Tobin in the sky with diamonds, a portrait of Tobin Saunders by Rachael Dale.
Tobin in the sky with diamonds, a portrait of Tobin Saunders by Rachael Dale.

Gay icon gets a dressing down

Rachael Dale hopes her entry in the Northern Rivers Portrait Prize will get people talking – not about its artistic merits, but about homosexuality.

Rachael, a Brisbane artist who grew up in Lismore, was visiting the region at Christmas when she went to see a documentary called Undressing Vanessa, which reveals something of the man behind the big wig and fake lashes of drag celebrity Vanessa Wagner.

She said she wanted to strip away that alter-ego to focus on the man underneath – Tobin Saunders of Ballina.

“This is the only way I know Tobin – as a flamboyant man in shorts making sandwiches in his kitchen while discussing the board of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras with both venom and pride,” Rachael said. “Vanessa is a good façade for him to say what a lot of people want to say but don’t – it gives him permission to be more outspoken. But I wanted it stripped bare, I wanted people to see him as a man, as a human rights activist, without all the glitz and glam.”

Rachael described Vanessa Wagner as a “role model” in the gay community, saying her stint on Big Brother in 2002 “brought the world of drag to the masses”.

“I’m excited to be a finalist – just to have a picture of Tobin in the regional gallery means a lot to me because people will want to know who he is and why someone did a portrait of him. And that creates conversation,” Rachael said. “Tobin makes people talk and making people talk changes opinions, views and ultimately the way we live our lives.”


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