After 14 years on the board of the Drag Industry Variety Awards (DIVA) -“ and as one of the most prominent members of Sydney’s gay community -“ Ian Jopson is moving to New York to pursue his career as a graphic designer.

He’s also pursuing a man. We met on the internet, explains Jopson. Then he came over for three weeks during Mardi Gras and gave me a return trip to New York as a going-away gift. So I went and spent a month there as a test period. And he passed the test.

Jopson hadn’t even contemplated moving suburbs for a man before, let alone hemispheres. But this time he’s so in love that I’m willing to shut down my business and move to the other side of the world. As soon as DIVA 2004 is finished in August he’ll be taking off to work as a freelance graphic designer in New York where he still plans to do the odd job for some of his clients back in Sydney. And that includes continuing design work on future DIVA posters.

In some ways I do think it’s time for me to move on. I’ve been struggling for the last few years over when the right time to leave DIVA is, because I’ve got such a personal stamp on the event, he says. But I’m now confident the board will be able to cover the hole that I leave.

Jopson, who was born in Wales and moved to Perth with his family as an 11-year-old, developed a passion for drag when he came to Sydney at the age of 22 and got a job working as a barman at the Albury Hotel. I got really hooked on drag working at the Albury, watching [drag queens] Cindy Pastel and 3-D doing really off-the-wall kind of things.

On the one hand the shows were really tacky and trashy but there were moments of absolute brilliance. I love to be amused and taken away from reality just for a moment. Drag can be as funny or as glamorous or as pastiche or as nonsensical as you want. There are no limits, you can take it anywhere.

He ended up becoming friends with most of the girls and occasionally found himself being dragged into the acts as a male dancer -“ not because I’m a particularly good dancer but because I had the build. Jopson even went on tour as a dancing boy to Shanghai with 3-D, Cindy and Bernina Bott. The other male dancer was Jopson’s flatmate at the time Tim Chappel, who went on to win an Oscar for his work designing costumes in The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert.

One night at DCM in 1991 Jopson was chatting with drag identities Dot Dingle and Penny Clifford about the demise of the drag awards night The Caps a year earlier. At the time drag entertainers were the backbone of the fundraising scene in Sydney, Jopson says, so the three of them decided to create a night where the performers could be acknowledged and recognised for their contributions.

And so DIVA was born. Jopson took on the responsibilities of designing the promotional posters, planning how the shows would be staged and coordinating much of the event -“ things he still does 14 years down the track.

The first DIVA was held at DCM that year and attracted around 200 people. The atmosphere at that first one was remarkable, says Jopson. It was electric. Everyone was there, from the bouncers to the door staff, the managers and the security from most of the venues, the main patrons and drag fans. But everyone was equal, there weren’t the same boundaries you normally have on the scene.

Dot, Penny and I were so impressed we just wanted to take it further and make it bigger the following year and every year after that.

It outgrew the tiny DCM after five years and moved on to the ANA Hotel ballroom before being held in the Hordern Pavilion, Star City, The Metro, Royal Randwick Racecourse and Sydney Town Hall, where it returns in 2004.

As executive producer I focused on the design and production of the night. Every year I’d look at DIVA as a design exercise, and every year I was compelled to add more to it and make it better, Jopson says.

He credits DIVA with changing the face of the Sydney drag scene because, as the awards became more important to the drag queens, they started to lift their game. So you’d see them working harder because they wanted to win an award. In the months leading up to DIVA, the shows would be 100 percent better than during the rest of the year.

At present he feels the drag scene isn’t at its best. It’s at an ebb, he says, because there are fewer venues housing drag -“ there’s a lot of talent out there but fewer places for the girls to work. But things come and go in cycles and we’ll just wait for the next wave, he says.

As for the future of DIVA after he’s gone, Jopson says he’d like to see it continue to be a showcase and celebration of the entertainers with less emphasis on who wins what awards. It’s all about trying to show the community just how good these entertainers are, he says.

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