Good-time gold town attempts to shed seedy image

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It is a cool winter afternoon, and Talleah looks decidedly underdressed as she pulls pints in the Wild West Saloon of the Exchange Hotel.

Talleah is wearing lilac briefs and a matching camisole top, but she barely raises an eyebrow among the miners clustered around the bar in dust-coated work clothes. For this is Kalgoorlie, a rough-edged gold mining town in the Western Australian desert with a reputation for hard drinking, street brawls and a colourful nightlife.

The scantily clad barmaids - known as "skimpies" - are part of that culture, as are the brothels that line Hay Street. The pubs and brothels have long been a tourist attraction, but now a campaign is under way to rid the town of its seedy image, promoting its rich history and heritage-listed buildings instead.

The move, spearheaded by tourism officials and business leaders, has sparked a furious debate about Kalgoorlie's future. Many locals like the town just the way it is, and say the campaign smacks of meddling by officials in Perth, the state capital.

Ron Berryman, the chief executive of Kalgoorlie Goldfields Tourism, is leading plans to "rebrand" the town as a place for families. "There's more to Kalgoorlie than booze and blokes," Mr Berryman said. "We have some fantastic landscapes in this area and a history that is second to none."

In the Exchange Hotel, the miners supping Swan Draught after a shift were unimpressed. Brian, an elderly miner with heavily tattooed arms, said the town was already a shadow of its former self. "There were more than 100 pubs in Kalgoorlie's heyday," he said. "Now there are only 32."

Brian's friend, Rick, said the "skimpies" were not the attraction they once were, following a police crackdown prohibiting them from wearing see-through tops or G-strings. Customs such as "heads and tails" - tossing money to barmaids to induce them to show their breasts or buttocks - have also been banned.

On Hay Street, meanwhile, the signs outside a row of unassuming brick houses advertise "Lovely Ladies ... Good Company ... We Take Eftpos [electronic funds transfer]".

Brothel owners, not surprisingly, are also opposed to the rebranding. Jeanette Mellor, manager of Langtrees, said: "We're part of the town's history. There isn't a tourist who comes to town that doesn't want to see the Hay Street strip."