Lara Croft, Unexpected Queer Icon: The LGBTQ+ Following of Tomb Raider

An interview with voice actress Jonell Elliot and YouTuber Chris Carpineti

Mention the words Tomb Raider in a sentence and the person in front of you will probably see some very specific images flash through their mind. A fresh-faced Angelina Jolie in a pair of short shorts and wielding two silver pistols, perhaps, or maybe a pointy-breasted PlayStation 1 character leaping between ledges in a dusty subterranean tomb, occasionally impaling herself in a pit of pointy spears. What they probably won’t see is the LGBTQ+ icon who has guided two generations of queer people to better understand themselves and their sexuality.

This year sees the 25th anniversary of a legend within the video game world, who not only pioneered a female-led adventure franchise beloved by millions, but capitalised on the previously unrecognised demand for female action heroes. Evolving from the early wave of ‘girl power’ feminism, Tomb Raider has become the champion of a genre long dominated by male characters. Born into aristocracy but dismissive of her elevated status, Lara Croft is an explorer who thrives within the parameter of her abilities: she is unshakeably self-assured and fearsomely athletic, able to leap, roll, and shoot her way out of any perilous situation. She is a woman who knows she is, what she wants, and what she is capable of.

In many ways, she represents the process of self-actualisation that many queer people themselves aspire to, the kind that can’t be unlocked with a set of cheat codes. Released toward the tail end of 1996 by British developer Eidos, I had always regarded Lara Croft’s role as merely a way to tap into a market of female gamers. I just assumed her gender was something of a ploy to help her stand out on shelves and to attract more female buyers, who would feel immobilised by seeing one of their own kind kicking ass in living rooms the world over.

To my genuine surprise, then, Tomb Raider’s queer following is long-standing and deeply entrenched within a worldwide community. I was curious as to why, for I had heard nothing about it until the early months of this year. To find out, I approached two very different authority voices: a lifelong fan of the series and, quite literally, the voice of Lara Croft.

Headshot of Jonell in her home recording studio

Jonell Elliott is a voice actress with credits including Angelina Ballerina and the Miffy children’s TV series, while EastEnders viewers will also recognise her as the introductory voice of each episode (‘And now on BBC One…’). Yet she is best known as the voice of Lara Croft in the three Tomb Raider games released between 1999 and 2003. Having only recently joined social media, Jonell had been oblivious to the impact of the Tomb Raider series in the two decades since she brought her unique approach to the role.

Chris Carpineti is a Welsh podcaster and YouTuber, perhaps best known for his Raidercast channel which covers all things Tomb Raider. Each episode examines the ancient mythology of the games’ storylines, as well as the influence the series has had on his own life and those of his many guests. For the past six years, he has lived in London with his husband Alfredo, an astrophysicist, with whom he co-hosts The Astroholic Explains, an astronomy-based podcast that is equally enlightening and charming.

It is thanks to the podcasts and videos contained within Chris’s Raidercast umbrella that I was compelled to revisit Tomb Raider this year, in the run-up to Lara’s 25th birthday. But, respecting the tradition of ladies first, let’s start with Jonell.

“My background in voice acting goes way back to my childhood. I was performing from an early age on stage and screen,” she says, citing one of her earliest memories as being a desire to always read aloud in class. “After finishing drama school at 18, I got myself a job at a recording studio in London whilst also trying to break into the entertainment industry. It was there that I got my first opportunity in the voiceover world. I stepped in at the last minute to record a promo for a well-known channel, which led to a few more small jobs and soon after a producer recommended me to a top voiceover agent – and the rest as they say is history!”

As an added bonus, Jonell was able to channel her passion for music through a small record deal she secured around this time, releasing a dance single called “Soul Magic” with YBU. The track became something of a hit, leading to various club appearances across London as well as a sound engineering course that she nurtured as a safety net, should her ambitions as an actress fail to materialise.

Fortunately, it was this course which led to her working in the Camden recording studio where her last-minute stand-in for a voiceover job gave her that first break into the industry. Another peculiar occurrence is that, around the time of the first Tomb Raider game’s release, Jonell was working onstage with a close friend of hers, the actress Shelley Blond – who would soon after be immortalised as the first woman to voice Lara Croft.

The two friends’ paths have crossed at various points since, and their children are even represented by the same agent, but the difference between Shelley’s experience of the character and Jonell’s lies within the amount of creative freedom the latter enjoyed over the former. Jonell’s portrayal of Lara is markedly more sassy, graced with a higher density of quips and gut-punching one-liners, whereas Shelley recalls being constantly instructed to reign it in when she first brought Lara to life in the recording booth. It may surprise players today to see just how deadpan Lara’s lines were in 1996, as much as Shelley strove to inject it with more of her own animated gusto.

The three Tomb Raider games in which Jonell was involved represent some of the most distinct representations of Lara Croft seen in the entire series. Her first title, 1999’s The Last Revelation, gave players the opportunities to play as a 16-year-old Lara, with the challenge of voicing an adolescent being met with total believability by Jonell’s skilful voice acting. The following game, 2000’s Tomb Raider Chronicles, is an anthology game comprised of past adventures the player relives in flashback, after her supposed death at the climax of The Last Revelation.

Jonell and actor Joss Ackland, “Angel of Darkness” recording session, 2002

Needless to say, the decision to kill off one of pop culture’s most beloved video game heroines was not un