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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature - The Sun­day Times

lim­ou­sines, gold-tapped Jacuzzis, yap­ping lap dogs, tiny swim­ming shorts and end­less glasses of cham­pagne, it would be easy to mis­take Be­hind the Can­de­labra’s camp as kitsch, which is all about vul­gar­ity and bad taste. Camp can be vul­gar but it can also be life-en­hanc­ing. It is al­most al­ways thinly dis­guised filth, and the signs are eas­ily spot­ted in gay men — the flu­ent, bone­less wrist ges­tures, the speech pat­terns that trill up and down and the heavy em­pha­sis on key words. Put a bunch of gay men to­gether and the fem­i­nine side comes to the fore — ev­ery­one is sweetie, dar­ling, honey, and fe­male names are soon be­stowed on each other. How­ever, camp is not con­fined en­tirely to gay men — I once met a huge truck driver in drag at a party who in­formed us all that his name was Janine, for the evening at least, while pass­ing around pic­tures of his wife and two daugh­ters.

Fe­male camp is very dif­fer­ent, based on an ex­ag­ger­a­tion of a real per­son­al­ity, of­ten the in­di­vid­ual’s own. Ot­to­line Mor­rell, pa­tron to the Blooms­bury Group, knew as she grew older that she was not pretty in any con­ven­tional way, so she dyed her hair red, wore lots of make-up and chose ex­trav­a­gant ‘‘ state­ment’’ hats. The re­sult was pure camp and a con­fi­dent style that tran­scended the fact that she was re­ally rather ugly.

There is a story of a rather grand man about town in 50s Lon­don who was renowned for his per­fect ap­pear­ance in im­pec­ca­bly cut Sav­ile Row suits — an ap­pear­ance as im­pres­sive as the medals and awards he had re­ceived for brav­ery in World War II. Oc­ca­sion­ally he liked to give a party at which he would wear drag, usu­ally a slinky, tight-fit­ting num­ber that made him look like Mar­lene Di­et­rich at the Cafe de Paris. And some­times he also wore drag in the day­time. The story goes that on such an oc­ca­sion he was ri­fling through his hand­bag for the money to pay a taxi, and the taxi driver asked, ‘‘ What’s the mat­ter, love? Can’t find your di­a­monds?’’ The re­ply was sharp and suc­cinct. ‘‘ Di­a­monds? In town dur­ing the day? What on earth sort of per­son do you think I am?’’ Now that is true, ded­i­cated camp.

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