Mitzi MacIntosh is the drag persona of the artist Graeme Browning (oh, yeah, and she also happens to be queer Sydney royalty).
Graeme moved to Sydney, from Canberra, in the late 80s and quickly established himself as a powerhouse performer, full of the typical down-to-Earth Australian wit and adorned with the most fantastic costumes.
It was in the Imperial Hotel, which at the time was owned by Dawn O’Donnell, that Mitzi got the opportunity to really create big, bold exciting drag shows with her contemporaries and that’s when she fell in love with this space.
This is a really fun episode. We talk all about how Graeme met his husband (at The Imperial, no less!), the power he found in community, and we also get a little educational – teaching you Aussie slang like root and thongs…
Mitzi Macintosh 00:00
I always said that drag queens are the gay version of a live band in a straight pub, where people come along the band plays. And yes, I’m here to watch the drag show. But I might also be here to sidle up to a guy who’s standing beside me, or to meet some friends or so we’re sort of the background to a lot of people’s stories.
K Anderson 00:25
Hello, I am K Anderson and you are listening to lost spaces, the podcast that mourns the death of queer nightlife. Every episode I talk to a different person about a venue from their past, the memories that they created that and the people that they used to know. This week we are joined by queer Sydney royalty. And yeah, I know what you’re thinking that is a pretty lofty claim to make, but I stand by it. And after you listen to this episode, you will to Mitzi McIntosh is the drag persona of the artist Graeme browning. Graeme moved to Sydney from Canberra in the late 80s. And quickly established himself as a powerhouse performer, full of the typical down to earth Australian wet and wearing the most fantastical costumes. But as we know, it takes more than a little bit of humour in some fancy duds to become a legend. And what made Mitzi stand out from everyone else was her championing of the community. And the fact it was obvious that she really cared about people and she cared about what it was she was doing. And it was at the Imperial Hotel, which at the time was owned by Dawn O’Donnell, that Mitzi got the opportunity to really let loose and create big, bold, exciting drag shows, which helped her fall in love with that space. In this episode, we talk all about how Graeme first met his husband at the Imperial hotel, no less, the power that Mitzi found in community. And we also take the time to be a little educational teaching you Aussie slang words like root, and thongs, and maybe a few others in there, I can’t quite remember. But before we get going a very, very quick trigger warning. Graeme uses the T word in this interview to talk about his experiences as a drag queen, which I have left in because I think it’s wholly appropriate to the conversation. But do use discretion when listening to the episode. And if you disagree with my decision, and you want to reach out and let me know why I am totally open to having that conversation. So please do get in touch. Right, let’s get into the episode.
Mitzi Macintosh 03:33
You know, everybody has a time in their life where they’ve developed a drag persona. And it’s not necessarily drag, but you look at people like newsreaders, and you look at people who, even the way you act in different situations, you know, the way you talk at work, the way you talk at home, you’re a different person, and you find a different part of your personality to to apply to different areas. And with drag, what I tried very hard to do was put a line down the centre of it. And I had Mitzi on one side and Graeme on the other. And funnily enough, Graeme was a very colourful, young gay man. And when I came to Sydney when I was socialising, I was making my own outfits. I was printing my own fabric. You know, one of my outfits I went out one night with was completely cow print. And then one night layout that was based around dinosaurs. And I had safety pins all over my outfit, and I pinned dinosaurs to my shoulders and all this sort of stuff. And so we had themed outfits and I had jackets that I’d made out of bedspreads and all this sort of stuff. And as I started to do drag, that became my choice of attire as a drag queen, and I started to buy more conservative clothing to wear as Graeme. Oh, interesting. And so I I definitely had two sides of my wardrobe. So the colourful thing became more I didn’t drag. And then I tried to put on this persona of being slightly more Butch and slightly more and not standing out and not being not being noticeable, so that I could walk into venues and be a normal person.
K Anderson 05:14
And so do you think that’s because Mitzi fulfilled that part of your personality that wanted to be the centre of attention? Or do you think that Graeme was trying to counterbalance some of the femininity that people were placing upon you because of Mitzi.
Mitzi Macintosh 05:34
I think the lesser, I was always very confident. But that confidence diminished in Graeme, and was certainly much more there in Mitzi. And I think I tried to balance that by trying to find my own style as Graeme because I didn’t want to be what I saw as the sad characters of drag queens, yeah, out of drag, because I would see these people shuffling the venues with their drag bag, and they still had half their makeup on from the night before. They were just wearing a pair of shorts. And you know, thongs on their feet. And they,
K Anderson 06:09
Oh, we should say for international listeners, dongs, our flip flops.
Mitzi Macintosh 06:14
And they had jandals, or sandals on their feet. So I felt like I had to try and put more effort into Graeme to give Graeme some sort of personality. And also, that was why I very much had Mitzi as the office job. And Graeme has the social position. And I said to everybody, my name is Graeme, my name is not Mitzi, I’m not in drag. I’m not working at the moment, call me Graeme. And I tried very hard to make sure that there was something that people might be attracted to. Because having a relationship and something happening outside of drag was very important to me.
K Anderson 06:51
Okay, so very quickly, what are your top three tips for someone like me, who may want to put on a book, which persona next time they go to a club?
Mitzi Macintosh 07:04
Well, definitely mine was hands in your pocket. tended to tended to be a bit too much of the
K Anderson 07:10
flappy otherwise, yeah,
Mitzi Macintosh 07:12
I generally don’t speak too much. Because again, I’m way too gay when I talk too much, so So don’t talk too much. And I guess your drink of choice would have to be something like be rather than gin and tonic. But look, one of the things that I love about the gay scene these days, or just youth these days, is this phenomenal acceptance of difference? You know, I love the fact that there is now a gender spectrum that there is now you know, this acceptance of fuck everybody, I’m just gonna be who I want to be. I’m comfortable. And you know, back in my day, you had to still fit into boxes. Yes, you still had to be either you’re either gay, or you’re a butch gay, or you’re whatever. But these days, I love the idea that you can be whoever you want to be, however you want to be whatever you want to be. And fuck this being in the box, because I don’t want. And I think that’s a fantastic thing. Because I don’t think that was available to us. Back in my day.
K Anderson 08:16
Yeah, and I love it too. And I love that people feel so emboldened and empowered to be themselves. You can tell there’s a buck coming. So there’s always about with me, the thing that worries me that scares me is that that we’ve had periods of time when there’s been this playing with genders. There’s been this kind of broadening of people’s understanding of genders and then suddenly following that, like if we talk about like the New Romantics era, for instance, then following that, fashions change and everything becomes really dour and boring. And I’m really worried about that dour and boring bit coming around the the fashion. Oh, wow. I didn’t know like, there’s like, the fashion kind of influences people’s thinking. And there’s yeah, there’s a whole range of knock on effects. Yeah, okay. Sorry. I’m being I’m being no not.
Mitzi Macintosh 09:11
At the moment, the backlash towards the trans community and outside of the trans community worries me. And it’s amazing how easily all of these hard fought for freedoms to be taken away so easily. But I also don’t believe that we will ever let them get taken away completely. And if you come for me, I will fight you. So I think moments like this are important for us to stand up and come together and be like, No, we’re not gonna let this happen again, this has happened before. And and I think that was what was amazing about my time when I came out and, you know, the HIV AIDS crisis and all of that was that It was so incredible for the community, that we all fought together. And we all fought for each other. And we became so much stronger because of it. And I think there will always be a minority that tried to bring us down and try to change us. And sometimes it’ll become stronger. But I believe and I hope that it would never put us back to where we were,
K Anderson 10:21
it’s, I mean, what’s especially difficult about what’s happening at the moment is that lots of the people that are trying to bring us down are inside the
Mitzi Macintosh 10:30
house, which I find phenomenal. You know, I think, to my sounding I mean, you know, when a, when a gay man fights against trans rights, I’m like, What the fuck is wrong with you? You have absolutely no idea. Just, you know, go back into your history and shut up and sit down. It’s just amazing.
K Anderson 10:47
Just the disconnect. Yeah, it’s really hard. Anyway, sorry. So Mitzi, we’re still we’re still talking about Mitzi. So were you kind of ashamed of Mitzi. I know, that’s a really blunt way to ask it. Sorry, no.
Mitzi Macintosh 11:02
No, it, it was probably more towards the middle of my rise to fame that I became proud of what I was achieving. I was always very proud of what I did. But I also knew the damage that a drag career can do to your personal life. And I was always I remember one time, we had my birthday. It was a Sunday night, and I got drunk on stage. And you know, generally, whenever it was someone’s birthday, they would get the person performing drunk and Alberich on the roller skates and, and we’d all change costumes and the show’s miss. Oh, yeah. And I was really, really drunk. And I rocked up to signal in Oxford Street, which was a fuck bar at the time. And I was sort of standing there and I’m like, leaning up against the wall being all damn fucking sexy. And, you know, trying very hard to see straight because I was quite drunk, and somebody came up and went fuck off. Because the last thing I wanted, while I was, you know, sitting there with my leg up thinking, hello, who wants a bit of this? There’s somebody coming up saying, Are you Mitzi like, Ah, so that was always damaging to Graeme was. And I knew that that Mitzi could be that person that would bring me undone in the situation where I thought I might get a bit.
K Anderson 12:29
So first of all, my first follow up question here is, is fuck bar a term that I should be using? Because I’ve never heard it before?
Mitzi Macintosh 12:38
It’s not there. Maybe Maybe.
K Anderson 12:41
I’m gonna start introducing it into conversations.
Mitzi Macintosh 12:43
Well, I mean, I don’t know how many of them are left. Like if you look at Oxford Street, there was the den there was numbers there was kk k there was I mean bodylines guy, there was a bar called kk k. There’s a bar called kk k fucking. So it was Ken’s karate club, KKK Kenza karate club, and it was like a sauna. Like I had a pool. In the middle of it. It had a hot tub. That hot tub was more like Chicken Corn Soup. It was the most disgusting hot tub you could ever you wouldn’t hop in
K Anderson 13:17
Mitzi Macintosh 13:19
Very strange. stench of bleach. But yeah, kk k was like a sauna out at
K Anderson 13:26
Kensington. And like, for some strange reason they only had white people going there.
Mitzi Macintosh 13:34
Yeah, when you think of it now having a venue called, but nobody ever thought of it that way. Maybe was just Australia’s innocence.
K Anderson 13:41
Yeah. And then they said, the second question I have is Did it ever work in reverse? Like, you know, Mitzi was a cock blocker? And most of the time, but did anyone ever, like really want to get to know you or have sex with Graeme because of Mitzi?
Mitzi Macintosh 13:56
No, there was always the availability of sex as Mitzi because if you went up to if you went out to the taxi club in drag, you’re guaranteed a root anytime
K Anderson 14:09
and for anyone listening a root is sexual intercourse. In Australian slang, carry on. Yeah, all
Mitzi Macintosh 14:15
of you know why I’m in like, wombats eats roots and leaves.
K Anderson 14:20
Oh, I did not know that. Thank you.
Mitzi Macintosh 14:23
So yeah, so there was always the opportunity of drag sex, or we used to call it back in the day. 20 trade. Okay, because your trade is sex, especially Rough Trade is anybody that’s, you know, a little bit like a builder wouldn’t be Rough Trade if you had sex with a builder, but 20 trade was anybody that you picked up or 20 factors where anyone that you picked up, who was particularly attracted to trans women or drag queens, and they were always very available at the taxi Club, which was the club for trans people. between Sydney.
K Anderson 15:00
And so did you ever do that? Yeah,
Mitzi Macintosh 15:03
I did it a few times. And it was scary. Because the funny thing about the men that sleep with drag queens is they liked the idea of it, but the realisation of it is more confronting to them. So, my problem was sex for gramme was different. Yes, and what it should have been as sex as Mitzi. So what you’re supposed to do is even when you’re standing there, start naked. Dig in hand, hairy legs, you’re supposed to be a girl, you’re supposed to act like a girl, and you’re supposed to talk like a girl. Whereas as soon as I got naked, I became Graeme. And then that became gay sex to them, not trans sex. Oh, so they would freak out. So this one time I had a guy threatened me. And I jumped out of my car and ran, she left the car, ran up to the Surry Hills police station and said, Ah, this man’s you know, and I didn’t mention that I’d been having sex in the backseat of my car. And the police went back to me to the car, and here’s the car, all the doors open. He’d gone. But the problem was, is that I had confronted him and his sexuality. And he couldn’t cope with the fact that I was a gay man. What he wanted was 26. Yeah. And I wasn’t what he wanted. And so that that was where I made my mistake whenever it happened. But it it happened a few times. And it was it was it’s interesting, but if you sit you have to play the game. Yeah. You want my lady did thank you. So you have to play that whole game
K Anderson 16:35
the whole time. You have to kind of manage someone else’s ego and expectations and worry about their well being within the situation, which sounds like fuck that shit. Yeah, yeah.
Mitzi Macintosh 16:48
It and you’d always be thinking about how to get away. Yeah, if you had to. Because sometimes the situation could be, then, you know, that’s what makes it exciting.
K Anderson 17:03
But, but also Graeme was looking for love.
Mitzi Macintosh 17:09
Yeah, yeah, definitely. And it’s funny, because that whole thing of the drag element of it and drag affecting my personal life. I was approached by this girl at the Imperial hotel in 1998. And she said to me, my brother really likes you. And I was out of drag. And I was like, Who’s your brother? Who told you that? I’m fucking Mitzi Go and tell you brother to fuck off. And that was? That was Neil, who is still my husband.
K Anderson 17:43
Romance, the start of something brilliant. Tell yourself. Yeah, yeah.
Mitzi Macintosh 17:49
And I told him to go fuck himself as well. But he sidled up to me at the bar toward Yeah, drinking hand to order another drink, because he was trying to pluck up the courage to change me. Oh, and that was the Wednesday night. And then I said to him, we started chatting. And I said to him, Look, I’m doing the New Year’s Eve Countdown tomorrow night. If you want to come up to the bar, and meet me, we’ll have a chat after work. And I remember that night, I wore matte lipstick with no glitter, because I thought I might get, you know, a Kiss at Midnight. If he was going to be there. And so So yeah, so that was that was we met on the Thursday, and then on the Wednesday, and then on the Thursday, he came up to the bar, and we started chatting. And then and he’s he’s Welsh. So that’s how I got to live in the UK for 12 years.
K Anderson 18:37
But enter, like, you knew that he knew that you were a drag queen, and he fancied you anyway, I’m sorry, that sounds a bit wrong, but he fancied you. Were you worried about that next night? him seeing you in drag? No, because
Mitzi Macintosh 18:52
he’d seen me out of drag socialising and had decided that he would like to meet me and would love to chat to me. He’d seen the shows as well. But it wasn’t until he actually saw me out of drive that he was interested in me, apart from enjoying the shows. Oh, okay. So then when we started chatting, it was evident from the beginning that it wasn’t the drag side of me that he was interested in. In fact, that’s the furthest from the
K Anderson 19:25
net, so nice and refreshing. But then so what happened with Neo I mean, obviously, we know what happened with Neil, but like what happened in the month following that?
Mitzi Macintosh 19:33
So Neil was in Australia on a visitor’s visa for three months, he’d left the UK, had been to South Africa and then come to Sydney. And again, he had heard about Sydney as being the gay capital of the southern hemisphere, and basically, had sort of dilly dally around with being gay in the UK. But basically came out in Sydney. And
K Anderson 20:04
and so just so I’m clear, dilly dallying. What does that involve? Exactly?
Mitzi Macintosh 20:10
dilly dally involves arranging, okay, just you know, Sly
K Anderson 20:16
to sticking in seeing corners, sticking
Mitzi Macintosh 20:18
it in. There’s an opportunity, left hand in, shake it all about. But yeah, so he hadn’t really lived with the gay lifestyle, and then of course, hit Sydney and was like, oh my god, this is the gay scene. And so he, his sister had come out to visit him while he was in Sydney. And then she went back to the UK, just after New Year’s, and then he had probably two months left on his visa. So in the next two months, we started dating. And then generally what happens with people who are on a short visa in Australia, is they go to New Zealand, extend their visa, then come back to Australia. And they just continue to do that. So he did that probably three or four times. And during that time, we applied for interdependency, which at the time was the founding, That’s so romantic. And then you have to then provide bills with your names on them letters from people that are addressed to both of you, all that sort of evidence that shows that you are in a relationship. And then you have to deal with the interviews were primarily especially back when we did it. It was all based around straight relationships. So it’s talking about your living arrangements, your sleeping arrangements, your financial arrangements, all that sort of thing and how intertwined they are. And you have to prove that you have a joint bank account, all that sort of thing. But of course, a lot of gay relationships don’t operate that way. So it was very, we sort of had to open bank accounts, and we backdated photos to prove that they’re old and things like that. So yeah,
K Anderson 21:54
wait, it’s interesting. You faked photos.
Mitzi Macintosh 21:57
So on your camera, you would change the date on the camera, you would take some photos, have them printed off at the local codec store. And then you’d use those as your so we set up some birthday photos and some new year’s eve photos. And
K Anderson 22:14
did you go around Sydney one day with five changes of clothes, and
Mitzi Macintosh 22:19
we’d take photos of different venues with different people. And yeah, we mocked up some different occasions. How come
K Anderson 22:26
your hair hasn’t grown between any of these photos? look exactly the
Mitzi Macintosh 22:32
same. Yeah, there was. Well,
K Anderson 22:35
so you were you were his first? Well, theory. Yeah. I
Mitzi Macintosh 22:40
mean, he had a boyfriend when he met me or somebody that had been seen. But yes, I was. He certainly wasn’t my first but
K Anderson 22:50
did that ever freak you out?
Mitzi Macintosh 22:54
But I didn’t really think about it. There was sort of later I mean, every now and then we joke about it, but yeah, didn’t really
K Anderson 23:01
Oh, so you will never like run, be free. Sow your wild oats and then come back if you love me.
Mitzi Macintosh 23:08
You know, I was I was always like, well, you know, you can stop looking now
K Anderson 23:11
clearly not as dramatic as me.
Mitzi Macintosh 23:16
His Wild Oats were mine, and that was fine.
Mitzi Macintosh 23:26
So, as far as my last space goes, for me, the Imperial was such an incredible time in my life. Because it became my hotel. It became the place where everybody went to see Mitzi. And it’s the place where I was able to create my best drag, where I grew into myself as a performer. And the thing about a drag queen that becomes well known is that you become well known for the shows that you do, but also for the venue that you do them in. So it’s Mitzi at the Imperial. It’s the Imperial where Mitzi performs. It’s, it’s Mitzi and the Imperial together. And the shows that I did, I was on microphone, I was the person who was running the shows. And so that building became so much a part of my life. And I loved the building. I loved the Imperial, I loved the history of the Imperial and all that sort of thing. And, and so for me, I guess the reason for me it’s a lost space is because what it was to the gay community and what it was in those days to me, and the way it centred itself around drag around drag performances is very different to what it has now become. It’s now become a very gentrified, mixed audience. They still do drag shows There’s not really a stage like it used to be. It’s very much a queer friendly venue. But it’s not what it was. And, you know, much like other people talk about how venues change and the style of as the venues change and the audience changes, the Imperial isn’t what it used to be. And to me, it was just this jam of people coming out, people, bringing their friends, people meeting friends, community, growing and moving and coming back and moving away. And all those sorts of things end, at the centre of it was this social life that people had, which was the Imperial and Sydney was changing. And Sydney was growing. And everybody talks about, you know, the gay scene isn’t what it used to be back then. And for me, that’s what the Imperial was. Because we had this incredible stage, we put together these amazing shows, and the audiences became, there’s so many people who became my friends. And I guess as far as the last venue goes, the Imperial is still there. And from the outside, looks exactly like it did back in my day. But it’s, it’s it’s a very different building inside. And, and it’s it’s a beautiful venue, and I love it. But it’s not what the Rough and Ready period was back in my day. It’s not the boarded up windows and the the smell of stale cigarette smoke from when the band came in, and all that sort of thing. It was such an incredible life for me, and gave me such incredible opportunities. I mean, to work in a venue, where you have a stage, you have a backstage area, you have wings, you have a costume room upstairs, you have a storage room where you can make costumes that you could never fit in the back of a car, you couldn’t travel with these costumes. And you know, we would to be able to carry those costumes downstairs, do a show in them and then carry them back upstairs and store them in that venue. I did shows in that venue that I couldn’t have done. Had I not had that storage space. You know, and to walk into a venue at eight o’clock at night as Graeme in a pair of shorts and flip flops slash thongs put on my full face of makeup, I didn’t have to travel, I could do it there at the venue, put my face on, go downstairs, do a show, go upstairs, take my face off, and go and socialise was an incredible opportunity that Dawn O’Donnell afforded me that I don’t think she realised she had. There’s no way like that in Sydney now. You know, people get changed in in the accessible toilets in venues. They don’t have, you know, changing rooms, they don’t have storage rooms for costumes that have that sort of ability to put together incredible shows, because of the space that we had.
K Anderson 28:04
Yeah. So let’s finish on a cheesy No. Okay. She’s very cheesy. So thinking about Graeme, that Graeme that came from Canberra to Sydney, with his mate, if you had an opportunity to give him a little bit of advice, what would you say to him?
Mitzi Macintosh 28:32
take more risks. At one point, I was offered the opportunity to work with the costume department that was filming Star Wars in Sydney. And it was the week before I was opening a show with the Imperial brand new show. I had costumes I still had to make. And I had people that I performed with that I felt responsible for. I was their bread and butter. I was putting together the shows that pay their rent. And I had responsibility to the venue’s I was doing five, six shows a week. And I just didn’t feel like I could walk away from that. I wasn’t comfortable taking that risk. And so I said no. And those sorts of things came up every now and then various opportunities where if I didn’t feel such huge sense of responsibility, and I wasn’t so tied to people. And I could have been a little more ruthless and selfish. I possibly could have had different opportunities that would have taken me in different directions. But I restricted myself by not taking those opportunities. So I wish I could have been more of a risk taker. My automatic reaction whenever any Same was asked of me was to say no. When I should have said yes. And dealt with the consequences later, rather than saying no and being like, because it was much safer to say no, because I could stay in in my little bubble that I was comfortable in that I was that I excelled in that I was well known in that people loved me in. And I could be in that little bubble of security and not burst it. Whereas I should have stepped out of it and taken more opportunities and had more experiences that could have taken me in different directions rather than there was so many other paths that I could have walked down, but I stayed on the one safe path and I sometimes wish I had
K Anderson 30:46
risks are scary. Risks are scary. Yeah. Do you have any memories of the Imperial hotel or queer Sydney or clubbing from your own scene that you want to share? Well, if you do, I would love to hear from you. I want to create the biggest online record of people’s memories and stories of queer clubbing on my site. Go to La spaces podcast.com and find the section share a lost space and tell me all about what it is you got up to you can also reach out to me on Facebook Instagram and Twitter where my handle is last spaces pod find out more about Mitzi by following them him them she her on Twitter at Mitzi underscore McIntosh. If you enjoyed this episode, I would really appreciate a view took the time to subscribe. Leave a review on your podcast platform or letting someone else know that the episode exists. I am K Anderson and you have been listening to lost spaces