Frock and horror
03 September 2008
He burst onto the Sydney stage two years ago, all rock and punk attitude: blond bouffant wig, a red body-hugging skirt and the ability to cry on cue. He was a "slip of a girly boy" who barnstormed his way into the hearts of the judges of the Melbourne Green Room and the national Helpmann Theatre Awards, taking both gongs as best male in a musical, for his role as a transsexual known as Hedwig singing her heart out after a botched sex change.
"He has a charismatic quality on stage, and extremely good comic timing," says Helpmann Awards executive producer Jon Nicholls. "And he sings like a bird."
Now iOTA's shaping up as the next big thing in Australian theatre, and film may follow. He is traipsing the boards again as another gender bender - the world's favourite transvestite, the role he has wanted to play since he was 12; no prizes for guessing - and Melbourne audiences are about to get another taste of his wicked comic timing teamed with those lauded singing chops.
Yet iOTA seems so small and slender today, sitting in his dressing room behind Sydney's Star Theatre. By day, he has crimson polish on his fingernails, a baseball cap covering forever-changing hair colours - black today, though easily blond or red next week - as well as rings in his lips and nose, and a baby blue T- shirt covering his skinny frame. It reads: "Poofters, love 'em."
Between stage roles, he has kept up his career and cult following playing his own compositions in pubs alternately solo as iOTA or part of a three-piece band called The Beauty Queens.
"The last time I tried to see him perform solo at the Sandringham Hotel (in Sydney's Newtown), despite being on the guest list, I wasn't able to get through the door," says keyboardist and erstwhile collaborator Lindsay Page of underground Sydney outfit Junglehammer. "His reputation in Sydney is the inverse of his moniker."
Ah, the moniker. iOTA won't reveal his real name; he changed it legally by deed poll 14 years ago at 26 - insisting on a lower case "i" - because it was a "rad name", and he wanted to reinvent himself.
It's not as though he has anything to hide. The boy who would become iOTA was born in 1968 in country Western Australia - "cows, sheep, train tracks, very boring" - to a Maori father and an English mother, who met in New Zealand and migrated to Australia.
"My dad and my mum are all about escaping where they've come from and starting a new chapter," he says, "and that's rubbed off on me and my sister." His sister, a sculptor, phones during the interview to wish him luck for tonight's performance as the latest in a long line of Australians to play Frank N Furter in
The Rocky Horror Show
, for which he picked up another Helpmann nomination (the award this year went to the four boys playing Billy Elliot).
He learned to act by necessity: "In the country, poofters are there to be bashed, or ridiculed. So I put on a mask, and became tough and rowdy: the long hair, the slouching, the spitting, lots of drinking piss." He became a mechanic's apprentice in Perth - he was competent at the job - and no one would have known about his sexuality, he says.
At 23, he moved to Sydney with a rock band. The band didn't last - they ended up hating each other - but three years later he officially became iOTA and confirmed for family and friends that he was gay. "You waste a lot of time being in the closet," he says. "Someone asked me once whether I could act, and I said, 'I acted straight for 26 years.' "
In late 2006, when I first interviewed iOTA, the lead role in
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
was taking over his life, and making him depressed; he was thinking a little too deeply about Hedwig's message that you find your other half within yourself: "Does that mean the only way to find peace is to be alone?" he reflected. "That kind of makes me sad, because I want a partner and to be in love and loved as well."
But that was the old model iOTA presented to the media, and friends insist he's always been a wicked, witty extrovert in private.
Melbourne writer and music fan Violeta Balhas first saw iOTA when he was a support act to The Whitlams at the Hallam Hotel seven years ago: "He sang a song called Tumble Down, starting quietly, and then letting rip in the chorus. The whole pub just went quiet and became entranced," she says.
Balhas went to another iOTA gig and introduced herself, and the pair became friends. "I joke that I'm his No. 1 stalker," she says. "He's very mischievous when he gets that twinkle in his eye. He's like the younger brother I never had. He gives me heaps. When he laughs, he cries from the laughter.
"You can have a lot of fun with him and when the fun's done at 1 or 2am, you can have in-depth discussions. He has such an open mind and is such a great reader of books, and listener of other people's music. He's vulnerable to some extent, but he's not out there wearing his heart on his sleeve."
The early years in Sydney and on the road were tough. He supported a pub act and was paid in red wine. He penned four solo albums, which didn't sell as expected but earned him a loyal fan base. His richly burnished voice can thump you in the heart, such as his haunting 2006 song
Come Back for Me
- about a young person who has to carry on after a loved one's death.
His MySpace page is revealing; he writes of "experiencing addiction first and second hand". Alcohol and drugs? "Yeah, all kinds of addiction," he says. "Even to just a person. I have to review that bloody (MySpace) page; it sounds pretty dramatic. But, yeah, I have had friends who have been horribly addicted to substances. That's just part of life, I suppose."
There's also this inspiring line from iOTA's MySpace page: "Wear more make-up, change your hair colour regularly, be creative, get a frock on every now and again and hug your mates." He's got a new CD due out with The Beauty Queens later this year, and recently lent vocals for the digital-only album
, a collaboration with Junglehammer.
And he's having pure fun as Frank N Furter, who is proving much less traumatic than Hedwig. The Rocky Horror alien has "learned anger from King Kong; he's learned tragedy from Fay Wray," iOTA widens his striking brown eyes and stretches his arms out melodramatically. "It's all way over the top. He's not a nice person; not someone you'd want to take shopping with you."
iOTA's new ease hints at personal happiness. Is there anyone special in his life? "Umm, yes," he says, with a laugh, but won't give specifics. "Almost a year now. It's good, and it's challenging, and it's a whole other world. It's not just flowers and batting of eyelids."
What's next? Jon Nicholls ventures that iOTA will become a bigger name: "I'm not a cinema director so I'm not certain what he'd look like on screen, but if you look at the TV promos for Rocky Horror, he comes over extremely well.
"Hedwig and Frank N Furter are these incredible characters that are larger than life, and I'd like to see him pull back into something a little more mainstream."
Just quietly, a good role in a good film is something iOTA yearns for. But as he prepares to turn 40 in October, during Rocky Horror's Melbourne run, there are no regrets with the story so far: "I wouldn't be the person I am today if I hadn't done it the hard way," he says.
The Rocky Horror Show previews at the Comedy Theatre from September 12.
AUSTRALIAN FRANK N FURTERS
PAST AND PRESENT
Reg Livermore: Australian's original answer to Tim Curry - who first played the role in London in 1973 - based his Frank N Furter take from 1974 onwards on Bette Davis, and was widely lauded for his embrace of the dark side and the male/female duality in the role. "Nobody ever told me Frank N Furter was supposed to be attractive," Livermore said after finally seeing the film version years later. "I went out of my way to make myself as grotesque as possible."
Max Phipps: Opening in Melbourne in 1975, Phipps's "powerful physicality and imagination" in the role was only matched by Livermore, according to Phipps's 2000 newspaper obituary. Phipps told
The Sunday Age
in 1992 he had played bad-guy roles such as Frank N Furter "because I thought I was ugly".
Daniel Abineri: The actor not only starred as Frank N Furter several times but in 1987 also directed Rocky Horror. He gave a "raunchy, full- frontal performance" capturing the "energy, danger and humour" of the role,
The Sydney Morning Herald
Craig McLachlan: The one-time
star played Frank in the early '90s as "lecherous, leering and warped",
said, with a "lot of body fondling and tongue-play" in "possibly the lewdest, crudest and most saliva-soaked Rocky Horror ever performed".
Marcus Graham: The actor briefly took over from McLachlan in 1993 during the Adelaide season. One newspaper report said the macho actor was sufficiently "campy" in the role, but when the Paul Dainty production shifted to Singapore, despite the fanfare, it closed after two weeks.
Tim Ferguson: The ex-Doug Anthony All Star donned the fishnets in 1998. Alas,
The Sydney Morning Herald
declared, Ferguson "lacks the attitude and front to bring him fiercely to life".
Jason Donovan: Britain's
said the former '80s pop idol was "still more Robbie Williams than KISS" as Frank N Furter during his run in the UK, "but Donovan has stamped on his boy-next-door image in the role".
iOTA: The latest Aussie to embrace Frank N Furter is "fantastically fearless",
The Sydney Morning Herald
raved. "He is raunchy, dark, voracious, alert and enigmatic, as all wicked aliens should be."