Chapter 3. Rabbit Holes In My Heart
I stood in the middle of the street, stopping all traffic in the seething bottleneck of Darlinghurst Road. No one honked. You don’t honk at a punk. Anyone who honked risked a smashed windscreen. It was 1990. I was eighteen years old. I was an art student. I was pissed off.
I did not fit in anywhere, I never really had. I was a girl who was ‘unusually aggressive’ and ‘ too political’ which made me ‘completely unemployable’ according to my most recent boss who had just sacked me for telling some condescending corporate bitch to go fuck herself. That job had lasted one day.
I was ‘too flamboyant’ for the Goth scene, or the Skins. I was ‘too camp’ for the Rockers or the Mods; in fact I had way too much bent glamour for anything outside of drag. It’s not that there was drag for girls, but I could at least watch it and feel that others appreciated the mad joy of extraverted femininity.
I had grown up on the Muppets, glam rock and MGM musicals– all unfashionable things at the time. I hung by a thread to the punk scene but it didn’t surprise me that I didn’t belong to a gang, I refused to prescribe to any dogma not of my own making and the pointless rage of punk was starting to feel predictable and depressing.
My own self-made creed was a cacophony of singing birds in a bowerbird’s nest; a pastiche of ideas, ethics and thoughts based on my limited experiences of my life. It was perhaps like what Alice would see as she tumbled down the rabbit hole only instead of bookshelves and broken teacups it was desecrated bibles, scratched Blondie records and Madonna nudes from Penthouse that decorated the walls of my descent.
The nihilism that had gripped my generation certainly resonated through me. I was geared for the live fast, die young mentality so glamorised to the youth of my time. Even so, I wanted more than to just end up some pretty, smashed up corpse who died from an obsession with my own tragic mythology. I wanted to survive, but I wanted it to be on my terms. I refused to be a part of the system- to get a job, pay rent, find a man, buy a house, copulate on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays until I had produced three kids and then shrivel to a dried up twig in the suburbs. People who had that life all looked at me like I was potential fertiliser to sprinkle on their nice green lawns– hence my first performance name, Soilent Pink.
I looked at them like they were extras from Dawn of The Dead and belonged in lifeless shopping malls mindlessly pushing trolleys. Occasionally I would dress up as one of them and go shoplifting in the posh suburb I was born to but this was as close as our two worlds came.
I already lived on the fringe. I liked it there. I was jobless, lived in an artists ghetto, went to uni and was surviving on one cheese jaffle a day that I bought with the small amount of money my mother had left to me in her estate. Signs of poverty were more common then. Sydney was not an opulent, glamorous city of the world like it is today. Internationally Australians were a joke and Sydney was seen as a provincial backwater of thick-headed, uneducated inbreeds.
The housing of the inner city was mostly in a state of decay with the lightless windows of terraces being heroine dens or squats. At night there was an exodus from the city as the suits all left and it became a deserted wasteland where the trolls came out to feast on the fairies. The red necks would pour in by the Ute load and go out for a joyous round of poofer bashing before engaging in gang raping the streetwalkers. All that stood between them and the underlings were the queer anarchists for whom Darlinghurts (as we call it) was home. I liked the feeling of Sydney then– unhinged, unloved and anarchic.
I had this idea– an idea about freedom. To be free, I felt, one had to truly turn one’s back on everything society put forward as being ‘right’ and define yourself by experience alone– no boundaries– no fear. I was searching for a Wonderland styled liberation where you could make yourself into anything you wanted. I was both clay and sculptor. I knew the lifestyle I dreamed of must exist and hoped my belief in it would eventually lead to somewhere happier, somehow.
My childhood had been a disaster. My mother had been a feminist and had raised me with strong ethics in terms of my gender. She had died after a long, gruelling battle with cancer when I was nine. From that moment on I was to be an eternal Alice falling on high repeat through the rabbit hole that had formed in my heart. In time I became numb to the falling and eventually gave up on seeking the black hole’s end. Perhaps I had become a black hole myself… I certainly felt empty of anything that amounted to worth.
I had always had this feeling that somewhere there must be a place for girls like me– lost girls; angry, questioning girls; disobedient girls; the ones that disappear down strange rabbit holes looking for impossible beauty and release. ‘Curiouser and curiouser’ whispered my internal Alice as I gravitated towards a place where no one else fit in either. Kings Cross, Sydney’s notorious red-light district, was known as a bastion for social misfits. It was a neo lit exit sign; a gutter set to funnel the city’s trash on their way to oblivion.
Kings Cross, so aptly named, was a decent enough place to be crucified– or at least put your name on the waiting list. Not that that’s why it bore this name, but it’s certainly the image it brought to my mind.
The rumours abound that to the first Australians, the Cadigal people, this land was both a celebratory meeting place and a burial ground. I’m still hunting the truth of what this land was to our indigenous; perhaps there lays the answer to the stain that is Kings Cross.
In its time as part of European settlement the area has been the home of prisons, urban gang warfare, the sly grog trade, black masses, prostitution, massacres and organised crime.
It had also once been the home of Sydney’s artists and bohemians. By the time I got there, courtesy of corruption, drugs and developers, Kings Cross now really was just a catchment system for lowlifes and scum. It had it’s own ecosystem that thrived on sex and violence. It was run by the mafia with a second level of command going to the pimps, drug dealers, biker gangs and the corrupt police who nested there.
What makes sense is that it remained the place in Sydney where people gathered to party, to fuck, and also where death is ever present. Sex and death are always a great marriage and the ceremony seemed to repeat itself on a nightly basis in the flesh powered pinball parlours that were the strip clubs.
As I stood there watching the rivulets of men trickling in and out of those lurid scarlet doorways I wondered at the chaotic machinery of Kings Cross and my potential place within it.
My eyes transfixed on the older hookers, well past the prime of their earning years, with slept on, matted beehives and half-focussed eyes. They seemed like exploded stars that now harboured in those doorways like used up lumps of coal. I told myself that if I went in after this illusive white rabbit of a dream, I must know when to leave. I did not want to hire out my body. I did not want to end up with a drug habit. I did not want to die here. I would not be destroyed by this place. This was my promise to myself.
I moved past drunk men pissing in the famed fountain and past the Kings Cross Bikers– a cluster of dreadlocked older men wearing lived-in leather… literally. I don’t think they owned clothes other than their leathers. My ears were assaulted by the sounds of Technotronic competing with the constant bark of sparring doormen. Then there were the patrons– voyeurs who lugubriously blurred through it all– like fog-eyed children looking at fairground rides. It had the air of dangerous, manufactured fun.
Perhaps I had found myself a place to be. Here was the place for rabbit hole girls who broke the rules; by choice they had also removed themselves from the world. Every now and then I’d get a glimpse of another Alice. With a flash of diamantes and a Japanese silk Kimono a stripper would disappear into a doorway– or was it another rabbit hole? These glittering girls looked like their nightly ritual was to throw themselves at the underground of Sydney with the subtlety of a Molotov cocktail. I wanted to be one of them. I started my fall down the well.
To friends and family who watched me fall I was just another Generation X failure.
My generation were one of the biggest social experiments of all time. We were to be the ones to deliver the world to a new era of equality and world peace. We had been raised on the aftermath of decades of social upheaval. We were post-punk, post-modern, post-feminism, post-hippy and post-racial equality. Our souls were a soup of ethics and possibilities. The idea of our parents and teachers was that if you raised children with humanitarian ideals the world would change when those children reached adulthood. However, someone forgot to process that those movements were just ideals and in some ways fantasies within themselves.
There is no contending for just how innately stupid humankind can choose to remain. Generation X did not receive a world ready to change– how do you revolutionise against mediocrity when mediocrity itself is a result of nature, not nurture?
What Generation X inherited was a world of the unawake, where few of us had eyes open, and fewer still fought off the comfort to closing eyelids shut. It was strange– the light had been switched on, but so many turned from it– and continue to in droves.
Meanwhile we watched the children of love, our foremothers and fathers, stop singing “Blowing in the Wind” and start marching to the “Greed is Good” mantra of the eighties. It was a catchy tune and, like some fucked up Pied Piper, many peers fell to the wayside to join in on the dance. The middle class, more like a psychological virus than an economic strata, spread across the world and people did not give enough care to be mindful of the environment, sustainable population growth, consumption, the rights of the poor, women’s rights or human equality. It was all just too inconvenient.
The world Gen X inherited had an AIDS epidemic, a heroine epidemic, mass starvation and was recovering from a cold war. Feminism had stemmed in many directions, but seemed to have no direction other than an evasive, frustrated echo of a seventies dream. Is this frustration what lead women to stop working together and start openly criticising each other’s fertility choices, bodies, clothing, jobs… is there even an end to the list by which we try to cancel each other out? Internal warfare had become the voice of feminism and the youth of that moment were under harsh fire, as if we alone were responsible for it’s failings.
The youth of Gen X buckled under the strain. Why anyone expects the youth of our species to come up with solutions is beyond me. What was it we were supposed to be able to do about it all? In response, although greed might not be good, it sure looked a lot more fun than being thrown into the back of paddy wagons by the riot police. Most Gen X-ers went the way of conforming. What followed for the rest of us was embitterment, anger with no outlet, a voiceless fury that quelled into a dark apathy.
Upon leaving the convent I shaved my head, burned my uniform and set myself to leave the bedlam of family life behind me. I aligned with other disillusioned bastard hybrids like myself. It made sense to hate on everything so dismally and I expended much energy in feigning a wretched indifference to the world. So, sporting a dyed fifties bullet bra, vintage lime green satin girdle, torn fishnets and doc martins I styled my Mohawk from the elegant Marie Antoinette coils that fell to my waist into a pale pink Marilyn Monroe do. I then determined to find myself a job where I could fly under the radar of social norms so I could survive. I headed for Kings Cross.
Little did I realise that in this place I was to meet a cluster of other women who had done the same thing, for very similar reasons. We clung to the inner city of Sydney like the wet scattered pages of some unfinished book on hope. Here, in this shitty, sordid part of the world, we gathered like a storm. All we needed was a way to be seen. Tallulah, that wonderful miscreant, had already started the mission.
When Tallulah and I met as students studying gender and performance at university, a kindred undertaking was launched. Karen Finlay, Carolee Schleeman, Rebecca Horne, Lydia Lunch and Cindy Sherman were our heroes. These were the first wave of feminist performers using their bodies as a demonstrative weapon in the battle for women’s rights. We had already determined to join their ranks. The only problem was there was nowhere in this town for a performance artist to get onstage. The post-punk queer world offered part of the answer.
Punk was never just a fashion movement, or just an excuse to hate; it was about tearing down hierarchic structures to allow ordinary people somewhere to breathe. If you were a post-punk performer you didn’t need to do years of ballet or acting to get onstage, you just got onstage and did what you felt like. You didn’t have to sound good, look good, or be good– in fact it was of more interest to people if you were none of these things. There was purity in it.
Prior to this, the people making art, providing platforms and seeing art were coming from upper socio-economic backgrounds. To the rest of us it seemed that much of what was happening on mainstream stages was all just one big fat elitist wank. Underground performance art was a creative charge from those who had not had the privilege of training, and who lacked refinement, but we had something very real to express.
This world of new performance was enticing to me, as someone uncomfortable with my body. I thought it might offer me a freedom to challenge beauty norms, and a way to repel all of that unwanted male attention that I was suddenly getting.
I had somehow blossomed from being a geek girl into a willowy beauty, none of which I was equipped to deal with. I was horribly shy. I did not enjoy being pretty. I did not find it empowering. I did not find it fun. I simply did not like being THAT girl.
The way men looked at me, undressed me with their eyes, and constantly tried to manipulate me into having sex with them made me extremely uncomfortable; not to mention the number of times I had already been harassed, assaulted, forced and degraded by their attentions. I longed for a space where I could be in control, where I could express that which had always had to be silenced, where I could choose what I thought made women sexy. Because being the monster I was, whatever I did, it was always going to be about sex.
A problem existed: the Sydney performance scene– in fact any scene including the queer scene– was still a desert for women onstage. There was nothing for us. Unless you were in a rock band or had all of that aforementioned acting training, theatrical spaces for women did not exist. Drag, cabaret bars and the live theatre scene was very much a male playground. Women’s roles in this world were as warm props to be manipulated around the stage, as a love interest with words fed and forced in scripts penned by male hands. We were virgins or whores[ we were mothers or school girls– but a woman choosing the form of her own representation was not something that had happened much in Australia.
When Tallulah marched up to me at uni one day, like a punk Botticelli Venus, and said “YOU!” I completely froze. Why was she talking to me? We’d never even connected eyes– I’d been careful to make sure she would never see me staring at her. How did she know I was into her? She looked nothing like the other dykes and had fascinated me for months. Normally I was surrounded by dungaree-clad lesbians who frowned at my red lipstick, my lack of modesty and my love of wearing fifties underwear as outerwear. This woman was electric.
“You!” She continued, “ You remind me of Tank Girl! Do you want to be in a show?” I couldn’t quite believe that of all of the gorgeous creatures at her disposal she decided to ask me to perform with her at her ‘friend’s little party’. I said yes. She was to provide the costume and no choreography was needed.
After we parted, another one of those ‘well meaning friends’ pulled me aside and whispered, “don’t talk to her, she’s trouble.” The rumours abounded about Tallulah. “She’s a hard core BDSM mistress with a penchant for cutting up young girls onstage. In this performance she’s going to tie you up and carve her name in your ass cheek with a razorblade. The ambulance will leave you on a hospital gurney in the corridor of an insane asylum with a numbered tag on your toe as you will be so off your face on drugs that you won’t even know your own name, and you’ll be like that for the rest of your life.”
I have no idea why they thought this was going to be a deterrent. I guess they had me figured all wrong. I was so thrilled to be involved in something so perverse.
It’s not that being a sliced and diced human vegetable was at all enticing, but since Mandy I have to admit to developing a penchant of my own– wicked women really got me hard. If something looked like it’s going to lead to trouble, I most indefinitely always wanted to be part of it. Tallulah had trouble etched in her minxy blue eyes.
Trouble she was– the BEST kind of trouble. The kind of trouble a tumbling Alice could only hope for. Tallulah was one giant box full of sweets saying “EAT ME!” and I did, as often as I could. Somedays she left me feeling like a giant, and other days I was diminished to an insect– that was life with Tallulah.
I arrived at her ‘friends little party.’ It was not the wee soiree that had been painted for me. What greeted me was a writhing mass of 20,000 half naked muscle Marys off their heads on ecstasy– Sleaze Ball 1990. We were support for legendary drag queen Bernina Bod.
Backstage I studied the costume she had handed me. It was a small length of fringing that hung over my pussy. There really wasn’t a lot to this costume. She waited to see if I would flinch. Aware of her scrutiny I didn’t bat an eye.
I tried it on and shook my ass in her direction. She smiled. She approved. I was fit to be onstage with her.
That night Tallulah didn’t cut me up. However that small bit of fringing did not survive and I imagine it now lies in a sedimentary layer of fun times past. That night I found my home– onstage. I stopped falling through the rabbit hole and landed. I had peeked through the keyhole key of a tiny golden door, a door that led into a beautiful queer garden full of strange flowers.
It was intoxicating being onstage with her. I still recall that every time I screamed SUCK MY COCK at the crowd before me, they screamed back with a roar that said, “We love you!!!! Your being ‘unusually aggressive’ is valid– because there is so much to be angry about. Your need to be ‘political’ is welcome because we must always fight for those who have chosen to sleep, and you are no longer ‘completely unemployable’! You have just found yourself a stream of employment that is welcoming of glamorous, sexual women. Fabulous, wild energied girls are not an anathema, they are restorative goddesses!!!”
A strong bond was formed between myself and Tallulah and we never looked back. Having found our place, we needed somewhere to perform on a regular basis. If men could get paid for getting up in a pair of heals and drunkenly mouth the invisible words of a through a torch song, surely there must be somewhere for women to do something similar?
So when at uni one day Tallulah flipped her irreverent paw at me and said those two words, “Lets strip!” it sounded like it might be the answer to our mutual problem.
This is the bed into which the seeds of the revival were sewn. It wasn’t the perfect girls with immaculate manicures and an obsession for faultless glamour that loaded the cannon striptease performers were to launch ourselves through. It was a group of truly wild, lost, traumatised, queer punk feminists who, like human debris, happened to wash up on the same beach at the same time. I was one of a handful of unusually fierce women who drifted towards the strip clubs of Kings Cross like it was a breathing hole in a suffocating ice shelf. Strip was not just an unrecognised joyous, expressive art form; it was to become our chosen form of protest.
Little did I suspect that a movement of this nature was already happening, and had had been happening in these very clubs for decades. I stood on the brink of Darlinghurts Road, surveying a street of six strip clubs. I had to choose a club, but which one?