We chat to Richard about his journey from slinging beers in local bars to becoming the inimitable sweetheart of the Melbourne drag scene, Karen From Finance. Photos were taken backstage at The Greyhound Hotel, where Karen was playing host to the screening of RuPaul's Drag Race and the sexy Boylesque Group.
a/s/l: 28/male/Clifton Hill
Saturn return: January 2018 - September 2018
What was your first experience of the drag scene?
Hanging out with Olympia Bukkakis back when she had a weekly gig hosting at Poof Doof. It was this crazy, dirty, drug-infested party. I remember one night going along in a torn Iron Maiden shirt, red pants from Savers and a monster of a face and getting trashed with Olympia. The other mainstream girls hated us, they thought we were ruining what drag was and they wanted nothing to do with us.
What’s the story behind the name Karen From Finance?
Some friends and I had bought these hideous prom dresses from the Salvos that we thought would be fun to wear to a house party that night. We got super wasted, as we did, and we were coming up with names and personas for the people who would have bought the dresses brand new off the racks. We decided that the lady who bought my dress was called Karen and she worked in Finance. A few months later I decided to go to a friend's birthday party in drag and I used the name Karen From Finance. None of my friends even knew who I was so it was really liberating, and I started acting crazy just because I could. I remember dancing on the dining room table, acting like a total psychopath, and that was where the concept of Karen being this lonely office worker during the day and a party animal at night came about.
How has Karen developed from her house party days to now?
The principle of her character hasn't really changed by her aesthetic definitely has. I started thinking that it's actually so much funnier to be more conventionally 'pretty' and fit within a traditional aesthetic of the drag mould, but still be called Karen From Finance and keep her character the same. Her look has changed the most, but it has enabled her to take control of being a comedy queen in a grander and more serious manner.
Someone tried to shame me the other day by posting a photo of the first ever photo shoot I did where I looked atrocious, but I just think of it as such a nice memory. It's really humbling to see how much of mess Karen was. One thing that has never changed about her is that she's the sweetest person you could ever meet. Whether she's at the office or the club, she's just so lovely because she's desperate for friends. So even in the old-school photos where she might look tragic she's still got the nicest smile. It's part of her charm.
Can you give us an insight into Karen’s past?
Originally she was 36 years old, but her age changes all the time now. She's an out and proud lesbian from Geelong, and she used to work for a pie wholesaler but they made her redundant. She was upset and lonely so she moved to the big city to get a job at a larger firm and meet more people. She lives in Kew with her budgie, Dante. She likes having a budgie because she can give him one of those things with compacted seeds and go out for days at a time and know he'll be well fed. She never means to go out for benders, they just happen because she gets carried away when she's trying to make friends. She's living in the city, looking for work and desperate to live the high life, but she just never quite reaches it.
When was her last relationship?
She's never been in one. She's desperately single.
Karen is experimenting with boys as she's getting older. She's not a strict lesbian anymore- she used to be, but since she's been in the big city she's opened up a lot more. It's kind of funny that she was out and proud when she was in Geelong, but since she's moved to the city she's branching out and trying new things... such as being straight.
I think she touches people in a very real way.
Yeah, she's weirdly inspiring.
I love her hips.
She's put on some weight over the last 12 months. She's bootylicious now! As her look and her aesthetic have been developing - there are certain steps you take and once you've taken them there's no looking back. Once you start wearing a lace front, you would never go back and not wear one. Once you start contouring your cheeks, you would never not contour. So one day I took a pair of socks and stuck them inside of the hip padding which made her hips super severe and I fell in love.
Do you have a favourite costume?
Yes - the very first costume I ever wore. It's a red 80s power suit. Even with the added hips it still fits - just. It's a very classic Karen outfit. She's got a yellow wig that has become very iconic for her as well. She's been wearing a lot of ball gowns lately, being very formal, but the power suit and the yellow hair is her trademark.
How did Karen transition into the mainstream drag scene?
I think Karen crossed over because there was an inherent gap. People are always looking for something new in drag, and she was doing unique kinds of comedy routines which were rare in Melbourne. When I was offered my first weekly gig I had to come up with three different routines every single week and book different guests. Once people heard that Karen was out and about doing something different, it brought her into the mainstream and she was pretty well accepted.
Have other queens inspired Karen to become who she is today?
There aren't really any performers that inspired either the character of Karen or her original style of performance. Those are two things that I'm pretty proud of, and am happy to say came out of nowhere and were totally authentic. That's why she was so successful in the first place. When I was asked to do a drag show as Karen I was nervous because I actually wasn't a fan of drag. I'd seen it when I was younger, but hadn't watched a drag show in about 7 years and it wasn't something that I was really familiar with. So what I created was something more inspired by burlesque routines and comedy acts rather than drag. To this day some of my original numbers are my best. The first drag show I ever wrote is still my favourite, and I just performed it in Brisbane and Sydney. It's really fun.
Inspirations were not so much in terms of performance, but in makeup and aesthetic. There's Bianca Del Rio, the winner from Season 6 of Rupaul's Drag Race. Her makeup was one of my biggest inspirations, turning it from what you call standard fish makeup to bigger, more clown-like stuff. Ridge Gallagher, who is a makeup artist and performer in New York, is another inspiration. He's super subversive and crazy. Also, the Divine David - the first really incendiary performance artist I ever came across... he's a psychopath. My makeup doesn't necessarily reflect theirs, but I have taken a lot of inspiration from their work.
When you go out dressed as Karen, what are some of the responses you get from the public?
I kind of avoid being in drag in public as much as possible. I shot a short film in Northcote a couple of months ago, and I went out the back door to wait for my lift to arrive so I didn't have to stand in the main street. There was tradies working on the house next door and I was getting wolf-whistled. I find it very uncomfortable to be in drag in public.
What were you doing before Karen?
I worked in hospo most of my life and was managing a series of venues across Melbourne. I left that job to study small business management in an effort to begin the process of opening my own performance venue. While I studying, the Karen door opened and the course became shit, so I made the choice to leave it and try Karen out for a bit.
Is Karen full-time for you now?
Karen has been full time for just over a year now. I've tried to have jobs at the same time but one by one they have dropped off. Any time I've felt that Karen isn't doing that well and I should do something else, that "something else" would just be getting in the way of pushing her further. It's tough, though- it takes a serious amount of planning and scheduling. It's always surprising how much work goes into promoting and administration and emailing producers etc. There is a lot more involved than just turning up and doing a show.
Have you always been interested in performance?
When I was younger I went to an acting school outside of regular school. However when I started high school it became obvious to me that it wasn't a thing I was going to pursue. When I graduated and left home and started to live more independently I really got into burlesque. There was little bar in Fitzroy called Burlesque Bar that I started frequenting whilst I was running Black Cat around the corner. I became close with all the girls performing there and I'd go see them perform at their bar and they'd come to mine. There was a small window when burlesque was really cool and amazing in Melbourne and girls were spending thousands of dollars on their outfits and performing really refined routines. I remember sitting there being enamoured with the whole thing. I owe my drag to that burlesque scene. I'm still really close with a lot of those performers and try to work with them as much as possible.
Do you have plans to show Karen to the rest of the world?
I'm very excited to take her to the United States. Also, Olympia lives in Berlin so I can't wait to go and play with her there, as well as do some shows with other friends in London and maybe Paris. But the US is first on my list.
Rupaul's Drag Race is obviously a big deal in the drag scene now. When they were casting for Season 9, the casting agent put out an online voting form and someone put my name into the barrel. For almost 5 weeks I was the number one crowd voted queen. I woke up one morning with a private message from the casting agent on Facebook reminding me that applications closed in a couple of days and that the panel were really looking forward to seeing mine. I had 24 hours of manic panic. I wrote back saying that I wold absolutely love to audition but that I'm in Australia. I know you can't apply if you're outside of the US, so I asked whether there was a way around this. While I waited for the response I organised someone to video the audition tape and started scripting everything. I got a message back saying that they didn't realise I was outside of America and that no, I can't audition. But that just went to show how available opportunities are if you work for them.
Do you have any big projects coming up?
I'm doing a 5 week season for Adelaide Fringe Festival next year. It's a diva impersonation evening hosted by Karen with a bunch of girls from 'the office' and I'm super excited about it. I also run my own party once a month called 'Nancy' - which is always fun - and I'm hoping to continue that in the new year as well.
What are your future aspirations for Karen?
I want her to be known as a character and a personality. The more events, corporate parties and fundraisers I can host, where people are looking for something out of the ordinary, as an MC or a face, is where I want to be. I would love to eventually make the move of taking her out of the clubs as I do prefer MCing over performing, even though I do of course love to perform.
Photography / Julia Petricevic and Simone Ruggiero
Words / Richard Chadwick
Location / Greyhound Hotel, Melbourne