Sydney Stories

The city is suffering a crisis of confidence. Even drag is in decline
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The Independent Online

My local pub, the Albury, is not the place for a quiet drink. Wander in after 10.30pm and you will be confronted by thumping disco music and a risqué floor show in full swing inside the oval art-deco bar. There will be giant lacquered hairstyles, cleavages to die for, enough eyeliner to sink a battleship – and not a woman in sight.

My local pub, the Albury, is not the place for a quiet drink. Wander in after 10.30pm and you will be confronted by thumping disco music and a risqué floor show in full swing inside the oval art-deco bar. There will be giant lacquered hairstyles, cleavages to die for, enough eyeliner to sink a battleship – and not a woman in sight.

The Albury is Sydney's best-known gay pub, and its drag shows, staged every night of the week for the past 21 years, are legendary. Every drag queen worth his salt has performed there at one time, and the pub is so packed during the annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras that the pavement outside is virtually impassable.

But now this Sydney institution is under threat. The Albury has been sold and is about to close for renovations that will see shops installed on the ground floor of the listed building in Oxford Street, the city's principal gay thoroughfare. The bar will move upstairs, and the drag shows – which inspired the hit film Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, about three queens touring the Outback in a dilapidated bus – may be consigned to history.

That would be a kick in the teeth for Sydney's 80 professional drag queens. Other venues have sprung up, but the Albury remains drag's spiritual home and some fear that its uncertain future reflects the waning popularity of a performance art that reached its peak in the days of gay liberation in the Eighties. Then, drag was a statement, says Mitzi MacIntosh, who worked at the Albury for seven years and now performs at the Imperial. "It was about confronting people with our sexuality. It was outrageous. Nowadays no one cares that we're poofs, and drag has lost that edge."

Mitzi – real name Graeme Browning – recalls the early days at the Albury, when barmen moonlighted as porn actors, drugs were plentiful and the drag queens would grab bottles from the bar and swig from them mid-routine. "They would literally fall about on stage. They were very messy, they were loud and obscene."

One of the three original resident queens was Cindy Pastel, aka Ritchie Finger, on whom Hugo Weaving's character in Priscilla was based. Another was Miss 3D, or Glenn Lewis, whose flat in the red-light district of Kings Cross is crammed with flamboyant frocks and head-dresses including one composed entirely of hypodermic syringes.

A cake decorator by day, Miss 3D still performs but regards drag as sedate. "It's not as kooky and kinky and mad as it used to be," he says. The Albury trio would run outside with their microphones on summer evenings and continue performing in the middle of the traffic.

Drag has a long and chequered history in Sydney. In the Sixties, the queens would dash from clubs such as Les Girls in Kings Cross into waiting taxis to avoid being arrested or beaten up. Until the mid-Seventies, it was illegal to wear women's undergarments beneath their dresses. Once central to the gay sub-culture, drag has gone mainstream: Claire de Lune, a French-born drag queen, appears regularly on television, and another, Vanessa Wagner, featured in a recent double-page newspaper advertisement for Ozemail, an internet service provider.

The Albury now attracts backpackers and stag parties, and many gay patrons have moved on. Some blame the success of Priscilla, which opened the drag scene to a wider audience. But David Wilkins, chairman of the Drag Industry Variety Awards, believes drag will never die. "It's burlesque, cabaret and drama all rolled into one," he says. "It can be pure soap opera when they start bitching, but it's also like high opera. Australians just love watching men in dresses. Why, I don't know. Not enough sheilas?"

 

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The drag queens had their proudest moment at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics, where – strapped inside a huge silver shoe – they took part in a celebration of Australian culture. The ceremony was a euphoric occasion, with the Games praised as the best ever, Australian athletes cradling a record haul of medals, and Sydney showing off its charms to thousands of visitors. But as the first anniversary of the Olympics approaches next weekend, the city is in sombre mood.

Olympic Park – the vast landscaped site at Homebush Bay where the sporting facilities were built – has become a concrete ghost town, Stadium Australia is fast turning into a white elephant, and Sydney stands accused of failing to capitalise on the unprecedented interest excited by a fortnight of global television exposure.

That charge was levelled recently by a Federal minister, Joe Hockey, who said in a speech that Sydney was an arrogant and complacent city which had squandered its Olympic success and missed the opportunity to become a world capital. Sydney, he said, had responded to its rave post-Games reviews with hubris; it was "like an actress with an Academy Award performance" who had "become too familiar with parties and applause".

With Sydneysiders still reeling from that attack, the anniversary may offer an occasion to heal wounds. The consortium that owns Olympic Park is hoping to entice people back to Homebush Bay and reignite the spirit of Sydney 2000 with a three-week festival of free outdoor concerts beginning next weekend and called, appropriately, Ignite! The Olympic flame will be re-lit and the festival's director, Leo Schofield, is optimistic. "The site looks wonderful," he says. "It just needs people to animate it."

 

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One of Mr Hockey's barbs cut especially deep. By comparison with Sydney, he said, Melbourne, its bitter rival, was a wise, experienced and confident place.

The two cities have long vied for supremacy, Melbourne extolling its superior gastronomic and cultural attractions and Sydney its laid-back lifestyle and unmatched natural setting. Sydney, too, has always revelled in its status as Australia's biggest city. But to the consternation of Sydneysiders, the latest demographic statistics show that, for the first time, Melbourne is growing at a faster rate. With a population of just over four million, Sydney is still significantly larger, but the Victorian capital is fast catching up.

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