In 1989, I became possibly the world’s first trans shopping centre Santa — for an hour anyway — and still proudly hold the record as the most grumpy Santa in the history of Australian Christmas.
Not so much Ho Ho Ho as No No F_cking No!
I’d moved to Cairns from Brisbane a couple of years before and landed on my feet performing wildlife shows. Not that big a change from drag shows when you think about it. Like drag queens, when crocodiles open their mouths, you can’t be sure if they’re smiling or gunna bite your head off.
But then came the pilot’s strike when domestic airlines stopped flying in Australia for months, decimating the tourist industry in far-flung destinations like Cairns.
I well remember performing a crocodile show to 400 people on a Friday afternoon and returning to work Monday to an audience of 5 Japanese who couldn’t understand a word I said. (TBH, people who spoke English as a first language also struggled to comprehend. A girl did need a drink or ten to stare down both crocodiles and 1980s gay bar audiences.)
From drag act to Irish comedian
With the wildlife park where I worked bleeding money, I cut back my hours and enrolled with an entertainment agency. The agent, a former Sydney muso, loved entertainment and hated prejudice, refusing to accommodate venue owners who tried to avoid hiring acts because of their race, sexuality, or any attribute other than an ability to entertain.
And Harry never knocked back a job no matter how challenging the requirement — he always trusted someone on his roster would rise to the occasion.
That’s how I came to be booked as an Irish comedian for a movie day at a local football club.
“But Harry, I’m not Irish.”
“Just bung on an accent.”
“I don’t do accents.”
“Sing a couple of Irish songs: Danny Boy, Molly Malone, Donald Where’s Your Troosers?…”
“Donald Where’s Your Troosers? is Scottish!”
“Alright. Keep your kilt on. They’ll never notice.”
“I mime. I don’t f_cking sing.”
“You’ll be right.”
So I filled half an hour doing what I could. I juggled potatoes and repeated the one Irish joke I knew so often the audience started chanting the punch line.
Me: What happened to the Irish cocksucker?
Audience: He choked on the feathers.
They loved me.
“Book her for St Patrick’s Day,” they begged the management.
But the feckers were a bit pissed (at ten in the morning) and a little inclined to taking the piss.
I’ve never juggled a potato since.
First Trans Santa
Next up, Harry rang to say he had a last-minute hosting gig at a shopping centre. It started at nine in the morning. I arrived to discover he intended for me to cover for his regular Santa. (MIA — still passed out drunk from the night before.) The costume was in the centre office. One size fits all.
Ho Ho F_cking No!
I rang my beloved agent from the office phone. (No mobile phones then children.)
“Harry, Santa does not wear cherry-red lipstick!”
“Who’d know under all that beard?”
“I don’t do beards.”
The female office staff looked on in horror. Who ever heard of a female Santa, let alone a Trans Santa? They started suggesting male staff who might fill in for a while. But it was Christmas. Everyone was busy.
A hot young manager took advantage of my casual interest in his masculine charms to coax me into the costume and out onto the Santa throne. He thrust a big sack at me — red and filled with lollies. I shoveled fistfuls of the Christmas candy through the mouth hole of the soon cherry-red-lipstick-stained white Santa beard and spluttered a miserable Ho Ho Ho at any poor child thrust onto my lap by an uncaring mother.
Instead of the usual Santa trying to cheer up anguished kids, the darling angels were doing their best to cheer up the anguished Santa.
“Don’t be grumpy, Santa. Cheer up. Have some more lollies. It’s Christmas!”
The replacement Santa
But a mother complained and I was hauled to the office to ring Harry for a replacement. He already had someone on the way — a tall, handsome, relentlessly cheerful Kiwi singer who specialised in Lionel Richie covers.
From Grumpy Santa to the most jolly man to ever don the red suit.
So it took a while for the penny to drop when my replacement’s arrival made centre management grumpier even than me.
Lionel Richie was black. From Grumpy Trans Santa to Jolly Black Santa. This was surely the end of Western Civilisation!
But they had advertised Santa. They rushed him into the suit, tugging fabric, beard, and wig this way and that attempting to cover every possible centimetre of black skin. Meanwhile, they had me on the phone to Harry begging for yet another replacement.
“Come out with me,” pleaded Lionel Claus, even his eternal optimism suddenly deserting him.
We passed an Aboriginal family in the food court.
“Mummy, why is Santa black?” asked one of the black kids, unaccustomed — like all of us — to the invasion of racial diversity into Australian Christmas tradition. Lionel Claus and I both knew the mother. She took one look and burst into laughter. “You two!”
Santa took his place on his Christmas throne and kids started tugging at their mum’s skirts to take a turn chatting to Father Christmas. But the mothers held back. “Santa’s black,” they told each other incredulously.
“Hoi.” Santa gestured wildly at me, “Run out to my car and grab the acoustic guitar.”
You’re once, twice, three times a lady…
Ten minutes later those same hesitant mums had transformed into the world’s greatest Black Santa fans.
“You’re once, twice, three times a lady,” crooned Black Santa, “And I love you.”
Those women may have been racist but they loved them some Lionel Richie.
They turned all Yummy Mummy, swooning to love ballads and then shrieking raucous never-ending choruses of All Night Long.
Yeah, once you get started you can’t sit down
Come join the fun, it’s a merry-go-round
Everyone’s dancing their troubles away
Come join our party, See how we play!
Suddenly-carefree centre managers loosened their ties and kicked up their heels as a celebratory conga line formed around Santa’s throne.
All was well with the world.
My work here done, Grumpy Santa stole the sack of candy and snuck off home. Ho Ho F_cking Ho. 🤶
Here’s what’s under our tree this Christmas:
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