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LGBTQ+ History Month: It’s A Sin star Jill Nalder shares her life story

Written from a room in Cambridge amid Covid lockdowns, Jill Nalder’s memoir, Love From The Pink Palace, was shortlisted for the Polari Prize, the UK’s first and largest LGBTQ+ book award. To mark LGBTQ+ History Month, she tells Velvet’s Amelia Gargiulo why “you can never raise enough awareness”

Love from the Pink Palace (stock shot)
Love from the Pink Palace (stock shot)

She’s the actress, activist and AIDS awareness campaigner who famously inspired the character of Jill Baxter in Russell T. Davies' landmark Channel 4 series It’s A Sin. And now Jill Nalder is telling her own story in Love From The Pink Palace, a moving and deeply personal account of life and friendship in 1980s London during the AIDS crisis.
Surrounded by a close-knit group of friends, many of whom were ambitious young gay men with dreams as grand as the city itself, Jill embraced the lively scene – from partying with drag queens at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern to hosting cabarets in her glamorous flat and dashing across town for various jobs.
But when rumours of an illness, dubbed the “gay flu”, began circulating from across the Atlantic, Jill, alongside her friends – the spirited Juan Pablo, Jae with his captivating voice, and the lively Dursley – found their previously carefree lives overshadowed by an emerging threat.
Not only does Jill unfold the true story of her life during the AIDS crisis, she also tells that story through the lens of friends, colleagues, healthcare professionals, activists and fundraisers. Most of all, she sheds light on the individuals who faced stigma and shame - and pays tribute to those brave and beautiful souls who were lost too soon.

Jill Nalder (c) John Burke Photography
Jill Nalder (c) John Burke Photography

Looking back to your career as a West End performer, what would you say the theatre and performing meant to you?
It has been my career, so it's meant a lot to me to get into the West End, as that in itself is a very exciting thing. In our business, it’s a huge achievement to go into the West End because it’s the pinnacle of a theatre career. It also gives you job security.
When I got into Les Misérables, I loved it and I loved the show anyway. In essence, it’s a sense of achievement. I also was a part of the original 1994 production of Oliver! Both of those productions' theatres were iconic in the West End, so I utterly loved that.

Is there a particular moment from either of those productions, Les Misérables and Oliver!, when you thought to yourself ‘I’ve made it’?
Well, it’s always the finale when the audience are applauding: the show receives a standing ovation and that’s when you know the show has been a success. Not only that, but you are surrounded by wonderful people filled with love and who wish you well.

What went through your mind when you had discovered your memoir had been shortlisted for the Polari Prize, the UK’s first and largest LGBTQ+ book award?
Honestly, [I was] quite amazed. Since It’s a Sin came out, everything that subsequently arose from that, and from me writing my book, puts me in complete shock. I didn’t see any of that coming, so it's been a joy.
Coming from a story which unfortunately came from tragedy and stigma of an age in the 80s, it’s brought a lot of interest, conversation and love towards people. It achieves remembrance.
So, to me it’s an incredible tribute, an incredible honour. I think the Polari Prize is absolutely fantastic for the LBGTQ+ community and for recognising and encouraging people to write their stories and experience. These things need to be out there.

Love from the Pink Palace by Jill Nalder
Love from the Pink Palace by Jill Nalder

Spreading awareness of the AIDS crisis is something you said you are passionate about; do you feel your memoir successfully achieved this?
Some people have told me that it has certainly helped contribute something towards that awareness; so obviously it has done something right in educating people, reviving people’s memories, or simply informing what the pandemic was like at the time. Some have even said that it holds some historical importance, which, when I think about it, makes me feel very old.

You were the inspiration behind Jill Baxter in Russell T. Davies’ It’s A Sin. It must have been an interesting experience, especially considering you also starred in the show - playing Christine Baxter, Jill’s mother?
I like the way you say starred, I’m loving that! I didn’t expect to be asked at all, so when the opportunity came around, I felt very honoured. Russell is a lifelong friend of mine, which makes it feel even more special. Everything that Russell writes gets a lot of attention and wonderful acknowledgement; he is very well-respected. The whole experience was a thrill, from filming to being surrounded by talented individuals. The nature of the show is that it’s based on a lot of sadness, but the whole team and the five main cast members were just filled with so much happiness. These contributed to many lovely off-screen moments, and those are the things that are most memorable.

Seeing the Pink Palace brought to life in both your memoir and the show must have been a surreal moment. How did it feel when you first saw the set re-created?
It had the vibe of the Pink Palace, but not exactly the look of the Pink Palace that I lived in. It certainly had the feel of it, but there just wasn't enough pink! Back then we had a lot of pink in it, and I mean a LOT. Pink sofas, pink furniture; that's why we called it the Pink Palace in the first place.
It was all Russell's idea to incorporate those elements into the show. Even now the Pink Palace ideal has been passed on to other individuals - apparently there are ‘Pink Palace Parties’ that you can go to and dress up in 80s clothing.

You were one of the founding members of then-charity West End Cares, now known as Theatre MAD: Make a Difference. Tell us about the charity and its contribution?
Unfortunately, the pandemic caused Theatre MAD to dwindle, as few charitable events could happen. The charity has since rebounded, though, now directing its efforts towards raising funds for individual organisations rather than the charity itself.
For the first few years of the charity, I was the chairperson. It was myself and some of the members of the then-Les Misérables cast who started West End Cares here in London. We followed on from Broadway Cares and their mission as they started it.
Back in the 90s, when the charity was first forming, we did a lot of late-night cabarets, which then developed into late-night performances and shows. We would do a ‘bed race’ in Leicester Square or the Walk for Life for fundraising, and then follow that with a cabaret or show in the evening somewhere like Shepherd Market or Covent Garden. Chicago, Grease and Crazy For You all did a late-night performance, which would raise a lot of money in one night. Combining people's passion for theatre and raising money for charity is a powerful combination.

February is LGBTQ+ History month. Why do you feel it is important to mark it?
It’s a brilliant month and one we should certainly mark. There is a scene in It’s a Sin where actor Nathaniel Curtis, who plays Ash Mukherjee, talks about how material related to LGBTQ+ was destroyed, and so when he looked through the books “there was nothing”. No discussion. No awareness. That moment just shows how important it is for people to know who their role models for what the LGBTQ+ community stands for are. You can never raise enough awareness.
When I hear the phrase ‘LGBTQ+ History Month’, I think towards the schools. We all need education all the time, whether that is as adults or as children. All it takes is more openness; with that more people will feel empowered and comfortable to come forward and say, ‘me too’. People should be able to celebrate the fantastic LGBTQ+ individuals who are doing incredible things in the world and be able to feel proud of who and what they are.

Love From The Pink Palace: Memories of Love, Loss and Cabaret through the AIDS Crisis is available now in paperback, audio and eBook.

Within the vibrant world of language innovation, the Polari Prize takes centre stage as a beacon of creativity and diversity in literature, shining a light on the outstanding work of its shortlisted authors and celebrating writing that explores the LGBTQ+ experience. Find out more at polarisalon.com

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