Ben Graetz – an Iwaidja, Malak Malak, and Torres Strait Islander man – was 17 when he left Darwin to study acting, first in Perth and then Sydney, but he couldn’t shake an uneasy feeling he was also running away from his sexuality.
“Growing up in the late 80s, early 90s, there weren’t a lot of gay role models around the place, it was like a country town, so it was always difficult to feel normal, whatever that means,” he says. “I remember going to Sydney and feeling at home because I was like, ‘oh my god, you actually see same-sex couples,’ and this was during the period when Oxford Street was thriving.”
Marvelling at the drag queens in the Midnight Shift, Arq, the Albury, and Annie’s Bar, Maori star Tess Tickle always caught his eye. “She was one of only a handful of brown queens working on the strip and so I kind of related to her,” Graetz says. “She was always so elegant and polite, and she inspired me.”
Miss Ellaneous, Graetz’ similarly sweet-natured drag persona, was born on his 25th birthday. Not long afterwards, he returned to Darwin, where he now splits his time with Melbourne. He and good friend Daniel Cunningham, whose drag name is Marzi Panne, helped boost Darwin’s local drag scene, hosting pop up parties and then eventually resurrecting a drag pageant formerly run by fellow star Mon Cherie.
Now known as Queens – The Ultimate Drag Crown, the competition attracts queens from around the country. Last year also saw the inaugural Miss First Nations competition launch under that banner. Director Adrian Russell Wills (The Warriors, Wentworth, Redfern Now) was on hand to capture the glitter, glamour and croc cage challenges as six contestants face off against each other over five fabulous days. The resulting film, Black Divaz, will debut at the Mardi Gras Film Festival (MGFF) before screening on NITV.
“We thought if we’re restarting this competition from scratch, we want to actually acknowledge the First Nations people in the country,” Graetz says. “I’ve known Adrian or many years, because the indigenous arts sector is very small, and he’s kind of like my brother. I really respect and trust him. His aesthetic is really beautiful and he creates things from the heart, so I knew we’d be safe in his hands.”
A gloriously life-affirming documentary that illuminates not only the fascinating personal stories of each of the competitors – including Crystal Love, Josie Baker, and the ingeniously-named Nova Gina, co-founder of the Dreamtime Divas – but also the broader issues faced by First nations LGBTIQ people, it’s a gleaming highlight of this year’s MGFF line-up. There’s also a great deal less drama than RuPaul’s Drag Race, and that’s not meant as a criticism.
“We didn’t want these girls to feel like that they had to scratch each other’s eyes out or any of that stuff,” Graetz says. “So many of us have lost so many people in our community, particularly in the LGBTIQ indigenous community and a big part of this was honouring them. We are struggling with so much, so I don’t think there’s room for that kind of bitchiness. We’ve got a bigger game to play.”
That approach really appealed to John Ridgeway, a 24-year-old Biripi man originally from Dubbo but now living in Newcastle. Relatively new to the scene with drag persona Jo Jo - a look he honed in straight nightclubs with his mates after being inspired by movies like To Wong Fu and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert - he was surprised to be asked to compete off the back of his Instagram posts.
“I didn’t really know what to expect other than what I’d seen on Miss Congeniality,” he laughs. “It was all very surreal. We all knew we were competing against each other, but we never really let it get in the way. We were all there for each other, swapping tips and tricks. We were one big family, basically. It was all very Hallmark.”
Jo Jo debuted at the first ever Dubbo Pride as a political response to an ignorant local councillor who said that homosexuality was not part of Indigenous culture during a debate on marriage equality. Ridgeway responded by marching in a dress fashioned from both the Aboriginal and the Pride flags. “It was a non-verbal FU to him,” he says.
Taking part in Miss First Nations and being filmed for Black Divaz, Ridgeway was inspired to learn fellow contestants also saw their role as political. “They shared their stories, what they had been through and why they got into drag and we all had similar reasons, because it gives us a platform to be a voice for those who don’t have one.”
That was all part of Graetz’ vision for the competition. He’s overjoyed, all these years later, how much Darwin has embraced drag, an art-form he sees as being akin to a court jester. “For a lot of the queer people in our community, not only are we struggling with being accepted as black people within this country, but we are then having to struggle with being accepted as LGBTIQ people within our own black community. And that’s really taxing for a lot of our young people. Miss First Nations is about making sure they know that we’re here and we can be role models for them.”
Images via Joseph Mayers