Pioneering drag identity and founder of Ken’s Karate Klub, Ken (Kandy) Johnson, lost his long battle with cancer on Saturday night, aged 75 years.
One of the original Les Girls, Johnson was a favourite performer at one of Sydney’s first openly gay and lesbian venues, The Purple Onion, which he later became a partner in.
Johnson became a successful publican, running the Lord Roberts Hotel and the Park Inn Hotel.
Later, inspired by his overseas travel which took him to Turkey, Johnson established Ken’s Karate Klub, a sex-on-premises bathhouse now known as Ken’s of Kensington.
Last year Johnson, known as the Empress of Sydney, launched his long-awaited autobiography Kandy: What a Drag, an exploration of Sydney’s gay and lesbian past as seen from the frontlines of the entertainment world.
“The Purple Onion established itself as the first gay nightclub and people started to come there as a venue where they could be totally among their own people, and it established a social life for the gay people which had not been there before,” he told Sydney Star Observer at the time.
“It was an exciting time and as it turns out, it was sort of historic but at the time when you’re doing those things you don’t think of it as being historic.
“The ’78 march was, of course, historic right from the start because it was a milestone but as far as the drag clubs were concerned, they were just there to provide entertainment and pull the people together under a banner where they felt safe.”
Friend and fellow venue owner Ivy Richter — former owner of the Birdcage — recalled Johnson as a “very lively, energetic and busy person”.
“He was very kind, and always one of a kind. He was the person who always dreamed everything up,” she said. “He’d dream up these shows, and then the next thing you’d know everyone else would be copying that.”
Monique Kelly, who worked with Johnson at Les Girls, recalled a consummate performer.
“She was very quick-witted on the mike, a good compere and a very quick comedian,” Kelly told SSO.
info: Kandy: What a Drag is available from The Bookshop, Darlinghurst.

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