1942: Lea Sonia, world’s greatest female impersonator

lea sonia greatest female impersonator

No less august a publication than the Sydney Truth once hailed Lea Sonia as the world’s greatest female impersonator.

Of course, I jest in praising the Truth. But the paper had reason to describe Lea Sonia in such glowing terms. In 1940, she was a superstar of the Australian stage.

The celebrated beauty sang, danced, joked, impersonated celebrities, and baffled audiences with a sensuous and bewildering striptease.

Lea Sonia arrived in Australia in late 1939, contracted to tour the prestigious Tivoli Theatre circuit.

A media influencer par excellence, she understood that visibility equalled bums on seats. So Lea Sonia blitzed papers and magazines with the story of her drag beginning. During her childhood, her 6 (or 7 — the number varied) Danish sisters performed an all-girl high-wire act. But then one of them quit suddenly to get married. Although only nine years old, Lea knew the routine, so he jumped in a frock and took his sister’s place. No one ever sprung him so he worked in drag ever after.

The story changed occasionally. Lea started off Danish, then became Swiss and later, American.

However, she told the Adelaide News a completely different story about training with Professor Barry Chat after he heard her sing in an English cathedral one Sunday. She meant Barri Chatt, not a professor but a female impersonator, later one of England’s best-known. Lea Sonia actually met Barri in Paris where she had a fling with him and learned many of the tricks of the trade.

Lea was English. Her name was John Bryan and ads in English papers show she’d been performing in drag for just over a year when she signed the Australian contract.

But she learned a lot in a short time and was an immediate success in Australia.

lea sonia greatest female impersonator

Rough Trade

Tivoli publicist Percy Crawford said, “On stage, he appeared for all the world like a shapely, glamorous young woman. He sang in a beautiful soprano voice. But at the climax of his act, he would remove his wig, revealing a head of close-cropped dark hair, and stride off the stage saying in unmistakably masculine tones, ‘Sorry to disappoint you, boys’.”

Scenic artist Jim Hutchings said: “He outshone the showgirls. He had real hair wigs brought from England, beautiful fur coats, poise, voice, and projection. Laid them in the aisles!”

However, Jim complained about Lea Sonia’s preference for rough trade. “He had rough, common boyfriends who came around the stage door. ‘Is Lea there?’ And Lea would poke her head out and say like a real showgirl, ‘I won’t keep you long, boys’.”

The world’s greatest female impersonator

Lea’s career really took off when she included a striptease number as the finale of her act. Showbiz promoters began to call her the world’s greatest female impersonator and forecast international stardom.

The Courier-Mail reviewed a Brisbane performance.

“Graceful, petite and trailing yards of silk, or tulle, or something, Lea floated onto the stage at the Theatre Royal.

“She sang into the microphone in a sweet soprano voice… her top notes floating gaily out into the audience.

“Quickly, Lea changed tempo… into a graceful dance… garments fluttered… Lea picked up a fan… Sally Rand [famous fan dancer of American Burlesque.] had nothing on Lea Sonia… blackout!”

The tactful reviewer confided to those who could read between the lines that the stage lights extinguished at the exact moment the audience anticipated a taboo display of genitalia.

Tivoli comic Bobby Le Brun said the strip act prompted endless discussion among audience members unsure of the performer’s gender.

“There was no cosmetic surgery, hormones, silicon or natural long hair… The illusion was created with the aid of a beautiful wig, lots of sticking plaster, whilst a large rubber ball was cut in halves, turned inside out, painted, and kept in place by lots more sticking plaster.

“Lea Sonia had a naturally pretty face, a shapely body and was a beautiful mover. Proven when he did The Dance of the Seven Veils, dropping the final veil as the stage was blacked out.

“Around the town, the smart boys used to say, ‘From where I was sitting, I could just see enough. It’s a sheila alright’, while others were adamant that from their vantage points, they could definitely guarantee it was a man.”

Oxford Street

To supplement her theatre work, Lea also made late-night appearances in Sydney nightclubs. She performed at the Diamond Horseshoe Club and an early gay bar, the Maxine Club, both on Oxford Street.

The Maxine Club was the only venue where Lea Sonia discarded the drag and performed in men’s clothes. Late on Thursday, January 29 1942, Lea joined friends at the Maxine. He recited two monologues and then sang his favourite song, Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

Lea Sonia left the Maxine at about 3 am. Oxford Street was in semi-darkness because of the wartime ‘brown out’, a precaution against Japanese air raids. Dashing across the street to hail a taxi, Lea was hit by a tram, knocked to the tracks and dragged. He died of head and chest injuries in an ambulance on the way to St Vincent’s Hospital.

Lea Sonia was 26.

An inquest confirmed the death was accidental. Occasional social media conjecture about Lea Sonia’s death being a murder seems to arise from conflating Lea’s story with that of another female impersonator. Harry Foy also performed at the Maxine. During a show in 1943, a US sailor took exception to Harry giving him a comic kiss and punched the performer in the face. Harry landed on the drum kit, hit his head, and died.

More Aussie Drag:

Queensland drag icons: Peter and Johnny Moselle.

Drag Queens at War: Forgotten ANZAC legends.

Lindsay Kemble: Adelaide’s drag queen war hero.

The pre Drag Race all-stars downunder – Aussie herstory.

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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