Home Is Where the Art is: How Celine’s Salon Keeps Bohemia Alive
I don’t know exactly what order it happened in… but my first big clue was Carnaby Street. Squeaky clean, pedestrianised, though they kept the arching sign that reads ‘Welcome to Carnaby Street’. This is darkly amusing. Nothing about digital billboards or terribly dear mainstream brands like The Kooples says Soho to me.
They gave Broadwick Street the same treatment. It now has an Ivy and a Veggie Pret. Food market stallholders fight for survival against the construction choking Berwick Street. They’re turning old buildings into expensive flats.
Madame Jojo’s, the glittery and disobedient drag venue was forced shut. The Curzon Cinema was threatened. Every time you look there are less and less neon signs… more and more Nespresso’s.
This is a gut punch to the old place that was flamboyant film-producers, stripteases, men in long coats, girls with no knickers, artists, poets, bohemians, speakeasies, and sultry little gay bars. The council does not want this. The council wants redevelopment money.
But there are those who are emotionally anchored here, and no developer can drive them out. This is the story of one woman as much as it is of one square mile. Born in Paris, Celine Hispiche’s family were from Central London, ‘the Soho blood has always been there,’ she says, with a raucous wink. Her mum was once caught by her strict Catholic grandmother, shimmying down a sheet out of the window, on her way to go clubbing with the mods in the 1960s.
Soho is where Celine lives now, and where she runs her eponymously titled Salon. And that’s where it’s all still alive… the mischievous, clever, seedy, colourful everything of Soho.
Although Celine wasn’t from the happiest of homes she played the violin, painted, drew, and was writing poetry aged 10. ‘There’s always been that creative flow’, she tells me, ‘To this day, I’m as open and passionate as I was as a child. I love being an artist.’
‘In a way it’s like therapy. You go into your world. I’ll paint a scene that isn’t physically here. Or write a song that empowers me in a negative situation. No one can take it away from you. It’s my safest place.’
A stint in New York in the early 90s saw Celine living it up in Manhattan. Introduced to a comedy agent through a family friend, she conquered open mics, performed sell-out shows on Broadway, and even made it to Woodstock. At legendary comedian Lenny Bruce’s night – where superstars like Gene Wilder and Joan Rivers cut their teeth – Celine remembers looking up to see her name on the board and nearly screaming. ‘It was like surfing a wave!’ The transatlantic adventure culminated in an audition with SNL, whom she went on tour with.
But all Celine’s roads lead back to Soho. Returning to the UK she still wanted to do comedy, though by creating something unusual. ‘I studied the history of cinema and Victorian magic. I invented these comedy characters like Eslint Limf, she’s the last professor at the School of Silent Film and she’s a real pisshead. Then I had Ginger, the ex-hitwoman trapeze artist from Coney Island, who was a real woman that I met in America.’
The idea of a Salon came 6 years ago, as a place ‘to give foundlings a chance for their voices to be heard. We’ve seen people get publishing deals, record deals, gigs, commissions… all from this. It’s been really rewarding for me to pass on the baton.’
A miscellany of arts and talents, a mélange of forms and tastes, at Celine’s Salon you might witness a jolly burlesque number, a soulful Japanese guitarist, a poetic ballad delivered in haunting tones, or a teenager teasing hip-hop anthems out of ukulele strings. ‘People naturally come forward’, she says, ‘and some have been to every single night.’
It started out in a bookshop called The Society Club, though this was yet another casualty of rising business rates and rents. Celine’s Salon found other places to perch in Soho locales such as TheBlueposts, The Mediterranean Bar or The Pink Chihuahua. Even the pandemic couldn’t stamp out its soul. They moved online, ended up collaborating with artists in Malaysia and South Africa. ‘We realised we could do so much for free! We could turn rats and pumpkins into diamonds.’
In 2021 they released a successful Anthology. It’s only volume 1. Volume 2 will feature UK-wide artists and include a tour in Ireland. In the works are volume 3 for Europe, with invites to Paris and Berlin, then eventually an American edition, with the obligatory stop in New York. The goal is to have a literary library of performance works. That, and finding people who need a chance to express themselves. Bright like a guiding star, she’s a signpost for fledgling creatives.
Celine’s Salon has spread well beyond London, exporting the spirit of Old Soho wherever it goes. Celine is the mischievous, bouncing sprite who safeguards this space, who belongs to Soho and to whom Soho belongs. Its essence is not so delicate you can wipe it away; it is an immortal atmosphere that shimmers through the fog. It lives on, and the sparkliest form it takes is Celine.