The bus

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Ladies and gentlemen, TFL: it’s true. I’m a convert.

I took The Bus to work for the first time last week. It’s because I’ve moved house, the bus stop is half the walk to the tube and there’s a bus that goes all the way to London Bridge – albeit in a drunk, winding, hour-long stagger through Brixton and Camberwell that no sane motorist would choose.

I resolutely avoid buses in London. Their arrivals are unpredictable, they randomly change destination, take endless, silly routes and do appear to be the main location for the everyday street theatre of rudeboys, angry ranters, racists and/or 2pm drunks.

But after years of cramming last onto the Northern Line, with the ends of city boys’ ties shoved in my mouth and career girls’ stilettos scraping my calves, the top deck of the 35 is an absolute spa. People spread out over two seats each, three if they’ve got that Friday feeling. Newspapers are opened wide, tired arms stretch, coffee is sipped civilly from Thermoses. People smile and nod, then drop eye contact. I half expect a string quartet to pop up and serenade us, or oven-fresh brioche to be handed out. I’m all over it. It may take four times as long as the Great Northern Line Sardine Experience, but it’s four times the joy.

Hawaii

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When one of my oldest and dearest besties, Simon, told me he was moving to Maui, Hawaii, I was like ‘Ugh. That’s really, really far.’ (Swiftly followed by ‘I’m so happy for yooou!’) When he got engaged there, however, it became my mission to get myself over to Far, Far Away and see that fairytale go down.

What’s better than a wedding, except for a wedding fuelled by Mai Tais, beach trips and poke??

It turns out, nothing. I had the time of my life on these beautiful, laid-back islands, where no one seems to dress up smarter than shorts or a maxi dress, and every beach, national park, waterfall and tropical garden is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen – until you stumble on the next one. I fled grey Brexit hell for vivid turquoise waters, stormy-grey volcanoes, apple-green rainforest, ancient, knotted Banyan trees and happy, chilled people drinking rum to live guitar music everywhere I went.

Things the Hawaiians are great at include cocktails (tick); breakfast (The diners! The pancakes! The crispy revelation of home fries!); turtles (I swam past the graceful honu in 70% of the bays I went to); beaches (duh); and sunsets. I was in heaven. It made me realise that someday, sometime, I must live near a beach.

Full feature to come in a winter issue of The Sunday Times Travel Magazine.

Freshly-ground coffee

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Oh, BIG news, folks. I bought a coffee grinder. James Martin’s one (him off Saturday Kitchen) – it was a mere £20 and grinds spices as well, should you wish (I do not wish to taint my coffee with cumin). And it’s improved my caffeine-dependent little life immeasurably.

It’s because I recently signed up to Pact, a coffee club where you’re delivered a bag of new whole-bean coffee from somewhere interesting every 28 days (or however long you choose). You can then request the same type again or ask to switch it up, and each resealable bagful smells and tastes HEAVENLY.
It’s a whole new way to perk up.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

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Sometimes, it feels like a show tracks you down and *makes* you watch it. So it was with offbeat new US comedy Crazy-Ex Girlfriend. A month or two ago, a friend posted it on my Facebook wall, saying ‘I think you might like this’. All I could see was the title, so after my initial ‘Hey, I’m not that bad…’ reaction, I watched the trailer, and yep, this had new addiction stamped all over it.

It’s a little bit Kimmy Schmidt, a little bit New Girl, and a dash of Smash (my favourite all-singing, all-dancing TV series). Crucially, it has a super-talented lead and a brilliant ensemble of weirdos. I’m in, I thought. And then it was nowhere to be seen. Not on British TV, anyway.

Then, on a long flight, I noticed that Virgin had the CEG pilot on its in-flight entertainment. Yes! I watched it twice, snorted with laughter throughout (sorry, seat 17J) and resolved to track the rest down once I was home. It didn’t take much effort – the day I returned, jet lagged and post-holiday-blues-ridden, it had appeared on Netflix.

All you really need to know about CEG is that Rebecca Bunch (played by the brilliant Rachel Bloom) is a hot mess. But an adorable, well-meaning, optimistic hot mess who just wants life to live up to the musical in her head. In short, she’s you. She’s me. A burnt-out lawyer in New York, she decides she needs a change – and that’s when the one that got away (JOSH CHAN! I totally get it, Bex) re-enters her life. It sends her on a whirlwind adventure that some might call stalking, but she and her loyal friend Paula know is the path to true love. There are excellent parody songs a la Amy Schumer (I’m partial to Sexy Getting-Ready Song, but I’ve got a lot of time for Face Your Fears as well).

Massive respect to leading lady Bloom for a) showing off her amazing rack each episode – large-boobed women the world over applaud you – and also for looking appropriately shit in one particular supermarket scene. Yes. This is how girls look when we run out for emergency booze at 10pm. Deal with it.

It’s time we all stopped pretending we’re totally cool and together, and embraced our inner Rebecca. Get into it.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is on Netflix. 

RuPaul’s Drag Race

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This obsession’s been going on some time, but I couldn’t go on without mentioning the legend that is RuPaul and the glorious, witty, campy electric storm that is Drag Race. It’s all but taken over my life, especially given that eight series had happened before I even got to episode one.

Oh, it’s a blast. I watched Tyra Banks scrape the barrel of modelling-show shake ups for 21 goddamn seasons before finding out that it’s all been done better, and by a dude in a dress. RuPaul milks all the best bits of Tyra’s schtick (overdramatic inflection, nonsensical catchphrases) but ropes in entirely funnier and more A-list co-judges – in the first couple of seasons alone we had Vanessa Williams, LaToya Jackson, Debbie Reynolds and Lily Tomlin -and that’s before we even get to the frankly sickening* contestants.

It turns out, drag queens are hilarious. The talking heads and tearful feuds between the girls are almost the best bit – THE best bit is Snatch Game, the best episode of every series, closely followed by each bottom two’s opportunity to LIP-SYNC FOR THEIR LIFE. It’s way less dumbed down than ANTM (no moronic repeats of *every* tiny bit of drama) and also genuinely touching – RuPaul manages to be both icy and maternal, and I love how each episode’s loser is given a proud tribute before she instructs them, in feline tones, to ‘Sashay away.’

And they’re talented. While ANTM showcased starving Russian mail-order brides struggling to complete lame shopping ‘challenges’, Drag Race champions fierce models, actors, comedians and presenters. Its queens can cobble together a couture gown and headdress from just candyfloss or curtains, make-over a straight dude, give a dead-ringer of a Cher impersonation and flawlessly lip-sync an obscure Donna Summer song before the night is through. Plus, the wordplay on that show is just fantastic.

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*Best of all, it’s introduced me to a whole new culture, a whole new vocab. I now know that ‘fishy’ means convincingly feminine (and that not everyone wants to be it), ‘sickening’ means insanely fierce, ‘reading’ is  firing off carefully-crafted insults, and ‘tee’ is gossip (see also RuPaul and Michelle Visage’s chaotic but charming podcast What’s the Tee). Yaaasass, hunty.

Full credit has to go to my bestie Tom, who badgered me to watch it ages before I finally did, and loved it. He also tells me there’s a drag bar in New York where they screen Drag Race finals- a sure stop on my next visit.

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Bring back..my girls

Five of my favourite contestants (so far..)

5. Tatianna
Tati (above) was wildly unpopular, rubbing everyone the wrong way. But her flawless Britney game, fishy look and slightly off-target ‘Tati-isms‘ had me applauding. Get it, gurl.

4. Manila Luzon
I fell for Manila’s impeccable couture creations and Imelda Marcos vibe the minute I saw her. This goofy queen was fresh-out-of-the-box made for TV. Shout out to that bumblebee dress made of wigs…

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3. Raven
Quite the dark, dominatrix type, Raven wasn’t my usual type of queen (think Miss World). But with her bitchy sense of humour, understated drawl and excellent comic timing, she made some of the best observations in her season. I’m raven-ous for more.

2. Raja
Unpadded chest, tattoos, high fashion, gravelly voice: Raja refused to conform. But she was a Vogue-worthy wonder, in her tribal ensembles and her dollar-bill couture. Also, she’s a really, really hot guy: enjoyably confusing.

1. Jujubee 
Oh, it’s gonna be tough to beat Jujubee. This savvy little bundle of Asian sass reminded me of me: she’s a little short, she’s smarter than she looks, she’s not afraid of big hair and she will read a bitch to FILTH. She didn’t win (A TRAVESTY) but showed an uncommon amount of warmth and sisterliness, as well as throwing a healthy amount of shade. All hail queen Jujubee!

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RuPaul’s Drag Race is on Netflix. Warning: this will change your life.

Natasha Barnes

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I am buzzing about this Funny Girl understudy after seeing the show in London’s West End last night. If you haven’t read the tabloid goss yet, it’s a story straight out of 42nd Street: TV star Sheridan Smith was cast in the role to great acclaim, has had personal problems ever since it opened on the fringe, and after some time off during that run, was eventually signed off performing in the Savoy Theatre transfer for a month or so at the end of May. Enter first cover Natasha Barnes, best known for her small part in the Lyric Theatre production of Spring Awakening some years ago. The press around Funny Girl initially focused on the audience’s dismay at the bigger-name star’s withdrawal, with hundreds who’d booked to see Sheridan Smith asking for refunds or exchanges for later dates – but since the (non-insane) rest of the audience started trilling about Miss Barnes’ triumphant takeover, things are looking up for the producers.

I got to see Barnes in her element last night, and this is indeed a special performance sprung from unfortunate circumstances. Her Fanny Brice grows beautifully from impish, witty little Brooklyn teen to screen-siren powerhouse, giving Babs a real run for her money. It’s so hard to take on Streisand, but she did it and without a hint of imitation: the powerhouse vocals grew and grew, and by the eleven-o’clockish opening bars of The Music That Makes Me Dance, the stage took on a soft-focus, surreal glow and I had that unmistakeable tingle that only comes with a rare, magical moment in the theatre. It isn’t a one-woman show, of course; this whole production feels lush and old-Broadway, all crushed velvet and dusty footlights. A 45-year-old script crackles with wit and knowing, raking in belly-laughs from an audience with few cultural ties to Broadway, the Follies, or Jewish Brooklyn. Barnes isn’t quite matched by Darius Campbell (formerly Danesh, formerly not-Pop Idol) as charming scoundrel Nick Arnstein – his theatre chops and subtlety are a tenth of his leading lady’s – although he is undeniably gorgeous and serving some Chris-Noth-as-Mr-Big realness. If anything, the second biggest star in this show is Marilyn Cutts as an incredibly sassy mama Brice.

Anyway, the moral is: don’t book a musical to see a star – stars burn out. Book it to see an understudy – some, like Barnes, are just waiting for their chance to blaze.

Funny Girl is on at the Savoy Theatre until 8 October – Sheridan Smith is due to return mid-June. 

Six packing essentials

Working for the UK’s Consumer Travel Publication of the Year (ahem), I get asked about my travels a lot. It’s hard to distil actual places down into a gimme-more addiction (though I’ve tried with Paris and Bali), but one thing I’m obsessed with is the art of packing well. I hate fuss and mess when it comes to travel — people who have to stoop down to unpack/repack at each stage of the airport are my nemeses – so multi-purpose, space-saving or downright useful packing bits make so, so happy. And on that note…


1. Tangle Teezer
Oh, it’s such a ridiculous-looking thing. I’ve had every charge from ‘sex toy’ to ‘horse brush’ levelled at it, but it never leaves my suitcase. I discovered this wonder-brush (which once appeared on Dragon’s Den) on a hen do this year, when my thick, tangly hair practically wept at how long it had waited to be so easily brushed after a shower. I have no idea how it works — that’s part of the fun, like Google Translate, or religion — but it glides through towel-dried hair and somehow makes it feel smooth and glossy all day, product or not (around £10 in shops, from £6.95 on Ebay).


2. Havaianas
Like the Tangle Teezer and hairbrushes, I didn’t much hold with specific brands for flip-flops (Primarni’s £1.50 bargains are hard to beat) — until I wore my first pair of Havaianas. Fittingly, I got them for my first ever press trip, in a chic chocolate brown, and they’ve been on every sunny jaunt with me since. They’re the Emma Thompson of flip-flops: classic, hardy, and ageing imperceptibly (four years and countless work travels has to equal 56 in flip-flop years, right?) In all honesty, they’re oddly comfy — something about the ‘rice’ pattern on the sole; mine are the ones with the slightly chunkier base, too— and the thong bit never rubs against your toes. Perfect for padding around southeast Asian temples, through Marrakech markets, or along sugary Ibizan beaches.


3. Swimsuit
Sounds a bit obvs, but I bring my swimsuit wherever I go, even if pool and beach aren’t the focus of the trip — and always, always try to stay in a hotel with a pool. A few limb-stretching lengths really sets you up for the day, even if you’re not getting to lounge by an infinity pool later. I’ve never owned a functional swimsuit in my life, though I do prefer a retro-feel one piece. My most recent obsessions are luxe numbers by Ted Baker and Biba.


4. Portable charger
That sinking feeling when you’ve had one too many glasses of cava, forgotten to charge your phone overnight, and now have no way to snap the sights or meet your travel buddy in time for dinner… But it should soon be a thing of the past, once everyone has a nifty little travel charger at the bottom of their bag. Mine is by TP Link, and it may resemble a giant tampon (as I was told the other day), but it’s super absorbent and gives you an extra few hours on the go. Just like a giant tampon.


5. Something cashmere-soft
It sounds incredibly bourgeois, but early on in my travel life, some model or actress mentioned in an interview that they always wore a cashmere wrap on long flights, and my interest was piqued. I am that annoying person who gets chilly on even an hour’s flight, so now I make sure I always have something (usually a jumper, sometimes socks or a scarf if I can’t stretch to that) with some cashmere content to wear on flights. I’ve found non-bank-breaking ones at both Uniqlo and TK Maxx, and latterly discovered the stretchy, non-crease range designed with transatlantic flights in mind by Kit and Ace. I just have a baby-soft grey T-shirt so far, but I’m working my way up to the epic blanket wrap.


 6. Black vests
I could write poetry about how useful, beautiful and space-saving the humble black vest (cami, tank, call it what you will) is. I usually bring about three variations, from beachy-lite to formal and substantial, and rotate them. Then you can just whack in some neutral shorts, maxi skirts, smart trousers or jeans, and they go with everything. They can be handwashed and reused in a jiffy. Brilliant, basic black vests.

And there you are. Hardly anything that would help me survive in the wilderness, but maybe I’m just destined to expire with expertly detangled hair, wearing fabulous Biba and/or cashmere. Happy travels…