The 30 minutes of hell that changed my life

“Sometimes you can only find Heaven by slowly backing away from Hell.”
― Carrie FisherWishful Drinking

Life is lived forwards, but is only understood backwards. I present:

A still life in forward motion

I’ve long forgotten whether or not she said it in a personal email, a blog, or in an interview (a tribute to what a kind, open, generous, and incredible person she is), Sheriden Jobbins told me (I’m going to pretend it was a personal email) that entertainment types wear stalkers like a badge of honour, as it means that you have done something so creative and unique that you have quite literally driven someone crazy.

Well, I got my membership into this particular club back in January 2000. And I’ve been trying to give my card back for over a decade. But, there was no exit clause to this particular contract. It has quite literally changed my life, at first, very much for the worse, but now, for the better.

Some of you might have read last week’s story of how I got my big break co-directing and writing the music video for Robyn Loau’s “Never Let You Down”. Read More >>

In it you would have discovered that being stalked for a couple of years and held against my will one night, led me into writing. In this piece, I’d like to share that process with you in more detail.

Some of you might baulk at the idea of me being a “celebrity”, after all, you don’t know me from a bar of soap, or if you do, it’s because you are a friend of mine. But there was a time, when I was a legend (in my own lunchbox). That particular lunchbox was the Newcastle Gay scene in the late 90’s/early 2000s. That scene was my whole world. I worked at the local AIDS Council on the local LGBTQA Magazine, I partied at the one and only gay nightclub, and I worked as a Drag Queen there. So in a sense, I was world-famous. I even appeared on TV, on Radio, and in Magazines.

This was not my only brush with notoriety. My father was (and is) a Church Minister. The same logic applies to that particular lunchbox of time. Literally everywhere I went, someone knew who I was in relation to my father. And if I was doing something of interest, that news would be whispered around the church, which again, as a young kid, was my whole world. I also was the only gay kid in a small fundamentalist christian school. So, as a kid I was also, world-famous. It was really as an adult that I got to be a human, rather than a thing to be reported.

The thing I want you to understand about growing up in a fishbowl, is that you don’t get the same chances as everyone else to make mistakes and grow from them. Non-celebrities are able to make mistakes, and have them forgotten. This gives you a fresh start, once you have learnt from your mistake. When you live your life in the public eye, people will judge you, and never give you the chance to change. So you don’t. This leads to arrested development. Think about this next time you shake your head at the latest thing “Lindsey Lohan” and co. have done. Say what you will about her family, but she literally hasn’t been allowed to grow up. So don’t get shocked that she still acts like a child well into her 20s… so did I.

Onto the meat of the story. I first wore a pair of heels at the tender age of 18 months old, but I didn’t go into full drag until the age of fifteen, when I decided to give my best friend a drag show as a birthday present. I was yet another Liza Minnelli rip-off. Over the next four years, before I broke the big time (actually getting professional gigs), I evolved into a lesbian drag queen, and a dance diva. I basically wanted to do this kind of crazy kabuki-style that was innovative at the time. It wasn’t however until I got fired for the first (and not the last) time, that I stumbled onto the fact that I had a knack for comedy. By this time I’d done a few gigs, paid my dues as a second-tier performer for a more experienced queen (working as a “christmas tree” and the Aida in “Otto Titsling). The first time I performed pure comedy, I managed to make lightning strike. Everybody loved me, I’d instantly become a star. In fact, the audience loved me so much, I was brought back for five, count ’em, five rounds of applause. Despite this, by the end of the month I had been fired again. They only wanted “duos”. While I was initially part of a drag troupe, when the chips were down – I was the third wheel.

Well, for much of the following month, I was able to live on that short lived success, with my lovely three fans, who would sit by me all evening and tell me for hours how wonderful I was. Blowing smoke up my arse, then taking someone else home! Still it was heavenly. I got praised for doing nothing at all by handsome young men. Then one night, the tide turned. Another man began making eyes at me. I didn’t think anything of it, as this was a gay club, a virtual meat-market, and the night was filled with shoppers. Window shopping was par for the course. However, this one seemed to be a bit different. He tried approaching me, but I was surrounded by the gang, and so he backed off.

A bit later, I was going to do some socialising, and he took me by the arms and cornered me. To the outside world, I’m sure we looked like a couple on the verge of making out. All five foot eight inches of me. All towering six-foot something of him. But what was happening was a little bit more sinister. He had me by both wrists. And was a very strong fit muscular man. He told me he was my No. 1 fan, all the while holding me against my will, and that he’d been to every performance of mine (which in truth, meant every club gig. Not the talent show at the university, or the private parties I used to do, or the corporate shows with Channel TEN). In any case, he proceeded to ask about every show I did, and critique it in so much detail, that I felt that only God should know that much about any one person. I found it odd that despite professing to be my greatest fan, he was a pretty savage critic of my performances. I just smiled and agreed with everything that he said, all the while looking for somebody, anybody that I recognised. Not daring to disagree when he accused me of abandoning him for not performing that summer. He took it to mean that I was either lazy, or just being artistic, when in fact it was just because I had been fired. I basically said that if he wanted me back on, that he should be talking to management, not me. At this point, I spotted my friend Neil, a bigger, taller and burlier bear of a man. I shouted out to Neil, a big happy greeting. And I think that the man was a bit intimidated by Neil, thank god, because at that moment he chose to disappear. And I ran up and hugged Neil, never happier to see someone in my life.

Kathy Bates in “Misery”

I rejoined my group, and told S____, my best drag friend, about it. I was hoping for sympathy. What I got was… jealousy.

It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror… Horror has a face… and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared.

– Kurtz (as played by Marlon Brando) in Apocalypse Now

The interesting thing about being stalked is that, until they get that violent urge to want to physically contact you, you don’t know that it is happening. That is, as the cliche goes, until it is too late. So, in order to understand something that was so incomprehensible to me, I decided to make a friend of horror. I befriended my stalker. I didn’t go as far as Agnetha Fältskog (of ABBA fame) did, and enter a two-year relationship with him, but I certainly did try and be friends. And for a couple of weeks it was alright. Then another friend of mine dropped the bomb. He had boxes and boxes of photos of me, taken without my consent. And I began to free-fall.

I went into survival mode. The next move I made was to get back on stage, oddly enough, the safest place to be, behind the protection of the club’s security guards. You might wonder why I never considered contacting the Police. In hindsight, like counselling, it would have been the wise thing to do. But at the time, it literally never crossed my mind. Instead I told the club manager what had happened, and she told me that all of the queens have stalkers, and that I better “get used to it”. She advised me that I had been too friendly, and needed to adopt more of that bitch stance you often see Drag Queens give Joe Public. Not long after that, I got fired again. Then re-hired as a last minute fill-in. That night I debuted my routine to Madonna’s Nothing Really Matters, an apt song in retrospect considering my mood, and it brought the house down. But I was never hired again at the club.

Once summer passed, I went back to school, studying Graphic Design. But something was happening. I feared success. And gradually, I went from an average of Credits and Distinctions, to just barely passing by the time I graduated. I wondered why nobody noticed I stopped coming to class. Why I spent all my time in my room. But my descent was so gradual, I barely noticed, let alone anyone else. To the outside world, I had simply lost interest. I was yet another young artist who once showed promise, but had peaked too soon.

KD Lang and director Stephan Elliott on the set of “Eye of the Beholder”

In August of 2000, Stephan Elliott’s “Eye of the Beholder” was finally released in Australia. That movie was like a revelation to me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. For those who haven’t seen the film or read the book, The Eye follows Ashley Judd’s character about for forty years (four in the film), and acts as her guardian angel. He genuinely believes that he loves her. And so, I became obsessed with this film. I read every review. Every article. Despite the fact that most were horrible. Almost no-one understood it. But after having been stalked and being held against my will, I understood the film all too well. The obsession. The strange bond that is created between star and stalker.

I was already a huge fan of Stephan Elliott. He had created Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – the single best and most realistic film about the drag experience. After that he made the dark comedy Welcome to Woop Woop, which completely won me over as a fan. Which then got me interested in his first feature, Frauds, a very under-rated mind-tripping black comedy. I guess I love his work so much because all of his films are so in line with things that I love. At one point I even thought that if I were talented enough to be a filmmaker, that I would make films like his. Soon my obsession with the film became an obsession with Stephan Elliott. I think I just about read every article on the internet. Soon it seemed like I knew more about him than the internet. And so, in my room, buzzing with all this information, I created a website. The Unofficial Stephan Elliott Fansite. I had the lofty goal of wanting to make everyone fans of Stephan Elliott. What actually happened is that almost everyone thought I was Stephan Elliott. I got everything from fan mail, to job offers. Luckily, a few people were intelligent enough to realise that unofficial meant that it was being run by a fan.

Around this same time, I was raped by a friend while another friend watched. Needless to say, this deeply contributed to my lack of desire to leave the house on social occasions. Yes, Ellen, I had terrible taste in friends at this time. You were right all along. Note to self: start from the point, “Ellen is right”. It saves time.

in the summer of 2001, an incredible opportunity came my way. Those of us who stayed close by the University, where I was studying Graphic Design, were given the chance to pitch for an interesting new play Clark in Sarajevo that was being put on by the drama department. While I lost out on the poster design, I successfully pitched, along with two of my classmates, for the set design. It was an incredible time. With the help of the prop master (and his assistant) we built the entire set ourselves over the course of about 4 weeks. I absolutely loved it. I fell in love with design again. I felt safe in this world. A novice at first, I was climbing up ladders and mounting lights and props over five stories up. And I’m scared of heights! We really pulled off something wonderful, and created this whole world of the Bosnian war. It got great reviews from a notoriously hard-to-please newspaper critic, and we were nominated for a CONDA Award.

The following semester, we did one of the most interesting subjects, on Computer Graphics. Which was still in its early days. We had an assignment to create a “truth in advertising” TVC, a 3D Animation, and a flash website. I remember the 3D Animation project the most. We had to create a 10-second animation of a dancing robot. Well, I was absolutely terrible at the graphic side of it… but I did something unique, I gave it a story. I realised that you really can bore someone to death in ten seconds, so I wrote a little story of a dancing baby robot, with some troublesome diapers.

It’s pretty simple, but this little short film has got me some pretty high-powered meetings.

At the end of the project, my professor took me aside and said that he wished he could have given me extra marks for the story… but couldn’t. Everyone else had done these beautiful robots, that just danced for ten seconds… and it was BORING! Well, it’s pretty easy to see in hindsight where my life was heading at this point, but in my mind I was still headed for the rarified world of Editorial Design in (not only) Black + White. I didn’t realise it, but a seed had been planted.

Over the course of the next year my social circles, little by little, became smaller. I didn’t want to communicate with the world, and it didn’t really want to talk with me. I became one of those trolls on the internet. I didn’t actually realise that’s what I was at the time. I would just point out criticisms on films that I actually really enjoyed, I just didn’t enjoy everything about them. I’ve realised now, that fan forums filled with die-hards, aren’t really the place to have a two-way discussion.

My sister moved back in with me, along with her paranoia, self-centered-ness and her neuroses. And I once again, became her sidekick. At first I was happy that she was back, but then later, very unhappy.

I took a class at university on HTML/XML computer programming, and despite being mathematical, it was very difficult for my over-developed right-brain to take in. It took two attempts, but eventually I managed to turn my brain into a computer, and passed the course. However, the process of getting myself to this point, where I would go to a supermarket and think input food – output money –  input stomach – output bottom, my already decaying social skills became non-existent.

I found myself feeling less and less comfortable around people. At first I eliminated strangers, then acquaintances, and eventually I whittled it down to my family and a few close friends. And even then, I only spent enough time with them so that they knew I was:

  • alive
  • still their friend

Yet, somehow, the internet was a safe haven. During this time, I completely recoded my Stephan Elliott fan page from the bottom up, to include whatever it was I was learning at university. It was getting roughly 10 unique visitors a week, so the fan page basically felt not that dissimilar from posting pictures of your favourite musician on your bedroom wall.

I made a last ditch effort to finish university as well as I could. And reintroduce myself to everyone. But this point I was wearing sweatpants most days, and rarely shaved. When I did, I would shave my beard into a goatee. It didn’t look very good, but I really liked the way it distinguished me from my drag persona. I managed to get all my assignments done, and got just shy of a credit.

That summer, I crashed. Washed up at 21. Pretty tragic. I guess that I knew in the back of my mind that I was depressed, but if you asked me, I would have told you that I just didn’t want to wake up. I slept all day. When I was awake, I was tormented by these Norma Desmond delusions of fame and grandeur. I was living Sunset Boulevard.

Joe Gillis: [voice-over] You don’t yell at a sleepwalker – he may fall and break his neck. That’s it: she was still sleepwalking along the giddy heights of a lost career.

The greatest of them all, Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in “Sunset Blvd.”

The memories were killing me. The good ones and the bad ones. The good ones almost suffocate you more than the bad ones, because they make you nostalgic for a glorious non-existant past. Whereas bad memories just force you to jump-start into something different and new. They are much more helpful.

Joe Gillis: [narrating] Come think of it, the whole place seemed to have been stricken with the kind of creeping paralysis… out of beat with the rest of the world… crumbling apart in slow motion.

Eventually I decided to write it all down. And once I started, I couldn’t stop. I wrote a 10-page editorial piece in the local gay paper, Confessions of a Former Drag Queen. Which was read by almost every drag queen in Newcastle and briefly made me famous again. I got offers to go back on stage. I turned them all down. I didn’t want to be a star. Something that people find difficult to understand about public figures. Or at least about me, is that I loved the work, I just hated all the other crap that comes with it.

Writing the article wasn’t enough to make the ghosts go away. If anything, it made them noisier. So I wrote a screenplay. I forget what I called it, but it was a sequel to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Fan fiction cops a lot of flack, but we are essentially doing what they did back in the old days, where young artists would copy the masters in order to learn the trade. My way into the story was that I also performed as part of a troupe, where I was the oldest member. It was a truly dreadful script. I basically had them going off to Las Vegas, and in the end Adam died of AIDS. Talk about depressing. I then changed all the names, and sent it off to the Australian Writers Guild to get assessed. The feedback wasn’t at all positive. They basically said, that the positive was that I seemed to really love the characters, but that he hated them. That nothing happened until the end, and I had a Dionysian god come in at the end of it and tell everyone how dreadful they were. He said that the only moment that was good, was a moment at the end where I had the fundamentalist christian mother hold up her dead gay son’s baby at Mardi Gras. He said it was a genuine moment of tenderness. He gave me two choices, go and learn my craft, or not to give up my day job.

As I didn’t really have a job to give up, I went and learned my craft. I read every screenwriting book and website I could get my dirty little hands on.

I got a job with the local AIDS council, doing the graphic design and editing for the gay paper. I basically came to work, and went to my computer and didn’t have to talk to anyone. At home, I played computer games about a sassy kung-fu girl who fights the world in order to save it, in ONI. An incredible game, I am still shocked that at one particular point I had to stop the game because I got so emotional (play the game and you will understand).

The Stephan Elliott fan site started going gangbusters. I got to know other fans from around the world, some of whom sent me DVDs, and others who would write for the website. The website got mentioned several times on DARK HORIZONS, a fantastic film and TV website by Garth Franklin, who I am still “Facebook friends” with. At one point, a term I came up with briefly moved into the industry lexicon, Aussiewood. Perhaps I coined it at the same time as someone was writing a book, but I found it interesting that someone else had used something that I came up with. The man himself contacted me via a dummy email (because he himself also had stalkers), and told me I was about “70% right” with all the info I had.

So I had this dual life, where on the internet I was quite successful, but in my real life. I was underemployed, subsidised by welfare, living with my mum. It’s no wonder I got sucked into this second life.

Thankfully, my mum pushed me into Teaching.

Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. From George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman.

Through that very intense, super-charged experience of doing a four-year degree in two years, I got to go to the beautiful town of Quirindi NSW, Australia.

Sunset at Quirindi, Australia.

This town is on nobody’s tourist map. It is a town of three thousand, whose claim to fame is that it is located just south of Tamworth, home of the Australia’s Country Music Festival. But this town is well worth the visit. It is surrounded my these cliff-faces that you won’t see on any photos of the town, but are their best feature. At sunset and sunrise, they change to a beautiful purple and red hue. Just like Uluru (Ayers Rock). Yet it is not promoted at all. I would claim that it is one of the last undiscovered little gems of the world. It’s a tough little town. The kind of place where a man gets stabbed in the back of his head after a night of drinking with his mates, but the front-page news in the paper the next day is of a farmer whose chickens have flown their coop. It has one of the best public schools, with a great design department. I had a great time there. Met some wonderful people. Including a lady who taught me about water-divining.

After that I wrote a treatment for a telemovie about a Graphic Designer who travels back to a country town to teach. It got a polite but encouraging response from Channel TEN.

So, I was encouraged.

I started writing several ideas for Television programs, including a comedy based on a drag queen in a conservative christian family (i.e. my life), which is still the closest I have ever got to getting a TV show into production. I wrote an animation which got even more attention, and Robyn Loau was attached to star in it. But it was deemed too expensive to go into production. My, how Humpty Dumpty had a might great big fall. However, just as I was at my worst point, my friend suggested that I make a return to the stage. And I accepted.

Joe Gillis: I didn’t know you were planning a comeback.
Norma Desmond: I hate that word. It’s a return, a return to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen.

So that summer, I made a comeback. As far as my first performance was concerned. It wasn’t that great. What was great about it, was that I had now reclaimed the stage. I had friends in high places who respected me, and protected me. I only had to perform once a month. I only did three or four performances, because by the last one, I had regained my confidence and had become a star again. It’s interesting. You can literally feel the moment that you become a star. You do something that is so special, that the energy in the room changes.

Eve Harrington: If nothing else, there’s applause… like waves of love pouring over the footlights.

That was the moment I decided to throw in the towel. It wasn’t just that I had become a star again, and wasn’t flying under the radar. It was also because, around that time I had bumped into my first boyfriend, one of my original fans (the good kind), and my stalker (who didn’t recognise me),  and it made me realise that while I had been sitting at home, afraid to leave to house, life had gone on. But I hadn’t.

I took drastic action. I moved to Melbourne. I retrained as a Graphic Artist, and got work as a freelancer. However, just when I thought that life was looking up, my past began to creep back. I went to one of the Gay Churches in Melbourne, where I met a man who had been a member of my father’s church. He told everyone who I was, then started to flirt with me, despite being twice my age, and having known me as a baby. I guess it was that extra spicy thrill of the minister’s son being gay. Well, I’m sorry, but I’ve never been anyone’s fantasy. And I especially won’t play that one. Not with the volunteer firefighter who was charged with arson.

I moved church and made friends with a girl. She seemed nice, and we went out a few times. It then slowly dawned on me that she thought that we were going out. Dating. So, I solved that problem the best way I knew how, I buried my head in the sand. She began emailing me, every hour of every day. But I didn’t return back to the church.

Then, my sister with mental issues moved in with me. And that, my friends was the last straw.

I made the decison to change my life. A kind of death and rebirth. I applied for Big Brother, the infamous tea-bagging season. I actually auditioned with that man, he was incredibly nice, and had really good advice. Perhaps he should have taken that advice once the cameras started rolling. Luckily I didn’t make it in, but instead was accepted into a position in Japan. And for the next six years, that sounded the death-knell for my life in Australia.

Life in Japan was very different. Nobody knew me. I could finally grow up. I could finally be Hamish. Not Hamish, son of my father. Not Hamish, brother of my actress/poet/artist sister. Not the Drag Queen. Not the webmaster of Stephan Elliott’s unoffical fan page. Not the unemployed loser. Not Hamish, the unfortunate-looking, best friend/wing-man of S___. Just me. I was no longer the sidekick in my own life.

I finally met the man of my dreams. My life had changed. I had good friends. I had a good boyfriend (yes, Ellen he has been good for me). Good roommates.

I continued to update the Stephan Elliott website, but with less frequency now. Strangely enough, it was now more popular than ever. And I was still getting emails thanking me for Priscilla! Then, one of Stephan Elliott’s friends, or it could of been the man himself, using a bogus email, sent me a photo of him making meatloaf. In the email, the friend said that he liked my website and that here was a picture of Elliott making meatloaf, as everything that the man did was brilliant and it was better than my Grandmother’s meatloaf (no-one in my family has ever stooped to make, let alone eat, something so common as meatloaf).

Well, I had no idea what to do with that email. It was just so strange. I ended up putting it up on the website. Then a week later I shut down the entire site. Perhaps, in the end, that was the intended effect.

So, my life had come full circle. I had looked at life from both sides now, as Joni Mitchell once said. Albeit from the safe distance of the internet.

“If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”
― Carrie Fisher

Epilogue

Being stalked has had many lasting effects. Not the least of which is my fear of having my photo taken without my permission. A friend of mind, who wouldn’t take no for an answer, liked taking candid shots of me (and everyone else) during his parties. I realise that those are the shots that people like, but I couldn’t handle it, so stopped going to his parties. Even when I have to take photos for work, there is an unseen egg-timer on my patience. When someone innocently asks where I live, I look at them like they are going to murder me. Only a handful of people have that information, even now, twelve years on. One could say I have… control issues.

I did eventually become a filmmaker. But, unlike what I thought, I became quite a different kind of filmmaker than Stephan Elliott. These days I spend most of my time writing horror, war dramas, and science fiction. Although, hopefully you can see how strongly I was influenced by Eye of the Beholder in Robyn Loau’s “Never Let You Down” PV, my take on the star/stalker relationship.

Postscript

I had originally intended on turning this part of my life into a screenplay. I had even gone to therapy to help me through it, as I had been losing sleep as I began writing it. But here it is now, in blog form.

@hcharlesdownie

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8 thoughts on “The 30 minutes of hell that changed my life

Add yours

    1. Thank you. That is very sweet of you to say. By putting it all out there, I can control the story, rather than the story controlling me.

      You can probably tell that I’ve glossed over a far bit. I will probably continue to write more blog entries about my life, as they are the ones people seem to enjoy the most. I will write the memoir, but in a different way. Every “fiction” story I write, whether it is set in the distant future on a remote star, or a music video, or a war drama, it is basically going to be a story about me. You infuse yourself into everything you make, at least in the special ones!

      Thanks for taking the time to read it all 🙂 Good luck writing your memoir.

  1. Thank you for sharing, Hamish. I’ve learnt some things about you that I didn’t know.

    I think your drag days started developing before you were 15 though 🙂 I’m pretty sure your seemingly ‘eccentric’ nature started coming out much younger, as I remember your bright odd socks and your painted shoes – and a smidgin of make-up daringly worn to church on a Sunday. I was proud as punch to be your friend.
    Your humour and comedy also shared during Sunday School and later youth group (often you didn’t even realise you were being funny – it just came out).
    I always admired you in those days, you were simply being you and I was envious that you could carry yourself so – regardless of what people thought.
    And as we grew up, your passions for art and music at the time… I refer to the whole page article you had in the newspaper showing off the things you liked (I still have a copy of it somewhere) – I was still envious. Those days weren’t easy, but you still maintained a strong sense that the world was not going to knock down Hamish Downie.

    I love you and so proud of who you are.

    1. Thanks Catherine 🙂 It’s such a great way to look at that time. I always wanted to be accepted, but only on my terms. I now realise that you have to meet people half-way.

      Your comment really means a lot! XXXOOOO Hope to catch up with all of you next time I’m in OZ (and have some of that ham and potato pie!!!!)

    1. Thank you 🙂
      This seems to be the way I write best, by being incredibly personal. It was a hell or a ride, but you know, as they say, it’s got me to where I am today. Humour is what got me through.
      I really enjoy your writing style too!

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