“I did Priscilla before Priscilla – I had 11 drag queens in a Volkswagen, fer God’s sake”
Carlotta is a very complicated woman.
She was born Richard Byron in Balmain in 1943. As a teenager he left home to work in David Jones in Sydney where some co-workers encouraged him to keep cross-dressing and he adopted the name Carol Spencer.
In 1972 Carol, at 29, was one of the first in Australia, certainly the most famous, to have a sex-change operation. It was performed at the Prince of Wales Hospital at Randwick. By this stage she was headlining the famous Les Girls line-up of female impersonators at Kings Cross working for some notorious colourful racing identities. Her stage name was Carlotta, and the club insisted on billing her as a female impersonator for years after she had the operation.
She had a guest stint on sex’n’sin soap Number 96 (ending abruptly when her real identity was finally revealed), starred in a dud movie (“It was called Dead Easy but I called it Dead Loss”), was the inspiration for Priscilla (“I did Priscilla before Priscilla – I had 11 drag queens in a Volkswagen, fer God’s sake”) and wrote (“as told to”) two autobiographies.
With her blessing and her help, the ABC has just made a movie of her life. Carlotta has screened on the ABC and you can watch it now on ABC iView for a limited time. It goes to DVD on July 2 and you can preorder it now.
Carlotta is now 70 and hasn’t retired, but she has slowed the pace a bit. As her guest, I attended her club act at Penrith Panthers, met her backstage and interviewed her by phone two days later, as arranged by the ABC.
Watch a clip from the ABC film Carlotta (02.53):
On stage Carlotta played up her age and grizzled about “having to wear all this shit at my age”, all the while looking fantastic, clearly able to go on for hours and hours, much to the audience’s delight. (“You really have to entertain these days. Years ago you could just stand there and look like a sideshow. Today's a different kettle of fish. Specially in my business.”)
Carol is a different kettle of fish to Carlotta. She’s almost as energetic but no means as bitchy. And almost reclusive. It’s as though she’s finally got the chance, at a little riverside township behind the Gold Coast, to be the unassuming, anonymous woman in the suburbs she once could only dream of being.
Forced out into the spotlight to promote the ABC movie, she happily gives answers, sometimes just one or two words, often not always the answers reporters want (“What happens in the bedroom stays in the bedroom” is the most common line in all her interviews), but she was particularly receptive when I said there would be readers who are right now facing the same dilemmas and confusion that young Richard Byron was facing on his own all those years ago . . .
“That’s the reason I did the movie!” she exclaimed.
Watching my young self on screen I thought he's like a whole other person now. And I remembered how really tough it was.
How did you deal with seeing the young Richard again, on screen? (Laughs) That's a hard question. I found myself thinking that it was so long ago. He's like a whole other person now. And then I found myself thinking how tough it was. It really was tough.
And even tougher in real life than what the movie shows. You don’t have time in a film – No, no, no. No, no, you don't, unfortunately, because you can't get into everything in depth. It'd end up being a five-hour movie. I was happy with the film. Look, the thing is I've lived it. So I wouldn't be one of those people who sit around watching it (laughs). It was a long process to make. Six years. I'm very happy with the result.
Richard was sexually abused but that’s not in the film. Yes he was but I don't dwell on that. It's passed. That's in the past. I'm a strong person.
You’ve lived a complicated, complex, triumphant life. Young Richard had all that ahead of him. What can you say to all the Richards who are watching? What do they need to hear? Be strong. And there's light at the end of the tunnel. There's much more freedom today but still it’s not easy A lot of them have families to consider whereas I was fortunate, I only had two mothers to contend with. I didn’t know a lot of my aunties and uncles. When there's family involved that's the thing that holds a lot of guys back, because they're embarrassed. It’s a difficult process and it's very stressful.
Where was your greatest support? Myself. Just self-confidence. Plus I had good supportive friends around me who loved me and gave me the support I needed. I went into a whole new world remember. It was hard. I was leaving what was the industrial area of Balmain in those years and going into the world of the Cross, and Les Girls. It was a big change.
Did you ever lose confidence? No, not really. I've always been a pretty strong person. I knew what I wanted from a very early age.
The hardest thing to deal with surely wasn't the transition op but all the emotional stuff leading up to it in the years beforehand. What was the biggest hurdle to get your head around? Look the whole thing was that I didn’t really have a hurdle in front of me. I just went for it. It’s hard to explain. I just went for it. ’Cos I knew what I wanted. And I wasn't going to let anyone stop me.
Look, there were no hurdles. I just went for it. I knew what I wanted and I wasn't going to let anyone stop me.
The show you take around the clubs puts your success story in audiences’ faces. Yes, that's right. But I do take the piss out of myself. As you know. As you saw. That’s why they like it. I just say it as it is. I'm politically incorrect. And I try to get that across all the time. I’m not a lover of political correctness.
How have your audiences changed? Thank God they're still alive darling!
What about the blokes dragged along by their wives to the ‘freak show’. How do you cut them down to size and get it through that ‘Hey, I’m a real person!’? Yeah. I think I win them over in the end. You didn't see anyone walk out, did you. Mind you, they might be a bit scared to head for the door. I’ve had a lot of guys come up after and say thank you.
You blazed a trail. Well, I've tried to help.
It’s a big responsibility. I’m not into that accolade stuff. There are a lot of other kids out there who don't get the credit but who do a lot of things, a lot behind the scenes. Like at Mardi Gras.
What was left out of the film you wished had been put in? I would've liked a bit on my stepmother ’cos she was just wonderful. She stuck by me. When she first saw me perform she just said ‘That wouldn't have happened if I'd adopted you!’ (Laughs). After my show she just ran to the dressing room going “Where is she? Where is she?” (laughs) and finally found me and gave me a big hug. She was real strong. I think I got my strength from her. I always had a lot of love and respect for her. I was very fortunate to have her. Even though I come from a big family as far as aunties and uncles are concerned, they’ve never had anything to do with me. None of them. It’s their loss, not mine.
That's awful. Yes. Yes it was a bit. But, as I said, I’m strong.
I come from a big family as far as aunties and uncles are concerned. They’ve never had anything to do with me. None of them.
It’s not easy to be a bloke in Australia these days, wherever you find yourself on the gender scale. I don’t even think of it that way. I’m just Carlotta. That's it. Take it or leave it.
But you’re not. You’re Carol as well. You’re two people. Yes I am. That’s right. After this week’s over I can go back to being myself at home.
What's the difference? The bitch is on-stage and the nice person is off-stage. I’m not a bitch like that in real life. Not at home.
What are you like at home? I cook, I read, I garden. I read anything about history. Just finished reading a great book, Sheila [Sheila: The Australian Beauty Who Bewitched British Society, by Robert Wainwright], about a woman who was the queen's mother's husband's first girlfriend. She came from Australia and did the social scene in London in the ’20s and ’30s. Fabulous book. Got it at the airport and I thought this is right up my . . . sleeve [those pesky double entendres] (laughs). I watched Downton Abbey. Loved it. I don’t go to the cinema that much. Oh, darling, it's just too much of a pain in the arse to be quite honest.
The Kings Cross we see in the film has gone now. Some of your bosses were pretty shady characters. Well, you know, in those days we didn’t look at it that way. We really didn’t. We were too wrapped up in doing our shows. It was all exciting ’cos we were young.
It was also pretty tough. You never got paid well. No, shocking. A lot of people made a lot of money out of us. Yes, it was tough. But I changed that. Well, I had nothing to lose, love! (Laughs). A lot of them joined the bandwagon after me.
You paved the way. Well, I helped. I hate accolades.
But it's true. That's for other people to judge.
Interview filmed at the time Carlotta was headlining Les Girls (06.30):
Any other words of encouragement for young guys facing a life with confusion? Look, be yourselves. There is fun. Don't struggle. Life's too short. And once you release yourself from it all you'll be a lot happier. Just don't think on the negative side, think on the positive side. You may lose a few friends but, believe you me, you'll gain a lot more. If your family is working against you, unfortunately that goes with the tide sometimes. That's where you gotta be strong.
The most important thing is love and the most important love is your own. If you get someone else to love you, it's a bonus.
The end credits state: The most important thing is love and the most important love is your own. If you get someone else to love you, it's a bonus. Was that what it said in the writing that comes up at the end of the movie? Oh, love, I didn't have my glasses on and I couldn’t read it! (we laugh raucously for three minutes). I’ll have to watch it then. I didn’t know I said something so good! ■
Story updated to include iView and DVD details. Also caption corrected. Link to 2UE audio added.
■ Carlotta's homepage
■ Carlotta on ABC1
■ Carlotta on ABC iView (limited time)
■ Carlotta pre-order on DVD (available July 2, $19.99)
■ Read Ian's other interviews:
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