Claudette was one of the oldest transsexual ladies we had on offer in our brothel. One of the oldest, but unchallenged for the title of meanest. In this ramshackle cartoon of a place, which clung on defiantly in a gentrifying bayside suburb of Melbourne, Claudette insisted we receptionists describe her to enquiring trade as being “39 … and some months”. It was ridiculous, but no one dared defy her.
She was still beautiful in her early 50s, blessed with feline features and long thin limbs that had helped her live unquestioned as a woman since her teens. Believability was incredibly important in the rough and ready Australia of the 1970s and ’80s. The discovery of a clandestine cock could have had her killed.
Unsatisfied with mere survival, Claudette was proud to say that she had stripped as a girl in Sydney’s Kings Cross in the ’70s. With a bit of prompting, she’d proudly demonstrate how it was possible to manoeuvre a feather boa or oversized fan to conceal her penis, safely tucked up and gaffer-taped between her legs.
Claudette was always happiest when winding back the clock. We had cable television, which she commandeered during her shifts and insisted be tuned to Turner Classic Movies.
I was just glad she was occupied, because in the early days I didn’t have the guts to talk to her at all. I don’t know if there were cosmetic procedures at play or if it was just pure tension, but something kept Claudette’s jaw very tightly shut. She spoke almost entirely through her teeth. The most you got was a lip-curled sneer and an eye roll. Think Joanna Lumley as Patsy Stone, but less animated.
Claudette whirled in and out of the brothel all day long, ostensibly to run errands in the shops along our street. They were the same every single Wednesday: to buy socks, look for photo frames and get something for her partner’s dinner (in no particular order).
I wasn’t going to be the one to remind Claudette that leaving the premises during a shift was against the rules. Who was I to stand between “the oldest living transsexual in captivity” (as she called herself) and her socks?
Some of the other receptionists told me she’d been making the same expeditions several times a week for years. They suggested she was not as focused on haberdashery and homeware as she’d have us believe and was actually nipping into the bar down the street.
I concentrated on staying off her radar, hoping she wouldn’t give me one of her nasty nicknames. There was only one biological girl on day shift. A sweet 21-year-old with a low-level heroin habit, Stephanie pretended to know who Ava Gardner was and made Claudette cups of tea. Claudette called her “Hammerhead”. In general, she referred to the biological girls as “gutted hares”. She called one of the less feminine, older transsexuals “Grandpa” and another one, whose hormone treatment had caused her to gain some weight, “Ham Hock”.
It was all going fine until one day when a friend of Claudette’s rang up to speak to her. He was a man, but Claudette always called him “Tawdry Audrey in the Tea House of the August Moon”.
Audrey often phoned in the afternoon, and on this particular day it was the first sign of life we’d had for hours. No one had made any money, and Turner Classic Movies had put everyone to sleep but Claudette.
With Audrey on the line, I used the intercom on my desk to speak into the girls’ room. “Claudette to reception, please.”
Minutes went by with no sign of Claudette, so I went to investigate.
Claudette was at the mirror. Hearing my page, she’d leapt up, pulled off the high-waisted mum jeans and woollen pullover she always wore between client intros, popped on the heels and was fluffing her hair. She’d assumed a customer had walked in.
“Tawdry’s on the phone, babe,” I said.
“Audrey? There’s not a job?” she bellowed. “Oh well, why the fuck didn’t you say that, you fat cunt?” She threw her hairbrush and stomped past me.
I was mortified. Claudette leant over the reception desk, telling Audrey I was an idiot, and I made my way into the laundry, where I tried to cry my heart out as quickly as possible. By the time I came out she was gone, back to her Mickey Rooney marathon.
Day shifts were hard to come by, so I was determined to find a way to get along with Claudette. I decided to love-bomb her. The technique is basically to deploy unyielding, pathetic humility in the face of nastiness. The object suffers through stages of suspicion, annoyance and fatigue before landing inevitably on affection, and so it was with Claudette.
The turning point in our relationship came the day I dared to lay a nickname on her. “Up you go, Grandma,” I said, as I hurried her upstairs for a booking.
Everyone held their breaths. Claudette stood still, her eyes widened, and her lip curled. After a very long moment, the sneer turned into a sneery smile, and she snorted a tight laugh.
“I’m going as fast as I can,” she said. “I’m an old woman!”
Claudette leant over the reception desk, telling Audrey I was an idiot, and I made my way into the laundry, where I tried to cry my heart out as quickly as possible
A minute later, as she walked up the stairs, still snorting with laughter, she shouted back down in my direction. “It wouldn’t hurt you to get up the stairs every now and then. You might lose some weight!”
It was glorious. We were friends, and she was “Grandma” from that moment on.
We became a happy Wednesday club, particularly after the cable TV was cut off. We all got invested in daytime soaps, brought food to share for lunch, and adopted Claudette’s horrific but hilarious sayings as our own, which she loved.
She’d often bring me treats from the bakery, saying something like, “Here, this’ll fatten you up nicely.”
Claudette visited the bakery every shift to get something for Simon’s dinner. Simon was her partner, with whom she’d lived for years, and a source of much curiosity on my part. She talked about him constantly, but generally in terms of how much she’d ruined his life.
I could never figure out the nature of their relationship. Claudette obviously thought often and lovingly about Simon and never spoke of any strife at all between them; neither seemed interested in ending their relationship. I ascertained that they no longer shared a bedroom, but they seemed at the very least to be amicable flatmates. Perhaps that was what Claudette found so painful about it.
Claudette often professed her love of drinking and was equally honest about how nasty it made her. She joked about waking up to find her beloved white, fluffy cat, Bridget, covered in red lipstick – the victim of a late-night kissing attack from a very drunk Claudette. She also told me about the beautiful Jag she used to drive around town. One night, as Claudette attempted to make it home from the pub, the car ploughed right over a fire hydrant. The resulting water fountain shot 30 feet up, she reckoned, but was angled just enough to spray gallons of water into the lounge room of the nearest house.
That was the end of Claudette’s driving career, but no disaster was big enough to deter her from drinking.
When she was bored and morose, I’d steer the conversation to the old days, to the Cross, or to St Kilda hotspots Bojangles and the Prince of Wales: the scenes of the most glamorous high points of her life. In those days, Claudette was a showgirl.
Drag, or “female impersonating”, as the wider community knew it in the ’70s and ’80s, was a more respected art form then. Even my parents made sure to attend an evening of Les Girls in Kings Cross while on holiday in Sydney.
They grew up in the kind of small Queensland towns where most people believed they’d never met a gay person. I’m not sure what their reaction would’ve been had they encountered a transvestite or a transgender person in the street, but their evening with the showbiz “gender illusionists” made them feel very sophisticated.
They kept the glossy colour program, and as a child I flipped through it often, marvelling at the stunning costumes, complete with sky-high headpieces, jewels and feathers. “They’re all boys,” my mother told me once, pointing to the 20 or so showgirls wearing nothing but bedazzled G-strings and silver pasties that obscured the nipples of their pert breasts. Then she continued on with her spring cleaning, as though she hadn’t just blown the whole gender and sexuality paradigm wide open in my fertile young mind.
Many years later, I found myself in the company of one of the ladies featured in that very program. Claudette brought her own copy to show me, along with similar specimens from the famous Paris revues the Lido, the Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergère, which she and Simon had visited. It was a joy to watch her immerse herself in memories, re-enacting dance moves and whirling an imaginary boa.
She performed a memorable impression of the Moulin Rouge’s famous snakes-in-a-fish-tank sequence, in which a huge tank of water is suddenly elevated from below the stage, and a topless showgirl swims elegantly with three enormous pythons. I saw the spectacle myself years later and remember thinking it was somewhat less elegant than Claudette’s interpretation. It looked like three big snakes flailing around, trying desperately to get out of the tank, while a panting topless woman grabbed at them, yanking them back in and hoisting them around her neck whenever she had the chance (with a wide smile painted on her face and her toes pointed beautifully at all times, of course).
To listen to Claudette, the ’70s and ’80s in transsexual Australia were a beautiful whirlwind of gowns, lashes and champagne. It was the present she found harsh and ugly.
Eventually I left that brothel. I moved on to another and another, and then finally caught a lucky showbiz break and moved interstate. When I returned to Melbourne years later, I set about tracking down my favourite girls via the internet.
I started with Claudette, and I’m very sad to say that I quickly found the one thing you dread most when searching for an old friend. Claudette’s obituary noted that she had succumbed, all too predictably, to liver cancer. “Claudette’s life had been one of glamour … She was one stylish girl.” I’d only missed her by a few months.
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