Paul Capsis on how he overcame racism and homophobia

Ahead of his upcoming Sydney Festival show, the Greek Maltese Australian looks back on how, against all odds, he went on become one of Australia's leading theatre and musical performers

In 2015, Paul Capsis was invited to be a panellist on popular ABC television show Q&A to discuss attitudes to sexuality and gender before and after the release of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

The openly gay singer closed the show with a performance of disco hit I Love the Nightlife but halfway through the iconic song, Capsis went punk rock.

“Oh my god, when I was 16 I fucking hated disco,” he yelled out. “Fuck disco! Because of disco I discovered Jimi Hendrix, Patti Smith, Janis Joplin and all the good rock n’ rollers.”

Capsis revealed to Neos Kosmos that he chose to interrupt the song that evening on Q&A in response to being prejudged and also because he really didn’t love to boogie.

“They wanted me to do a disco song because it was a gay themed program and I said to them, ‘why is it your assumption that all homosexuals love disco music? I know a lot do, but it doesn’t mean we all do’. Then I went off. When I was a kid I didn’t like disco because I loved all the other stuff except for Don’t Leave Me This Way by Thelma Houston.”

The ‘other stuff’ he refers to is when young musicians were not afraid to break the rules of polite society in the manner that Capsis did on the ABC that night.

“My favourite artists were always extreme artists,” he says. “They always had an edge or some interesting, quirky characteristic. I remember watching ABC TV show Countdown with my brother and then Skyhooks came on and they were all men dressed in feathers, sequins with lipstick and earrings, and from that instant I became obsessed.”

Capsis says that seeing 70’s rock star Suzi Quatro when he was 11 also had a profound effect on him.

“She was my first concert. It was at the Hordern Pavilion in Sydney in 1975 and I’ll never forget it. She was wearing all leather and was holding a massive bass guitar. I wanted to be whatever that was. I was so excited.”

But as Capsis got older and began performing, he was not entirely welcomed into the music industry.

“When I started out I met a lot of influential people who could have made a difference to my career,” he revealed.

“They would tell me to my face ‘you are really talented’ but they decided that I wouldn’t be to the taste of the majority of Australians. But what they didn’t do was stop me. I thought ‘this is what I love, what I’m going to do’. I’m lucky I met people who were my tribe.”

Paul Capsis. Photos: Mandy Hall

Capsis’ tribe turned out to be the drag and cabaret scene. His experience preforming on those stages in the 1980’s and 90’s would help land him a part in 1998 cult film Head On for which he scored an AFI nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The theatre crowd were also in awe of his talent and since 2006 he has gone on to win five Helpmann Awards for his mesmerising performances on stage.

I had a lot going against me that had nothing to do with my ability to perform. One of those things is being an ethnic … The other thing … was that I was obviously homosexual. I couldn’t hide that either.

Despite this recognition, the singer admits his multi-diverse background is one of the reasons he still resides on the fringes of mainstream Australian culture.

“The way that I look at it, I had a lot going against me that had nothing to do with my ability to perform,” he says.

“One of those things is being an ethnic and not being Anglo Saxon. The other thing I had against me was that I was obviously homosexual. I couldn’t hide that either. I may not be on mainstream TV but the thing I have manged to do for 36 years is maintain a career in Australia and the privilege of playing in other countries. Not many people can say that.”
Astonishingly Capsis revealed that he missed out on being in the global hit film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert which featured three gay characters, ironically because of his sexuality.

“The director Stephan Elliott seriously wanted me in the film,” he says.

“But the producers didn’t want me because I had no experience in film and also I didn’t have the looks which was that white Anglo Saxon, blue eyes. The passable, the acceptable. I was a wog and ironically I was also gay for real.”

Ahead of his upcoming Sydney Festival show where he will perform with Jethro Woodward and The Fitzroy Youth Orchestra, Capsis admits his backing group’s name contained a tinge of irony.

“There is nobody under 45 in this band,” he laughs. “Calling them a youth orchestra was Jethro’s idea and he found me the most wonderful Melbourne musicians so I am very blessed. I know Jethro from working with him in theatre and with other bands. He is great at programming sounds. We have some really obscure songs but he also had the idea to mishmash Joan Baez and Led Zeppelin which was genius.”

Capsis’ style has been described as a ‘blend of gender bending, scorching torch rock n’ roll’ and come January, it will be more of the same when he performs at the famous Spiegeltent.
“‘I’m paying homage to all my favourite artists,” he says.

“I don’t sing or honour anything that I don’t love. Okay the disco thing on Q&A was an exception, but I did say something in the middle of it. It is on stage that I get to be myself and live out that dream of being a rock performer that I didn’t get to be in my teens and early 20’s. I love it and still enjoy it.”