Hi, I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories. Samuel Leighton-Dore is a multi-disciplinary artist and writer. His book of illustrations, How to Be a Big Strong Man, was released in August 2019. His first solo exhibition, Fragile Masculinity: Handle with Care, formed part of the 2019 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival, and he’s currently collaborating on a whole bunch of brilliant, creative projects. Also, public service announcement: He has a pair of truly amazing looking cats who he posts all over Twitter and Instagram, so you should follow him immediately. This story, which falls in the very popular Queerstories genre of Formative Pop Culture Obsessions, was performed at Bleach Festival on the Gold Coast where Sam lives with his partner and those cats. Enjoy.
One of my favourite podcasts is called Las Culturistas. It’s hosted by comedians and self-proclaimed culture consultants Bowen Yang and Matt Rogers who, at the end of each week’s episode, ask their guest one important question: What is the culture that made you say culture is for you? Answers vary from guest to guest, with some citing Mariah Carey’s early music catalogue and others opening up about their early affinity with figure skating.
I love this question a lot. For one thing, there are no wrong answers. More significantly though, I’ve always claimed that while my parents did a wonderful job in raising me, late ‘90s and early noughties pop culture did a lot of the leg work. You see, as a kid I was bullied a lot. I was pushed over, and laughed at, and pranked, and taunted, and called names. During one particularly awful period of primary school, the bullying got so bad that I’d often just tap out, running away from school at lunchtime. My mental health was fucked. I’d always been a sensitive child – I’m two part Cancerian, one part Gemini – but I was becoming withdrawn, anxious and depressed. My parents were worried. Exasperated. They’d already put me in counselling, taken me to be assessed by different psychiatrists. They’d signed me up to group therapy, drawn up star charts, and encouraged me to explore my creativity at home.
It was around this time that my beautiful dad began buying me a CD single from HMV every week as a reward for not running away from school at lunchtime. Positive reinforcement, I suppose you might call it, or a last resort. I was allowed to put in requests, too. One week was Eminem’s Lose Yourself. Another was Emma Bunton’s What Took You So Long. Then there was Kryptonite by 3 Doors Down. Mary Mary’s Shackles (Praise You). What’s My Age Again? by Blink182. Say My Name by Destiny’s Child. Dad peppered in some John Denver and Enya, and suddenly we were really cooking with gas.
These songs, which ranged from feel-good bops to big emo bangers to country ballads, became little lights at the end of each week’s tunnel. SSRIs I spun on my Discman on the way to and from school. Music was that for me; an internal landscape to which I could escape and safely be myself.
As I edged slowly towards double digits, the pop culture I consumed continue to expand, becoming a wonderland I could inhabit in a mind, body, and soul kind of way. I’d save my pocket money to buy magazines like K-Zone, and Smash Hits, and TV Week. I’d carefully tear the posters from their stapled bindings, unfold them, Blu Tack them around my bedroom. Then, when I was nine, the Sydney Olympics happened, and I was forever changed. Up until that point I’d somehow not been told that sport was super gay. Shiny coins to collect in the weekly newspaper, 11-year-old girls singing about Southern Stars as they flew from stadium rooftops in floral pink dresses, pretty blue lines painted all the way down random suburban streets throughout Sydney’s Inner West. Sign me all the way up. I guess you could say that pop culture and culture had piqued my interest.
Two years after the Olympics when I was 11 or 12, reality TV burst onto the scene in a big way and further enriched my emerging sense of identity. Shows like Popstars and Australian Idol, which so generously indulged my love for pop music, introduced me to music from the
‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, while also letting me connect with other social outcasts like me at concerts and in-store signings. And then there were shows like Big Brother and Survivor, which indulged my growing curiosity for the male form. Suddenly, night-time was for sneaking out of bed and watching adult men interact in various stages of undress. I’m not proud to say that some of my first penises I ever saw were on Big Brother Up Late, but also, this isn’t a story about pride. It’s a story about Australian pop culture and, to that end, I’d like to share with you not one, but my top ten moments of culture that made me say, “Culture is for me.”
Number 10: When Vanessa Amorosi held the final note of Heroes Live Forever for 21 seconds at the Sydney Olympic Games. She was a teenager, riding high on the release of her first album and hit single Absolutely Everybody, which could and should have been the anthem for Australia’s same-sex marriage postal survey Yes Campaign, but the past is the past. One of my proudest accomplishments to date as an adult was starting the rumour that Vanessa Amorosi was a gay icon, culminating in her headlining the Heaps Gay Vivid party last year, which she arrived at dressed in feathers and carried by leather twinks.
Number Nine: Osher Günsberg asking Chanel Cole from the Bega Valley Shire why she should be on Australian Idol and her responding, “Because there is a severe lack of articulate, brunette, size-12, flat-chested women on television.” If he knew what was good for him, the second season of Ryan Murphy’s TV series, Feud, would be based on the ongoing tensions in Chanel’s relationship with judge Marcia Hines. When Chanel was eliminated from the show her die-hard fans started a tiny Woodstock-like music festival in Bega. I wasn’t old enough to attend but she did send me a postcard.
Number Eight: Casey Donovan beating Anthony Callea in the 2004 Australian Idol Grand Final, being bullied by the media into relative obscurity, dropped by her label, taunted for her weight and catfished by her best friend, only to win I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here and emerge victorious as Matron Momma Morton in the Australian production of Chicago. Underdog story arcs which take 15 years to play out in the public domain truly are my spiritual bread and butter. I’ve always said that Conservative Gays voted for Ricki-Lee Coulter in 2004 and then gave their finale votes to Anthony Callea, while more progressive queers voted for Chanel Cole and then gave their finale votes to Casey. While not down to a science, this is a hill I will die on. Some of the older women I befriended at Casey’s first concert at Revesby RSL, back when I was 14, this year attended my wedding, and Casey herself sent me a video message. What can I say? I hate change.
Number Seven: Nikki Webster opening a dance studio on Parramatta Road; AKA my introduction to existentialism and the brutal passage of time. From the moment I saw her sing at the Olympics to the release of Strawberry Kisses on CD Single (with bonus sticker sheet) to the time I bumped into her at the Marrickville Metro Woolies, it’s fair to say that I’ve always considered Nikki Webster with the vague fondness of a distant cousin. Learning in early high school that she’d become an adult, had children, and started a business was perhaps one of the first times I realised that one day I would die.
Number Six: Only one of the hot identical twin brothers being chosen for ARIA-winning Popstars group Scandal’Us. I rarely speak about my preference for Scandal’Us to Bardot because I’m scared of being bullied by my own community, but it’s a relief to finally have it on the public record.
Number Five: The Weaver Family on The Amazing Race tapping into my defectiveness schema and making me root for a team of blonde conservative Christians, then inviting me to visit them in Florida. I was only 19 but they snuck me into a pub called The Rockin’ Ranch, where there had been a boot-scootin’ dance floor shooting the day before. In the backseat of their four-wheel-drive, I found a handwritten letter to God asking them to accept a homosexual into their home.
Number Four: Dean Geyer doing a front-flip off the stage during his performance of Gloria Estefan’s Turn the Beat Around, right after I told a boy I loved him in the live studio audience. I didn’t get a reply. Funny sidebar: Dean Geyer personally thanks me in the leaflet for his first, and last, album. I was 15 and didn’t know how to do much, but I did know how to code a basic website and setup a pretty slick looking fan forum for him. After Dean’s first audition, I bought one of his domain names and made a little online community for his fans. Long story short, Dean’s family weren’t able to attend most of the live recordings, so he reached out and offered his family and friend tickets to me, complete with Green Room access. Dean was a devout Christian and would later be the rumoured inspiration behind the song Untouched by The Veronicas, so we are no longer in each other’s lives for ethical reasons.
Number Three: Olympic Walker Jane Saville being disqualified within 400 metres of Gold at the Sydney Olympics, then giving a talk at my primary school where the principal made her sit down and re-watch the moment she was disqualified within 400 metres of winning Gold at the Sydney Olympics; something which was clearly traumatic for her to re-experience, becoming a formative lesson on life not being fair, and also the idea of PTSD, which I’d be diagnosed with 20 years later.
Number Two: Gold Coast beautician Schapelle Corby being found guilty and me taking the rest of the week off school in a completely baseless display of protest. Look, everyone has a messy favourite. I was recently interviewed about my love for Schapelle, speaking in pseudonym for reasons which in this moment seem pointless, for a friend’s doctorate thesis, which means my 16-year fandom of a convicted drug smuggler has a place in Australian academia. My nanna would be proud.
Number One: Having one of my primary school bullies forced to participate in a two-person dance performance to Leah Haywood’s Taking Back What’s Mine at the annual school talent show. You might not remember Australian pop singer Leah Haywood. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that in Year 5, I actually choreographed a dance to her hit single Taking Back What’s Mine. What also matters is that one of my bullies, a boy named Harry, was firmly encouraged to not only learn this choreography with me but perform it on stage alongside me in front of the whole school wearing what I recall to be matching quilted vests. And that’s why culture is for me.
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