The Pink House is full of anomalies. Sex work is illegal in WA, yet in Kalgoorlie, just down the road from the police station is Questa Casa, a brothel that’s been in operation since 1904.
For the past 25 years, Carmel has been Madam here after she decided to purchase the business as a 55-year-old widow who needed an income. Her background was in chicken farming and boat hire. She has a soft, considered way of speaking and sounds like an English gentlewoman.
The sex worker who features in The Pink House is BJ, the brothel's long-serving worker. A self-confessed “bad girl from a bad background”, she’s an older woman who can “resist everything but temptation”.
When filmmaker Sascha Ettinger-Epstein moved to Kalgoorlie for another gig, she found herself longing for female company. One day, she got talking to Madam Carmel and ended up spending more and more time hanging out in the parlour of the brothel, chatting with her and BJ. Here was an unlikely pairing of two women living together essentially by force of their circumstances.
To get around the illegality of sex work, the brothel - known locally as 'the pink house' - operates under a containment policy: police turn a blind eye to operation of the brothel and sex workers are restricted in their movements. For example, they can’t mingle in the town, and in theory have to leave town all together after every two weeks of work. Madam Carmel explains, “They were not permitted to go where people gathered because if they went where people gathered they’d be soliciting. But when they were on Hay Street there were so many men they never lacked a client.”
Carmel herself, with her neat blonde bob, muted make-up and understated elegance, captured Ettinger-Epstein’s fascination. “… she is just an enigma. Carmel… never really confronts the fact that she works in the ‘flesh trade’.” Kalgoorlie and the pink house represent a new chapter in Carmel’s life, and she becomes a protector of a slice of its history that goes hand-in-hand with gold rush towns. “I love this house. We’re sort of holding it in time as an icon of what the town once was.”
Ettinger-Epstein ended up moving in to research the documentary and the fascinating lives of these women, which, in the case of BJ, took a turn she could never have seen coming. As Ettinger-Epstein said, “[BJ]’s had a hectic life and I knew that she had a lot of trauma but I could never have predicted it.”
BJ struggles with drug use and the nature of her occupation, at times confessing her desire to get out of the industry. But she also acknowledges how Carmel cares for her. “I think this house is like my home. This is where things are right for me.” They don’t stay right for long.
The Pink House is now streaming at SBS On Demand:
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