Monday, 4 February 2013

Interview with Penny Clifford

Monika: Today’s interview will be with Penny Clifford, an Australian icon, showgirl, journalist, actress and dancer. Hello Penny!
Penny: Good’ay Monika!
Monika: What are you doing these days?
Penny: I am still performing and I am also into Entertainment and PR Management. 
Monika: The perception of Australian transsexual and transgender ladies is often shaped by the movie “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”. How far was the movie from reality?
Penny: The Movie was fun and was written by people that actually hung around the Sydney drag scene in the early '80s, where they took ideas from drags and transsexuals and created their script. Many of the jokes and characters were based on real life. I was in a show that did travel to the exact casino that the Priscilla Bus & Girls traveled to and the show I was in performed at that casino for a 6-week period. So some of that was definitely based on us, although we flew to get there and there were definitely no pink buses!
Glamour photo.
(This photo and the photo above
by Photosbygab.com)
Monika: What is your general view on the present situation of transgender women in the Australian society?
Penny: Transgender women in Australia at the moment are a mixed group but many live in stealth in working society; so to be honest I have no idea of their life. As a ‘Tranny Showgirl’ I have been a performer all my life.
When I first started in the business to be a showgirl you needed boobs and to be a transsexual; there were very few crossdressers or drags back then, but in the showgirl world of today the situation seems reversed and it's primarily considered that if you are a transsexual woman you should not really be a showgirl.
Most clubs in Australia now shy away from hiring transsexual women in the clubs. It is a sad situation.
Monika: There are more and more transgender ladies coming out in USA. Unlike in the previous years some of them have status of celebrities or are really well-known, just to mention Lana Wachowski in film-directing, Jenna Talackova in modelling, Kate Bornstein in academic life, Laura Jane Grace in music or Candis Cayne in acting. Do you witness the same trend in Australia?
Penny: I love the ladies you have mentioned especially Candis Cayne and Jenna Talackova as they are both so glamorous. In Australia we have had but a few high profile transgender women in media, the most famous being Carlotta who has been a regular on TV for over 20 years. They are currently filming a movie about her life. Apart from that, there have been very few transgender women that have made celebrity status in mainstream media in Australia.
SX Magazine Cover Photo.
Monika: You started your career as a drag stripper in the 80s to evolve into being a full time showgirl at Patch’s Nightclub on Oxford St, Sydney where you stayed for over 7 years. How do you recollect those times?
Penny: I actually started at Patchs as a showgirl and then went on to become more of a Burlesque Stripper and host after that. I have always incorporated strip in my shows whether I am working to a Gay Audience or a Straight Audience.
The early days of my Drag career was fun and free and we all seem bonded, even though we were still living in a very homophobic society. I managed to live in a bubble that made me feel safe. I don’t think the showgirl world of today has that same feeling of family that it did when I was a baby showgirl.
Monika: Then you did many fantastic shows and events: “Simone & Monique’s Playgirls Revue”, “Raw Images”, “Diva Awards” and “Priscilla Show”? Which of these do you cherish most?
Penny: All the shows you mentioned were different and I loved them for many reasons. Simone & Moniques was like working in Vegas; it had won many Theatre Awards and to be asked in this show was a huge honour. We travelled in Australia and beyond, but then I also loved my own show with the boys Raw Images as we had so much more control and I developed a very special bond with the guys I worked with.
The Diva Awards was a huge achievement to create a Gay Event that is still running after 22 years and raising monies for charity. But if I had to choose one that I cherish the most it would be Simone & Moniques Playgirls; this show helped me grow as a transgender woman and appreciate who I am.
Monika: Where did you grow up?
Penny: In a suburb called Regents Park which was 40 minutes out of Sydney, small and easy to grow up; I had a reasonable childhood.


Monika: Could you describe your childhood? When did you feel for the first time that you should not be a boy or man?
Penny: I was always very effeminate. I did all the usual things like singing in the choir at school, going to dance class. I was a school library monitor. I was always dancing for Mum and Dad in the backyard. My brothers always called me a girl’s name and even wrote that name on Christmas cards and birthday cards, not to be mean just that’s how we related. I think I was about 14 when I really knew that I was not a normal boy.
Monika: For most of transgender girls, the most traumatic time is the time spent at school, college or university when they had to face lots of discrimination. Was it the same in your case?
Penny: Yes, I did get quite a bit of bullying at school as I was so effeminate but I was also tall so I did escape a bit of the harassment because of this. I did OK at school but never really fitted in, which is why like I said above, I did so many other things at school to stay away from the kids, like library work, choir and music.

Simone & Moniques Playgirls Revue (Left of the photo).

Monika: At what age did you transition into woman? Was it a difficult process? Did you have any support from your family or friends? Did it have any impact on your job situation?
Penny: I think I started dressing as a woman around 17 but did not go on hormones till I was 19 when I moved out of my family home.
The first few years I remember I was feeling very androgynous and it was very hard but each year made life easier. 
Monika: Transgender ladies are subject to the terrible test whether they pass as a woman or they do not. You are a beautiful woman yourself but how about other transgender ladies that have to struggle every day to pass?
Penny: I might be OK to look at now but in the early days I was not, and I struggled very hard. At night it was easier for me as I dressed in lots of make-up and big hair and spent my time in the showgirl scene.
It’s very hard to pass as a lady and as I am so tall I often found it harder. I was surprised the amount of negative comments people have the courage to say to you in the day. I often went home crying from someone’s rude comments or actions.
All I can say is to other ladies going through the transition is to hold your head up high, do the best to make yourself look presentable and don’t fight back to negative comments, just walk on by and remember how loved you are by your friends.
On the other hand, there are some really deplorable situations like the one which happened in the UK some time ago when Suzanne Moore, a British controversial newspaper columnist, wrote in an article that biological women are angry with themselves for “not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.” How would you respond to this? 
Penny: I don’t know this article nor have I read it so I am not sure how to respond. I do know however if I have read this question correctly that many women I have met over the years are always surprised how good we transgender ladies look as women and I have often been told that they are jealous of my legs or my body etc.
I think sometimes transgender women have to work harder to be who we are so sometimes that means we don’t take for granted being who we are.
A fun photo from Instagram.
Monika: We are living in times of modern cosmetic surgery that might allow to transition even at late 50s or 60s. Do you think it is really possible? What kind of advice do you have for transgender ladies at such an age?
Penny: Cosmetic surgery of today is a wondrous thing and I have had many procedures myself and still intend even at 52 to have more.
I think if you are older and intend to transition later in life it’s a harder road but it’s possible and fulfilling and I think you should not hesitate if you are unhappy as life is definitely too short to live your life in the wrong body.
I often wish I has started my transition at 16 or 17 but there was not so much information on transgender issues when I was young.
Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow? What was your knowledge about transgenderism?
Penny: I had 2 role models when I was younger: Carlotta who was the first transsexual woman I ever saw and Tula from England. My knowledge was mostly what I could read at my local library or what I heard family and friends would say when talking about Carlotta and the showgirls of Les Girls.
Monika: Have you ever been married? Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Penny: No, I have never been married. I have had very few relationships that have lasted past 2 or 3 years. It’s hard to date a showgirl that is transgender as we advertise who and what we are and I have found that’s very hard for a male to deal with. I have found love in my life through my family, friends and my dog.
Monika: What do you enjoy most in being a woman?
Penny: I love dressing in lovely clothes and make-up and as I get older I am so glad to be an older lady rather than an old effeminate male.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Penny: I’m not active in politics at all, as I have been a high profile showgirl most of my life, and I have been involved in many charities to raise monies for AIDS I feel that I have done my part for society. As I have gotten older I tend to live a more quieter and simple life.
Sydney Harbour Photo.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Penny: I love the pageants, we only have one in Australia and it’s not that huge yet but it seems to be growing.
I love seeing the photos and videos of the pageants in the USA and Thailand etc. I like that as transgender women we have our own.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Penny: I am not a huge fashionista I like what I feel comfortable in. I like clothes that are more sequin and have some bling. I like a good pair of fitted jeans and a nice high heel and simple tops.
Being a showgirl I tend to wear more over the top outfits on stage but in my normal life I am very basic and quiet.
Monika: Are you involved in the life of your local LGBT community?
Penny: I have been over the years but of late I have been more quiet. I have found more often that not all the work I did for the community and fundraising was never really appreciated so there have been moments over the years when I needed help and it was reciprocated so I tend to have the view why bother anymore.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Penny: Many people suggest it to me. But I think there are too many transgender books out there now. I would however like to write a more comical book about the ‘Famous Faces I have Partied with’ but there are a few law suits that would happen out of that. So best I stay quiet LOL.
Monika: Could you say that you are a happy woman now?
Penny: Yes for the most part, I’m happy living as a woman. I have the same problems most people have as they get older. Not enough money, hating old age, health issues but as far as my journey as a transgender lady, I would not change a thing.
Monika: Penny, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Penny Clifford.
 Done on 4 February 2013


 
© 2013 - Monika 

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