Twenty years ago on the 1st of December 1997, popular Birmingham girl’s bar The Fox was taken on by Andy King. Five years earlier, Jimmy Wesley and partner Tony had opened the venue as a girl’s bar to protect the ‘men-only’ operation at the Fountain Inn. With The Nightingale having just moved to its current location and plans for Route well underway, the scene was an ever-growing and exciting place.
By ’97, Jimmy and Tony had had enough. The scene was changing at an even greater pace, with Route finally open and bars such as Angels being introduced to the city’s gay district. That’s when Andy and his partner at the time, Eric, came in and took over The Fox.
“One reason we took it on,” recalls Andy, “was to continue to operate the venue as a girl’s bar and look after the interests of The Fountain Inn as the scene’s only leather bar. We were also planning to convert the upstairs rooms into a hotel, to complement the busy hotel operation at The Fountain.”
Whilst continuing in his career with Harvester, Andy hired a manager called Wayne and a girl named Kath to run the pub.
“It was a lot different back then,” continues Andy. “There were fights between the girls practically every weekend. It was very cliquey and we started to get a bit of a reputation. In just the same way that you’d have the clones and the leather men, in terms of the girls you had the dykes and bull dykes - lipstick lesbians weren’t even a thing at the time.
“There used to be a lot of trouble, and I’d be called down every Saturday night to sort it out. One night I thought, ‘Right, that’s it, I’m not doing it’. So I called all the regulars together and told them they had to work at it if they wanted to keep The Fox as a girl bar. As a result, The Fox started to change for the better.”
Despite splitting from his partner, Andy decided to keep The Fox and began thinking more deeply about how to create a successful girl bar. He brought in female DJs, employed only girls behind the bar, and Hilli came in as the manageress - a role she’s still filling 18 years later!
It was the year 2000 and Coyote Ugly, the hit movie starring Piper Perabo and Adam Garcia, had just been released. Andy found in the film further inspiration for The Fox, encouraging customers to dance both on the bar and on the crushed velvet seating. The venue very quickly became the ultimate place to be for gay girls on the city’s LGBT scene.
Five years later, The Fox underwent its first major refurbishment. The pub was still very Victorian, with net curtains, crushed velvet booth seating and carpet. Investment from the brewery saw Andy redecorate the venue, installing wooden bench seating to give the girls somewhere to dance.
The Fox was one of the few venues that had Sky TV, making it the place to go to watch live sport and hit lesbian television series The L Word. “We were screening the show to a pub of girls who weren’t able to watch it at home,” Andy recalls.
Sundays were typically the venue’s busiest evening. It was considered to be the safest night for the gay community as a whole to go out. But with attitudes changing, so did the scene.
“It’s not only the gay scene that’s changed,” says Andy. “The straight scene has too. There are more opportunities to drink elsewhere now, so the venues have become quieter during the week.”
With the decline in midweek trade, Andy now keeps The Fox closed on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, with the exception of a couple of Tuesday nights when the venue hosts two community events.
“We have a quiz one Tuesday a month, and we also have the Mature Men’s Group that I open exclusively for. I’ve also had interest from students to use the venue, and I’ve considered starting a debate night, as it seems to be a popular thing on social media.”
Over the years Andy saw a dip in his original customer base. So using ideas he’d learned in his previous career at Harvester, he introduced a ‘family day’.
“A lot of our original customers have entered relationships and had children, so we started the Fox Cubs. We originally only had five Fox Cubs but now we’re up to over 30 of them. They meet up at Easter, during the summer, Halloween and Christmas. It’s a chance for children to come and see that they’re not the only ones with two mums or two dads. It’s a great way for kids to meet each other and realise they’re not different. They look forward to seeing each other at each event.”
Over the past five years, Andy has seen a change in the makeup of his clientele, with more and more gay men using the venue on a night out.
“The lads will come to The Fox before heading to venues such as Eden. They tell me that the appeal is that it’s one of the few bars on the scene that still plays camp, cheesy music!”
Looking to the future, Andy says he can see the gay scene taking a U-turn and heading back underground.
“I can imagine certain events across the scene going back to being gay-only. It will only take that first person to launch one and the others will follow suit. I can see these events heading back underground.
That’s what people have been asking for, in an effort to reclaim the gay scene. I’ve always said there’s a need for gay bars, and I can see the gay scene still being here in another 20 years. I think it’s easier for two gay women to sit in a mainstream venue, hold hands and have a peck on the cheek. For lads, though, it’s still not that acceptable, so there’ll always be a need.”
The Fox plays a big role in Birmingham Pride too, supporting the festival’s Women’s Arena.
“It’s amazing, really. I find that girls support Pride events all across the country, so we get a great crowd turn up for it. We change the entertainment offering at Pride each year, and we’ve already started booking acts for 2018’s festival.
“Pride has changed so much over the years, but since the charge was introduced it’s become a safer event, and one that The Fox is proud to be a part of.”
Looking back over his 20 years at the venue, what are the highlights for Andy?
“Just being here for 20 years is an achievement in itself, considering how the trade has changed during that time, from the smoking ban and the rise of internet dating to cheap booze from the supermarkets. I think that if I didn’t have a beer garden out the back for the smokers, I could’ve found myself shutting down years ago.”
Andy would like to thank his manager and close friend Hilli Fletcher, as well as The Fox staff past and present and of course, Birmingham’s gay scene for supporting him throughout the past 20 years.
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