Cabaret performer, stand-up comic, television presenter, iconic media personality and transgender pioneer. These are just some of the ways of describing the indomitable Carlotta. Written by Christian Berechree.
Whether it’s on the stage or on the screen, Carlotta has been a permanent fixture in the Australian entertainment industry for what feels like forever.
That isn’t a comment on her age but on her longevity and staying power. As she says, retirement is not on the cards.
“I could never retire. I live up in the retirement capital of the world, the Gold Coast, but I’d be bored shitless,” Carlotta says.
Carlotta, who turns 72 this year, keeps herself busy after 52 years in show business. Since her days as a performer and host in the legendary cabaret show Les Girls, she hasn’t slowed down. She became a television star in the 90s through her work as a panellist on Beauty and the Beast and now appears regularly as a guest presenter on Studio 10. She also performs her own one woman show throughout the country.
“The show’s about me. I send myself up. I’m more a stand-up comic now than anything else,” she says.
An example of the self-deprecating humour that makes up the show? “I used to look like Bridget Bardot, now I’m turning into a dugong.”
While she’s certainly been outspoken on the subject for decades, Carlotta has never been a transgender advocate in any official capacity. As she says, “I’m just too bloody busy!” However, in light of Caitlyn Jenner’s recent revelation on the cover of Vanity Fair, Carlotta spoke out about her own transition in an opinion piece for the Daily Telegraph.
“It’s a subject which has changed over the years. When I had mine done, the ones who had it done, we were hormonally different. As the years have gone on and there’s more acceptance and everything, people are coming out of the woodworks. I feel sorry that they’ve been trapped in that situation for most of their lives,” she says.
Carlotta may have been in the public eye, loved and accepted for many years, but she knows that hasn’t been the case for many people like herself. Just weeks after Caitlyn Jenner’s groundbreaking appearance in Vanity Fair, and with Laverne Cox making history as a transgender actress on Orange is the New Black, a transgender woman was bashed in a Newtown pub.
“Prejudice will always still be out there. What you’ve got to do is think ‘I’ve got the freedom which a lot of people didn’t have years ago. I’ve got the freedom to be proud of myself and get on with life’,” Carlotta says. She says in spite of ugly incidents like the one in Newtown, things have never been better for transgender women.
“They are having their moment and they should grab it,” Carlotta says. “Life’s too short to be bottled up in a closet.”
In 2014, a telemovie based on Carlotta’s life was finally screened after years in production. It was an instant hit.
“I was over the moon. I was thrilled to bits. It got the highest rating that night and it’s history now. Mainly I did it to help people who want to come out. To know that I did it and there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Carlotta says.
For someone who has lived a highly glamorous and unconventional life, Carlotta is refreshingly down to earth. She has no problem making fun of herself and can’t stand political correctness. She has no interest in awards or accolades. Always aware of her high profile and privileged position, she never forgets the work of people who receive less attention.
“They say I’m an Australian icon and all that but it’s only because I’m out there. I’m out there in the public eye, mostly in the straight world but I’ll always fight for the gay scene. There’s a lot of people doing a lot of work behind the scenes that don’t get the recognition they deserve,” Carlotta says.
Perhaps it is the combined effort of these “behind the scenes” people and public figures that has made the world a safer and more tolerant place for transgender people.
When Carlotta came out, she was surrounded by her Les Girls family who understood that gender wasn’t always as simple as it seemed. Her established identity as a drag performer and the public approval she had gained arguably helped soften the blow. All the same, taking the path of flamboyant cabaret performer seemed like her best and only option. She imagines a very different path if she were to come out today.
“Oh my god, I don’t know whether I would have become Carlotta if I had the freedom I have today. I probably would have gone on and studied and just disappeared into the suburbs,” she says.
“I really wanted to be a girl but I didn’t have any choice. I only had Les Girls as a place I could work. I thought I might get the sack because they wouldn’t think of me as a female impersonator.”
As she says with a laugh, it’s a very unique employment challenge but one she embraced with open arms. Her larger than life and tough as nails persona has played an important role in her success and longevity. She says it helped her avoid being bothered by the criticism all women in the public eye are subjected to.
“They weren’t game enough to take me on, darling. I couldn’t give a shit whether they liked my lipstick or not,” she says in her trademark self-deprecating way.
With high profile and fabulous transgender women gracing magazine covers, television screens and cabaret stages, it’s tempting to think the fight for equality has been won. Carlotta is realistic, however, about the struggle all too many people continue to face everyday. She offers them these words of wisdom, in a classic Carlotta way.
“Get out of that cocoon and become a butterfly. It’s the best way to describe it because otherwise you’ll be an old moth all your life.”