• Nelson Baker as Natasha St James. (Photo: Jess at Key Witness). (Jess at Key Witness media)
Out of drag, Natasha St James is Gold Coast local Nelson Baker, a "6-foot-three Aussie bloke with a mullet."
By
Samuel Leighton-Dore

14 Nov 2019 - 8:42 AM  UPDATED 14 Nov 2019 - 10:48 AM

"G'day mate. All of this is a bit weird, right?"

Natasha St James, a Gold Coast drag queen, is leaning into the unshaven face of a man in his mid-50s. He's wearing work boots and a navy singlet; she's wearing a long faux-fur coat and plastic stilettos.

"You know, I've got a mullet underneath this wig," Natasha purrs at him flirtatiously. The man grins incredulously into his beer.

I'm sitting in for a dinner-and-show called Dragalicious, held weekly at The Avenue in Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast. For six nights of the week, you'd be hard pressed to find a drag queen within walking distance of The Avenue. Surprisingly, The Avenue is not a gay bar. More often, it plays host to a steady stream of buck's nights, sport viewing events, and rowdy nights out - the stuff Surfers Paradise is infamous for.

Out of drag, Natasha St James is Nelson Baker, a self-described "six-foot-three Aussie bloke with a mullet."

The razor sharp 27-year-old has been a fixture of the Gold Coast queer nightlife for six years, back when the city had two gay bars to choose from. Those venues were The Meeting Place (MPs), the longest standing, and Escape, which soon established itself as the place to be on a Friday or Saturday night.

Both businesses have since closed, reopened, rebranded, and closed again.  Other nightclubs have flaunted new 'LGBTIQ+ inclusive' nights or events, but nobody has quite managed to fill the gap left behind.

"The people representing the community and running these clubs were out of touch, they had no idea," Baker tells SBS Pride.

"Now there is only one weekly drag event at The Avenue, and a monthly event called Tickle, which is held at another straight club. It's all over the shop. We have no base, there's no home for the community."

Baker says that the lack of LGBTIQ+ spaces on the Gold Coast has impacted the way members of the local community connect with one another, with hookup apps like Grindr becoming one of the only ways to meet like-minded queer people.

With the community withdrawing to online spaces, there has been a re-emergence of "noughties-era discretion and internalised homophobia".

"Men here aren't coming out. They don't feel comfortable. They're all straight-acting and discreet." Baker says. 

"If I walked down the streets of Sydney in drag, nobody would bat an eye-lid. But here, everyone vocalises their problem with it. I get followed after gigs, heckled by strangers."

As far as major Australian cities go, Baker's experience as a working drag queen is somewhat unique, with the Gold Coast now the only one of Australia's six largest cities to not have its own gay bar. 

"The Gold Coast is a major city, but it's not a metropolis, there's no centralised CBD," the drag queen and choreographer tells SBS Pride.

"We have a long strip, our city is so wide and large. We don't have those areas like Newtown or Darlinghurst in Sydney or Spring Hill in Brisbane. We're limited by the clubs we have, but we're most limited by our hetero-normative masculine bullsh*t, which is everywhere."

He adds: "The Gold Coast hinges itself on Surfers Paradise, but it never let itself find an identity beyond that."

That could soon change, however, with Baker's Dragalicious weekly dinner and show pulling local crowds steadily for the past year, bolstered by a rejuvenated public interest in drag culture, thanks in part to the international success of RuPaul's Drag Race.

Baker's show itself has become a platform, the performer says, for training and celebrating other local Gold Coast drag queens. Having built the show from scratch, he now has two regular co-hosts, Selma Soul and Scarlet Fever,  with Baker's drag protégé, Violet Velvet, also joining them for regular performances.

Baker has big dreams for the production moving forward, with hopes of bringing other established and emerging local drag performers on board.

"When we talk about Sydney, everyone in our parents' generation knew about the Sydney Les Girls - 12 drag queens and trans girls at the club doing a weekly dinner and show," he says. "It was a destination."

Baker aims to create a Gold Coast equivalent to the theatre restaurant sensation

"I want to be the head b****," he says. "The Gold Coast] needs it."

The Avenue's longtime director, Michael Russo, agrees. 

A veteran of the hospitality industry, Russo is originally from Sydney and recalls the excitement that came with catching the midnight drag show at the Strand Arcade in the 1980s.

"My mate and I would always make a beeline for it, we just loved the drama and the theatre of it all," he tells SBS Pride.

So when he wanted to shake up The Avenue's annual Melbourne Cup event, Russo called Natasha St James - and immediately caught sight of her show's potential.

"What I loved about it was that we had all walks of life there, including a whole group of mechanics, and everyone had an absolute ball," he says.

"Its been one of those events that people just love. There's hardly any advertising, it's just word of mouth. It's a perfect fit for the Gold Coast."

Russo says that incorporating drag performance into The Avenue's entertainment lineup has brought with it a diversification of punters - with Baker's shows just as popular with 18-25-year-olds as they are with those over 80.

"An 80-year-old will walk out saying 'well wasn't that fantastic'," Russo tells SBS Pride. "We've created a safe space, a place where we do drag makeovers for guys in the audience, even the big burly blokes who have been dragged along by their wives."

It's this clear embrace of drag culture - by those across the political and social spectrum - that leads Baker and Russo to believe in a future for queer nightlife on the Gold Coast, despite a lack of community-dedicated venues.

In the meantime, Baker is representing the city's queer community on a national scale, competing in esteemed drag competitions around the country.

In 2018 he won Brisbane's annual Drag Royale competition, going on to win Drag Nation Queensland and become first runner-up at the Australia-wide Drag Nation event.

When asked whether he plans on doing the Sunshine State proud by auditioning for Australia's upcoming incarnation of the Drag Race franchise, he winks.

"We'll see," he teases.

Samuel Leighton-Dore is an award-winning visual artist and writer based on the Gold Coast. His book How To Be A Big Strong Man is available now. You can follow him on Instagram here and Twitter here.

If this story interested you, you might enjoy Shade: Queens of NYC now on SBS On Demand.

 

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