From Penicillin to Penny Cillin

By Catherine Smith | @cathy_smith1
Illustration by Sarah Loo

MELBOURNE, Australia – Liam* sits alone in front of a row of mirrors with “Broadway Bitches” sprawled in red lipstick across the top. Surrounded by colourful wigs and dresses that glisten in the afternoon sun, Liam is an enigma in black ripped jeans, leather boots and a torn Metallica singlet. He is 5’9” and weighs just 50kg. His dirty blonde hair has been pinned under a beige wig cap, but rebellious tufts poke out. He peers sheepishly at me in the mirror, as a bartender drops off his second vodka and coke. “I honestly don’t know if this is a pre show ritual anymore, or alcoholism,” he remarks. It’s 5pm, two and a half hours before show time.

At just 24 years of age, Liam has been a professional drag queen for two and a half years. He co-hosts the Greyhound Hotel’s Homosexual Bingo, and is regularly booked for performances all over Australia. When he is not covered in layers of foundation, glitter and lashes, Liam is working towards a PHD in science and developing a Vaccine for HIV and Hepatitis B. This is his seventh year of study.

For most people, science and the arts are about as compatible as North and South Korea. For Liam, they go hand in hand. “I don’t find my lives that separate. This is still me, there’s not a definite point where that changes.” Fittingly, it was in a microbiology lab where the 24 year old stumbled across his stage name.

“I walked into the lab, opened the fridge door, and there was Penicillin which is where ‘Penny Cillin’ comes from. I also considered Sarah Tonin, but it just didn’t feel right.” While we are talking, Liam picks up a glue stick and starts rolling it over his eyebrows. This method is called “blocking”. The glue covers the drag queen’s natural eyebrows, so that more feminine brows can be drawn on. 

The process to hide Liam’s masculinity is nothing compared to the process to hide his femininity. Liam’s family still don’t know about his ‘secret life’ outside of the laboratory. For the first two years of his drag career, Liam would lock himself in his bedroom for hours to practice “putting on a face.” If he was going out, he would patiently wait until his mother went into another room before leaving quietly.

“The perception in my family is that I’m the smart kid that went to uni and is doing a PHD. If I told them ‘I dress like a woman for money’, they would look down on me for being a dropout or ‘gender confused’.” With a damp beauty blender, Liam begins to apply his base layer of foundation. “I obviously don’t understand gender though. I mean, look at me,” he says with little hesitation.

The 24 year old also faced difficulty when attending early university tutorials on the mornings after performances. While most students would rock up first thing Monday morning with sunglasses and double-shot coffees, Liam would rock up with sparkly wig glue attached to his forehead and perfectly manicured pink nails. It wasn’t long before he started getting strange looks. “Considering I was one of the few people in that class with a blood alcohol level below 1.5 who had showered in the past 24 hours, I wasn’t too embarrassed,” he reflects.

The Greyhound’s dressing room is a hub for performers, constantly coming and going. Two men enter mid-way through the interview, and they sit in the corner of the room. A cheeseburger is brought up from the kitchen downstairs, and they begin to bicker over who it belongs to. Liam’s eyes roll back. “This is why we can’t have rights,” he mutters. Another drag queen comes in with a full face of makeup, and everyone turns to look at him. “Did you run out of product or time, honey?” asks one of the men, burger in hand.

Two hours have passed, and I am now face-to-face with Penny Cillin. Liam’s masculine features have been masked by layers of foundation and powder. Bronzer contours the edges of his forehead and nose, and his chin and cheekbones illuminate with highlighter. This evening’s show is Titanic themed, so Penny has selected a deep blue eyeshadow with white “icebergs” in the corners. She’s gone for a purple lip, a “lighter look.” Penny is applying glue to a set of thick lashes covered in Swarovski crystals, when her co-host Jessica James walks in. It is now 7:10 pm, 20 minutes til show time.

With one swift movement, Jessica tips out the entire contents of her Wicked the Musical bag in front of the adjoining mirror. She takes a seat. “Can I get my whole face done in the time it takes her to do her lashes?” she asks. I head downstairs.

A group of men sit by the door. Suit jackets are draped over seats, and ties are loosened. Pints of beer and chicken parmigianas cover their table. By the bar sits a boy and a girl, barely 18 and glancing around nervously. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the Greyhound is just like any other pub. That is, until you notice the chandelier by the bathroom, and the red velvet curtain by the front door. If that doesn’t give it away, Penny and Jessica’s entrance will.

“Welcome to Homosexual Bingo, boys and girls!” Penny’s voice booms across the room. The men raise their glasses with a ‘here-here’, and the sheepish 18 year olds embrace the welcomed distraction.

On stage is a bingo wheel, and the infamous ‘theme wheel’. Each week, an audience member is invited to spin the wheel to select the following week’s theme. Crowd favourites include Silence of the Lambs and Shrek. For this evening’s Titanic session, Penny has prepared a medley of 13 songs that “vaguely have to do with drowning.”

Underneath all the self-deprecating jokes and sexual innuendos, the Greyhound “is the place where you can be whoever you want to be,” he says. “I owe my entire drag career to the opportunities given to me by that place, and the people within.”

It’s the place where two and a half years ago, a scared young man was welcomed with open arms and given the opportunity to flourish.

People who say scientists are boring clearly haven’t met Liam, or Penny.

*In order to protect Liam’s identity, Catalyst has not published his real name.

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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