Today, RuPaul’s Drag Race defines drag. Indeed, drag queens of a particular vintage complain that baby drags have no idea the artform even existed before RuPaul’s Supermodel of the World. But a glance through old newspapers and magazines shows pre Drag Race all-stars downunder making Aussie herstory decades ago. Undoubtedly, thanks to RuPaul, drag enjoys a modern-day renaissance. Queens adorn television and YouTube, plus bingo nights at corner pubs and bowls clubs across the land. Pioneering stuff, according to many. But let’s flash back to just a few pre Drag Race all-stars downunder.
Let’s face it. There is nothing new under the sun. In Aussie herstory, drag queens headlined stage shows, starred in mainstream movies and even featured in fashion spreads. They were certainly all-stars. Today, overexcited wowsers bleat that youthful drag queens are a sign of the looming Apocalypse. However, QNews discovered a 6-year-old female impersonator performing on Perth stages in 1934. So, if we’re going to hell in a handbag, we’re going very slowly.
Over the past two decades, RuPaul and World of Wonder commandeered drag culture and sold it to the world. Like a kid exposing magic tricks on YouTube, they allowed the punters backstage. They exposed the mystery of tucking, translated drag lingo and gave away drag trade secrets, all for commercial gain.
But, despite the pervasive presence of Drag Race, there is much more to drag, particularly as a live performance art form. A glance through Aussie herstory shows we possessed plenty of our own drag all-stars downunder long before the eponymous host declared the first episode of RPDRDU his Casual Friday. Who knows what our historic drag all-stars would have thought with their ‘the show must go on’ ethos?
Sergeant Bill Donaldson
Sergeant Bill Donaldson worked as an actor, singer, pianist and chorus boy before WWII. After distinguishing himself as one of the celebrated Rats of Tobruk, Bill joined an AIF concert party. The Melbourne Argus reported that he would help erect a portable stage complete with curtains, lighting and sound when his troupe rocked up near the battlefront. Then, within three hours of his arrival, Bill would be onstage, frocked up, bringing cheer to battle-wearied troops. (No waiting for Raven to clear quarantine.)
Not wanting to appear too thirsty, QNews nevertheless notes six-foot-tall Bill looks pretty hot dressed as a harem girl. Pix Magazine said that his “makeup cunningly simulates feminine glamour for men starved for civilisation.”
We suspect the word ‘civilisation’ was a euphemism for sex. After all, a close examination of the stage set shows the music stands are cut-out illustrations of nude women. And we recall an observation Smith’s Weekly made about genderbending wartime entertainment.
“Female impersonators are much in demand in war regions where the genuine article is not available.”
Anyway, as fans worldwide nominate their favoured RPDRDU and Spain Trade-of-the-Season, we suggest Bill as a worthy contender for Downunder-Trade-of-the-Season, 1944, Western Front.
In the 1930s, triple-threat Wyndham Marshall wowed Perth audiences — a comedian, female impersonator and the only boy toe-dancer in Australia. This author never heard of toe-dancing. I envisaged some obscure vaudevillian turn like Shadow Puppet Artiste or Professional Flatulist (musical farter). But no. A toe-dancer simply danced en pointe.
As for female impersonation — Wyndham kicked off his professional drag career aged six!
And without a single criticism from Mark Latham or Lyle Shelton.
Wyndham’s dad ran the Peters and Marshall Dancing School. His son was both star pupil and headline performer. We don’t know what happened to Wyndham after the early 1940s. Maybe he developed other interests. Drag queens do struggle to stay relevant as they get older, even all-stars. Wyndham probably felt over the hill by 12.
The beautiful, talented and resilient Julie Desmond held audiences in the palm of her hand. A transwoman, her 1950s billing described her as ‘A Complete Sex Change’ and, in later years, as the ‘Half Man, Half Woman’. Most drag shows of the era featured transwomen, so she deserves her place in the pantheon of all-stars downunder.
To live as her authentic self, Julie endured challenges beyond our present-day imagination. For now, we’ll focus on her remarkable talent. This author first met Julie Desmond at the Brisbane Ekka’s sideshow alley. I heard a barker touting the prizes at her knock-em stall.
“Step right up. Win a beautiful piece of genuine hand-crafted Czechoslovakian Crystalware.”
The crystalware referred to was mass-produced junk — a crudely-made miniature glass elephant. But Julie made it sound like a family heirloom.
She worked the game stalls after the closure of traditional sideshow magic, freak and strip shows. Before that, she performed stand-up in her own tent. Julie fired jokes at the audience at a machine-gun pace. She had to tell them quickly because they were often crude and in breach of Queensland’s obscenity laws. She kept her audience roaring with laughter, and no one, including the cops, could remember a word.
I worked with her in the Maria Callis All Male Revue at Seagulls at Tweed Heads. I sat backstage with pen poised to write down her best lines. At the end of 45 minutes, I could not remember one.
Unstintingly generous, she repeated some when she came offstage. I hesitate to include any here because times have changed. The shock humour of the time does not translate well, and we find some jokes from the era unacceptable, often for good reason. However, in the interest of historical accuracy…
The arsehole of the world
“I was in Gympie last night – the arsehole of the world. I told them that. ‘This town is the arsehole of the world’. They said, ‘That’s ok. You’re just a little shit passing through’.
“They’re fucking stupid in that town. The dogs all have flat faces. From chasing parked cars.
“And everyone has bad complexions. Pock-marks. From learning to eat with forks.
“I went out with a guy from there. I asked him to give me eight inches and make me bleed. He screwed me twice and punched me in the mouth.”
In Gympie, she targeted Ipswich and vice-versa; the same for Townsville and Cairns, and for Rocky and Gladstone.
Lea Sonia’s PR blurb claimed she was born into a Danish circus family. Six sisters comprised the family trapeze act. But one sister abandoned the troupe for marriage, so nine-year-old Lea took her place, in drag.
Yeah right! Actually, Lea was an American. But she enjoyed renown as the best female impersonator ever to grace a downunder stage. The Queens Ball (Published by QNews, Available 20 June) includes a glowing review of a Brisbane performance.
Lea was an icon of the drag scene in the early 1940s — the brightest star of drag all-stars downunder. Following her death, Bill Donaldson bought one of her gowns and wore it with pride on the front lines in the latter part of WWII. Lea died during a Sydney brownout. A tram hit her as she ran for a taxi in the dark street and she died instantly. However, some claim her death as a gay hate crime, alleging someone pushed her into the tram’s path.
Kiwi drag star John Hunter enjoyed fantastic success in Australia in the 1950s.
In 1952, Pix Magazine featured John in a two-page Ladies Fashion spread titled Australia’s most unusual Model. The magazine invited readers to turn to a later page for enlightenment. Somewhat similar to 2004’s There’s Something About Miriam.
“John Hunter arrived at Sydney’s State Theatre looking much like any other young man — grey slacks (rather crumpled), sports-coat, well-worn shoes. Half an hour later, there came out a figure as elegant as any lovely lady on her way to the ball-of-the-season.
“The young man from Auckland with the pale face, white teeth and thick black hair was posted missing.
“In his place, the slim, graceful girl who astounds and delights Australian theatre-goers every evening.”
Reg Stone: Splinters – a great moment in Aussie herstory
The ‘greatest lady impersonator ever known’ was not an Aussie or Kiwi. But England’s Reg Stone gets an honorary guernsey here for his starring role in Splinters.
The first-ever British ‘talkie’ — all talking — all singing — told the true story of a WWI drag troupe and starred a large cast of queens.
In an astonishing moment from Aussie herstory, Australian audiences flocked to the cinema in 1930 to see a film starring pre drag race Pommy queens.
According to the Sun, “Thousands besieged the Lyceum Theatre. Audiences could scarce get out because all the entrances and Pitt Street itself were blocked with enthusiasts waiting for the next session.”
Perhaps the story resonated with Aussies, after all the publicity given to our own wartime drag performer, Adelaide’s Lindsay Kemble.
RuPaul’s Drag Race
For better or worse, many people now identify drag with what they see on Drag Race. On the flip side, the show has done a world of wonder for LGBTIQ+ visibility and acceptance. We’ll just have to see where our Aussie herstory heads in the future. After all, we’re all born naked, and the rest is H&M.
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.