Michael as Maude Boat at Tropical Fruits on New Year’s Eve.
Michael as Maude Boat at Tropical Fruits on New Year’s Eve.

Glamour meets glitz

Any bride who has used the services of Lismore Bridal in the last couple of years would have had Michael Gates fussing all over her before the big day.

It’s not surprising that Michael loves to spend his days surrounded by glamorous frocks; it’s what he’s always been into.

Michael was a professional drag queen in Sydney for over 10 years and his signature look, the sculptured wig, was one of the things that helped Priscilla Queen of the Desert win the Academy Award for best costume design in 1995.

“I was in a group called the Scary Fairies and Terrance Stamp, Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce and (writer/director) Stephan Elliott came and researched us and a few other groups,” he said. “Tim Chappel, who won the Academy Award for best costumes, used to work at The Albury (Hotel) where I was performing... Many times they’ve said to me ‘We owe you a lot because it was your look that won us the Academy Award’.”

Michael still performs a few times a year for Tropical Fruits parties and other special occasions but his main interest these days is getting girls to look their best when they walk down the aisle.

“I figure it’s like opening night for every bride,” he said. “It’s that sort of excitement you get; it’s like their big opening night for every bride that comes in here.”

Michael traces his fascination with glamorous frocks back to his mother’s collection in the 1960s when she was crowned Miss Northern Rivers 1962.

“I used to dress up a lot when I was a kid. My mother’s wardrobe was in my bedroom because I had a built-in closet. When they were out I used to try her dresses on. One I remember was black with a red panel down the centre, so I always thought I was the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland,” he said with big a laugh. “So she was a beauty queen and her feet were the same size as my feet at the time… It was just one of those things, I always liked dressing up. The first thing my mother ever made me was a clown outfit. When I went to my grandmother’s place she let me dress up and I think there came a time when I was about 11 or 12 when my parents said, ‘Look Molly, he can’t dress up anymore’. I was quite disappointed, but they weren’t horrible, it was just the times. It was the 70s and it was a small country town and we were a well known family in the area… I was always different and they didn’t really know what to do with me.”

Michael did well in art at school and decided to make the move to Sydney, where he got a job making costume jewellery for Claude Fabian.

“It was the 80s then and it was all big earrings and multi colours and Dame Edna came in and all the drag queens… It was like ‘Oh my God, there’s people like me!’ One called Cynthia Randall took me under her wing and one thing led to another and my first Mardi Gras show was with somebody called Pat Gently, who was one of three drag queens in a group called The Showbags.”

From there it was only a matter of time before Michael was a regular performer on the scene and along the way he has picked up 18 DIVA Awards (the Drag Industry Variety Awards) including most popular performer, best show costume, entertainer of the year, bitch of the year and has also been included into the DIVA Hall of Fame. Michael describes his character, Maude Boat, as “old world glamour”.

“Maude’s an old world name, she’s old, she’s stylish, she’s like a dowager type,” he said.

His coming out onto the stages of the Sydney drag queen scene coincided with his coming out to his parents about his homosexuality.

“I ran away to Sydney and found myself, really. Mum and dad were quite worried because for years I never got in contact with them. I wasn’t returning their calls because you don’t ever really want to confess to your parents that you are gay. They want you to have a happy life and be normal and the gay road is sometimes not the happiest. There is still to this day a lot of prejudice against us.

“Dad took me aside when he came down to Sydney once and said, ‘Maybe you should be a flight attendant’ which I think was his way of saying ‘I sort of know’. I mean they weren’t silly. But when I did come out they were fantastic. Mum says to this day ‘when you told us all the pieces fitted together and it all made perfect sense’. They didn’t love me any less. It was more my phobia than their’s.

“It’s only been in the last 10 years that I have started to feel comfortable with who I am with my family. It’s a different world and my world is so far removed from theirs that it takes a while to adjust and for me to bring those two worlds together.”

After performing up to five or six shows a week for over 10 years, the glamour started to wear off and Michael wondered what else he could do with his life.

“It was hard work on a winter’s night when it was raining and the last thing you wanted to do was put on a pound of make-up on and go to a gay nightclub and dance around. I wanted to stay at home with my boyfriend and watch TV and cuddle up like everybody else,” he said.

“Like many artists I had no real sense of the worth of my art… so my boyfriend rang up a place called The Costume Design Centre, which was run by a couple of guys who ran big clubs in the 70s and made outfits for Dusty Springfield and did big shows at casinos, and he asked them if they’d be interested in buying some of my old sculptured wigs cause I didn’t want to do drag anymore. They said come in and offered me a job on the spot, so I was with them for about 10 years.”

In that time Michael was a costume designer for many big stage shows including Singing in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz and the Broadway production of 42nd Street. The Costume Design Centre also had the contract for Disney South East Asia and he made costumes and accessories for Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and other Disney characters.

Then The Lion King came along and he was able to take his art to a new level before finally getting to work on Priscilla – making his famous sculptured wigs for the stage version of the musical.

But then his father Bob Gates, who had resigned as Mayor of Lismore, died from motor neurone disease.

“It was a pretty distressing time. The Lion King had just finished and I had a chance to do The Producers, but I said, ‘No, I’ll go home and be with mum’.

“You don’t realise until you go away and come back how beautiful it is here,” he said.

The Gates family have been in the area for four generations and last weekend Michael was at a party at the Lismore Bowls Club where he said he realised that maybe he was able to straddle two worlds at last: the gay community and his family’s history and connection to the region.

“I looked up and there were all my grandparents’ names on the wall as secretary, or treasurer or president of the club. And I was sitting on the levee wall, which my father had instigated and there was the pool upgrade and it was like, ‘Oh my God’, all this stuff around me. But it felt really nice, and I was really home and the people at the Lismore Bowling Club were embracing the gay community and were respectful of us and we were respectful of them.

“Although I did get told off for wearing my hat inside. I should have known better!”

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