A natural survivor
Jason Donovan embraces the ‘rainbow crowd’ as a judge on Channel 10’s latest talent search, writes Holly Byrnes
EVEN with a rainbow of feather boas and sequined drag queens dancing around him, Jason Donovan can be a serious beast. Back in Australia to judge the Priscilla Queen Of The Desert talent search series, I Will Survive, is as fabulous an opportunity to make a local comeback as they get.
After years of living and working in London, experience has clearly been a sober teacher for the former Neighbours star, who today appears more stiff upper lip than Aussie larrikin.
But get him talking about the fun he’s had on the road with this Channel 10 production and his face softens into the boyish grin the world first fell for in his role of Scott Robinson on Neighbours.
His unlikely partner-incrime this time is Priscilla creator and director Stephan Elliott, who is as unpredictable as his work.
Criss-crossing Australia — and the US in the last few weeks of filming — Donovan and Elliott emerge as a modern version of The Odd Couple.
Before this interview Elliott reminded Donovan he’d just done a load of the actor’s washing and wasn’t prepared to have the gesture go unrecognised.
Between stops on the IWS trail, Donovan has reciprocated by playing driver, with hilarious results.
‘‘ Four hours in a car. Me driving too fast, scaring the s--out of him,’’ Donovan tells Switched On.
‘‘ We just spent those hours talking about stuff, life. I’ve had some really great laughs. Some of the best times I’ve ever had.’’
It’s genuinely touching to watch them interact — two blokes whose talents propelled them to international fame and who both struggled to cope with the intensity.
Now they’re relishing the chance to discover Australia’s next triple threat: a singer, actor, dancer, chosen from 12 hopefuls, who wins $250,000 and the chance to make their mark on Broadway.
This is the first time the pair have worked together directly, despite Donovan being considered for the film and later coming close to starring in the With friends: Jason Donovan is back on Australian TV with UK production of Priscilla, the musical.
At the time, Donovan was embroiled in a court case over his sexuality with The Face magazine, which had used his image in a misguided campaign to out gay celebrities.
Accepting the role of a drag queen was a risk not worth taking, he says.
‘‘ I didn’t quite know what type of film it was going to be. I didn’t want to take that risk . . . confusing the message.’’
At peace now with that legal drama, which undoubtedly scarred his career as it peaked in the early 1990s, his new TV role brings all of that wisdom to the table.
‘‘ It’s a very heterosexual experience, this show,’’ Donovan mocks.
‘‘ It’s a big masculine moment in my career. What’s happening to me? It’s all that rainbow crowd.’’
Elliott argues the ‘‘ gay expectations’’ on this series, which had TV executives nervous before it was commissioned, dissolve after the first frock show.
‘‘ From the beginning this came with the weight of men, or gay men. It’s a political statement. But the second those boys put those frocks on and go into a full production number, everybody just breaks into a smile. It’s gold, it’s hysterical, it’s daggy, it’s warm, it’s meant to be funny,’’ Elliott gushes.
Besides Priscilla, Donovan has taken on several reality formats: as a contestant on I’m A Celebrity . . . Get Me Out Of Here! (2006) and Strictly Come Dancing (2011), the UK version of Dancing With The Stars.
Before Priscilla, he began filming a role as judge on the Andrew Lloyd Webber casting series, Superstar (‘‘most people take a lifetime to find Jesus, we’ve got six months.’’)
Critiquing other performers sits happily with the man who has weathered his fair share of harsh feedback.
‘‘ I’m pretty comfortable with it, I’m one of them. I’m not sitting as a collared executive of some record company or casting agent who sits back and decides that person is too small, or short. I can bring to the table all that experience.’’
Being brutally honest is much better than being lied to like some stage mother.
‘‘ Some days I’ve got up there on stage and been crap, then I’ve read my tweets and they ain’t been good. You’ve got to be honest. People respect honesty even if they don’t necessarily agree with it.’’
And he doesn’t always agree with Elliott, who shocks even open-minded Donovan (urging one contestant to ‘‘ open a vein’’ and metaphorically ‘‘ bleed all over’’ the stage).
‘‘ We come from different places, but that’s what makes it colourful. We spend far too much time together. He’s a creative force, he’s wild and fiery. He’s wrong, he’s right,’’ Donovan says. I Will Survive, Channel 10, tonight, 7.30pm