THE MAN BE­HIND THE MASK

Cabaret star iOTA has emerged from a dark place to bring a new show to the stage, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

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

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