The King of Burlesque, when I chat to him, is enjoying some quiet time in country New South Wales. It’s been a busy year of touring for all-male burlesque spectacular Briefs, both within Australia and to Europe and the UK, and Mark Winmill, one of Briefs’ star performers, certainly sounds like he has earned a holiday. Said holiday does still include a committed exercise routine however – after all, when the show opens in Melbourne on December 13, Winmill will be showing a lot of skin.
Briefs is structured as a variety boylesque circus, featuring male striptease and various species of drag in addition to circus acts, all overseen by a bearded ring-mistress. While previously often targeted at a gay audience, Winmill says the show has expanded to a broad and very mixed audience.
In the past couple of years this has included audiences in cities such as London, Paris, Edinburgh and Berlin. I ask him what European crowds make of a bunch of Aussies doing circus in drag.
“With London audiences, it would tend to shock them, though they love the Aussie flavour of it. In Berlin they thought we were tame. There they like to see grit and dirty.”
Briefs had its origins in the perhaps unlikely setting of Queensland in the late noughts. It began as a club night in a warehouse bookshop in Brisbane’s West End.
“It was all very underground and illegal,” Winmill recalls. “Me and my friends couldn’t get into the regular clubs because we were wearing the wrong shoes or whatever, so we created our own.”
In early incarnations it was a variety night where various artists could try out new acts. Winmill still keeps an eye out for unique new artists to incorporate into the show, or to call on as stand-ins in case of injury to one of the regular cast. The current line-up includes the likes of Sydney drag star Dallas Dellaforce and aerialist Thomas Worrell. Mark himself, a dashing figure who in publicity photos always appears with immaculate beard and dramatic eye make-up, performs various characters and “random drag monsters.”
One place where Winmill’s unique style has certainly made waves is Las Vegas, where in 2011 he was honoured by the Burlesque Hall of Fame. Every year the Hall of Fame throws a lavish four day party as a fundraiser for the Legends of Burlesque – retired performers from an industry not known for its pension plans – including an array of performances from international acts.
“It takes place in an 1800 seat theatre,” says Winmill. “All the old ladies and men sit in the front row because their eyes aren’t so good.” His own performance in 2011 led to him being crowned that year’s King of Burlesque. It also gave him his stage name, Captain Kidd. He had at the time been obsessed with beefcake pinups of the 1950s and his act featured a buff sailor boy. The program mistakenly listed him under his character’s name and the moniker stuck.
“I take a lot of influence from the American boys,” says Winmill, recalling the glitz of Las Vegas. “They’re very theatrical and very passionate. Like they could be musical theatre performers or cabaret performers... And they go to the next level with costumery.”
Boylesque is, in a sense, an American art. Winmill says it has its roots in New York in the early 70s and 80s, with performers who would do more theatrical acts in the strip scene. It has seen a revival in the new millennium, with a lot of drag-flavoured male burlesque.
Winmill’s own performance is very much about blurring gender lines. “It’s an homage to female style, with my own masculine spin,” he says. He lists among his influences New York neo-boylesque pioneer Tigger and Barbette, a drag trapeze artist from the 1930s.
“Circus is always gender pushing,” he says, citing the tradition of the bearded lady, honoured in Briefs via the personage of ring-mistress Shivannah. Gender fluidity has been a fascination in Winmill’s life from early on, whether that was dressing up in his Mum’s heels as a child or listening to his father’s stories of working with drag troupe Les Girls.
Winmill’s father had been a vaudeville performer with the Tivoli circuit in the 1960s, doing a slapstick acrobat act. Although he had retired from clowning by the time Mark came along, any time shows would come to town, he would take his kids. “He would drag us out to meet all his freak friends,” laughs Winmill.
Perhaps, with his show biz heritage, a life on stage was always Mark’s destiny. “Was there ever a chance you wouldn’t become a performer?” I ask him.
“I freakishly wanted to be a vetinary surgeon because I was obsessed with animals but I didn’t get the, er, best grades,” he says.
Instead, after graduating school Winmill travelled Australia doing odd jobs until he came across a flying trapeze school in Byron Bay and decided to enrol. Despite starting at the comparatively late age of 20, he found his calling in circus and has both toured as a soloist and played with acclaimed circuses such as CIRCA.
With Briefs though he isn’t just concerned with putting on a spectacle or being sexy. “It has a political bite to it,” Winmill says. “Some audience take the politics, others just enjoy it as complete chaotic fun.” Although, he corrects himself, having toured so much it’s now too honed to be called complete chaos. “It’s a polished, organised chaos.”
Briefs is now playing the Arts Centre Melbourne until 13 December 2016. Visit: www.artscentremelbourne.com.au