Michele Hewitson Interview: Kevin Dunseath

By Michele Hewitson

There's a lot fruity about Miss Ribena - not just the costumes.

Kevin Dunseath says drag queens are not cross-dressers, who tend to be heterosexual men, but more like clowns parodying glamour. Photo / Richard Robinson
Kevin Dunseath says drag queens are not cross-dressers, who tend to be heterosexual men, but more like clowns parodying glamour. Photo / Richard Robinson

Who would I like to interview, asked the publicist: Kevin or Miss Ribena? This would be an unusual question, usually. But it seems quite reasonable given that Kevin is Kevin Dunseath who is also Miss Ribena, the "most recognised drag queen in the whole of Australasia", according to Kevin, who is not a shrinking violet - except in comparison to Miss Ribena.

Everyone is a shrinking violet in comparison to Miss Ribena, who is, according to me, a rather frightening figure. For one thing, she is about 198cm tall, wears enormous wigs and heels and makes Dame Edna look classy. He says, by the way, that Miss Ribena is not frightening, but that she is "very powerful and larger than life". This might amount to the same thing.

So Kevin seemed the safer option. Kevin is 185cm, or thereabouts, and was wearing shorts and running shoes and looked like a rugby prop. He is not a small bloke - although he is smaller than he was, having gone, since November when he rejoined the gym, from 144kg to 117kg. In his bag, the size of a baby elephant, he has: An enormous plastic tub of protein shake powder; metres and metres of purple fabric which might or might not be satin; a pair of fake breasts and God knows what else.

I didn't dare delve further.

He said: "Actually, I'm the Outrageous Miss Ribena," meaning not merely plain old Miss Ribena. He said, at the end of our hour: "Have you got all of my statistics?" I did, although I hadn't asked for all of them and I am certainly not going to print them.

Another reason for opting for Kevin over the Outrageous Miss Ribena was that I thought Kevin might be less outrageous and therefore I'd have enough that was printable to make what he told somebody we met on K Rd after the interview would be "a three-page spread on Saturday, darling."

I'll do my best to squeeze him into one, but it will be a squeeze.

He is terribly busy, as always - his schedule for the next fortnight alone would fill a three-page spread - with hens' nights ("You know hens. They'll get their knickers off!"), his regular gigs, his MCing at the Big Gay Out on Sunday where he will introduce the PM. He is not, needless to say, in any danger of being upstaged by a PM.

On Saturday next week he will be in drag, as Miss Ribena (I can't go on with this Outrageous business; we'll just take it as read) from early in the day until very late for another big gay out. He says he has been promising the gay community that there would be another Hero Parade for years and years and now there is the first parade - now called the Pride Parade - since 2001.

He first appeared in drag at the Hero parade in 1998 after being approached by some lads in a gay bar. He was wearing a singlet at the time and the lads said: "Oh my God, you've got a really nice body. Would you like to come on the Hero Parade?"

So he went to their house in Ponsonby and "it was the gay and lesbian gardening group and they had this amazing big floral crinoline! So, anyway, I went on the first Hero Parade and because of the costuming and this huge blonde wig ... before I knew it click, click, click! That started in 1998." And so, in the words of a newspaper headline: A Star Is Born.

He had brought along some of his framed cuttings to show us. He has catalogued his career: "I've got stuff for Africa!" Here he - or Miss Ribena - is, in a very large photograph, with "his silver husband," a good-looking chap called Stephen. "And his mum and dad didn't even know he was gay!"

His mum and dad are very religious and they saw that newspaper, too. You can't imagine this came as a total surprise - he'd been dressing up since primary school - but he says his mother was still entertaining the fantasy, not too many years ago, that he'd marry a woman.

He was the youngest child - his sister is 10 years older - who had been adopted as a baby and his sister's boyfriends used to whisper: "Kevin looks a bit different from you," and his sister would whisper back: "He's adopted." Although this was never spoken of, except in whispers, he always knew he was adopted. His sister was blonde and blue-eyed; he's part Maori. His best friend at primary school in Hamilton was adopted, too, and they invented fantasy birth mothers. His friend's fantasy mother was Tina Turner; Kevin's was Kiri Te Kanawa. Kiri Te Kanawa!

"Well, you're going to think this is funny: My birth mother looks exactly like Kiri Te Kanawa! A bit more bouffed-up, but like Kiri. Elegant, glam." A bit more what he would look like if he was Kiri, perhaps? "Yeah! If I was Kiri ..."

He met his birth mother after he was effectively outed by the media attention after which his parents decided, he says, on a "rescue remedy" which was that he needed to meet his birth mother. This was so - and I think I almost followed this - he could be cured of his "homosexual life" and what his father called his "cross-dressing" by having cast out of him the "Maori feminine spirit that came over me". He was rolling his eyes as he told me this, but he's amazingly sanguine about it all, really. He has fallen out with his birth mother and hasn't seen her for 10 years but still speaks about her lovingly. (He says that weirdly, they share the same taste in men and clothes.) He still sees his parents and is obviously fond of them and when he visits he mows the lawns and weeds the garden and cooks them a meal. He said, cheerfully, that as a teenager he signed the petition against the Homosexual Law Reform Bill. I wondered what he thought about that now and he shrugged and said, well, he had to because it was at the church and everyone signed it.

His father told him years ago never to bring a partner home and he never has. He would quite like to get married one day and he'd invite his parents to the wedding and if they didn't attend, oh, well: "That's their buzz. They could invite me to church on Sunday ..."

Would he really like to get married? I wonder. I think he's pretty content living on his own in his nice house in Kelston which he loves and which has "a stream and f***ing moreporks that go off in the night". He has had proper partners but doesn't currently, although he says everyone thinks he must have a boyfriend. He has a "bit on the side" but I am not to write anything more than that because his bit on the side isn't gay. He likes blokes who are blokeish and, he shared, to tease the photographer, especially blokes with facial hair, and glasses. He was being a bit Miss Ribena.

The difference between them is of scale and loudness. Kevin is quieter, and not as rude, to which you can only say: Blimey.

We were going to meet at his house but settled for the Drag Room at the Family Bar on Karangahape Rd where he has a residency. I would end up being very grateful about this. He said media get very excited about going to his house because we're all "kinky" and want to look at his DVDs. I didn't want to know about his DVDs and neither, trust me, do you.

The Drag Room is the dressing room and you could not by any stretch of the imagination call it glamorous - but at least there are no DVDs. I thought a drag artiste of his stature might have demanded something a little flasher but he likes it like this with the fading poster and peeling paint and holes in the walls and old sofas that smell of sweat and stale make-up. The only touch of sparkle is a lime green plastic goblet with Miss Ribena spelled in diamantes, some of which have dropped off, possibly some time ago.

He said there was some talk of putting in a bathroom but he said not to bother; he doesn't want to encourage people to hang around in here, "like a halfway house".

He likes the attention and the adulation but prefers it, you feel, at a distance. So perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is Miss Ribena who enjoys the attention.

But who is Miss Ribena? She is not a girl; she is not in fact a bit feminine and is not even a parody of a girl.

"No. It's comedy. It's full-on comedy. As people describe a good drag act throughout the world, it's as couture to a clown."

What I think this means is that she is a clown parodying glamour, but it's tricky. She, and he, are certainly not cross-dressers who are usually, he says, heterosexual men.

There is nothing sexual about being a drag queen. I idiotically asked and got a deservedly rude answer which is unrepeatable but the gist is that when he's on stage, "I'm getting paid $500 for two hours' work, I'm not worried about (the unrepeatable bit went here)." You get the idea.

He calls what he does as Miss Ribena: "Creational art." I still don't know why there are fake breasts involved and asking got me a flash of chest hair. "Look!" That was some sort of answer. Another was: "Because we're drag, we're not transgender and we're not cross-dressing. At the end, that falls on the floor." I think this is meant to mean that it's all in the costume and is so exaggerated that nobody in their right mind could think Miss Ribena was real.

Still, people do call Kevin Miss Ribena when he, or she, is wearing shorts and trainers. This is a term of affection and people feel very affectionate towards him, and you can see why. He says of Miss Ribena that the secret of her success is her kindness - she is certainly capable of being amazingly rude (although let's remember context) and she lives up to the outrageous billing when it comes to cheek. But she is not nasty. Also, neither of them do drugs or hit the bottle - which can be classed as occupational hazards.

Still, you'd think, given his upbringing and the religion and the adoption and being called, as he used to be on a regular basis, a "faggot", he ought to have been a bit screwed up. Don't be silly. I asked if he'd ever had therapy and he raised his perfectly shaped eyebrows and said: "Nah. F*** it. I don't need some shrink, love. They can pay me!" And off he went, twinkling, the happiest drag queen in the whole of Australasia.

- NZ Herald

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