Prince of Polyester
Being a self-confessed ‘humourless culture snob who would rather read Shakespeare than watch Kath and Kimderella’, Katherine Kokkenen placed a call to Bob Downe with trepidation.
Bob Downe has a firm position in the finicky world of entertainment, having graced national and international stages for 25-plus years. During this time, he has become a gay icon and is considered a trailblazer for the way Australia has become more open-minded and tolerant of difference.
These are impressive achievements for a person who does not exist. Dubbed ‘The Prince of Polyester’, Bob is as man-made as the synthetic material he is often swathed in. His creator, Mark Trevorrow, is a comedian and broadcaster who first came into the spotlight as part of the cabaret group The Globos. Bob was created in 1984 and won over audiences as the host of fictional regional daytime TV show Good Morning, Murwillumbah. He is currently touring the all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza Bob Downe: 20 Golden Greats.
The brand new solo show covers a range of classic pop, disco, and rock hits. The main course of Golden Greats is served with a hefty side of Bob’s cheeky brand of humour. If you plan on seeing the show, prepare to be entertained, but remain vigilant: Bob warns his audiences-to-be to “listen up and pay attention”. “You never know when I’ll be asking a trivia question and you could win prizes galore! Well, a CD at least,” he quips.
After hit seasons in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, Bob is flying north to perform at Brisbane’s Powerhouse. Why should people come to see the new show? He fires back: “There'll be nothing funnier or more entertainingly thrilling on in town those nights, so why on earth wouldn't they?”
Such confidence comes from being encouraged at an early age to let his star shine. “It all started with Nana Downe and Aunty Bev encouraging me to stage numbers on the coffee table. Even Mum came around eventually and by age 12 the die was cast. I am special — because they all told me I was!”
Bob’s performances have moved from the coffee table to the global stage, but he has never lost his love of Australia. “I love how we're convinced that we're the best lil’ country in the world, and anyone who denies it, here or overseas, gets a right royal smack in the chops!” he riffs. “You can't beat confidence like that... no matter how misplaced!”
Bob looks forward to coming up to Queensland and is aware of the conservative political turn and the possibility that the state might go back to the ‘good old days’ of Joh. “From what my Brisbane mates are telling me it's already happening,” he says. “But you know what? The big wheel turns and it will turn back again, as sure as Kath Day follows Kel Knight.”
On the topic of politics, it is no surprise that the brassy, confident Bob Downe would love to work with Pauline Hanson. Even if it is “just to see if she really is that stupid”.
Until then, Bob will be performing solo, dazzling audiences with an impressive range of musical numbers. Asked if he styles his singing on any particular star, he insists the influence flows the other way: “No. They style their singing on me!”
Consciously or not, Downe has become Australia’s epitome of ‘camp’. Susan Sontag in her famous essay on that subject wrote that “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration” and “nothing in nature can be campy”. Bob certainly fits this description; he seems to be a life-size, 1980s Ken doll. Although he wears ‘safari’ suits, it’s strange to imagine Bob in a natural setting: camp is anti-natural. The camp style of seeing everything in quotation marks (“It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’,” Sontag wrote) is the farthest extension of the metaphor of life as theatre. From a camp perspective we are all performers with roles to play. Forget Warhol’s statement about being famous for 15 minutes. With the aid of glorious, camp, rose-tinted glasses, you can be the star of your own world for the rest of your life.
I think I do not ‘get’ Bob because the character forces me to examine my own beliefs of what is genuine. Bob Downe is a celebration of tacky artifice; he is the embodiment of style over substance. In an industry where almost everything is stage-managed, but pretends not to be, audiences seem to appreciate Bob’s overt artificiality. Ironically, he proves to be the real deal by being truly fake.
I think I might be a little bit closer to understanding what all the fuss is about. I’m still not a fan, but I respect what he does. In the end, what one pseudo-intellectual writer thinks about the ‘Prince of Polyester’ is unimportant. Bob’s longevity and place in Australian pop culture speaks for itself. Go and see the funny man and judge for yourself.
Bob Downe: 20 Golden Greats, Brisbane Powerhouse, December 12-15, 2012. brisbanepowerhouse.org