Trevor Ashley’s been treading the boards since he was five years old at Johnny Young’s Talent School. His career is now on a seemingly unstoppable train that has seen him do back-to-back shows for the last three years. Rachel Cook spoke to Ashley about his Spiegeltent gig, I’m Every Woman, recent controversy and taking on Europe.
Believe it or not, but Johnny Young has contributed a lot to Australia’s performing arts landscape. His protégés include Tina Arena, Debra Byrne, Dannii Minogue and Trevor Ashley. While one of these kids might not seem like the others, impersonating divas was not where Ashley thought he was heading as a child.
“Growing up” at Sydney’s legendary Shopfront Theatre, a contemporary arts centre for people under 25, Ashley was on the road to acting and musicals, drag did not come to him until he was the ripe old age of 21.
“I first started doing Bassey (Shirley Bassey) when I started doing drag and was doing the pubs,” Ashley says. “The song ‘History Repeating’, had just come out, then as time went on I was performing six nights a week at eight different places and so I developed all these other songs and personas as well.”
In Ashley’s new Melbourne show, I’m Every Woman, which he first staged three years ago at the Sydney Opera House, he brings back many of the songs he has performed over the years.
In a sense he is looking at his own history and taking a journey through those years of early drag right through to now where he is covering a plethora of female performers from old staples such as Bassey, Judy Garland and of course Liza Minnelli to Bonnie Tyler to Lady Gaga, including what he says are some “special new divas”.
While the range of singers Ashley impersonates is diverse, he is the first to admit that he can’t ‘do’ everyone.
“They all have their difficult points,” Ashley says. “Cher is quite hard and Tina Turner because of the energy you have to have.
“I can’t actually sound like a lot of people because they sound like real women, whereas a lot of the ones I do have quite masculine voices, like Cher for example.
“There’s also a few people who I don’t do as well as I could, but I’m taking the piss out of that so that’s ok.”
Last year Ashley found himself at the centre of controversy over his show trAnnie, which due to pressure, became Little Orphan Trashley. Although the show had not yet been staged, it was attacked for being transphobic and discriminatory. Ashley was taken aback by the reaction for several reasons:
“It was due to the fact that some people misinterpreted the blurb of the show and you know, some people put two and two together and they get eight.
“I have a lot of mates who are transgender and of course they didn’t think that, so yes, I was a bit surprised.
“But then the name was changed, the show went on and it was huge and people saw it and no one had a problem with it.”
The last few years has seen Ashley’s star continue to climb with not only his self-written works but also being asked to be part of a several high profile productions such as playing the lead in the musical Hairspray and the Midsumma premier theatre event, Gaybies, which was created by Dean Bryant who first worked with Ashley on Pricilla Queen of the Desert - The Musical.
Gaybies was a verbatim theatre piece where the script came from interviews Bryant had done with children who had grown up with lesbian or gay parents.
“Dean asked me to do it and at the time I had a free week and I was going to have a holiday,” Ashley says. “But I thought this would be great and very important to the community. I thought the concept was really interesting and a lot of friends of mine had their stories in it.”
So where to from here? Well, Vienna of course! Ashley is taking his hit show Liza (On an E) to Europe in April kicking off with a stint in Vienna. Undoubtedly, he will win over European audiences just as he has done with Australian and American audiences.
“I haven’t done Europe yet so I’m very excited,” Ashley says, “It’s going to be great!”
(Image - Trevor Ashley in I’m Every Woman)
Trevor Ashley’s I’m Every Woman, February 19 – 23, The Famous Spiegeltent at the Arts Centre, spiegel.artscentremelbourne.com.au