Twelve Questions: Debbie Dorday

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One of New Zealand's best-known entertainers, Debbie Dorday ran Auckland cabaret club Burgundy's for 12 years. These days she travels the country in a campervan, entertaining at RSAs, halls and corporate functions.

Debbie Dorday believes in living life to the fullest and though she no longer dances, she's still got dancer's legs. Photo / Dean Purcell
Debbie Dorday believes in living life to the fullest and though she no longer dances, she's still got dancer's legs. Photo / Dean Purcell

1. Your email address is "nogreytwilight: what's that about?

It's a family motto, found first by my older and very adventurous brother and one we've lived ever since. "Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though chequered with failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much. Because they live in the grey twilight that knows not victory nor defeat."

2. What does older age mean to you?Bloody sore feet after years of dance. Also the odd whisker on the chin.

People still ask me if I'm dancing - of course I'm bloody not. I suppose it's because I've still got the Burgundy's look. I've still got the legs too - look - but I haven't danced for 14 years. It would be tragic wouldn't it? I'd look ridiculous. I still move well in the show we do but we've developed a whole lot of other things so I don't do high kicks or pirouettes. How old am I? I never say. I've forgotten.

3. You had a very transient childhood in England and New Zealand. What are the advantages and disadvantages of a life like that for a child?

My father was a vicar but he also liked farming and going bush so we lived in many places in England and New Zealand. We often ate wild pig or venison or rabbits he shot for dinner. I thought we were poor but he gave a lot of money away to people in need. I had very few toys but we had books and played 500 and chess. I helped raise money for the church by dancing and singing. Although he was straitlaced, he was very funny and fun and quite eccentric. He died when I was 20 and he never knew my mum had sent me to stage school in England. He always thought I was at Sadler's Wells.

4. You were 10 when you went to that school, and working in shows and on film sets. Did you see much that shocked you?

Well we always had a chaperone but there were some odd people. I met Jimmy Saville but he didn't try anything with me. The first time I had trouble was in a pantomime in the north of England. I was 13 and the ogre in the show was a midget. He came into the dressing room in his leather costume, and two other girls and me had to tell him he had to get his boots on in this really bossy way and then we'd hit him. Smack him. He'd give us Coke and crisps if we did it. After that, it could be downhill at times. I probably didn't get some auditions because I wasn't friendly enough. But I could always get myself out of a situation. And I met my first husband when I was 16.

5. How do you feel without the fishnets, eye-makeup and heels?

I change into another person when the makeup is on. I feel ready for the audience. When I'm in jeans and a T-shirt I am ordinary and no way could I do a show. Sometimes I put my makeup on early, just to feel that power.

6. How is small-town New Zealand faring these days?

We do all the little towns with our shows - 232 last year - and we love them. People are so pleased to see us. After the show we find somewhere quiet to park - a Foodtown carpark or behind the venue or wherever - make some dinner. Sometimes it's porridge at 2am. And in the morning we take off again. I've been to every laundrette in New Zealand. There are some terrible ones. You end up sitting next to the possum hunter who's washing his horse blanket.

7. What's your best Burgundy's anecdote?

There are so many but one stands out. There were three of us girls dressed as witches with hoops in our skirts, sitting over a stool on wheels so we looked three feet tall and we were gliding around fast, singing. Natalie's wheels got caught in the hoop and over she went, all legs flying out and the stool stuck. She had to crawl off stage sideway and we went to pieces with laughter. The item was a disaster but it made the audience laugh. That's what I like to do best. Make them laugh.

8. How did you, and your children, cope with your fame in the 1970s and 1980s?

They were fine but one day my youngest came home from school aged 5 and asked me was I a stripper. That gobsmacked me.

9. Is cabaret still a valid art form?

You get two people on stage singing these days and people call it cabaret. It's not. Jim Joll and I have been touring for 14 years with our cabaret show. We take a huge amount of costumes, lighting. It has to be a proper show with comedy, singing, costumes and of course classy, with a little bit of naughty.

10. What kind of a life has showbiz provided for you?

Comfortable but it will never make you rich. Not that it's about the money for me. At Burgundy's we had 46 people working for us and very flash costumes so the money all went into that. Working at night in Auckland meant I could get my kids sorted for school in the morning. Now I get to travel and see all over New Zealand.

11. Are second marriages harder than a first?

No. I have been very lucky with two wonderful husbands. They have put up with me and I can be dramatic at times. I've had the last one for 22 years and he loves touring with us so it's all good. My first husband came to a show with our daughter just a week before he died. We'd separated much earlier and he was a bit muddled by then. He said to his nurse "that's my wife. She's been away on tour for a long time."

12. Will you ever retire?

Probably not. Comedians never have to retire, do they?

- NZ Herald

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