30 October 2015

25 Years of DIVA Hall of Fame

While all the accolades at DIVA are indeed highly coveted, there is one honour that brings more than just praise and prestige and is close to many of our hearts: DIVA Hall of Fame. 
I can absolutely assure you, choosing an inductee is about the most serious and important task a board, a judging panel, a community of peers – even a tribe of drag queens – can do. 
Look at our list. It includes the pioneers Rose Jackson, Robyn Lee and Simone Troy. Those that gave us our most notable playgrounds: Leigh Jennings with the Albury and Dawn O’Donnell with the Newtown and the Imperial. The famous household names Carlotta and Carmen. Those we lost, way too young, who despite illness shone: Leggs Galore and Fanny Farquhar. And of course, the many talented queens who made a mark: Mogadonna, Mitzi, Chelsea and others – there all on our roll. 
As we celebrate this the 2015 inductee, I caught up with a medley of our treasure to reflect on their special moment in the Hall of Fame spotlight.

Cindy Pastel debuted back in 1979 at Patches nightclub and launched a career that would become one of Australia’s most significant and influential. Throughout the 80s she was a huge star, headlining at many of our now infamous Hordern Pavilion dance parties and appearing in the most theatrical and groundbreaking shows of the day.

Resident at the Albury Hotel in the 90s, she was one of the performers behind the famous Scary Fairies who literally changed the face of drag, creating what is now fondly referred to as the Sydney drag style. 
Cindy entered the DIVA Hall of Fame in 1995. 
“I remember the night. It was in the RHI at the showgrounds and I sat with my son, Adam,” Cindy recalls. 
“We had just finished doing the opening of the second half for the Best Costume Award. He played the preacher in ‘Sugar Baby Love’ by The Rubettes, used in the 1994 film Muriel’s Wedding, while I actually was in a wheelchair playing Rachel Griffith. Benina Bodd was Muriel and Lana Turnip did the big line, ‘You’re terrible, Muriel’, while hoeing down a hotdog. 
“It was a very special time with the old girl and son present as the community saluted me for my work,” Cindy said.

DIVA…from the heart

In 1991 David Wilkins, Penny Clifford and Ian Jopson wanted to organise an event to celebrate Sydney’s amazing drag queens, their work and the many talents of the people who made up the local gay entertainment industry. They kicked off a community organisation that has existed because of the effort of many volunteers over the years with support from numerous community venues, LGBTI media and local small business.
Over the course of those first few years, David, Penny and Ian realised that the endeavour was too big for three people to handle and as such, they formalised the event, created a committee structure and a not-for-profit company to organise the annual awards night. 
The company’s constitution ensured that the Drag Industry Variety Awards, or DIVA as it became known, remained independent, relevant and focused on the key goals of recognising achievements within and contributions to Sydney’s drag industry for these 25 years. 
It hasn’t all been plain sailing. Hitting a bump in the road in 2008, the old company that had produced the event for 18 years was wound up. The event we celebrate now is under the stewardship of Greg Steele aka Sheila Bliege, who bravely stepped up to carry it forward, supported by a team of dedicated and passionate people. 
Indeed, DIVA 2015 is a time for us to honour all the wonderful volunteers who over the years have worked hard, and with love, to assist this community organisation reach and maintain an important place in Sydney’s vibrant and diverse LGBTI tapestry. 

23 October 2015

Long live the Queen

Earlier last month, on the evening of September 9, I enjoyed a lovely cold glass of the best bubbles in a toast to Queen Elizabeth II as she became Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, passing the record set by her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria. The Queen, who is 89, has reigned for 63 years and seven months.

‘Oh god’ I can hear you say but I put it down to my sense of Britishness for a moment overriding by Aussie pride. Being one of the last ‘Ten Pound Poms’ I came to Australia in the early 1970s after a childhood drilling of Queen and Country.

One of the first things I remember on arriving in Sydney was the Queen was just as prominent in daily life as she was back ‘home’. Exactly the same photograph of her hung in public places in both lands. And thanks to the Australian media I’ve been able to keep up to date with her comings and goings ever since.

So I have great respect and affection for Her Majesty. Yes, she’s a little old lady who travels around meeting people, collecting endless posies of flowers for no apparent reason, who doesn’t really say anything too important. But to the British she provides a focus for national identity, unity and pride, and gives a sense of stability and continuity. And as head of state, the Queen undertakes constitutional and representational duties which have developed over one thousand years of history.

11 September 2015

The Changing Face of Drag

The jewel in the Sydney drag scene crown, the lavish production show, is feeling the squeeze. Affected by cultural, political and economic challenges we now have only seven production shows playing over four venues and featuring just 12 showgirls. This once thriving aspect of the industry, often billed as some of the best drag performance in the world, is in flux.

We’ve known for some time that culturally these shows have become less popular within the broader LGBTI community. At the same time drag has burst into the general entertainment landscape where the industry as a whole is broader than ever. Look at the popularity of drag trivia, drag bingo and drag karaoke nights playing throughout the greater Sydney area almost every night of the week. 

 The production show has become more niche, but nevertheless the work currently playing on the Oxford Street strip is as good as it’s ever been. Decoda Secret, a three-time DIVA Entertainer of the Year and one of only a couple of showgirls to produce and perform in these shows said: “Production Shows and their fans will always be around but are not likely to get bigger than the current crop – at least for the near future.”

Politically the current lockout laws have been a major contributing factor to the loss of stages and declining audiences for these kinds of shows. Pre-lockouts, drag fans would start at the pub for a smaller early show and then meander to the nearest nightclub for those early morning spectaculars. That foot traffic is gone – along with the flow-on jobs this industry created.  

These shows are more expensive to produce than ever before and while the current showgirls are geniuses in stretching their small budgets, the days of constantly changing costumes and large casts are gone. The old adage that you ‘never make money from drag’ is certainly no throwaway line these days – it’s harder than ever to make a living out of drag.

6 August 2015

Madonna the second coming

The greatest showgirl the world has ever seen is coming to town and for me it’s a dream coming true. Madonna has supplied the music to my life since that first anthem ‘Holiday’ in 1983 through all seventeen CDs sitting on my bookshelf. Thirteen studio albums nicely spaced every few years and some of the best compilation albums you could ever wish for.

Recognised as the best-selling female recording artist of all time by the Guinness Book of World Records with 300 million album sales; Madonna is bringing her Rebel Heart World Tour to Sydney in March next year and with my Platinum ticket under my pillow its just 250 sleeps away.

We fans have been very patient for 23 years as the queen of pop bypassed Australia on all world tours since the 1993 Girlie Show, citing logistics and financial reasons for the no show. The Confessions tour in 2006 never made it because she had to get her kids back to school (serious), Sticky and Sweet of 2008, which is the biggest grossing tour of all time for a solo artist, never made it due the global financial crisis. For MDNA of 2013 Australian media suggested that stadiums had already been booked before Madge dropped us again. After a fan backlash she belatedly played the parent card again and said;

“I know a lot of you are angry with me, upset with me, disappointed … please forgive me, and know that when I do come to Australia I will have made the wait worth your while, and I will put on the greatest show on earth.”

2 July 2015

A Transgender Awakening

It seems almost unconceivable the ground we have covered over the last year in terms of real visibility and what it is to be trans. We have entered a period of ‘transgender awakening’. There can be no going back, but there is still much to do.

Leading this charge and putting the issues on the world stage was the feature in the June 2014 issue of Time. ‘The Transgender Tipping Point – America’s next civil fights frontier’ by Jaty Steinmetz profiled a range of transgender people, making the point that trans people are significantly more likely to be impoverished, unemployed and suicidal than other Americans. We know through current studies that this is exactly the same in Australia.

For the first time anywhere in the world a magazine with the credibility and power of Time put US trans woman and star of the Netflix drama Orange is the New Black, Laverne Cox, on its cover. She is an incredible role model for us all and in this profile she nailed the benefit we all wish as an outcome of this awakening.
“We are in a place now where more trans people are willing to tell their stories,” Cox told time.
 “More of us are living visibly and pursuing our dreams visibly, so people can say, ‘Oh yeah, I know someone who is trans’. When people have points of reference that are humanising, that demystifies difference.”

28 May 2015

Remembering Sydney’s ‘Drag Queen’ scene of the 70s

It seems little known now that back in the late 1970s our little part of the world here in Sydney experienced a phenomenon with a large subculture of transgender women that remains unexplainable. Why did so many choose to live in just several postcodes spanning from Kings Cross at this moment in time?

This phenomenon was coined the ‘drag queen’ scene by Roberta Perkins. Now a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at UNSW, it was part of her research for an honours degree in the early 80s, eventually writing a book called The Drag Queen Scene. It remains the best and most complete record of that time. Only a few seem to be around now, but thankfully, the City of Sydney’s libraries has copies.
 The 'Drag Queen' Scene. Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1983
I was an active participant of this subculture from which I learned I could live the life I wanted for myself and was blessed with influential and considerate role models. It was a wonderful environment for my chosen self to grow up in.
This subculture was made up of differing social groups all trying to live in what was still very much an oppressive and ignorant time. To be trans was often to be seen as a freak and came with all the dangers and fears of an un-accepting public. But from the bashings and name-calling this subculture gave us our strength and courage – our sisters gave us love and security.
While we were all individuals, we all looked out for each other in social justice terms and shared a sisterly bond. Sometimes we would mix socially, although generally we were rivals for the many trans-curious men that came to the Cross or the Taxi Club in Darlinghurst.

6 March 2015

The making of the Beyonce G Spot Memorial Float

It takes time, money and resources to make a float for the Mardi Gras Parade. Here, Colleen Windsor takes a look at a group of friends doing it for the love and memory of their late friend.

Zaine ‘Sascha’ Fierce was the guy who gave us the famed Sydney drag queen Beyoncé G-Spot, and Beyoncé was an entrepreneur. At the heart of every entrepreneur is a passion for what they do and a passion for life, and Zaine, Beyoncé, or Mark as I knew him, showed us that in spades when he lived here in Sydney.
Beyoncé G-Spot was created in 2004 and over the next five years was front and centre of the Sydney drag industry. She single-handedly raised thousands of dollars for charity through selling ‘$1 Suckie’ lollipops on many a Sydney dance floor; created the popular TwinkTown club nights; and in 2007 won three DIVA Awards including the DIVA Rising Star. I remember Beyoncé fondly as a queen who was creative, talented and determined to make it. At that time I was on the DIVA Board and had many a moment with Beyoncé, who could also be sometimes difficult and demanding. It’s all this that made her, well, unforgettable.

Zaine and his partner Roland moved to Hamburg, Germany in 2009 where Zaine established a DJ career playing throughout Europe and started his own lace front wig business. In 2013, at only 32 years old, Zaine unexpectedly passed away.
Now, a small group of her friends have been putting together a spectacular tribute Mardi Gras Parade entry – the Beyoncé G-Spot Memorial Float – in celebration of her life.

Float concept design by Troy Murphy

23 January 2015

Fit, Fab and Fifty+

So how is your New Year’s resolution going? Apparently about now is the trickiest time when all good intentions can disappear. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2013 Health Survey, 50 per cent of Australians make a resolution at the beginning of each year but the failure rate is a very high 92 per cent, meaning only 8 per cent of us succeed.

Usually I don’t buy into resolutions at all, although on several occasions, I have used the opportunity to make some of those big difficult changes. On 1 January 1992 I threw my last packet of cigarettes into the trash and never regretted that choice, although it sure was a painful process for a few months. If this is you right now, please hang on. Yes, it’s as hard as hell but trust me, it will become a watershed life moment.   

January 1985 was my other big one. A few years earlier I had retired from my fulltime showgirl career as a Les Girl, made some major life changes and for one reason or another stacked the weight on – I think I tipped the scales at 120kgs. So I committed to the number one resolution: to lose weight and get fit. Little did I realise then I was changing my life forever.

I joined a gym in Clovelly and was extremely lucky to find a brilliant woman who was to encourage and educate me on my fitness path. As it happened, about 12 months into the process, that gym closed and Charne and her team joined the line-up at the newly opened Fitness Network on Oxford Street.

By the late 80s, all the ghetto gyms were packed and much of Gay Sydney was aerobics-mad. So much so that in 1989 the 4am show at the Mardi Gras party was a gym-influenced show – yep, about 50 gym junkies doing their stuff: the grapevine, the Mambo and the Ezy Walk all to the Yazz hit, ‘The Only Way is Up’.

The Fitness Network joined up with the Oxford Gym and relocated to a wonderful old warehouse in Riley Street and for the next 10 years it was my second home. It was a heady time. We had a young Marcus Irwin as an instructor, who I recall invented his famous Cardio Funk exercise craze at this time. He became the World Aerobic Champion in 1992 and later travelled the world teaching other fitness professionals. Later that decade, we were in the hands of Michael Thomas, who taught a very dance-based aerobics class. He went on to a very successful career with California Fitness Asia as their Regional Director of Group Exercise and is now a Zumba Master, training instructors in Europe.