Everyone has a story to tell, but few can be as fascinating as that of firefighter and former ‘kinky boot’ manufacturer Steve Pateman, who has put his experiences into a new book. He talked to Will Stone
Northampton firefighter Steve Pateman, 56, once an entrepreneur, is the unlikely hero behind the hit film and musical Kinky Boots, his true story of trying to save an ailing family-run shoe factory by branching out into the “kinky” market.
The idea was sparked by a chance call from Sue Sheppard, the owner of specialist transgender shop – Lacies in Folkestone. She was having trouble sourcing heeled boots for men that would support their feet and build.
With no budget for professional models, Steve began modelling his own stilettos and thigh-high boots, not to mention shaving his rugby player legs.
“It took 10 large razors to shave my legs the first time and I ended up looking like an albino chicken,” Steve recalls.
“I had to fake tan them as well and learn to walk on the ball of my foot instead of my heel, which is what men are used to.
“I was like Bambi on stilts. Being 6'2" didn’t help much either.”
Steve’s story was featured nearly 20 years ago in the BBC fly-on-the-wall documentary series Trouble At The Top, which focussed on struggling companies and unusual business ventures.
The episode was deemed to be so good that it was promoted to the opening slot of the series, bumping down the original opener that focussed on the launch of the Russian version of Vogue magazine.
The story was adapted in 2005 into the comedy-drama film Kinky Boots, directed by Julian Jarrold and written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth.
The film featured Chiwetel Ejiofor, of 12 Years A Slave fame, as drag queen Lola, who teams up with factory owner Charlie Price, based on Steve and played by Joel Edgerton.
Although there was no single Lola in Steve’s life, he says that she was the personification all rolled into one of about 15 characters he had met from the transgender community.
The film, in turn, inspired the Broadway musical of the same name. It has music and lyrics by singer, actor and LGBT rights activist star Cyndi Lauper, for which it won six Tony awards, including best musical, and best score for Lauper – the first woman to win that category on her own.
Since then, the musical has toured the world including London’s West End, Australia, Seoul, Tokyo, Manila, Poland, Finland and the Netherlands.
Steve admits that this period was a particularly “bitter pill to swallow” as the film sold the rights, so he didn’t receive a penny for the musical’s success and had no involvement in its development.
The producers begrudgingly offered him a pair of tickets to the opening night on Broadway – if he could get himself there.
But now it’s Steve’s turn to tell his story with the publication of his book Boss In Boots, which recounts his journey from a factory owner in the Northamptonshire village of Earls Barton to sparking the Kinky Boots empire – in what he aptly terms “from Barton to Broadway”.
The book, which will retail at £12.50, aims to tell the world and fans of Kinky Boots how it really happened without the airbrushing of mainstream film and theatre.
However, firefighters will be able to buy the book for £10 online by quoting the reference FIRE999. For every book sold in this way, a pound will be donated to The Fire Fighters Charity.
The elephant in the room of Steve’s fascinating story, though, has to be the question of how did a factory owner known for selling kinky boots end up as a firefighter?
Steve says he first became a retained firefighter in 2003 to escape the claustrophobia of “being caged up in an office”. He became fulltime in 2006 when he closed his business after it was muscled out by bigger businesses that stole the idea and were able to source cheaper material abroad – a story all too familiar to small business owners.
Steve says: “It was my brand, I created it and I didn’t want to pass it on to anybody else. “I was in my 40s when I applied to become a wholetime firefighter and I remember the fire officer telling me I was too old. I wanted to prove him wrong.”
Steve’s background enabled him to join the fire service with an open mind as well as an acceptance and respect for the trans and LGBTQ community.
He said: “The experience certainly opened up my eyes as, all of a sudden, I was mixing with people I had not come across before – the trans community.
“It taught me that looks count for nothing, it’s all about personality. “Society is full of contradictions. A cross-dresser on the street is called weird, but cross-dressing in panto is called family entertainment.
“It’s down to respect. There’s a danger in terminology. If you’ve got to put a label on something you can’t be diverse. You can’t put a label on anybody.
“My only regret is that I didn’t get into kinky boots sooner.”
■ Boss In Boots was published in September. For more information and to buy a book with the discount code FIRE999 visit www.bossinboots.co.uk