I have always played the long game. Waiting? I’m an expert. Biding your time? First class. Despite outward appearances to people who know me well of being tempestuous and quick to (over)react, I’m actually much more patient than they realise.
I started writing anonymously almost exactly seven years ago, on 30 June 2010, for a variety of reasons, some of them ridiculous and others important.
The main, initial reason was that I was writing about going on dates and didn’t want to be identified. Simple. I was both fearful of recriminations and worried it would mean I could no longer be honest when writing up further dates – “compromise my artistic integrity”, as Madonna would say. Perhaps I would even have to stop altogether.
My anonymity, which I maintained until six months ago, allowed me to retain some power, some control. I had – still have – absolutely no desire to be famous. I turned down chances to appear on TV or radio countless times, and even used a fake name when I had to meet or speak to people about potential stories I’m writing who only knew me as The Guyliner. That’s how obsessed by it I was. My anonymity was always crucial to me because it allowed my writing to be the main focus – or so I told myself at the time. So many media types struggle with this – it stops being about what they’re saying and evolves into who they are. Plus, I wrote under my own name elsewhere and for a series of clients – what would they think about what I did in my spare time? Would it put my work in danger?
What I assumed my anonymity would allow me to do is swerve the usual judgement and/or criticism of my looks, and also restrict my vanity to my writing. I told myself it would be less superficial. That’s not to say I’m not as basic as the next motherfucker with a full Instagram top row of selfies with eight filters over them – I like to get a like and a share, of course I do – but I would know for sure people would only be interested in me for what I said. I’m not saying I thought everyone would fall in love with me, far from it, but I guess I wanted to avoid the kind of attention I’d always been uncomfortable with. Fame leaves me cold; I’ve only ever been interested in success. Being a writer in the confessional digital age and a relatively private person is pretty tricky. I have only ever told the world what I wanted it to know.
As time went on, my anonymity became less and less fascinating to readers and I was all the happier for it, but as my profile started to grow a little more – a turn of events which still genuinely shocks me – my lack of enthusiasm for showing my face became a barrier. People became annoyed I was reluctant to tell them my name or what I looked like. I had to turn down promising career opportunities because it would compromise my anonymity. And then, of course, there were the people who found out.
Despite everything I say above about my anonymity being precious to me, I was kinda sloppy with it. Almost all my details were out there: where I live; where I socialise; my job; my history; my hometown. I played with it sometimes, alluding to how much I hated my name or describing some of my features. Few knew what I looked like, but I’d written about my greying hair, my blue eyes, my height, my weight, what I wear. I was hiding in plain sight for years, like all the best monsters always are.
My anonymity freed me and my work like nothing before it. It made me braver and stronger and proud – but it was also a cage. I always told myself I owned the key to my own prison, but things seemed to change. Humans are curious creatures – it’s only natural that once you refuse to tell them something, they will try to find out what it is and why. Most people who discovered my real identity were very gracious and kind and sympathetic and agreed to keep it a secret. Some, however, did try to use it against me. On two or three occasions, finding out where I lived, or emailing me at work. There were, sometimes, vague threats to expose me and at least two very clumsy, quite menacing, attempts to use this knowledge in an effort to extract sex from me.
It reminded me that the things precious to you are meaningless to others if it’s a good anecdote. People play fast and loose with anonymity, thinking it unimportant. “What have you got to hide?” is the battlecry of those who only search for the truth because it looks good to be in the know, rather than any compulsion for honesty. They don’t realise the acrobatics I had to go through to keep it to myself, the people I had to trust, the opportunities I’ve lost, the things I haven’t been able to share because it would all be compromised. I was not a bangle, an artefact, a prize; I was not to be collected.
Now that my anonymous days are over, I confess I miss them a little. My life hasn’t changed at all, tbh – I don’t get mobbed in the street or anything – but there was something about that shield of anonymity that made me feel more of an interesting proposition. But now it’s gone, I feel duty-bound to embrace it. I went on the radio. I’m appearing on a panel at the National Theatre for the Queer Theatre event to mark 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality. I’ve started writing under my own name again. More importantly, I managed to get a personalised box of Corn Flakes. Amazing.
Oh, and my first novel, The Last Romeo, which broke the spell in January, is out next year. Basically, I started saying yes, and it feels nice to be myself again.
Am I phasing out The Guyliner? Is his time up? And am I really talking about myself in the third person?!?
I will always be The Guyliner, but now it’s time to be me. And it is worth remembering that I couldn’t have done any of it, not a single moment of the last seven years, without you.
Thank you. It’s so good to finally meet you.
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Main image: BBC/Radio 4