Claudette was one of the oldest transsexual ladies we had on offer in our brothel, a surreal, ramshackle cartoon of a place, clinging on defiantly in a gentrifying bayside suburb of Melbourne. One of the oldest, but unchallenged for the title of meanest, Claudette insisted we describe her to enquiring trade as being “39…and some months.” Though ridiculous, no one dared defy her.
She was still beautiful in her early 50s, blessed with fine, feline features and long thin limbs that’d 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, when the discovery of a clandestine cock could have had her killed.
Dissatisfied with mere survival, Claudette was proud to say that she had stripped as a girl in 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 oriental fan to conceal the presence of her penis, safely tucked and gaffer taped up between her legs.
Claudette was always happiest when winding back the clock. We were blessed in our brothel with cable television, a very generous touch I realised later while making my way around Melbourne’s bordello’s and knocking shops. Claudette commandeered the television during her shifts and insisted it be tuned to Turner Classic Movies all day long. And it was long.
I was just glad she was occupied because in the early days I didn’t have the guts to talk to her at all, having bought in hook, line and sinker to her intimidating demeanour, aided by a face that rarely moved. 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 out of her, facial expression wise, 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 conduct chores in the many shops and businesses in our street. They were the same chores every single Wednesday, which was our day together and they were in no particular order, to buy socks, look for photo frames and get something for Simon’s dinner.
I was not going to be the person to remind Claudette that leaving the premises while on 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 that she was not as focused on haberdashery and home wares as she’d like us to believe, but that Claudette was actually nipping into the bar down the street during those outings.
She was very upfront about her love of drinking, and 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, having been the victim of a late-night kissing attack from a very drunk Claudette the night before. She also told me once about the beautiful Jag she used to drive around town, until she attempted to drive herself home from the pub one night and plowed it right over a fire hydrant. The impact resulted in a 30ft water fountain she reckoned, which sprayed almost directly up, but angled just enough to pour millions of gallons of water right into the lounge room of the nearest house.
That was the end of the Jag, and of Claudette’s driving career, but no disaster was big enough to deter Claudette from drinking. That conversation came many months into our relationship. I concentrated on not drawing her attention initially, hoping she wouldn’t notice me and inflict me with one of her nasty nicknames.
There was only one biological girl on day shift, and she had a fairly low-level heroin habit. A sweet 21 year-old called Stephanie, who pretended to know who Ava Gardner was and made Claudette cups of tea all day. Claudette called her “Hammerhead”. In general she referred to the other biological girls as “gutted hares.” She called one of her fellow, less feminine, older transsexuals “Grandpa” and another one whose hormone treatment had caused her to gain some weight, “Ham hock.” I did my best to fly under her radar.
It was all going fine until one day when her friend Audrey rang up to speak to her. Audrey was an actual man, but she always called him “Tawdry Audrey in the Tea House of the August Moon.”
Audrey often phoned to talk to Claudette in the afternoon, and on this particular day it was the first sign of life we’d had for hours. It’d been deathly quiet, no one had made any money and Turner Classic Movies had put everyone in the girls’ room to sleep but Claudette.
With Audrey standing by on the phone, I used the intercom on my desk to speak into the girls’ room. “Claudette to reception please.”
Minutes went by without Claudette’s willowy frame lurching into reception so I went investigate.
“Tawdry’s on the phone babe,” I said just as I was entering the room. Claudette was at the mirror. Since my PA announcement she’d leapt up, pulled off the high-wasted mum jeans and woollen pull-over she always wore between client intros, popped on the heals and was fluffing her hair assuming a man had walked in and asked for her.
“Audrey? There’s not a job? Oh well why the fuck didn’t you say that you fat cunt?!” she bellowed as she threw her hairbrush and stomped past me.
I stopped breathing in her wake, standing outside the girls’ room hiding so the awakening ladies couldn’t see me glowing red with embarrassment. I was mortified and within a few seconds knew without a shadow of a doubt that I was going to cry.
I walked casually past Claudette in reception as she leant over the desk telling Audrey I was an idiot, and made my way into the laundry where I tried to cry my heart out as quickly as possible, because I knew at any moment I could be interrupted and have to show my red, teary face to the girls and to Claudette. By the time I came out, all red-rimmed, puffy eyes with no makeup left beneath them she was gone, back to her Mickey Rooney marathon. By the end of the shift which was the next time I saw the girls it all seemed to have been forgotten, by them at least if not by me, and no one ever spoke of it again.
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, a tactic I learned from my Shit Tzu Brittany, who eventually won the acceptance of a tough neighbourhood cat by gingerly approaching it again and again, bowing deeply and wagging her tail, until the cat eventually stopped belting her and even let her sleep beside it in the sun. The technique is basically about deploying unyielding, pathetic humility in the face of nastiness.
Brittany remained determined while the cat suffered through stages of suspicion, annoyance and fatigue before landing inevitably on affection, and so it was with Claudette.
I think the turning point in our relationship came the day I dared to lay a nickname on her. “Up you go Grandma,” I said. It was bold for a second reason too, I was telling her to hurry up and get upstairs for a booking.
Everyone held their breath and wound their eyes around in Claudette’s direction, not game to let her know they were looking for her reaction. She stopped dead in her tracks, her eyes widened and her lip curled. After what seemed like a very long time in which nobody moved, the sneer turned into a sneery smile, she snorted a tight laugh and said, “I’m going as fast as I can, I’m an old woman!”
A minute or two 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 got invested in daytime soaps, brought food to share for lunch, and adopted all Claudette’s horrific but hilarious sayings as our own, which she loved. When she asked where someone was on her return from a sock run, we’d answer through tight jaws and still faces, “upstairs being sucked, fucked and corn-holed lovey!”
She’d often bring me treats from the bakery across the street, saying something like, “Here, this’ll fatten you up nicely,” as she dropped the bag in front of me on the reception desk without making eye contact. I’d thank her and take great pleasure in eating the sweet treat.
Claudette visited the bakery during every shift to get something for Simon’s dinner. Simon was her partner, with whom she’d lived for years and 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 because for someone who was ruining someone else’s life, Claudette obviously thought often and lovingly about Simon. Neither she nor he seemed to be interested in ending their relationship, and she never spoke of any strife at all between them. I ascertained that they no longer shared a bedroom, but they seemed at the very least to be amicable flat-mates. Perhaps that was what Claudette found so painful about it.
Often times when Claudette was bored because it was quiet, she’d get a bit morose so 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.
From what I can gather, drag, or “female impersonating”, as the wider community knew it in the 70s and 80s was a fairly respected art form. My own parents made sure to attend an evening of Les Girls in Kings Cross while on holiday in Sydney.
They never gave me the impression they were particularly homophobic, but both of my folks grew up in the kind of small Queensland towns where most people believed they’d never met a gay person, and few gay people told them otherwise. I’m not sure what their reaction would’ve been had they encountered a trans gender person in the street, but they felt very sophisticated at having spent an evening with the showbiz “gender illusionists” in Sydney.
They kept the glossy, color 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 topless showgirls, wearing nothing but bedazzled G-strings, and silver pasties obscuring the nipples of their pert breasts. In retrospect I can’t help but feel the revelation called for further discussion, but none was forthcoming. 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. She brought her own copy in once to show me, along with similar specimens from the famous Paris revues The Lido, The Moulin Rouge and The Follies Bergere, which she and Simon had visited together some years earlier. It was a joy to watch Claudette immerse herself in memories, reenacting dance moves and whirling an imaginary bower. We poured over the costumes together and she talked us through every minute of each show.
She performed a memorable reenactment 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 3 enormous pythons. I saw the spectacle myself years later and remember thinking it was somewhat less elegant than Claudette’s interpretation. In truth it looked like 3 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.)
That was the thing about Claudette. As fearsome as she could be in the present, the world she painted with her memories was a soft as a Turner Classic Movies close-up. Her contemporaries peppered their stories with some pretty harsh realities but Claudette never did. To listen to her, the 70s and 80s in transsexual Australia were a beautiful whirlwind of gowns, lashes and champagne. I was the present she found harsh and ugly.
“No one dresses up to go out anymore,” she moaned. “I saw women at the Follies in jeans!”
Eventually I left that brothel. I moved on to another and another and then finally caught a lucky show-biz break and moved interstate for a time. When I returned to Melbourne in 2011 I set about tracking my favorite girls down via the Internet.
I started with Claudette, and I’m very sad to say that I quickly found the one piece of information one dreads most when searching for an old friend. I found Claudette’s obituary.
Here’s an excerpt of the lovely tribute that was printed a prominent gay paper at the time, noting that Claudette had succumbed, all to predictably, to liver cancer.
“Claudette’s life had been one of glamour. A bit like Vera Charles in Mame, she always had a drink in her hand and loved the glamorous fife. One day she was walking down Chapel Street decked out in Dr Zhivago-like full faux fur and six inch heels. She bent down to pat a dog as she adored animals, and the poor little terrier thought it was a 6 ft malamute wearing ice picks, and broke water on the pavement – the dog not Claudette. She was one stylish girl.
I’d only missed her by 10 months.
I googled her again not long ago. I don’t know why but unexpectedly I found a new entry, in the Herald Sun’s Tributes from November 2013. It read,
“NOONAN. Claudette. 06.03.1954 – 23.11.2010 Cherished memories don’t fade. Still very sadly missed each day. Much love Simon and Lido.”
Oh Grandma, I hope you knew in the end how much Simon loved you, and that far from ruining his life, you obviously lit it up, and mine besides. As for Lido, whom I suspect is a cat who followed in Bridget’s pampered footsteps, may you smother both their heads in red lipstick again in showgirl heaven, my darling.
An abridged version of this piece was first published in The Monthly in July 2014.