All-male burlesque show glitter-bombs the world

By Dionne Christian

Shivannah and the cast of burlesque show Briefs.
Shivannah and the cast of burlesque show Briefs.

He was surging his way toward a rugby career but then New Zealand-born Samoan Fez Faanana decided to change direction; now he's called Shivannah and is the corseted, bearded and totally gorgeous host of an all-male burlesque cabaret show, summed up as Aussie Cirque du Soleil meets RuPaul's Drag Race.

Called Briefs, it has everything from acro-balancing and trapeze to hula hooping and lip-syncing. Shivannah describes the role as "the love child of the bearded lady and ring master. I am the host, performer, choreographer and orchestrator. In other words, I am the control freak stage mum."

So how does one go from a possible rugby career to bearded lady?

"With great disappointment from my parents ... ha! But really my folks are pretty progressive when it came to choosing a career path. Of course, my dad would have loved for me to continue playing rugby but he's proud I have had the freedom, opportunity and nerve to do what I do.

"My family is stupidly supportive. My little nephews and nieces think it's totally normal to be part of the circus and for me to be a 'kooked-out' uncle. My siblings love the chance to step out of their lives and into my glittering chaotic world. My mum is a groupie. She is not shy to tag along on our European touting circuit. My parents worked their coconuts off to create opportunities for me, so I made the most of it and they love it."

Briefs came out of workshops in a warehouse space of a bookshop in Brisbane's West End in 2008. First performances were club nights as part of the Brisbane Festival, which led to a run at the Adelaide Fringe Festival.

From there, the show has toured the world. Shivannah says they've spent the last year "glitter-bombing" the globe, from London and Berlin to Edinburgh, Paris and Glastonbury. Highlights include an invitation from celebrity comedian John Bishop to take part in his prime-time BBC1 show, residency at Berlin's legendary Tipi am Kanzleramt and a mega season at the London Wonderground.

There's now six Aussie performers and one New Yorker, all with extensive experience in burlesque and cirque. For Shivannah, the move into the world of sequins, feathers and stage spotlights isn't too different from the rugby field.

"It takes a lot of work, heart and soul to be the good sports person that you want to be, and it takes a lot of work, heart and soul to be the real person that you know you want to be, particularly with your family and your peers.

"Everyone has their own story and ending as long as you are moving forward it is worth the struggle. There is a long way to go in terms of defeating the evil forces of homophobia in general, not just in sport, but it does feel like we are heading in the right direction. As a kid I didn't feel there was any progress. I hope kids feel safer now."

Cabaret has provided a natural home for Shivannah, who says it's always given a platform to artists who didn't fit anywhere else.

"It is the spiritual home of talented misfits and radicals. The work can be taken at razzamatazz surface value but if you scratch the surface cabaret artists challenge a lot of ideas under the guise of satire and humour.

"Booze-fuelled cabaret clubs began in late 19th-century Paris and inspired British music hall and variety, American Vaudeville and perhaps most famously the German Kabaret clubs in Berlin. In all these places artists and misfits gathered to share radical ideas and perform. Some people just sit back and watch, enjoy spectacle and don't engage with the political message. That's okay too. Maybe next time that person encounters a challenging situation in everyday life they might reference their experience with us or another cabaret show. With these small steps we move closer to equality, one glitter bomb at a time."

And what does the audience enjoy most about Briefs?

"I think audiences are shocked and impressed with the level of skill, artistic merit, social awareness and shameless entertainment. I believe audiences understand the world we try to create and really do feel the energy that explodes when we are on stage.

"For us, there have been so many memorable moments [from touring] that have disappeared due to excessive partying while on tour with this show for three years. Glastonbury Festival 2014 and 2015 were festivals that I will never forget. Thousands of punters in our giant big top, surrounded by amazing musicians, gobsmacking creativity, ridiculous food and an excitement in the air that would make any amount of mud acceptable.

"The other moment that would be most memorable was performing this show for the first time and realising that we collectively as a group of artists that we made something really special."

- Weekend magazine

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