This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity
Val: I grew up in New Plymouth till I was about 17 and then I went to Auckland University for a few years there and then I moved to Wellington and I’ve been here ever since about 1986, 87 or so. I’ve been in Wellington longer than I’ve been anywhere else.
Jac: When you were growing up in New Plymouth were you at girls’ schools or mixed schools?
Val: Obviously mixed schools at primary and intermediate but all girls’ school at high school.
Jac: How was that for you?
Val: It was ok because I had brothers so I always had guys around me and it wasn’t a big deal whereas for some of the girls it was ‘wow look at that boy’, it was kind of a big deal. The other things was my Dad was a teacher at the high school and he’s kind of an eccentric character so that was interesting when people found out that my father was Mr Little, so I couldn’t really be too naughty at school. He retired when I was in my seventh form and that’s when I probably decided to be naughtier.
Jac: What were you involved in at school?
Val: I think I was in a couple of school plays but mostly sports things so I was into volleyball and athletics.
Jac: When you went to Auckland what did you go to study?
Val: I think it was drinking mostly (laughs). Well it was back in the day when there were no student loans, we got paid a student allowance and there were no student loans so it was sort of ..it was in Auckland Central, it was out of New Plymouth which was an interesting town to grow up in. Not a lot to do, not a very diverse little city. So being away from home for the first time was like ‘wow, there’s this world out here’ and then doing things like sociology at university it was like ‘wow, you know there’s different ways of thinking’. So I did a BA in English and really enjoyed the humanities and I did better at that than English Literature and all that sort of stuff. I hated English actually, funnily enough.
Jac: Were you out in Auckland?
Val: No but a lot of my friends were saying I was a lesbian. I had boyfriends. This guy, one of my friends at university said I dressed like a feminist, a butch feminist lesbian and I was quite taken aback partly by that but I was also quite chuffed secretly. I also saw the Topp Twins for the first time in my life busking on Queen Street. They sort of gave me this knowing look and I looked behind me like ‘who are they looking at? Oh me’. Seeing them was just amazingly life changing. I used to go and hunt them down on Queen Street just to look at them and go ‘wow, you can be like this in the world and it’s really cool’.
Jac: And you came out then?
Val: No, I didn’t. I had some disastrous relationships with boys until I got to Wellington and finally left this terrible relationship and I thought “I need to be on my own for a bit, there’s something going on here that’s not kind of working for me’. And then, I don’t know how I got inveigled into the lesbian community. I started working at the National Library, that’s right, and the wonderful Glenda Gale was around and there were lots of lesbians at the library funnily enough. So I started gravitating towards them and then got invited to a women’s dance at the university which I was nervously excited about. So I went and thought ‘this is ridiculous because there are men here’, they weren’t men. It sounds really cliche but it felt like home. That I’d found where I was meant to be.
Jac: What sort of age were you?
Val: Twenty-three I think.
Jac: So then what did you get involved in, in the lesbian scene in Wellington?
Val: I was doing a Masters in Recreation and Leisure Studies so one of the first things I did was organise a recreation festival for lesbians. It was back in the day when there were lesbians and then there was everybody else and we were really into reclaiming, or claiming, our space and our identity. So separate to being women or feminists we were lesbians and it was an interesting time because there was the separatist movement which was all about hating men and denouncing any kind of straightness and all that kind of stuff. There was also new age philosophy which was all about getting in touch with your inner child and all that kind of stuff. I had amazing arguments and conversations with lesbians who were saying things like baby boys should be put down at birth because they are all going to be rapists and blah, blah, blah and women who have ever had sperm in their bodies can never identify as lesbian and all this stuff. So, you know, the conversations would all be around that’s kind of a nazi way of thinking and extremist and how does it benefit us as a community and then on the other side we were weeping tears for our misspent childhoods, like getting in touch with crystals and weird stuff.
Jac: Not your scene?
Val: It was a very confusing mixed up time. It was an interesting time in terms of the movement, you know, for queer or for lesbians. I look back at it now and I kind of laugh but I also understand how important that time was. Lesbian visibility was something that was so important and things have changed now. I’m kind of torn because sometimes I think lesbian visibility is something that we don’t see yet things have changed. I think the younger generation are far more kind of tribal so it’s not just separatist kind of communities, that we’re working together.
Jac: So you’re talking about the 1990s?
Val: Yes, the 1990s.
Jac: I remember those, we were in the same sort of circles then. Were you living in a lesbian flat?
Val: I sort of lurched from monogamous relationship to monogamous relationship. And of course, you know, moved in after a few months. Oh no, not all of them. But yeh flatted with lesbians and then lived with girlfriends.
Jac: You were one of the women’s self defence teachers?
Val: Yes, I gave it a go. Part of my thesis when I was doing my Masters was around looking at recreation programmes that aim to empower young women and so I followed Jenny Morgan around doing self defence. She’s one of my heroes by the way and I just recently told her that and just got really interested and involved in it. I didn’t get fully qualified as such but I did some courses for young women doing modelling school. It was a school holiday programme and it was a modelling agency which I thought was a really great thing that they included self defence as part of the training and so I was working at the council at the time so would just pop up there at lunchtime in the school holidays and run this hour-long session. Years later I’d have these gorgeous young women come up to me and say ‘Oh I remember you, you did the self defence course. It changed my life and blah blah blah’, so it made me think that even an hour of this stuff really makes a difference to people, yeh.”
Jac: I remember you getting in touch with me about 12 or 15 years ago for us to all meet up at Pound nightclub to discuss this phenomena called Drag Kinging. What sparked that for you?
Val: I was going to Pound and watching the Drag Queens and loving what they did but I’ve always thought ‘why aren’t women doing things? Why aren’t more women skateboarding and all that sort of stuff.’ So thinking ‘why don’t lesbians do this stuff? There are so many talented lesbians. Cathie Sheat, you were doing stuff, there was all sorts of other people performing. I thought let’s all do something together. One of the things I always wanted to do was looking at boy bands and thinking about some really hot dykes doing that stuff. So I sort of handpicked some people that I already knew were performing and you were one of them and that was because you’d won the what was it? Ms Gay Wellington? What was it called Ms Separatist Lesbian? Ha, no. So people raving about how great you were on stage. You’ve always been out there doing MC-ing and that sort of stuff.
Jac: So you got a few of us together.
Val: There were about six of us because people told their friends and flatmates and it kind of grew from there. Of course, we had to have a meeting about it. But really part of that for me was about getting the mandate to organise something together.
Jac: This was re-internet. So where do you find out about the Drag King movement. Magazines. trip to Australia?
Val: Must have been from magazines. The English Diva, they probably, yeh, I don’t know.
Jac: Cos now you can YouTube it and there are websites dedicated to it but really at that time we didn’t have anything to go off eh?
Val: Yeh it was happening in the States, they were quite big on it. But I kept looking at the queens and thought yeh, let’s have women doing this stuff.
Jac: So in terms of our own research it was really about just that, coming up with stuff and calling it the Drag Kings. We were really fortunate because we could just grab the name.
Val: That’s right, it was kind of like a brand that we just grabbed and used.
Jac: That troupe went for, off and on, 12 years?
Val: Twelve, 13?
Jac: Can you remember those first shows and what we put into those first shows?
Jac: Without talking about Cotton Eye Joe.
Val: No, I’m not going to go there, I’m still traumatised by that one. I remember We Will Rock You, which took forever to get the moves right and they were. We did boy band stuff really. Just parodying boy bands and being characters. So the first show we did was at Pound and that was in 2001 I think. I’ve still got the posters. I’ve got some archives and I’ve actually gifted them to LAGANZ on my demise. Then we did our first full show at Bluenote and I still remember the opening number was one I did which was I’m A Woman. So I was dressed up in this glittery sparkly frock and I had my back-up boys. I loved it.
Jac: We got a pretty good crowd in all those shows I remember.
Val: Yeh we had an amazing following really. Even to this day people say ‘Oh, are the Drag Kings going to do stuff again?’ and still remember us quite fondly, yeh.
Jac: Tell us about some of your main characters.
Val: I really like parody. I like looking at how people perform like Tina Turner who’s got such a distinct sort of style about her and has also been done a lot by Drag Queens. I thought ‘well I’d love to do her’, you know what I mean. And one of the highlights of doing the performance of her was someone coming up to me afterwards an dying ‘I could have sworn you were a Drag Queen’. So that whole thing of a woman dressing up as a man dressing up as a woman. Yeh, I was delighted. I love doing boy band characters with a little goatee, piercings and that kind of look. There’s something about doing that kind of stuff where you do start to create a whole persona and start to become more aware of your own masculinity I guess. Part of that in our society masculinity is very much tied up in confidence and I felt like I got a lot of confidence around doing that stuff.
Jac: Are there characters that you still want to do?
Val: Yeh, my sister and her son and my nephew came into town for the Billy Idol concert and so I drive them into town and all the way we had Billy Idol rocking the car. So I came home and YouTubed him and thought ‘oh yes, I so want to do Billy Idol’. He’s next.
Jac: Any particular song?
Val: Rebel Yell. That’s the best.
Jac: Did you ever get any grief about the Drag Kings?
Val: Yeh in the last few years there’ve been a bit of mumbling about the binary thing. Yeh you know there’s kind of the political stuff. It’s cool as long as people are thinking about it, that’s great, let’s have a discussion, that’s what arts about. At a recent thing I did an Eminem number in which he starts off doing ‘Cleaning Out Your Closet’ and then ends up as Diana Ross doing ‘I’m Coming Out’ so you know so it’s stripping away that tough persona and ending up as queer as fuck. Somebody posted a photo and somebody posted a comment saying that ruined the night for him because Eminem is a homophobic twat and all that sort of stuff and that we should have not had my number in it. At first I thought ‘ooh that hurts so much’ and then I thought ‘no, this is great’ cos I was pretty good at impersonating Eminem but they kind of missed the point because people kind of came in and started defending and discussing and I thought ‘this is good’.
Jac: And the Drag Kings kind of always set up a forum for discussion in terms of what we were doing. Some people probably read us a little bit more deeply than what we actually were. And we went to Melbourne. Do you want to talk about how it was for us going to Melbourne that time?
Val: It was a buzz to be involved in something semi-international I guess and I was looking at some of the other acts and thinking ‘gosh, we’re so different, we’re so unique in what we do’. The characters that we do, we try to tell a story, group numbers which you didn’t see a lot of. The Melbourne ones were very much characters that they’d created and they would just be that character. A lot of their stuff was very penis oriented and that’s not the only thing about being male. I liked it that we were being ourselves but with these different characters and could play.
Jac: I remember us all noticing that. That was really the first time that we’d seen a whole lot of other Drag Kings, at this extravaganza, and pretty much every act ended up with that cock joke. We’ve done that occasionally but it’s never really been a real focus of what we’ve done. So yeh you set up quite an amazing thing for Wellington and we did travel, you know, Lyttelton.
Val: I remember one of my highlights was the Topp Twins coming to see us in Auckland. I think it was Linda standing in the aisle and I had just done Tinna Tuna and she was clapping and smiling and she said ‘bloody gorgeous’ and that was a highlight for me. I thought ‘wow if she liked it, it must be good’.
Jac: Yeh, you made it. Val, in the Butch on Butch photo exhibition we took a photo of you in a music shop in town and we’ve got record albums behind you. Can you talk about the significance of that setting for you?
Val: Music has always been a big part of my life. Grew up with different music in my house. I had an older sister and two older brothers and a twin so we all had quite different musical tastes. I have fond memories of rifling through records at the weekends and there’s something about records where you had your artwork as well, you know, the covers. But I’ve always been moved and touched by music and I used to pretend to be musicians and it was my happy place. One of them was Paul Simon, I wanted to be Paul Simon. So music is really important to me and I love dancing.
Jac: And you’re a DJ.
Val: Part-time DJ yeh.
Jac: And what’s your DJ name?
Val: My DJ name is DJ Bullitt. And that’s a play on the fact that I’m a Taurus and a Little. But also I was shot at the first time I ever DeeJayed. I’d been going to the DOODS dances which were the lesbian dances that were held monthly.
Jac: Dykes Out Of Debt.
Val: That’s right, and I always thought ‘ oh they should play this song, and oh they should play that song’. So I thought ‘put your money where your mouth is’ and offered to DJ. So I offered to DJ and they said ‘yeh come along’. With music I’m always dancing, and everything I do I just dance, coming out of the shower I just dance. And the music I listen to I thought was grey and really danceable so I took along my little collection of CDs and realised actually not everyone knows these songs, just cos I do and you know love dancing to them. So I was shit, actually quite shit. And didn’t have a big collection so was kind of repeating some songs. So anyway where the DJ booth was, was right by the window by the road but it was upstairs. I was bending over to get a CD or something and I felt something whiz past my head and I thought ‘that was weird’. That night was just disastrous. A very drunk woman came up and said ‘your music is shit, I’m going to bash you’. Like she actually had to be dragged out. Looking back I think I don’t blame her (laughs). But no it was a disastrous night. On the Monday I was reading the paper and this was an article about some guys that had been driving up and down Courtenay Place and Tory Street which was where the thing was shooting air pistols at places, and people and nightclubs. So I rang the police and said ‘look I don’t know, it might be a coincidence, but I have a feeling I was shot at on Saturday night. So they investigated it. They went up to the nightclub and I got this letter from the police that said ‘we can confirm that the pellet that went past your head was from an air gun, blah blah, the case is now closed’. So I had this letter and it was like ‘wow this is street cred man, I’ve been shot at, a DJ that’s been shot at’. So yeh, it has to be DJ Bullitt.
Jac: Kind of harrowing but perfect as well.
Val: I’ll always have that letter. I will frame it one day.
Jac: You’ve been on a recent holiday to Thailand and you went to help out at a sanctuary for elephants. Can you tell us about your interest there.
Val: It’s one of those bucket list things. I’d love to work on a sanctuary with wild animals and I love elephants. So a few years ago a friend of a friend had been talking about how she and gone to this sanctuary so I sat down and talked with her about how do you do it. So she told me and gave me the name of the sanctuary. So I thought I’m going to be the girlfriend of the century and took my girlfriend who also loves animals and is really passionate about animal welfare, I’m going to shout her for her birthday a trip to Thailand to this sanctuary. It took months and months to do that and I had to keep it a secret and it was really really hard. So I presented it to her and then we had to wait cos her birthday is in October and mine is in May and we were going to go on my birthday the following year. In the meantime we did lots and lots of reading about sanctuaries and in Thailand especially. We went there and for about two weeks volunteering and it was absolutely exhausting. Getting up at 6 O’Clock every morning and then doing basically 12 hours on really physical stuff like scrubbing out pools with little scrubbing brushes in the middle of the day with Thai heat and then feeding out to 600 animals. Learnt so much about the plight of animals and the whole dichotomy of poverty and what that drives people to do. That sanctuary was run by a guy who was a bit of prick actually and there was a big falling out and it was all yucky so we hard about this other sanctuary that was very small and pretty much dedicated to elephants run by an englishwoman so my partner and I, we just looked at each other sand said ‘we’re going’. It dills my heart. I can’t actually describe what it’s like to be around these animals that should be in the wild but they’ve been totally abused and exploited for tourists and now they get to live the rest of their lives out in freedom, comfort and being looked after. What blows me away is their resilience and how they trust human beings after what they have been through. teaches you a lot about yourself and about other people and about the world. The first one was north but the second one was about half way between Chiang Mai and Bangkok. Everyone should go. It was beautiful. One of the guides there, we’re friends and we’re always chatting on Facebook.
Jac: Coming back to the photo exhibition, do you want to say why you became involved in that?
Val: I kind of feel a bit of a fraud because I’m not sure that I identify as butch and then I have to think about that, is that butchphobia? The reason why I wanted to get involved was I saw some fabulous photos from a woman in San Francisco, just stunning photos of these supposedly masculine looking women who identified as butch. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like that. It was raw and it was real and it was just beautiful. And somebody said to me that there was somebody in there that looks like your doppleganger and I thought wow she’s hot, that’s great,. So when I saw that you were doing it I thought well I really want to support that. It’s interesting when I came out you had to be one or the other, femme or butch. If you were femme you were quite marginalised and there was a lot of crap around women who did look “straight”. But I’ve always identified as a tomboy and there’s a continuum and I’m at the boyish end of it. Androgynous and tomboy and I’ve always been attracted to masculine women, not always sexually and physically. And then it makes me think what is masculine. And we’ve all got both and different shades and I thought you know it’s good for me to do this stuff, to have more of a self exploration I guess, yeh.