THE MAN BEHIND THE MASK
Cabaret star iOTA has emerged from a dark place to bring a new show to the stage, writes
For several weeks last year, iOTA barely left his apartment. He wasn’t physically injured; nor had he come down with a bad case of flu. In fact, at first, the cabaret performer with the invented name, impossibly elegant hands and a slew of Helpmann awards convinced himself his confinement was normal; he barely noticed that he had put himself under a kind of house arrest in bustling Newtown in Sydney’s inner west.
“It’s funny, you don’t even realise you’re doing it, you don’t realise that things are happening,” he reflects, gazing over the serious acreage that is the Sydney Opera House boardroom, where we’ve met to talk about his latest show, the original rock musical B-Girl.
Less than a year ago, getting to this interview may have been beyond him. Catching a train, watching the TV news or reading the paper terrified him. Going to a cafe or restaurant felt “constantly uncomfortable”. He found himself “questioning everything they [the other diners] are saying, that they’re thinking about you, that they’re laughing at you, until it’s exhausting and you have to go home”.
The rock singer-songwriter turned cabaret artist finally sought professional help when “I thought I was going crazy”.
“I have severe anxiety and I’ve only just worked it out,’’ he says, as if inwardly shaking his head at this late-dawning realisation. Before he realised he had a diagnosable condition, he treated his problems with alcohol.
“I suddenly realised that this has been my whole life and the reason for me drinking and self-medicating. End of 2013, I decided I’d had enough and I wanted to stop and I wanted to grow up and stop acting like I’m 20 years old. So that all rolled into a whole bunch of anxiety and not leaving the house for weeks.” iOTA is 46 but doesn’t look it. He was reared in rural Western Australia and his dad is Maori — you can see his heritage in his sensual lips, unlined skin and dark freckles. He wears a Hawaiian shirt over a T-shirt with aliens on the front, thick silver sleepers in both ears and a backpack partly made of thick green fur; it looks disconcertingly like a small animal riding high on his back. Almost reluctant to discuss his work and career, he is talking publicly about his anxiety and agoraphobia for the first time, in the hope his candour will help others with similar problems. He is seeing a psychiatrist and is on medication that has put him in “a good spot”.
Nevertheless, routine things can still unnerve him. The week before we speak, he had a panic attack while on a train. He says: “There’s so much to be afraid of in the world, if you watch the news, which I’ve stopped doing. I don’t read the paper or anything like that because it scares me. I am just so nervous of everything. I’ve got agoraphobia as well, so just going outside …”
His voice drifts away. Now that he is having treatment, “it [the anxiety] doesn’t always stop you from going out, it just comes at a great cost. It’s exhausting to be out. The relief of coming home,” he says, exhaling and making a “phwoarr” sound.
Looking out over a wide-green swath of Sydney Harbour, iOTA reflects on the supreme irony of his condition: that it is only when in front of an audience under a battery of lights that he feels in control. On stage — in heavy make-up, dressed, perhaps, in sequinned hot pants or a see-through bunny suit — “is the only place where I feel like I know what I’m doing. I feel incredibly empowered on stage, but
May 30-31, 2015 sometimes I feel that I can’t even walk out the door.
“It’s bizarre that my career would take me to a place where Clifford North would take me. Such an outrageous, over the top, free person.” He is referring to the character he plays in BGirl, a glam rock god of indeterminate gender.
Opening next month at the Sydney Opera House, B-Girl, co-created with iOTA’s longtime collaborator Craig Ilott, is about a young woman who feels ground down by life and a bad relationship. She escapes into a dream world and a male alter ego — the feathers and sequins-sporting Clifford North. iOTA, who composed the show’s music, says Clifford represents freedom and B-girl’s sense “that she doesn’t have any”. But as B-girl, played by award-winning actress Blazey Best, spends more time in her fantasy world, she “flips into him becoming a reality. As that part of her personality becomes more prevalent, she somehow finds her true self.”
Given that Clifford is the alter ego of a woman, played by a man, is iOTA making a point about gender being a construct? “Oi,” he says softly, as if caught off guard. “For me the point being made is that everyone deserves freedom to do what they want and not be held back.”
Even before his life was constrained by psychiatric illness, iOTA wasn’t always free. He didn’t acknowledge he was gay until he was 26, the same year he changed his name by deed poll. “I grew up in the country in Western Australia. I grew up pretty homophobic, with that sort of stuff around me.” His acceptance of his sexuality was gradual. He recalls: “It was like holding it all in, holding it all in, and just becoming very held back and dark. Black hair over the face and wearing dark clothes and ‘don’t talk to me, don’t touch me’. I was emo before the term was even coined. Then all of a sudden I somehow found the strength. I came to Sydney, I saw gay people.”
Once he moved to a cosmopolitan city, he realised gay people could have a decent life, relationships, straight friends even. “Where I came from, you just didn’t ever see that. For me, it was like some kind of a dreamland. When I came here it was so much freer, and then a friend of mine who was in the same rock ’n’ roll closet as I was came out.” In one go, iOTA changed his name, his identity and his life.
It’s an understatement to say he has had an unconventional career, though he had a strong sense from childhood that he would be a performer: “You know, lying in my bedroom with the record player blaring and posters all around; in front of the mirror, just rockin’ with the hockey stick.” He studied music at school, largely to slack off, he claims, and his nascent performing skills were honed in a Maori performing group to which his family belonged.
He played in his first band when was 16 and spent some years on and off the dole, drinking too much and performing with indie rock outfit Loose Goose. He has made five albums, ranging from insistent rock to emotion-drenched ballads, and has been nominated for six ARIA awards.
Critic John Shand has described his voice as “a monstrous instrument that soars and roars and jolts you back in your seat”.
In 2006, iOTA appeared in his first theatre show, rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, conquering the stage in tight mini-dresses and a
For iOTA, being in
front of an audience brings
relief from his anxieties and fears