Transitioning Part 2 – The Quest to be a Showgirl.
Transitioning in the mid to late 80’s was a fruitful time. I had made new friends, done things I never thought I would and started enjoying life as my new self. It took me a short while to adjust to the new way in which I presented to the world. Being so young things were exciting yet very intimidating at the same time. It was time for a name change. I chose my name from a show that I watched on television as a child. Susan St James was an actress in America and she starred in a detective show called McMillian and Wife. My mum used to watch the show and the name just stuck in my head. In the 80’s we changed our name via deed poll. So off I went to the Land Titles Office and I registered my name and I was now Miss St James. I preferred Suzie as a shorter version to my name. So Susan was my legal name and Suzie was her alter ego.
Since there was no internet in those days, we relied a lot on each other for guidance and information. Some would even adopt a Drag mother. My hormone regime was going well, my features were softening yet still a little harsh in my eyes, however I was blessed with the one boob syndrome. My right one grew and left one was going nowhere. So in came the padded bra and numerous other ways of creating a bust line. Some used bird seed stuffed into stockings with odd choices of items used as nipples and others just used socks. I opted for 2 padded bras which were very sufficient and easier than stuffing stockings.
Working the streets was tough work and it was taking its toll on me already. Late nights, multiple sex partners day in day out was the norm, so I learnt to reward myself for working a bit longer some nights so I could have the next day all to myself. Having time out was just as important as working such a taxing profession. Living with other Trans and drag queens was great experience because I got to learn so many things from so many different people. I’ve always listened to various people on things and then take all that information and make it my own.
Inside me though, I had this quest. A quest to become a showgirl. Ali used to take me to places like Pete’s Beat, Club 45’s and numerous other venues along the strip (Oxford Street). There were so many places to choose from back then. Patches and the Exchange Hotel down the bottom of the strip to the Taxi Club up on Flinders Street. The Taxi Club was a drag queens haven. Late night or early morning drinks was always on the cards after a big night on the Meryl. Yes we called the street the Meryl. Drag code names and pillarie was all the rage back then. We had a dialogue that we could use without others (straight guys mainly) knowing what we were saying so we could communicate. The Taxi Club was infamous for trans or drag queen trade (otherwise known as a guy who likes to sleep with trans women). Many a nights I would lure men home from the establishment.
Then in late 1985 I got a chance to be in a drag show. It was with another drag queen and two male dancers. It was a big change for me as I also moved away from Darlinghurst to an outer suburb where there was no established gay community where you felt safe. It was the real world. It was a bit more travel to get to work on the Meryl. We lived in a super new townhouse where I shared with a drag queen and her partner. They had a pretty aggressive relationship and it reminded me much of living at home. I missed home, helping dad with the animals and going to work. Most of all mums cooking.
So my first show was on the horizon. I remember saving some money and buying my first costume. It was a lovely pink bodice gown that had a black lace overlay and a puffed sleeve jacket with peplum that tied at the waist. I bought it from a shop on Oxford Street run by a fabulous drag queen. She was a showgirl and we’ll known character of Oxford Street. Her name was Loraine and when I went to the shop to purchase my outfit she asked me to go downstairs into her boudoir and parade my purchase in front of her. It was dark yet lit with lamps that illuminated a soft glowing light. She had a lounge or day bed which she laid on. It was like she was the queen. She ushered me to get changed and show her my young self in the newly purchased gown. I whirled out into the area where the day bed was situated, scared and unknown to what she would say. I walked out in the gown, she sat up in a slow moving way and looked at me. She said in that husky voice, you’re gonna make one hell of a good looking chick. I was over the moon. My quest to be a showgirl was in motion. It was also the first time I had received a compliment from a well known peer.
Soon after I was performing at the Unicorn Hotel and other venues with the troop. I honestly can’t remember the first drag number I did. It was probably something tragic that didn’t suit me. It was good experience for me as I learnt being a showgirl was hard but rewarding work. It’s a glamorous life but one that requires lots of discipline. My previous dance experience had helped, but it was all so foreign because I was doing it as a girl instead of a male. I soon adjusted and the reward of all that hard work comes from the audience appreciation of your performance. We would travel a lot and do heaps of various venues like pubs and discos. But I had this urge to join a bigger show. Les Girls was still operating in the Cross but I never had the opportunity to work there. Another show Simone and Monique’s Playgirl Revue was a multi award winning drag show that toured the big RSL clubs all over Australia. They were having auditions and I put my hand up to try out. I was so nervous at the audition. I was trying out for one of the best drag shows Australia has ever seen. Unfortunately I was later to learn that I didn’t make the cut, it was more about who you knew than what you know.
I took it in my stride as one does but I never gave up hope. I continued to do the smaller shows around the traps. While the showgirl path wasn’t going true to plan I made a small mark in the Sydney Party scene. It’s here that I earned the nick name High Kick Sue.
High Kick Sue came about from my wild days on the dance floor. I was infamous for having a boogie on the dance floor and without a blink of an eye I would do the most en point high kicks. They were high and always performed with precision skill. All while wearing nothing more than a hanky and a dash of lipstick. Hence High Kick Sue was born. I finally started to feel a sense of being a known character amongst the scene. I was making my mark so to speak. The fabulous Hedda Harper had a field day with me in her columns, in one she called me the flying prey mantis of the dance floor. I’ve never laughed as much as when I read that. What a giggle. There was a big party just about every weekend. Looking back I wonder how we survived the abundance of parties we had. We would create amazing costumes and outfits, consume copious amounts of drugs and have so much fun it would be considered illegal today. OOOppps. It is. In those days it was the thing to go to Mardi Gras in big costumes and outfits. Ali was a huge inspiration for me here as her love for all things feathered and glamorous had rubbed off on me. One favourite memory I have is going to a party and you would look over the crowd in the big halls with thousands of people and see large feathered head dresses dancing amongst the crowd. They really were amazing times. We got up to so much fun night after night. Then it was off to recovery. We didn’t stop we would party on for days. I remember after one party Ali and a friend were returning home and found a wheel barrow. Well Ali decided to wheel our friend home all the way from the showground to our flat in Darlinghurst and made the news the next day. Hilarious times.
However it was not all coloured rainbows. The onslaught of the Aids epdemic was rife. I cannot count how many friends I have lost to HIV. It was an ugly disease back then, one which usually ended in a death sentence. Alas as a community we fought back. Raising awareness campaigns and educating ourselves with safe sex practices. Little did I know that soon it would take my best friend away from me.
Drag during this time was also encountering a shift. No longer was a drag queen one that lived life as a female and performed. There were alternative performers and guys dressing in drag during the night and living as men during the day. I think it where today’s perception of drag has evolved from and the drags that lived as females during the day became more recognised as Transsexual Women.
Another opportunity was on the horizon to join Simone and Monique’s Playgirls Revue. This time I had to audition with the Amazing JJ. JJ and Stefanie had acquired the show from Simone and Monique and continued the tradition. She was an amazing performer. I was put through a routine from the show which took me a few goes to sink in. My dream had finally come true. I was finally a part of a large Cabaret Show. I learnt so much during my time with the show. The amazing JJ was a deep inspiration for me and she had taught me so many things that I felt like I was on my way to become a polished performer in the drag industry.
My first tour was outback Queensland. A real eye opener for me and one of the most exciting times I’ve had as a performer. The one thing I found with doing these types of bookings is that you got to meet average everyday people. Real Australians. They were different from the gay crowds that I was used to performing to. I found them more humble and more appreciative. A little bit more down to earth. Less bitchy and crtitical.
I worked with the show for about a year before it dissolved. The final booking I did was in Newcastle. After the show we decided to go get food from a takeaway shop in Darby Street and next thing I remember I was waking up in hospital. I had been involved in a car accident and had my Achilles’ tendon severed in the incident. The injury had put me out of action for quite some time. I honestly thought my show days were over. It took a long time to recover from that accident. Painful physiotherapy sessions and a second operation was performed to get my tendon right. If it wasn’t for the support of Nan & Pop M during this time I don’t know how I would have gotten through it. Nan would come over with food hampers and ensure I was ok. I couldn’t work or perform and relied a lot on friends and flatmates.
My relationship with my family was estranged. I constantly thought I couldn’t discuss things with my Mum and Dad for fear of being alienated, judged and told I wasn’t doing the right thing with my new life path choices. Time was needed for them to understand my adjustment so I felt it was easier to keep my distance and only return for the annual Xmas lunch. I used to dress down as a boy, if you could call it that for the sake of not upsetting my family. To regress during transition is like 4 steps forward and 5 back. But it’s how I coped.
It was during my recovery from the accident one of the most magical things happened to me, something I felt would never happen. I fell in love.
Part 5 Surgery and The Relationship.
All content is copyright to Suzie St James. No part may be copied or reproduced without my consent.