1936: Robert Helpmann, future Australian of the Year

sir robert helpmann australian of the year

Down the track, openly gay Robert Helpmann would be knighted, declared Australian of the Year and honoured with a state funeral by the famously ocker country that claimed him as a national hero. But in 1936, all that was still to come. For now, he was simply a promising young Aussie ballet dancer in London.

Stockings For Tights: Early Career Of Robert Helpmann

As Robert Helpmann started to make a name for himself in English dance, his mum reminisced with the Adelaide Mail about his childhood.

“He started to dance as soon as he could walk.

“When he was a little chap, he used to take away my stockings and use them for tights. He would tie feathers around his head, too, and go roaming the streets until I am sure, people thought I had a lunatic in the family.

“As soon as he came home from school, he would throw his bag down and practise all afternoon. He loved to invent dances, and one day when I went in there was a great pile of newspapers on the floor. I touched them, and out came Robert in a dance symbolical of the awakening of spring.”

Born in Mount Gambier, South Australia to a stage-struck mother and a stock and station agent father, Bobby Helpmann wanted to become a ballet dancer from a young age. His supportive parents enrolled him with a ballet teacher at the age of seven. He was Miss Nora Stewart’s first ever male student so she taught him what she knew — female roles.

Bobby left school at fourteen to focus on dance. The following year, he toured Australia with Anna Pavlova. His father had met the Russian prima ballerina on a business trip to Melbourne and convinced her to take on his son as an apprentice.

Robert Helpmann went on to international stardom as a dancer, director, choreographer and film actor. After establishing himself internationally, he returned home to Australia regularly from 1955.

Unlike most gay celebrities of the era, he made no effort to appear straight. It was never a secret that he and stage director Michael Benthall lived together since the 1940s.

Australian of the Year

People are strange. They are also contradictory and often bewildering.

In 1965, gay sex was illegal in every jurisdiction of the Commonwealth of Australia. Yet, that same year, Robert Helpmann was awarded Australian of the Year, an accolade then conferred on “the person who has brought the greatest honour to Australia.”

The award is certainly a testament to Sir Robert Helpmann’s contribution to Australia’s art and culture. As Prime Minister Bob Hawke said on his death, “He demonstrated to the world the diversity of this nation’s talents and capabilities.”

But it’s still an astonishing contradiction: to honour as a national hero a man your laws decree should serve 14 years jail if caught having sex with his partner of two decades.

I’m sure straight people are lovely. I will just never understand them.

Also: Australian LGBTIQ Legends: Sir Robert Helpmann.

More great Aussie stage personalities:

Aussie Living Treasure Reg Livermore.

Gordon Chater: I’d rather die than not change for dinner.

Noel Tovey, Indigenous ballet dancer to Stonewall rioter.

For the latest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) news in Australia, visit qnews.com.au. Check out our latest magazines or find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Destiny Rogers

Destiny Rogers embarked on her career in the media industry immediately after high school, initially joining Mirror News, which later evolved into News Ltd. She fondly recalls editing Ian Byford's 'Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns' as one of her most fulfilling projects. Additionally, Destiny co-researched and co-wrote 'The Queen's Ball', chronicling the history of the world's longest-running continuous queer event. Her investigative work on the history of Australia's COON Cheese and Edward Coon culminated in the publication 'COON: More Holes than Swiss Cheese', a collaborative effort with Dr. Stephen Hagan. Destiny's journey at QNews began as a feature writer, and she was subsequently elevated to the role of Managing Editor of QNews Magazine in 2018. However, in July 2022, she decided to resign from this role to refocus on research and feature writing. For contact, please reach out at destinyr@qnews.com.au.

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