over, hello reality.
I sobered up sharpish, the cold slap of grief, like caffeine icicle in the heart. I read out a poem I’d written to her in 1990. It was surreal, ironic and overwhelmingly tragic.
There was a wake, full of my ‘80s mates. Some had changed, but largely, for that day, we carried on like we did back in the day. We giggled, gossiped, danced and crept outside for sneaky joints. It’s what she would have wanted.
Legends never die
Damon King was my best mate at school, and flouncing fixture in our teen debauchery. He has little doubt how Shoe would have turned out.
‘Equally rebellious and caustic as she was at 20!’
‘I miss her vibrancy, zest and complete disregard for authority and rules. More people should live their lives out loud like she did. She burned bright. Too bright.’
She was something else, that Shoehorn, and the world is much duller without her. Ultimately, my thoughts are with her mother and brother (big love to Stevie and Sean!).
If she ascended to Heaven, she’ll be raising Hell and God help the Devil if he’s put in charge of her. He’ll have his hooves full.
RIP Siobhan Grier, you made a man of me and rocked my world. You still rock my world.