Sweat Sissies and Spreadsheets Reuben Kaye Pom Poms

Photography by Ayesha Hussain

At the time of speaking, a “fucking busy” Reuben Kaye is about to get ready for a show that night at London’s Café de Paris, having only returned from gigs in Amsterdam the day before. The Australian cabaret performer moved to London about ten years ago from Melbourne, but the Café De Paris gigs are really the only time he’ll be in the capital during 2019, the city only serving as “a place to unpack and repack a suitcase hurriedly between flights”. 

In regards to Australia, I’d been watching him cover Men at Work’s ‘Down Under’ not long before we talk. He makes the “iconic yet ridiculous piece of music” both funny and poignant. “Everyone knows it as a very butch song, but if you slow it down and wink, the lyrics become incredibly camp and hypersexualised,” he says using ‘he just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich’ as an example. But also a song about someone travelling all over the globe, and being recognised as an Australian in a loving way, counts for something at this time of Brexit and an Australian foreign policy that’s “upsetting to say the least”. Further, lines such as ‘where women glow and men plunder’ also take on a new meaning in 2019, “when Australia’s looking at its colonial past and how it deals with women. 

All that from just slowing a song down. “I know, I mean, I’m a genius.” I don’t wish to sound sycophantic but some may think of him as such, from what I can gather it’s one hell of a show he puts on. It’s a lot,” he confirms, “but I always loved those performers who left you exhausted.” He cites the live sets of Jim Carrey and Liza Minnelli – “you, the audience, are sweating and gasping; you’ve been through something, either watched or had an exorcism.” He learnt his craft on London’s variety circuit, watching “acrobats and circus performers sweating their guts out, bleeding on stage for five minutes solid”. He decided as a host of these shows he should be putting the same effort in, “otherwise I’m just talking on stage and I see too many people doing that.” I ask whether he’s ever hurt himself performing. “Only emotionally, which is the risk when what you do is halfway between a runway show and a cry for help. That said, a recent jump into the splits at a comedy festival did leave him limping for a week and a half. 

Sweat Sissies and Spreadsheets Reuben Kay Crown Smile

Photography by Ayesha Hussain

Is all this what his parents expected him to do? “It’s definitely what they expected, just not what they wanted.” They weren’t encouraging? “They were totally encouraging – Mum’s a dancer, Dad’s a painter – but what they really wanted was a funeral director, an accountant or a plumber – someone who would never run out of work.” If he were to pursue a career in any of those areas “it would be either plumbing or funeral directing – the access to medical grade equipment and drugs is much more fun than spreadsheets. 

For now he continues to put on makeup and heels for gigs comprising dick jokes and the scaring of straight men, something ten years ago he thought “would age real quick because the world was moving”. Yet a decade on, it hasn’t. “Audiences still feel friction – great for my bank balance but it ain’t great for the world. I don’t know how he’s meant to feel about that. “Neither do I, but not knowing how we’re meant to feel has been the gay condition for a very long time.  

In June and July he’ll be back in Australia, playing festivals in Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney. He’s often over there for that time of year thus rendering him unavailable for European Prides. However, he says, parading in Sydney’s Mardi Gras 11 years back (where 10,000 people marched as 300,000 watched) marks the greatest moment of his life as a gay man. He grew up in 80s and 90s Australia, where the public thought of gay men as “sissies or monsters”, such was their representation in film and television. So, that amount of love and support was like a lightning bolt into my chest. It was amazing, perfect, uplifting.”  

Insofar as queer representation today goes, he must be somewhat encouraged. “Completely, it’s joyous, beautiful and wonderful. But it’s very interesting to see the world changing and sometimes feel that you still haven’t changed.” For people over 35 like him, Will & Grace was the first time they “might have seen mainstream fully-rounded gay characters, and even then they had to have Jack as a commercially sissified, comedy gay character – who was still fabulous.” When the media is devoid of people like you, he says, you’re left feeling you don’t have a legitimate place in the world. “For those people I still think there’s psychological scarring.” 

Sweat Sissies and Spreadsheets Reuben Kaye Smudged Makeup

Photography by Ayesha Hussain

So when Will & Grace returned in 2017 after over a decade away, was it reflective of progress or not? “I think it for sure was reflective of –” he starts before pausing, “that’s a very interesting question.” I butt in: is it just nostalgia? Yeah, but there’s nothing queerer than nostalgia. The revival was about that, he says, “but at the same time it dealt politically with a whole bunch of newer subjects – it was pretty excoriating on TrumpIt still speaks volumes about the relationship between straight people and gay people, and how gay men relate to the rest of the queer community. I think the way they did it was correct, at the very start of the resurgence there was a raised eyebrow or two, but I think they pulled it off beautifully. 

After Australia he’ll be back at Edinburgh, with a solo show and a variety one entitled The Kaye Hole – “Edinburgh’s late-night queer church for people who are fucking too cool for heaven. As our conversation – peppered with only a couple of his yawns – draws to a close he says other things he’s up to can be found on his website, “and if you have the contact details for the Argentina men’s national water polo team, shoot them across.” Trust GDPR to spoil cabaret act. 

reubenkaye.com

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