Twenty years after arriving in Sydney and forging a career as a recognisable drag name across the city, Mitzi Macintosh has been named as the 2008 DIVA Hall of Fame recipient.
The nod is almost superfluous at this point, with Mitzi well known for tireless hosting duties at charity and activist events and for leading the longest running drag show in Australian history: The Priscilla Show at the Imperial Hotel in Erskineville.
Mitzi said she knew she’d made it way back in 1990 when having your name up in chalk at the Albury Hotel was the real mark of achievement.
I peaked very early, and it didn’t go down too well with other queens on the scene. Tallulah Brite hated me because she felt you had to pay your dues, and I just got there too quickly, Macintosh told Sydney Star Observer.
She didn’t intend to become a professional drag queen. It began as a fundraiser in Canberra, where she grew up, to ride a Mardi Gras float into the gay Mecca. A favour for a friend’s birthday party came next, and before she knew it, she was offered work at Scooters, the Albury Hotel, and then the Imperial.
In recent years Macintosh has had to share the stage with Graham Browning, the man behind the icon, as he became creative director for the Mardi Gras Parade.
Mitzi will retire sometime next year, when Graham and his boyfriend move to London.
I’ll leave Mitzi behind, I think. It’s been fun and I’ve had some amazing opportunities to be involved in the community because of it, but I’m now looking to use those skills behind the scenes, she said.
Mitzi will accept the award at the DIVA Awards on 18 August.
Mitzi -“ in her own words
I started performing 1989, primarily it was subsidise the dole, because I was only getting about $100. I was also working at Le Girls as a waiter.
I’d done a little bit of drag in Canberra, where I’d lived for five years. For two and a half-years I worked as an outreach minister with the Uniting Church. The last two and a half-years in Canberra I was discovering my gay roots.
Manhattan, the gay venue down there, had drag. One of the first shows I ever saw had Penny Clifford and the audience didn’t applaud, so she screamed at them. At that point I decided if I ever performed I’d never beg for applause.
Trudi Valentine and I had done a few fundraisers for the Meridian Club, which was the social network down there, to put together a float for the Mardi Gras, so we raised some money through these performances and we built a float which we shipped up in a train container and the weekend of Mardi Gras 1989 I entered the Mardi Gras parade and moved to Sydney – all in the one weekend.
I’d actually been to Sydney in 1984, and much like everyone I decided at some point I had to live in Sydney because it was the only place gay men could be gay.
So I moved to Sydney and I needed some money. I did a show for a friend’s birthday party at Palms, which in those days was called Scooters. Management approached me and asked if I wanted to perform so I said sure. Every Friday night I used to get $40 for doing two shows. It wasn’t bad money.
That was the start of drag for me. When they approached me and asked what’s your name, I said I don’t have one. Because I’d refused to have a drag name up to that point. Anything mainstream I didn’t like. I didn’t like Judy Garland. Mind you these days I like Shirley Bassey and Barbara Streisand so I couldn’t call myself heterosexual.
Trudi and I sat down and tried to come up with a name. She came up with a list of stupid suggestions, and the short list ended up being Gidget or Mitzi. I loved 60s stuff, so I thought Mitzi Maguire, Mitzi Mayhem, Mitzi Macintosh, that’s how the name was born.
Legs Galore came down and saw one of the shows, and he needed a seamstress for the Albury Hotel because he was just starting a show there. He approached me, so my first real gig was Les, myself and Robyn Lee working at the Albury Hotel on Saturday nights. One of the first shows we did was Man Crazy, which won an award at DIVAS in 1990, one of the first DIVA awards.
Everybody used to say if you got your name up in chalk you’d made it because they had a chalkboard above the door and every night they’d write up what the show was that night.
It didn’t go down too well with other queens on the scene. Tallulah Bright hated me, she felt you had to pay your dues, work your way up through the system. I peaked too early, but I was quiet when I peaked, I wasn’t a loud peaker.
I’d done a course in menswear design so everything I designed was trousers and jackets to start with. Then Legs decided he wanted me to make corsets so he introduced me to Caroline Clark, so Legs’ waist could go from 26 to 24 inches.
I became a great friend Caroline’s and I helped her make costumes for the Imperial. When she started the Priscilla show in 1993 Wyness Mongrel-Bitch was out fundraising for World AIDS Day and she kept getting drunker and drunker. They were ringing her and ringing her, and eventually there were some friends who lived next door and they shook her and woke her up. Wyness you’ve go to work, you’ve got to go to the Imperial. Caroline’s there, Rose is there, what’s missing? Talent. She ignored them.
So that’s how Wyness got the sack and I started working with the Imperial.
The intention was that at some point I would take over from Caroline. She knew eventually she wouldn’t be well enough to keep working. Legs and Tallulah both died from HIV, then Caroline’s eyesight started to go. She couldn’t see to apply make-up and kept running into people on stage. She told me she had to give up and handed the reigns over to me.
I asked Wyness to come back to work with me. We’d been best friends since I came to Sydney. There was whole group who used to work at Aussie Boys.
But Wyness used to work at the Westbury. I used to use him as my back-up story for when I was picking up trade, I’d say I worked as a waiter at the Westbury, because if I told them I worked as a drag queen they didn’t want to sleep with you. I used to tell other people his stories on dates as well.
After nearly being bashed on my way home behind the Albury, Wyness and I moved to the inner-west. He didn’t want to do drag, but Caroline needed someone. Trudi also started doing drag at that time. The drag came after the friendships. It’s not my fault, there has certainly been a connection there. Maybe I inspired them, but didn’t instigate them.
There were a lot of girls who were instrumental in the drag scene and were amazing in their day, but later died of HIV. The amazing story being that Legs and Tallulah both died on the same day. We had some incredible talent that has come and gone. Fanni Faquar and I were good friends.
If HIV hadn’t happened the drag scene would have been very different. Firstly I wouldn’t have lost those friends. Secondly, we wouldn’t have been the city we are without drag being at the forefront of HIV/AIDS prevention.
Every time they want to get a message out there they use a drag queen to do it. As much as some people may hate it the one person who does get your attention is a drag queen. If you want someone to host an event and it’s not going to cost you a lot of money and you want some sparkle, then drag is certainly the way to do it. In HIV/AIDS drag has been fundamental – even today.
Only last Saturday I did Aurora, raising funds for no money. I won’t say I’m only too pleased, but I feel a responsibility. I think that extends from my christian upbringing. I think my life has been more christian-like than a lot of people in the church. Certainly as far as loyalty to my community and looking out for our community, I’m very proud of that commitment.
I sort of understand the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence sending up religion, but at the core of it I’m opposed to religion. I wouldn’t want to offend the church, although they’re certainly willing to do that to us. I believe you live your life by example. If the church did that and minded its own business then we might be a much happier people. But I didn’t hear the Sister’s calling.
I don’t think I would ever try to offend people. If someone puts his or her hand up I’ll certainly pay attention. But that whole look at you, you filthy rotten breeder I hated that. Just because someone happens to be heterosexual or overweight doesn’t mean they should be used for a cheap laugh.
I’d rather get a laugh out of someone on stage next to me, and making fun of ourselves. The audience is there to have a good time and enjoy themselves.
I never thought I’d be a drag queen. It was just a means to an end. I’d done amateur theatre when I was a kid, in local productions of Fiddler on the Roof and Oliver. I was attracted to playing a role, a character. I was shattered when they told me my face was too mean to play Oliver so I was a factory boy.
Drag has certainly changed what I would have been. I never planned it. When I first started drag I dressed up to raise money to put this float together, then when I got to Sydney I did a friend a favour, then out of that someone asked me which led onto something else. Certainly there was never a goal.
Drag has given me an incredible opportunity to be part of this community that I would never have been able to do otherwise.
My father used to bring me down to Sydney. He ran a christian conference centre up in the Blue Mountains. It’s quite incredible the sinners he was trying to save were what I became.
This journey has brought me to this point where I look back on my life of 20 years of accidental drag and I’m so proud of being a part of this community.
You look back at things like being the Creative Director of Mardi Gras -¦ that’s really amazing . And if you’d said in 20 years’ time a lot of people in Sydney would know of Mitzi Macintosh, and make comments like I never really liked drag shows until I saw you, then that’s really amazing too.
There was a guy who came up to me one night at the pub and said I come here every Saturday night and I laugh. My boyfriend is in third stage HIV, and this the only time I can just laugh.
When I look at the last 20 to 25 years, it’s an incredible journey, and most of it has been accidental. I didn’t mean to be this person. My father was an incredibly well known person on the church circuit and, funnily enough, I’ve become my father, but on the dance party circuit instead.
I don’t like regrets, but I should have pushed myself a lot more than I did. I just regret not being a front seat driver. After 20 years, I know how the game is played and I can play it really well. But it’s been 20 years and I’m still doing good shows everyone is talking about.
I’m already tapping myself on the shoulder. I’m moving overseas in a year and a half with my boyfriend. To get Hall of Fame now is a lovely sign off.
Taking Mitzi to the UK would be like starting all over again. I’m at a point in my life where I’m looking at what I’m doing for the next 20 years and its not going to be drag. I’m not going to be sad old man with wrinkles up on the stage. I want to take the incredible knowledge and experience I’ve had over the years and parley that into something else.
Working as Creative Director for Mardi Gras showed me I could excel outside of drag. I am scared of having to leave Mitzi behind. It’s been so nice to hide behind the mask.
I hope people remember not just Mitzi but Graham as the person behind the creation.
-” as told to Harley Dennett