Article Title:Pollyfilla: "I'm an interactive party decoration, really"
Category:True Stories
Author or Credit:Chris Banks
Published on:22nd January 2006 - 12:00 pm
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Story ID:1086
Text:Pollyfilla Wellington mayor Kerry Prendergast has described her as an icon of the city, and comedian Ruby Wax was so overwhelmed when she met her that "Oh my god" was all she could manage. She's world famous in Wellington, and more than a little well known elsewhere in the country for her work, yet Pollyfilla's alter-ego didn't start out with a grand plan. "I got into drag completely by accident," laughs Colin McLean. "I had always been dabbling in performing. I was doing drama classes from the age of nine, and performing as a clown for children's birthday parties. I'd do balloon animals and magic while the parents got an hour's break from fifteen screaming five-year-olds." He was into some decidedly odd street theatre as well. "Rather than being something recognisable, like a clown, it was more like shapes, or moods, stilt-walking, or walking round as a giant lycra sack. You'd shock or intrigue people, freeze and interact with them." THE CLOWN UNDERGOES A SEX CHANGE But an encounter with the Australian drag road movie Priscilla: Queen of the Desert was to change everything. "I was trying to come up with a silent magic act that I could do to music for a school production, and nothing really fitted," he recalls. "I couldn't find any decent music that didn't have women singing in it. One day I went and saw Priscilla – I knew I was gay then – and seeing what they did actually made sense. I could play round with make-up and wigs like clowning, and I could do short performances, and I could play round with dance, play round with music with female vocals in it, and I could make the costumes. So it was just a total creative outlet for me, and one that worked." And so, McLean's clown underwent a sex change. "I started changing the way I did my clown make-up, really. Pollyfilla's really always been a bit of a clown – that's where my roots are." He feels his clown roots have had a major effect on the development of his drag persona. "I always try and make sure that the audience is laughing with what I'm doing," he says. "Especially if you're a drag queen in a club, if the audience isn't watching you, and they're not interested, then you're not actually doing your job properly. You should be questioning why you're there." McLean sees Pollyfilla as a parody of the stereotypes that women through the ages have been forced into, but she's also a series of alter-egos. "Pollyfilla on stage and Pollyfilla off stage are two very different entities," he says. "When I'm in drag, it's me playing my persona. Then when I'm doing a show, it's me playing my persona, which is then playing another persona - so everything ends up being slightly skewed, Whitney Houston gets shot, and Liza Minnelli goes spastic on stage." THE PERSONALITY SPLIT But does McLean ever question what he is, though? "Before I started doing drag, I was incredibly camp," he laughs. "I would make a suit out of cow-print fabric, and I would wear that out with lipstick, and do my hair all up. But then when I started doing drag, I had a personality split." Doing drag has compartmentalised his life. "As a guy, I want to wear t-shirts and jeans. But if I want to be outrageous, then I've got that outlet to do it in. It was all about having an excuse or a reason to explore myself, basically using my body as a canvas. I could create all these incredible outfits and have someone who is going to wear them. I could play around with hair and make up and not be looked at strangely." McLean believes everyone has a masculine and a feminine side, but if you're a man doing drag, some people – particularly gay men – find this difficult to compute. "I'm also into leather, and you get a lot of people saying – well you can't be into that because you do drag," he says. "I also get a lot of people saying, 'oh you know you're a really nice guy, but I'm not really into drag'. Well, what do you mean not really into it? I don't leave it on when I'm having sex!" Although, some men would prefer it if he did. Being a drag star, he says, has been a major hindrance to his love life. "Drag is like poison for relationships. On one hand, you'll get straight guys who think you're absolutely hot and want to take you home while you're dressed up, but that's the only way they want to see you. They don't want to see you as a guy. But the gay boys? It's like doing drag is an affront to their masculinity or something, despite the fact that half of them are bloody camper than we could ever be." Is dating another drag queen a solution? "No – that's something that's not done," he says. "Although you'd think that would be the most understanding, that's what's known as 'lesbian sex'. Two guys who both dress up as girls who go out with each other. You also get a lot of jealousy in that relationship. One in drag will look better than the other, or one will get more gigs..." While the mixing of masculine and feminine seems to turn off people in his private life, it causes just as much controversy on stage when McLean gets in the mood to mix'n'match. "That really screws people up – when you sort of do a whole 1940s vamp thing, then you rip the dress and the wig off and you've got a harness and chaps on underneath with a Mohawk. People go aagghh!" And yet, McLean doesn't feel restricted by having to wear different personalities to express different sides of himself. "When I'm in drag, I'll put on the make-up, and I'm Colin until I put the eyelashes on. That's very common with a lot of drag queens. There's this one thing which as soon as they do 'that' in the order of things, they're into the character," he explains. Having a drag personality to switch into can even be something of an advantage: "If I ran into Pound, jumped up on a table and started dancing madly – in drag, people would look crack up. It's funny. If I was to do it as a guy, they'd be saying – what the fuck is the matter with that guy? He's mental. Why is he dancing on a table? So in that respect, it gives you an excuse to get away with things." AND IT'S PRACTICAL TOO! But drag isn't just useful for outrageous behaviour. "It's a useful billboard. When we collect for World AIDS Day down here in Wellington, there's me and three other girls done up to the nines. I hit the streets from 7:30 in the morning, and my first bucket was so full I couldn't hold it within an hour. That was because I'm sitting out there in drag, you stick out. People come over and say, what are you doing this for? You tell them, and they say fabulous, open their purses and put the money in. It's like a loud hailer – screaming without having to say anything." It's this potential to captivate a wide variety of audiences that has seen Pollyfilla's work expand beyond gay circles. This year will be the fourth that Pollyfilla has performed at the Summer City Festival in Wellington, organised by the Council. "What they're wanting is someone who has all the energy, smiling, happy, gets everyone hyped and wears the big outrageous costumes with lots of glitter and colour. So it's almost like an interactive party decoration really. I think more than anything that's why I get hired, because of the energy I pass on to other people." "We've got to put together a two hour show, G-rated, and we get 3,000 people come along to sit in the Botanical Gardens and watch me walk around like a madwoman," he continues. "Parents bring their kids, and they bring Nana and Grandad, and at the end of the night when its dark and we've got the lights flashing, there's a whole mosh pit of under-10 year olds dancing around to a drag queen, lip-syncing! It's just hilarious." Gay audiences are more difficult to please. "You've got the gay boys who all kind of sit there," he says. "I always make sure that in each act we do an audience participation routine. So I get everyone standing up. The kids are – boom – on their feet. Mum and Dad sort of amble up, and the gay boys all sit there – oh no, I'm a bit too chic to do that. So I say 'This show DOES NOT CONTINUE until everyone – eyeballing them – is standing up.' And then they all stand up." McLean thinks gay audiences are simply jaded by drag. "It is becoming increasingly harder to entertain a queer audience. I think they expect too much," he says. "Because they see drag every week, they undervalue it, whereas I think... I don't think straight people go along for the novelty of a man in a dress, straight people actually really love it." Especially in the provinces, it would seem. "I do a regular show in Blenheim at least once a month, with another drag queen from Wellington, and Joanne Clark from Christchurch drives up, and we do a three-act cabaret show in Blenheim. It's a little country pub, on the side of the state highway. It's gay owned, and they can take up to 120 people, and they reach capacity every time we perform. People have booked in for the Christmas show since April." While the straight audiences go crazy at a simple Cher medley, McLean says even the most elaborate performances struggle to get a polite round of applause in a gay club. "Maybe it's partly that they don't want to be seen to, or it's embarrassing to show that you enjoy something. On a tangent with that is the whole gay party scene – people used to design their outfits and go along to Hero and Devotion wearing sequinned hot pants, hats, wigs, and get their hair dyed especially. Now you go along and people are in nice jeans, Diesel shoes, designer tops... it's like, what's happened? We're supposed to be leaders in style, the outrageous fun ones, and I almost think we've assimilated too much." THE LIE THAT TELLS THE TRUTH The new young assimilated generation, McLean frets, is growing up with little or no knowledge of queer history or culture. Labels like "camp" now get assigned to bland mainstream fare like Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera. "Why are they camp?" he asks. "Oh they're camp, girl, people say to me. Yes, but what makes them camp? There's no irony in what they're doing! They're dancing round in scanty undies covered in glitter with shirtless boys. That's not camp! Camp is the lie that tells the truth. There needs to be a splash of irony in it. What these pop stars are doing isn't camp, it's just trying to get the gay audience." McLean was mortified to find when putting together a Rocky Horror drag ensemble recently that most of his fellow performers had never seen the film. "People just didn't get it," he says. "When I did my Mommie Dearest show at the opening of Out Takes a couple of years ago, I had a whole load of twinks up to me saying, "Oh my god, your show is so camp, we loved it". I said thank you, I'm really flattered. 'But why were you chasing that girl with a coathanger?' they asked. No idea." For McLean, good drag means remaining focussed on performance, and focussed on pleasing your audience. It's not about ego. "There's performers who perform for themselves, and performers who perform for the crowd. If you can pull your wig off in front of the crowd and not give a shit, then you're performing for the audience," he says. And that audience shouldn't just be restricted to clubs, pubs, and outdoor shows. "I'm really surprised that New Zealand just won't have drag queens on TV. You've got 'B   Chris Banks - 22nd January 2006
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