I grew up in Melbourne in an Italian family with four sisters and three brothers. I suppose as a kid I was always trying on my sisters’ dresses and heels and doing the full spin in between the bunks of my four sisters.
I have been doing drag for 19 years -“ Courtney Act wasn’t even born when I started. All of my family has seen me perform. I performed at my sisters’ 40th and 50th birthdays -“ that’s all they wanted for their birthdays. My mother was in the front row with her camera, a 72-year-old Italian mother just loving it.
In Melbourne my friends and I did only social drag. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s we’d get dressed up and go out for a special ball or something like. In those days my drag name was Chelsea Lamour.
I came to Sydney in 1992 because I wanted a change of scene. I gave myself six months and if I didn’t like it I’d go back. I didn’t go back.
I was working in hospitality for about 18 months here before I started drag, and then I gave up hospitality and drag took over. I started doing shows and I needed another surname because I was only known as Chelsea. Drag legend Caroline Clark gave me a new surname. I became Chelsea Bun.
I got into the drag scene here because I was making costumes and an opportunity came up at The Imperial. I started with Amelia Airhead and Tess Tickle and we started to get seen.
Caroline Clark was looking for two new members for her group, and she offered the spots to me and Mitzi Macintosh. She chose me particularly because I could sew. I bought a sewing machine in 1989 in Melbourne and taught myself.
By the mid-1990s I was doing drag shows six nights in Sydney a week. I performed at The Imperial for about five years. From there I went to other venues like The Albury and the Taxi Club.
The highlight of my drag career has been learning so much about other people.
Everyone’s got their own view on drag. Everyone thinks they’ve got to do Top 40 music. I like to make people laugh and have a giggle and take the mickey out of the whole man-in-a-dress thing.
The mid-1990s were the peak of my drag performance. Now I prefer to do one or two shows a week. My shop comes first.
When I was first doing drag in Sydney I had my own costume workshop at home and I had another workshop at St Peters, and I used to get a lot of work through word of mouth. I just thought I’d start looking to the future. I didn’t want to be a tired old drag queen with nothing else in my life.
I thought, if I’m selling the dress, why can’t I sell the shoes and the wig and the gloves to match? That’s why I opened House of Priscilla about seven years ago.
I set up the shop by myself. It started off with me and another machinist. Now we have four machinists. When I started out I was making costumes for drag queens and some other bits and pieces.
But I’ve always called it a costume shop rather than a drag shop, and now we do everything from body builders to straight women and fashion parades, and it’s almost all for straight customers. I have swung my product around to suit straight women now because they’re the ones who want it.
I also make costumes for schools for their end-of-year concerts or eisteddfods. A friend of mine who was doing costumes for a kids’ troupe came in one day and got some stuff from me a couple of years ago. Someone from the school came in and saw my set-up and asked me to do some stuff.
The next minute I had 500 kids’ costumes to make. I’d never had a pattern for kids’ costumes in my life. A teacher might come in and order 30 costumes, and it’s all stretch and lycra, which is what we like to work with.
The shop has always been in Darlinghurst and we recently opened a new shop in Stanmore selling mainly dancewear for kids. It has been a surprise to see my market shift from drag queens to children and straight women.
But the drag queens have been there for me, which was fantastic in the early years. Half the time they only want make-up now or a pair of shoes. A lot of them don’t work any more because they can’t get work.
There have been hard times when I think, should I shut shop? Thankfully I’ve had the drag customers to support me. If I didn’t have the drag clientele I could have easily shut shop, especially in the beginning.
Interview by Ian Gould