A festive big top – sky blue and canary yellow – rears from the busy highway corner of Richardson Park, Newcastle. Inside the tent, perched high on the stage scaffolding like birds in a bower, a few workmen peer down at the scene backstage.
“Phew,” says one as I pass beneath them, parting the heavy black stage curtain to the backstage area. “I wish I could speak Thai.”
Standing before me, resplendent in an ice-green tank top, tiny tortoiseshell patterned shorts, and long bare legs terminating in a pair of scuffed high-heeled boots, is the reason for this sudden linguistic enthusiasm. Her name is Suki.
Suki has big, almond-shaped eyes, a full, beautifully defined mouth, and more curves than the Great Ocean Road. She’s one of a dozen Thai ladyboy cabaret “superstars” – as trumpeted by a banner outside the tent – touring Newcastle and Sydney. The show has been put together by circus owner Damian Syred.
With rehearsals for tonight’s performance in Newcastle scheduled to start in a few hours, I sit down with Suki for a backstage chat. We clear out a space among clothes racks draped with orange feather boas, shimmering evening gowns, wigs of cascading curls, and pink flamingo outfits that cry out “Copacabana carnival”. Suki, 27, picks up a top hat decorated with disco mirror panes, plants it slightly askew on her head, and smiles. She is every inch a performer.
When I ask her to write out her formal Thai name, I note that she signs herself, disconcertingly, with the masculine honorific. Despite appearances to the contrary, she remains, in one corner of her mind, Mr Nutchapa Punyawalgiwang. I look at the name she has written on my notepad, look up at her quizzically, and she smiles. “Thai name very loooong,” is all she says.
Suki hopes, she tells me, to marry a British man she met recently on a tour of South Africa. Not surprisingly, she rates South Africa above all other countries she has toured as a ladyboy cabaret performer: Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Australia. “South Africa make me find someone special,” she says, flashing a finger with a ring on it. “Finally I’m engaged.” Suki’s father has passed away, but her mother is still a strong influence. “Mum like him a lot,” she says.
The course of true love, especially in the transgender world, never did run smoothly. It was a rocky path in Shakespeare’s day when men took the parts of women on stage – transgender in-house gags play an important role in Elizabethan theatre. And it remains the case today when Thai men, with the help of the surgical and pharmacological arts, morph into ladyboys, taking on a female identity that extends beyond the stage.
Suki’s first attempts to tie the knot with her lover were thwarted by British immigration authorities. But she will not countenance defeat. The emotional facts, in her mind, are straightforward and irrefutable. “I am,” she says emphatically, “chosen.”
Suki was born and raised in the northern Thai town of Chiang Rai. She has an older brother and younger sister. “I’m in middle,” she says. Life was pretty basic when she was growing up. Her parents ran a small shop selling lottery tickets, but they supported her through school and college, where she graduated with an accounting qualification.
“You abandoned a career in accounting for this?” I ask, motioning towards the stage. “Yeah,” she says in that singsong Thai lilt. “You know, in Thailand a good job doesn’t give a good salary like you people think.” In any event, Suki spends very little of the money she earns from performing on herself. Most of it she sends home to support her mother.
Her journey through the uncertain world of gender identity began early. She’s not sure of the precise age at which she felt more girl than boy. She has a stab at it: “Maybe 10. Maybe 12.” And then she shakes her head. “Actually I was acting like a girl already,” she says.
But the way Suki tells it, her desire to become a woman was closely bound up with her passion for performance. Both awoke simultaneously, early in life. In Chiang Rai she danced at the night market – the dance numbers were Thai and Western – and glowed when she walked away with the equivalent of A$3 for a performance. “Oh my god, we were so happy to dance on stage. It was small money, but I just wanted to perform.”
When she finished college at 21, she auditioned for a place with the prestigious Tiffany show in the beachside fleshpot of Pattaya, and was accepted. After four years with the show she decided to venture out alone as a freelance performer, and late last year she applied for a place with the show that would bring her to Australia. The troupe has already performed at Sydney's Mardi Gras, some of the members taking out top prizes.
At an age when young Australian professionals are just making their first big professional strides, Suki has travelled far from home on a journey that goes beyond geography. She’s where she wants to be in life: on stage. And she’s poised, seemingly, to marry. Her only problem, and it’s a small one in the scheme of things, is that “sometime the other boy – they’re teasing us”.
my heart kept telling me I was a lady.”
Suki’s story, at least in her telling of it, is not shadowed by the tragedy of parental rejection. But it’s not the same for all the girls in the show. Taya, 31, whose real name is Ratikan Phanpool and who also answers to the nickname Pekkie, had a hard time growing up.
A tall, statuesque girl with broad shoulders and a small, neat Buddha-like smile, Taya is able to take much of the masculine timbre out of her voice: not something all the girls accomplish equally well.
She was born and raised in Bangkok to parents who have since divorced and, from the age of four, felt like a girl. She uses a beautiful phrase to convey at once her confusion and her certainty. “When I was young, my heart,” she says, “kept telling me I was a lady.”
“My mother okay now, but not before,” she says. “My dad, if he was still with me, I think would not be okay even now.”
The problem, Taya explains, was that her mother, who runs a small business in the Thai capital, associated gender transition with moral transgression. “She thought I would be bad. But now that I’m grown up, she sees that I am good. Good and successful in my job. Now she okay.”
Taya, too, has bought into the ideal of romantic love. “I want to get married, but right now cannot find someone to marry with me,” she laughs. “But I don’t think about it. I think about my work first.”
Lada, 34, is among the tallest members of the group, and one of the most forthcoming. She is happy to talk about the nitty-gritty, or surgical, torments of the journey. Like most of the girls, she has had breast implants. This was followed in her case by rhinoplasty – “my nose was too short”, she says. A minor operation on her Adam’s apple followed, and she would like yet another. She is content, for the moment, to keep her male genitals. But the full surgical fix is something she thinks about a lot.
“I feel from an early age I want an operation [to remove the male genitals and surgically create a vagina] and all the time I’m thinking about it. I’m happy now. I think if I become just like any other girl, a man can chose me or any other girl, but a ladyboy is special. Some men want a ladyboy. I still want to do [an operation]. But I feel scared. I think that in the future maybe I won’t care what men like. I care for myself first and what I want to do, what I want to be.”
From about the age of 5, Lada knew she wanted to be a woman. “I think I am not the same as my friend, a girl. Why do I have to wear short pants, why wear my hair short? I ask my mother and she say, ‘You’re a boy, not a girl, but when you grow up you can be whatever you want to be’.”
Around this time an uncle, on hearing of Lada’s agony, bought her a skirt. She was under strict instructions never to wear it out of the house. “But I was so happy wearing it at home. I’m dancing so much I fall over.”
Lada’s first sexual partner was a boy – a straight boy. But she was not that long ago in a relationship with a girl she describes as a tomboy.
Like Suki, she was a middle-child with straight siblings on either side. She was conscious of her father’s acceptance only when compelled, in her late teens, to enlist for military service. Her father, not wanting to see her lost to the army, suggested she wear a dress to the muster of recruits. “It was only then that I knew he accepted me,” she recalls.
So off Lada went, telling her mother and father to stay behind to avoid any embarrassment, and back she came in that dress. She was able to avoid military service, but her courage has since been tested time and again on the battlefield of life.
Neither the physical nor the emotional scars show on Lada, who has a cool, thoughtful, leader-like quality. The other girls look up to Lada and, as I learn later, she leads by example.
The show, a blend of dance routines, impersonation, humour and burlesque, has finished to generous applause when I ask a Novocastrian, Jeremy Cooper, for his view of the night’s entertainment.
“Do you have any idea why I’m here?” he replies. “You’ll never guess.”
“A few nights ago, my mother gets a call from some men with Thai accents. I’d lost my wallet in the few metres between my car and my house. I was just about to go to dinner and I was freaking out about it. My mother gets a call from these Thai girls.”
“Thai guys,” interjects his mother, Vanessa, who is also in the audience.
“But it was a he.”
“It’s what you identify with, mum.”
Vanessa continues: “Anyway, they said, ‘Do you know Jeremy Cooper?’ I thought he’d been kidnapped after they texted me with his identification details. So I called Jeremy in a panic.”
Jeremy, for his part, suspected he might have been the victim of a scam. Later that night he sat in his car, opposite the Ladyboy Superstar tent in Richardson Park, expecting to meet a man with a Thai accent. Instead, three Thai beauties teetered out of the darkness on high heels. One of them was Lada.
“As soon as I saw these three tall, beautiful women with big boobs walking towards me, I instantly chilled,” Jeremy recalls.
“All my cash was still in my wallet. I offered them money as a reward. But they’d have none of it. They just wanted us to see the show. So here we are.”
Jeremy is delighted with his tale of the honest ladyboy starlets, and equally thrilled by the show. “There was a lot of energy on stage,” he says. “And I didn’t expect so much comedy. It’s like they’re making fun of the whole thing. But not too much.”
Michael Melnik, 39, came to the show because he had seen something similar in Thailand.
“Some of the people couldn’t tell the difference between the girls on stage and, like, the real thing,” he beams. During the performance, Michael was surrounded by a group of Thai beauties, and he wears the bow-shaped lipstick marks to prove it.
Says his mother, Carol Melnik: “They were absolutely amazing and they make beautiful ladies – if that’s what they want to be.”
As two women walk past me towards the exit, one turns to the other and says: “The one who played Beyonce. Did you see her? She had a better bum than the real Beyonce.”
The next day I meet Beyonce, aka Kyrha. Most of the girls have gone to town looking for Thai produce, but Kyrha and a few others are lingering back stage. Kyrha is doing her hair. Lada is there, too. Kyrha tries on a wig.
Lada offers a comment in Thai. I ask what she said.
“She says if I put on another wig, I’ll look too much like a drag queen,” Kyrha says.
Kyrha, 33, realised as a child that she preferred to play with girls. When she did, she felt like a girl “more than a boy”. At the same time, she realised she “liked” – and the lingering emphasis she places on the word leaves little doubt about the intensity of that fondness – a boy.
“It’s a feeling inside,” she says. “You can have face and body of a man and feel like a woman.”
Kyrha’s father was unnerved by her transition from boy to girl – to ladyboy. He was afraid of his own daughter.
“But after he sees that I can work and support the family, my father was proud of his son, his daughter. I’m happy my mother and father change their mind. I work hard and support them a long time. I send every week. I’m a good girl.”
Thailand Ladyboy Superstars online: ladyboycabaret.com.au