Exploring the twin personas of Rainbow community champion on colourful quest for mainstream understanding

Can any thoughts that Miss Ma Ma Laid is Graeme Cribb's transgender alter ego.

To him she's an art form - a character he initially created to draw the city's gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transexual (GLBT) communities together to celebrate their diverse identities.

Our chat with Graeme comes as the country marks the 30th anniversary of legalised homosexuality. Before then Graeme would have been a persona non grata, Miss Ma Ma Laid an impossible dream.

Regardless of these more enlightened times he remains wary of personal public recognition, dodging being photographed 'au natural', nor will he reveal his long-term partner's identity, citing their privacy.

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The GLBT community isn't the only reason for Miss Ma Ma Laid's existence, she's a deliberate ploy to create awareness of this still, at times, marginalised sector of our city.

The annual Bay Pride Festival Graeme founded has become a crowd puller.

"There were at least 150 at our first picnic, 500 at the second, it just keeps on getting bigger and bigger."

A Love Boat cruise on the Lakeland Queen was a sell-out.

"There were a lot of straight people there, one woman brought her husband who'd been very dubious but at the end of the night he said `Miss Ma Ma Laid, that's my best night out ever'; I felt as if I'd cured his tunnel vision."

Nor are this happy punter's the only eyes Graeme's helped open and win GLBT "establishment" recognition.

Mayor Steve Chadwick is Bay Pride's patron, the Rotorua Trust's a prime funder and the Side Pocket Bar, a place which could so easily be perceived as a macho male bastion, a sponsor.

Ma Ma Laid and Bay Pride are a mere smidgen of Graeme Cribb's commitment to those whose sexuality's not mainstream.

He's seriously committed to youth suicide prevention.

"I blame TV for a lot of it, they show these programmes where suicide's featured but don't explain that death is the end [of life]. I like to support families who feel they need to speak to somebody who understands, I've lost a very dear friend that way."

He's a committed supporter of, and fundraiser for, the Aids Foundation (cue Miss Ma Ma Laid's entrepreneurial side), is Rotorua's GLBT ambassador for Auckland's Big Gay Out and, when an Aussie couple wed here to side-step their homeland's anti same-sex marriage laws, Graeme stepped in as bridesmaid.

Despite his refusal to be photographed other than as Miss Ma Ma Laid, he cautiously grants Our People a peek into his `straight' side, giving lie to our expectation of a flamboyant, bewigged figure falling out of an over-the-top gown and dripping in costume jewellery.

The pullover-wearing person we meet is as "ordinary" as most of our acquaintances, someone whose chromosomes may just have been arranged differently.

With argument both for and against this theory, it's not one we're qualified to enter into, but what we can say is Graeme Cribb's a genuinely engaging bloke, he's also a hard grafter.

Leaving school at 16, his first job was in Katikati, his home town's, Four Square but he hankered to run his own cafe.

"I"d always had that thought, my mother and grandmother were beautiful bakers, caterers, I was used to waking up seeing 500 sausage rolls on the bench, so I guess I kind of inherited the cafe idea."

For seven years he ran Katikati's sole cafe.

"I was doing out-catering for dances, weddings, funerals, the auctions at Matamata's thoroughbred stables."

A childhood bout of rheumatic fever which led to a blocked heart valve during his cafe years prompted another career change, it was nursing.

"I was operated on, spent time in Greenlane [Hospital] and got to see the wonderful work nurses did."

Studying at Hamilton Polytech (now WINTEC) he graduated as an enrolled nurse, his first ward work at Middlemore Hospital, followed by time at the Auckland Brain Institute.

Then it was back to the Greenlane campus and its Laura Fergusson Trust rehab centre.

"I met some wonderful people with all sorts of injuries . . . a really interesting place to be."

He juggled his rehab job with more cafe work then, 18 years on, switched to motel and hotel management.

His first shot at it combined his nursing skills.

"The establishment was owned by a surgeon, he ran his practice from it, I was his front-of-house receptionist and nurse."

Several years in the Bay of Islands' accommodation sector followed; Graeme opened a conference centre in one, the workload shared with his unnamed partner.

"It was fantastic, creating a lot of work for people who'd normally be out of a job in the winter season."

A Rotorua couple, the then owners of the 100-year-old Waitomo Caves Hotel, invited the pair to oversee its refurbishment.

"People say there are ghosts there . . . as far as ghosts go I can say there are ghost there."

The contract up, they took over the management of three exclusive Lake Tarawera lodges, owned by a UK couple.

"They'd only come out for six weeks of the year, when they were here I became their PA."

When the lodges were sold Graeme moved into town, going into partnership with a group of friends to open Shampers Bar in Eruera St.

It became the first official headquarters of Rotorua's GLBT community and Miss Ma Ma Laid's birthplace.

Which brings us to a question that's been bothering us. It's how to best describe his twin personas? Drag Queen's obviously inaccurate, Graeme concurs but he too is hard-pressed to find the words we both seek.

"I guess the best way of putting it is I am the advocate, support person, for Rotorua's LGBT community helped by Miss Ma Ma Laid."

Her next outing's scheduled for a Gay Pride spring ball in October.

An equally obvious question: When did he first discovered his 'gayness'?

"I was about 15 but it wasn't until some time later that I really came out. My family were fine about it, I was still their child, God's child, so what could they do? They couldn't blame anybody."

GRAEME CRIBB (AKA MISS MA MA LAID)

Born: Katikati, 1966.
Education: Katikati Primary and College, Waikato Polytech.
Family: Two brothers, three sisters, partner
Interests: Local LGBT community, Rainbow Youth, cooking, baking "especially pastry", `nice' wine. "I've travelled widely."
On his sexuality: "I am who I am."
Personal Philosophy: "We're only here on lay-by."