Books

The cabaret artist’s life is laid bare in a book that holds his ca­reer up as a mir­ror on a chang­ing so­ci­ety.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By LINDA HER­RICK

About cabaret artist Mika, and a his­tory of NZ news­pa­pers; nov­els by Anna Burns and Sally Rooney; po­etry by Mary McCal­lum; and a roundup of crime thrillers.

Anew book de­tail­ing the life and times of flam­boy­ant queer per­for­mance artist Mika is en­riched by photos from his vast ar­chive, in­clud­ing a bunch of full-frontal nudes. That may not be par­tic­u­larly star­tling for his fans – but for those prudes among us, I Have Loved Me a Man could have mer­ited an ad­vi­sory sticker.

Its writer, Sharon Mazer, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of theatre and per­for­mance stud­ies at Auck­land Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, agrees. “Oh, we de­bated it,” she says. “Mika has a friend in the Cen­sors’ Of­fice that we checked with. We went back and forth over ques­tions such as whether it should be wrapped, but in the end, we thought, no. You can’t look at his body of work with­out those im­ages.”

It’s worth not­ing, though, that when the book is re­leased in the US later this year, the nudes will be re­moved lest they of­fend Amer­i­can sen­si­bil­i­ties.

I Have Loved Me a Man, taken from the Al­li­son Durbin pop song Mika re­leased in 1990 (and remixed in 2016), is not so much a biog­ra­phy as an aca­demic study that mea­sures his per­for­mance ca­reer in terms of our evo­lu­tion as an in­creas­ingly tol­er­ant so­ci­ety.

“It’s about what the per­for­mances tell us, not just about Mika, but about New Zealand,” says Mazer, who grew up in ru­ral Ore­gon and taught at the Univer­sity of Can­ter­bury from the mid-90s for 20 years. “How do I see New Zealand through this lens? What can I un­der­stand about the so­cial his­tory?”

The re­sult is a nar­ra­tive largely de­void of per­sonal de­tails. But there may be more to be told, if any­one needs to know. There’s a clue in the fore­word by writer Witi Ihi­maera, who dis­closes his nick­name for his long-time friend, “Mika, of a thou­sand lovers”, un­der­cut­ting the ti­tle of the book.

“Other peo­ple can in­ter­view him and get all of that,” says Mazer, laugh­ing.

“I’m not there to get con­tro­ver­sial with it. He’s not shy about ex­pos­ing him­self, he’s re­ally happy to be open.”

Mika was born in Ti­maru 56 years ago, named Ter­ence Pou by his Pākehā mother, who had be­come preg­nant by a Māori man. But he be­came Neil Gud­sell a few days later when he was re­moved by a doc­tor and given to a Pākehā fam­ily for adop­tion.

The trans­fer of part-Māori ba­bies to white fam­i­lies was an in­for­mal prac­tice de­scribed by some his­to­ri­ans as “pep­per­pot­ting”. Mika likens it to Aus­tralia’s leg­is­lated sys­tem known as the Stolen Gen­er­a­tions.

But be­cause data on “pep­per­pot­ting” here re­mains largely un­ex­plored, it’s hard to know how many chil­dren were af­fected, or when it oc­curred. “But Mika has had peo­ple talk to him who were sim­i­larly treated,” says Mazer.

A happy, en­er­getic kid

raised by a lov­ing fam­ily, young Neil was a good ath­lete and dancer who knew he was gay from an early age and came out with great en­thu­si­asm when he was 12. Al­though he met with “re­pres­sive force in some quar­ters, even vi­o­lence”, as Mazer writes, he stood up for him­self.

With­out any male Māori role mod­els in his life, Neil Gud­sell – later dubbed Mika by singer-pro­ducer Dal­va­nius Prime – started piec­ing to­gether what he calls a “pick’n’mix” cul­tural her­itage, in­form­ing his ever-evolv­ing brand of disco, song, hy­bridised kapa haka, high­camp cabaret and a whole lot of fierce tongue-flick­ing.

“His ca­reer is very mag­pie,” says Mazer. “It’s all these shiny ob­jects, ways of be­ing in the world, peo­ple to be work­ing with.”

Mika has had his fair share of scep­tics, in­clud­ing Mazer’s for­mer Can­ter­bury col­league Peter Falken­berg, an ac­tor-di­rec­tor quoted as de­scrib­ing his per­for­mances as con­tin­u­ously plumb­ing what might be called “the depths of the shal­lows”.

“Peter al­ways meant that in a deroga­tory way, but I don’t,” says Mazer. “I mean, I write about Mika and wrestling [she has pub­lished a book on Amer­i­can pro-wrestling as a spec­ta­cle sport]. From my point of view, what’s wrong with pad­dling in the shal­lows?

“Mika skims that sur­face, but he is se­ri­ous about it. What makes that suc­cess­ful is he pulls these tropes; it’s a beau­ti­ful pas­tiche. He loves all those things so it’s not cyn­i­cal, the way he puts it to­gether. It flows through him and comes out in his own voice.”

Mika played it straight in the late-80s TV series Shark in the Park, as Con­sta­ble Ra, “the most bor­ing Māori char­ac­ter you can imag­ine, of course, as writ­ten by a white per­son”, he told Mazer.

But he went full-camp in Jane Campion’s 1992 film The Pi­ano, play­ing Māori chief Tahu as a takatāpui (trans­gen­der). On set, he met re­sis­tance from “a num­ber of Māori ac­tivists” un­com­fort­able “with the way Mika linked be­ing Māori with be­ing gay”. Mika sim­ply blocked them.

The Pi­ano, in which he ap­peared fleet­ingly, also marked Mika’s de­ci­sion to end any act­ing am­bi­tions. “The depth of en­gage­ment is what he was look­ing for, and what he was do­ing was just a blip. Ev­ery­thing else in the film is pretty pro­gram­matic,” says Mazer. “He al­ways wants to make it his way. You can’t do that when you’re be­ing di­rected.”

Mika’s more re­cent ca­reer moves in­clude men­tor­ing at-risk kids through his Mika Haka Foun­da­tion. “He is very se­ri­ous about tak­ing good care of him­self and that’s what he teaches young peo­ple,” says Mazer. “It’s ironic, isn’t it, be­cause we have this im­age of this flam­boy­ant dis­so­lute, and there is cer­tainly enough of that to go around, but at base, he is re­ally se­ri­ous that if you want to have a ca­reer, if you want to look like him 20 to 30 years from now, you have to start now. You have to ex­er­cise, eat prop­erly, limit the amount of drug­ging and drink­ing, if not forgo it, don’t smoke, use con­doms, be alert to your­self in a pro­found way.”

In I Have Loved Me a Man’s pa­rade of photos, aside from the nudes, there’s an­other body part that’s on reg­u­lar show: the tongue. “Oh yeah! It’s his de­fault,” Mazer says, gig­gling. “I sup­pose you could say, ‘I’ve seen enough of your pe­nis to­day, Mika, I’ve seen enough of your tongue.’ But it’s true. He re­ally does like that tongue thing. He has tropes, he has things he does, the same jokes, in part be­cause he’s self-made. He’s go­ing to ap­prove things to bring out, like his tongue. They’ll be vari­ant when you look at the per­for­mances – but they’ll be there.”

In the fore­word, Witi Ihi­maera dis­closes his nick­name for his long­time friend: “Mika, of a thou­sand lovers”.

Mika, who grew up as Neil Gud­sell, aged 18 months with his adop­tive fam­ily.

Mika pho­tographed as “Māori Bar­barella” in 2014.

I HAVE LOVED ME A MAN, by Sharon Mazer (Auck­land Univer­sity Press, $59.99)

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