Think of the SAS and most of us will conjure up images of hardy warriors dispatched with devastating force to serve Queen and country in the world’s most dangerous places.
Drag queens certainly don’t spring to mind — unless, that is, you’re Mark Whistler.
Mark — a hunky recruit on Channel 4’s SAS: Who Dares Wins — is by night better known as ‘Cybil War’, his near 7ft tall alter ego and a vision in teetering heels, false nails, an enormous wig and a full face of technicolour make-up.
Mark didn’t set out to smash stereotypes, but he’s certainly doing just that: SAS: Who Dares Wins is, arguably, the ultimate in masculine programming. The series allowed women to enter for the first time only last year
Cybil’s favoured milieu is a riotous monthly party in a London club, where she delights punters with her risque banter and her camp-as-Christmas lip-synching to assorted hits and power ballads.
It’s about as far from the deserts and jungles frequented by what insiders call ‘the Regiment’ as can be.
But — in a further twist — when Mark, 31, wanted advice about the ordeal he faced, he only needed to ask his father Andrew.
He just happens to be a highly decorated ex-SAS officer, though he maintains a dignified silence about what he did during his career, which included rising to the rank of colonel before retirement, when he was awarded an MBE for his services to his country.
This week, these two unlikely worlds collided in the latest series of Channel 4’s hit show, in which former special forces soldiers recreate the famous military unit’s notoriously gruelling selection procedure.
Mark — a hunky recruit on Channel 4’s SAS: Who Dares Wins — is by night better known as ‘Cybil War’, his near 7ft tall alter ego and a vision in teetering heels, false nails, an enormous wig and a full face of technicolour make-up
Mark is one of 25 men and women to have signed up for the process, and as ‘Recruit 7’, he was interviewed both in his ‘civvies’ and in full drag as Cybil — complete with enormous pink wig — in the first episode of the latest series shown last Sunday.
Cybil’s unexpected appearance on the macho programme delighted viewers, with many on social media tipping Mark to win.
Whatever the final outcome, Recruit 7 is undeniably the break-out star, something that has left Mark both bemused and thrilled.
‘It’s quite weird now,’ he tells me from America, where he has spent the past week for his ‘day job’ as a marketing manager.
‘I’d forgotten that Cybil was a part of my interviews — drag was so far away from the whole SAS experience in general. So to see her on the screen on Sunday night was a slight case of: ‘Oh yes — that happened!’ The response has been really positive, which is obviously fantastic.’
Cybil’s favoured milieu is a riotous monthly party in a London club, where she delights punters with her risque banter and her camp-as-Christmas lip-synching to assorted hits and power ballads
Mark didn’t set out to smash stereotypes, but he’s certainly doing just that: SAS: Who Dares Wins is, arguably, the ultimate in masculine programming.
The series allowed women to enter for the first time only last year, and as viewers of the last episode will testify, it is once more serving up the usual fare of extreme endurance against the unforgiving backdrop of a Scottish Highlands winter.
‘It’s actually even more hard-core than it looks,’ says Mark.
‘They try to condense two days worth of hell into a one-hour episode. Watching it back, I was thinking it looked bad but it was actually so much worse. There were more than a few moments of lying on the bunk pulling your beanie hat over your eyes and having a little cry to yourself.’
In that case: why do it? A more unlikely setting for a drag queen you could hardly hope to find.
The answer, it seems, lies in that oldest of emotions: a desire to make a father proud.
‘Oh, I’m definitely trying to prove something,’ Mark admits.
‘It’s only after my dad retired that me and my sisters have started to understand the full gravitas and breadth of what he’s done in his military career — he’s so highly decorated. I have huge respect for what he’s achieved and short of actually joining the military, this was the closest I could get to understanding a tiny fraction of what he went through.’
Andrew’s service record is distinguished. After joining up at 18 from his home in Richmond, South-West London, he trained at Sandhurst — William and Harry’s old military academy — and was deployed in Germany before joining the SAS in the Eighties.
He served at unit level for six years before moving to headquarters and has received awards for his service, although he is too modest to want them mentioned.
‘I was in the school cadet force and the Army seemed to be the logical thing to do,’ he said this week. ‘It just seemed to happen, really. I certainly didn’t plan to spend my entire career in the military.’
His service meant an initially itinerant childhood for Mark and his two younger sisters Juliet, now 30, and 26-year-old Tessa — born to Andrew and his Maltese-born wife Pauline.
When Mark was seven, however, the family eventually settled in Kingston, where it quickly became clear that Mark was unlikely to follow in his father’s footsteps.
‘I was the oddball of the family,’ he says now. ‘I was always quite independent. I was a ‘goth’ as a teenager, then I became involved in the glam rock scene and would leave the house wearing my sister’s T-shirt with a glitter kitten on it. At 16 I was going off into London and sneaking into clubs.’
Think of the SAS and most of us will conjure up images of hardy warriors dispatched with devastating force to serve Queen and country in the world’s most dangerous places. Drag queens certainly don’t spring to mind — unless, that is, you’re Mark Whistler
If his ‘authoritative but loving’ father was dismayed by any of this, then Mark insists he didn’t show it.
‘I always describe my dad as stoic — he’s the vision of a commanding officer in the military — but I was always myself around him and if my dad did struggle with it he never showed it to me. He has also always had a wicked sense of humour.’
By his early teenage years Mark was also aware he was gay. ‘I think looking back I’ve always known,’ he recalls.
‘From whatever age that you start noticing the opposite sex, I just wasn’t. I remember one time when I was around 16 and I could not sleep.
‘I sat bolt upright in bed, got a pad and paper and wrote the words ‘I’m gay’ on it, then just crumpled it up and threw it in the bin. Looking back, that was me accepting it.’ It took another two years for him to come out to his family.
‘It had got to a stage where I had a group of really good gay friends and both my sisters knew — so it was building up to this point where I had to share it with my parents,’ he says.
‘I remember locking myself in my room and spending hours walking round saying, ‘Dad, I’m gay,’ in different tones. Then in the end I told him when he was watching television. He very stoically said: ‘It doesn’t make any difference — you’re still my son and I love you.’ I burst into tears.’
Cybil’s unexpected appearance on the macho programme delighted viewers, with many on social media tipping Mark to win. Whatever the final outcome, Recruit 7 is undeniably the break-out star, something that has left Mark both bemused and thrilled
His mother — whom Mark had told earlier that same day — took longer to accept it.
‘She’s very much the officer’s wife and also a small spitfire ball of Mediterranean fire from what, at the time, was quite a conservative Roman Catholic country,’ says Mark.
‘I think she was concerned about what the family would think. But once she’d spoken to them and was reassured, she was absolutely fine. It just took her a little bit more time.’
A good student, Mark was expected to be the first in his family to go to university but after flunking his A-levels, he ended up taking a job in sales at a digital advertising firm instead.
He flourished, quickly rising to become head of marketing from where, in 2014, he was offered the chance to move to New York, the city where Cybil War would spring fully into life, having made an occasional appearance in London.
‘I’d toyed with the names Betty Lohan and Anya Knees, then I was listening to the band The Civil Wars and thought hang on! It seemed perfect as the act is all about the juxtaposition between the masculine and the feminine,’ he says.
Then, of course, there’s the link to his family background.
‘Oh, I’m definitely playing with that too,’ he says, chuckling.
Having just ‘dabbled’ in drag in the UK, the freedom of a new home allowed Cybil to blossom.
‘On around my third week in New York I went out in Brooklyn, ended up at a drag show and got chatting to one of the drag queens, before ending up in a club in the VIP area with a load of them,’ Mark recalls.
They encouraged him to enter a drag competition, and Cybil War — who Mark reveals never wears less than a five-inch heel, making her a whopping 6ft 10in tall on stage — got through to the final.
‘From there it was a crazy whirlwind,’ he says. ‘I started getting booked for club nights. I was working in marketing in the day then going out in drag four nights a week.’
Often clad in risque denim shorts and a transparent top, Cybil caused a particular storm when she lip-synched to the singleton’s power ballad All By Myself.
Eighteen months later, in October 2015, Mark returned to London — where he lives with project manager partner Ian — and set up a club night at an East London pub.
It was here that his family first met Cybil, at a riotous Halloween gathering.
‘My mum and dad, my sisters and their partners, some of my cousins and my aunty all rocked up,’ Mark says. ‘I was so nervous, but they were brilliant.
‘I think my dad would probably rather have rather been in a war zone but afterwards he said it was great. He grew up watching Kenny Everett and after everything he has been through, nothing much fazes him.’
It’s one reason Andrew, who is in his 60s, appears to have been nonplussed when his son said he was going to apply to take part in SAS: Who Dares Wins.
‘When I told him I was auditioning he was a bit dismissive at first, but then when it got to the point where I was leaving he got more involved,’ says Mark.
‘The advice he gave me was: ‘Whatever they tell you to do, just do it.’ I had that in the back of my mind all the time.’
Naturally fit, the physicality of the show hadn’t worried him — Mark claims merely to have upped his time on the cross-fit trainer at the gym in preparation — but he confides that he had doubts about how news of his drag queen life would be greeted.
‘As a gay person you never stop coming out. Any time you interact with a new person you know that at some point you’re going to have to come out as gay — or in my case as a drag queen — and not everyone is going to be accepting,’ he says.
‘It was definitely one of the things playing on my mind going into the show. I was going to be in a space with 24 other people in an environment that is historically quite macho, and if someone isn’t comfortable with who I am then that was going to be tough.’
Andrew’s service record is distinguished. After joining up at 18 from his home in Richmond, South-West London, he trained at Sandhurst — William and Harry’s old military academy — and was deployed in Germany before joining the SAS in the Eighties
He needn’t have worried. Cybil came out early on — the other recruits were asking what he did, and ‘saying you’re a marketing manager is less exciting than being a drag queen,’ he laughs.
‘I wanted to get it straight out there and while I think they were surprised at first, the reality is that what we were going through meant that gender, sexuality, race, creed all go out the window.’
Nicknamed ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean’ by instructor Ant Middleton, courtesy of his long hair and piercings, Mark showed his mettle in the first episode, falling backwards into icy seas without a murmur in what is seen as one of the tougher tasks.
It’s something that even impressed his dad, watching at home.
‘I’ve never done one of those and I don’t particularly fancy doing one either,’ Andrew admits.
‘If I’m perfectly honest the whole show is a bit different to the SAS selection that I did — from what I saw it’s more of a bootcamp — but that’s not to take away from the toughness of it, it’s very challenging. It’s all much more compressed. If you made a television show out of the selection I did it would be boring as hell and no one would watch it.’
And what does he make of Cybil War, the character who has got everyone talking?
‘Nothing much fazes me,’ he laughs. ‘That whole club scene is not my cup of tea — I don’t like socialising much at the best of times and I’d rather watch a football match.
‘But the way I see it, each of your children is their own person. You’ve given them a life to live and it’s up to them how they live it. All you can do is advise them and support them. I’m incredibly proud of Mark.’
The son, in turn, seems to have got something of a taste for his father’s way of life. ‘I absolutely loved taking part in the show,’ Mark says.
‘I’m actually already thinking I’m going to try my luck at applying for next year, and if that doesn’t work, I’m just going to have to find a way of getting famous enough so that I can do the celebrity version.’
Given Cybil War’s burgeoning popularity, that doesn’t seem impossible.
SAS: Who Dares Wins is on Channel 4 tomorrow at 9pm.