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Sex & Low Beach
Who has lilac hair and cat eye glasses and greets everyone with “Hello, possums!”
Dame Edna, of course.
Far from the typical housewife, Dame Edna was a television and live show character played by Australian Dadaist performer Barry Humphries. Humphries created his character during the 1960s, but Edna really gained stature during the Thatcherism of the 1980s, when she became popular not just in Europe but in America as well. Viewers were charmed and intrigued, not only by Edna’s outlandish dress but also by her deadpan humor, honest take on society, and stage show practice of treating ordinary people like celebrities.
In March, Humphries announced his decision to retire Dame Edna after nearly 50 years of playing (and managing, as Edna herself would often remind the audience mid-performance) the character. Given the legacy that the tag team of Barry Humphries and Dame Edna has left, it seems doubtful that anyone will be able to forget Edna, even after she has left the stage permanently.
Performing in drag, of course, was nothing un- heard of, even in the ’60s. Drag shows began gaining recognition with Bonnie and Semoura Clark’s vaude- ville show in the early 20th century. In some respects the dame herself was no different from popular drag acts. Humphries modeled the Dame after a housewife: She describes herself as “possibly Jewish” and “a widow with three grown children.”
However, the Dame was distinguished from preceding and competing drag acts by the fact that in dressing up as Edna, Humphries set out to make a statement not about style of dress but about freedom of speech. Dame Edna’s performances were uniquely and often brutally honest: As she herself states on her website, “People should see my show because they’ll find something there. The spooky thing they’ll find is themselves.”
Though Humphries himself was minimally vocal about celebrity culture—or his performances as the dame—Edna was brutally honest about showbiz culture decades before Us Weekly and In Touch were coffee-table staples. She criticized celebrities with complete lack of concern for how those she spoke of would react and simultaneously used her shows as a method of making real people feel famous by pulling them onstage and dressing them in feather boas. She described the message of her show as “the message of laughter, which is the best weapon against world tension that was ever invented.”
In the time between the Dame’s inception and her retirement announcement, drag has gone from a form of entertainment reserved for sideshow acts to a relatively mainstream cultural phenomenon. Shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race that glorify both dressing in drag and its accompanying larger-than-life personae are a far cry from the early 1970s, when men in drag were not even welcome at popular gay bars like NYC’s own famous Stonewall Inn, let alone welcomed to the stage like superstars. The founders of the drag movement that began in the early 20th century could hardly have predicted that one day Barry Humphries would stand on a Broadway stage and receive a response of which Edna would say, “The entire audience, hard bitten old Broadway theatre goers rose to their feet.” Edna’s presence on Broadway marked the transition for drag from a tawdry form of show business to a form of entertainment that commanded respect.
Dame Edna helped propel the movement by marketing her show as more than a traditional drag act. Her openness and ability to entertain proved to other queens that, as much of a statement as dressing in drag was, it didn’t have to be their only statement. Edna’s persona helped give drag a legitimacy that allowed it to become the focus of mainstream movies—such as the fan favorite Mrs. Doubtfire—in which men dressed in drag were allowed to appear maternal, humorous, and, most importantly, realistic.
In a world where the most celebrated celebrity bloggers are those who have the ability to be outlandish—like online favorite Perez Hilton—perhaps there is no longer a need for a character like Dame Edna. While her work was revolutionary, she has made her mark and proven that honesty, in terms of both self- expression and celebrity critique, is a virtue. Dame Edna’s outrageous live shows will surely be missed, but the mark she has left on the worlds of drag and gossip is as apparent as ever. And while recent trends in crazy hair colors—à la Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj— have made purple hair less unusual than it was during the 1960s, no modern-day dame will ever have anything on Edna.
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