The drag show that saved a struggling local bowls club

“The term ‘Aussie Battler’ covers a lot of ground,” says Ross Waghorn. “Men, women, straight or gay. Ipswich and Taboo are prime examples.”

Ten years ago, a struggling bowls club in Ipswich – home to rail yards, meatworks, coal mines, and Pauline Hanson – found a new lease of life by staging a monthly drag show, Taboo. It’s a tale as quirky as it is insightful, and typical of Untold Australia, the terrific SBS documentary series that is now in its fifth season.

Bowled Over: Untold Australia.Credit:

Bowled Over tells the story of 12 important months in the life of Taboo, and three people central to it: Karl Eastaughffe, AKA Crystal Heart, queen of the queens and the entrepreneur behind Taboo; Logan Kelly, a 12-year-old karate black belt who has a crush on a cute Year 7 girl and dreams of being a drag queen; and Ross Waghorn, AKA Wanda D’Parke, long-time Taboo performer and the narrator of this yarn.

Waghorn is the first to admit it was a gutsy move for the North Ipswich Bowls Club to throw open its doors to a bunch of drag queens: “Any sports club would think twice about bringing in anyone gay, let alone men in dresses.” But Waghorn thinks both the club and the locals – after the initial shock – more generally recognised fellow battlers in the blokes putting on the show.

“On the whole, country people are, in my experience, the most open people to change,” says Waghorn. “I’m all about educating people these days, I want to have the conversation, I want to find that commonality. And what I find about country people is they’re happy to listen.”

Ipswich has always been a low income, lower socioeconomic area. Waghorn thinks it’s precisely that reason behind Taboo’s success. “It’s struggle street,” he says. “As a community, we support each other. [The bowls club] credit us with saving them, but they also saved us.”

One of the through lines in Bowled Over is the mental health struggles endured by Eastaughffe, Waghorn and many in the gay community.

“Growing up, I was very closeted, I was very locked away,” Waghorn says. “I was so disconnected from my real self for a long, long time. From a mental health perspective that really messed with my head.”

Waghorn grew up in Biloela in the 1960s and '70s: “It was only when I moved to Brisbane I realised there was more than one gay in the village!” Drag was a way for this shy boy from the sticks to be a more outgoing version of himself.

“Even when I first moved to Brisbane I was still really wary being too gay, or wearing a shirt that was too bright, or walking with too much sway in my hips,” he says. “Drag has allowed me to put a mask on and be a more outgoing person.”

The world has certainly changed since Waghorn risked imprisonment for simply being who he is. He applauds the younger generation for their confidence and risk taking, but also acknowledges the enormous sacrifices made by the older generations in paving the way. “These days there’s so much fluidity, I think it’s fantastic,” he says. “There’s so much acceptance. Boys wearing makeup, having YouTube channels.” Harry Styles in Vogue wearing a dress. “All power to him. I don’t think he’s even making any particular statement. I think he just wears what he wants to wear.”

Waghorn points out that while most of us think of drag queens as gay men in frocks, a drag queen – like a battler – can be almost anyone.

“In Canada there’s a male dance group, I think they all identify as straight but they’re a drag troupe. On the flip side, there are ‘bio queens’. A woman born a woman, happy to stay a woman, but for performance purposes dresses and performs in drag.” Think the girls from The B52s.

“I don’t think there is a single definition,” Waghorn says. “I think there’s room enough for us all.”

Untold Australia: Bowled Over airs 8.30pm on Tuesday, 19 January, on SBS.

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