Sunday, March 13, 2011


Phaedra on the Mike walsh show in the early 1970's.

Phaedra worked in the Darlinghurst precinct from 1968 and remembers a wild afternoon at the Yellow House with Martin Sharp and Sylvia and the Synthetics.

I wish they would stop using the term legend for a middle-aged drag queen. A legend is King Arthur (you have to be dead, or mythical). I have been called a legend. Let's get this in perspective. I spent 20 years miming to records and dancing a bit. I did not save a nation. I also wish they would stop using the term "icon" for a middle-aged drag queen. An Icon is a religious painting set often in silver or gold!

I started actually living in the Kings Cross area in about 1972, perhaps a bit earlier. When I arrived in Sydney it was my third visit by myself. There had been lots with my parents as a child. I found myself here at age eighteen, working as a Dance Director at Fred Astaire Dance Studios Australasia.

"No son of mine is going to be a Ballet Dancer!". Quote Mr Nunn-Smith...then, oh dear. He came with Uncle Bob to see me at work, and by then I was no longer a dance director, I was in the drag show, and my big number was, "This Girl's In Love With You" and I wore a fishtail in orange brocade. I was very pretty.

So I saw Kings Cross from the late 1960's, about '68 or '69, just after I left school. The 10 years or so I worked at Les Girls cabaret (internationally famous all-male revue, Darlinghurst Rd and Roslyn St, Kings Cross) were amazing.

When I arrived on the scene Reg (Boom) 1 had died, Sammy Lee 2 had gone quite mad but was often there, and Mrs. Boom, Ilene, ran the place. She was brilliant. Sammy still thought he was in charge but Mrs. Boom looked after everything; and I mean everything that running a business in the Cross entailed. This included diplomatically handling some very nefarious members of the "White Shoe Brigade"3 and on the same night, often, members of Sydney's social elite including members of the Black & White committee.

Back in those days Kings Cross was always the centre of excitement, especially on New Years eve. It really is so hard to describe how exciting it was with everything being illegal. The parties were better, and the makeup stayed on longer. I thought I had died and gone to heaven… there was of course a very dark interesting side too. I loved it.

Really seedy, strange terrace houses with little gaming houses in them, and so enjoyable. Strip clubs... these were the campest clubs to go to and I so wish they were still there - they didn't mind a drag queen at all. Then down the strip itself it was Surf City, and round the corner Whiskey A Go Go. The Whiskey and Surf were quite straight but if you "butched it up" they let you in. Loads of strip clubs dotted all along and crowning it all Les Girls. Yes, the drag queens had the best spot. Ironically, depending on definition of the word, probably the straightest people I knew were the gangsters.

The block of flats, "Bayview" in Roslyn Gardens was full of very elegant prostitutes including a number of the very early un-springable sex-changes. These prostitutes and their flats were rented for the duration of, usually an American servicemen's stay. So they had all their rent paid for, all their food, lots of presents and some extra money to feather the nest. These girls did very well. As one serviceman left another was found to rent out the property and the girl for the next duration. and on it went.

I returned to Adelaide for a moment, and was back again by '70 working at Les Girls and from then on the years were like a dream. For me Kings Cross and Oxford St, Darlinghurst from 68 til 85 was like a magic carpet ride.

I know people had other jobs, but I can't for the life of me think why - nor do I want to. Being a drag queen at any club in those days was just fairy-tale.

I remember Doris Fish4 starting off, I am that bloody old. I actually met her at "The Yellow House" ( a pop art collective and "24 hour a day happening" in Macleay Street from 1970 - 1973, in the former Terry Clune Gallery building), now that really dates me.

Barbara Williams, a Lesbian that we called "George", was frightfully well connected on the art scene and all that. So adorable. We rescued her, the poor love, when she was a waitress at the Texas Tavern (a big bar down Macleay Street for R&R gentlemen, past the Rex Hotel, on the same side. They would have a floor shows and topless singers).

I felt sorry for her because she had to wear a skirt, and she so hated it! We told her that had to stop - so first a job back stage, then doing lighting. She never looked back. Then she went on to become lighting director at the Belvoir Street Theatre for many years. She was the only biological female to appear on stage with us at Les Girls - as a Spanish man of course!

Collage of Phaedra based on a Barry McKay photo taken in the Les Girls dressing room in the early 1970's.

She did the most amazing portrait of me in oils, it was huge, and very good. I wish I still had it. For some reason I am holding a bottle of perfume like in an ad. So strange yet wonderful. It hung in the lobby of our flat on the waterfront at Elizabeth Bay. The odd thing is I don't think George really painted. I never saw any other art she made. She did lighting, and her lighting was like art.

George knew everyone at "The Yellow House". She took me there a number of times during the day. "Phaedra, you must see this!" I remember her saying that, as it was very hard to get me out in the daytime, all that bloody sun! It was like Barbara knew something important or very different was happening.

There was very little furniture it seemed. Everything was painted. Even painted floorboards. I remember the noise of women's shoes on bare floors. I have never liked it. Stage makes a different sound to houses for some reason. I think people slept upstairs during the day time and I got the impression it may have been more "on the go" of a night. Of course I never saw it then as I was working.

To me the place was strange, often empty. I suppose in perhaps three times I went there with George I met five or six people; and I only ever met one painter and he was going over a wall already painted. To my untutored, philistine eye I thought it was all very ho-hum. But apparently it was some important art movement I witnessed. George knew what was going on - she was on our "draggy" wavelength; she understood all that - but she also was so ahead of us too.

I remember being introduced to Doris Fish there; she stuck out because of her name. I knew she was just starting as the look and makeup was not refined as it was later (eventually refined enough for Doris to appear on many greeting cards for the popular humorous West Graphics line).

And she was in drag in the day time! You just did not wear drag in the day time. We just did not need to antagonise the police. To see all these drag queens including Doris Fish, in the cruel light of day, was really quite shocking.

I was dressed as a boy of course as was George (it only occurs to me right this minute she was actually technically in drag). But these queens had pencil skirts, ballerina skirts, blouses cheekily open at a non-existent cleavage. And slap that went for days. Much more even than we wore of a night time at Les Girls! We could have all been arrested - the doors to the house were wide open to Macleay Sreet!

They were doing this drag show of sorts in the painted rooms of The Yellow House. I suppose it was what we would call today "Vogueing". They just struck poses everywhere while some artist kept painting one of the walls. He became recognisable to me in later years as I thought about it, as being Martin Sharp. I don't remember any music.

We, the audience of about 15 people were applauding the tableaux they presented. We had of course smoked something. Well, no self respecting person went out without being stoned. It was the '70s after all!

I think this lot bought their stuff at Vinnies (St Vincent De Paul charity shop) or somewhere because they had really lovely 1950s shoes - but to my uncultured eye they looked as tho' they were wearing just old women's clothes. A few weeks later it turned out that some of these people were "Sylvia and the Synthetics"5.

I got to work with them later on. I was dressed as Judy Garland, miming "Singing in the Rain" and half way through they threw a bucket of water over me! Well that's OK, but the bit I did not get was why they had my boyfriend, a Mr. South Pacific, standing behind me all oiled up and beautifully glistening - ripping the arms and legs of dolls, and making out to eat their heads. Drag in the day time. I still sort of feel uncomfortable going out in daylight, full-stop!

These days all I remember is the Kings Cross of the past. It was safe. Actually, the Les Girls dressing room was the safest place to be in Kings Cross...well that is until Carlotta sat on the wash basin, pissing, and broke it.

Anyway, it has long gone. The old Cross where no one would dare touch you. Any tourist was fair game tho'...

1, 2 Sammy Lee (1912?-1975), celebrated night club and restaurant owner, founded Les Girls and the Latin Quarter, both with Reg Boom.

3 The "White Shoe Brigade" was used as a term in Australia, to describe a group of Gold Coast property developers who backed, and benefitted from, former Queensland State Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

4 Phillip Mills was a performer and artist, stage name was Doris Fish. Born in Australia, he later resided in San Francisco from 1976 where he had a successful career, and died there in 1994.

5 "Sylvia and the Synthetics", were a groundbreaking performance art troupe of the early 1970s led by Phillip Mills, that used drag as "political theatre". It had a fluid member line-up - but with three mainstays: Doris Fish, Miss Abood (Daniel Archer), and Jacqueline Hyde.

Transcribed from emails and Facebook chats with Phaedra Nunn-Smith between 2008- 2011.

© 2011 Darian Zam. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be used, reproduced, photocopied, transmitted, or stored in any retrieval system of any nature,

without the written permission of the copyright owner.