BILLY SUTER chats to award-winning Rocky Horror Show actor BRENDAN VAN RHYN and his alter ego, towering drag queen CATHY SPECIFIC, about drag, their backgrounds and plans, and the fabulous, classy Gate 69 venue in Cape Town, where Cathy and friends entertain as The Trolley Dollies. (PS: For my review on the latest show at Gate 69 , Nip/Tucked, now extended until July 28 due to public demand, look under “Theatre” on this site).
HOW, WHERE, WHEN AND WHY DID CATHY SPECIFIC COME ABOUT?
This ‘blonde bitch in blue’ was in my head for many years before she eventually appeared in public for the first time in 2007. I had been working for South African Airways as a flight attendant and realised that there was more to me than serving coffee and tea!
I do a fabulous safety demonstration but I had become restless; not unhappy, just wanting to bring to life this character that had been consuming my head space for so long.
I knew that if I was going to return to the world of the performing arts, then I had to take the risk, leave subsidised employment and follow my gut.
So, 10 years ago, at the age of 30, Maralin Vanrenen (my theatre mom and beloved friend) and I wrote a mini musical, Mile High – with Cathy Specific, which enjoyed tremendous success and cemented the fact that there was a new girl on the block… and, boy oh boy, was she here to stay!
I was also very determined to do my own thing to ensure I was permanently employed. You can say that Cathy Specific was very much born out of necessity. I did not want to have to leave it up to a panel of individuals to decide whether or not I was good enough to be in their show or not.
I have two loves in life – my love for flying and my love for performing – and I wanted to be able to do both without having to choose. Voila: the Queen of the Skies! I’d like to think that I’m flying higher than ever now.
WHAT INSPIRED THE PLAY ON AVIATION – AND HOW FAR AFIELD HAS CATHY FLOWN TO ENTERTAIN OVER THE YEARS?
I have always been mesmerised by aviation and by a crew member pulling a suitcase! They always say, speak about what you know and I have a lot to tell about my years in the air. They also say stay where you are better acquainted and that, for me, is flying.
I wasn’t about to create an alter-ego who had the possibility of becoming SA’s favourite rocket scientist – so instead I became the country’s most favourite flight attendant.
Cathay Pacific offered the perfect opportunity for a play on words, although there is nothing Oriental about this blond bombshell – besides the fact that she can scoff a pot noodle like nobody’s business.
Cathy’s work has taken her to other parts of the African continent, as well as the Seychelles on a few occasions. There have been some opportunities abroad, but for the moment she is quite happy in the Mother City.
WHERE AND WHEN WAS CATHY’S FIRST PROFESSIONAL GIG – AND WHAT WAS MOST MEMORABLE (OR NOT) ABOUT IT?
Mile High – with Cathy Specific opened at the Theatre on the Square in Sandton, Johannesubrg, in 2007, to huge acclaim. Here was this 8-foot Amazonian who could belt out numbers and make people laugh with a subject matter that everyone could relate to.
Who can deny pushing their call bell more than once, or say they’ve never wanted to become a member of the Mile High Club? Cathy was accessible to her public, a genuine, sincere, lovable creature who was a delight to all whom she served. I discovered very quickly that I had a gift when dressed up and I wanted to ensure I shared this gift as long as I could.
Everything about that first show was memorable, including a sequel a year later entitled Mile High – The JUMBO Package and a 10-week nationwide tour.
It was the start of a new life for me and I just knew this monster I had created (and I say that with the greatest of love) was going places. As long as people wanted to see her, I was going to ensure they did.
Ten years down the line I am so fortunate to still be sharing my craft with others.
HAS CATHY ALWAYS SUNG, RATHER THAN LIP-SYNC – AND WAS THIS A CONSCIOUS DECISION?
Yes, Cathy has always sung… that was non-negotiable. She sings in the same register as I do, so nothing about her delivery is affected.
Drag, as most people know it, is an art form synonymous with lip-syncing and I just wanted to offer something different and fresh. I needed to set myself apart from the rest and using my own singing voice was one of the ways to do so.
This is a cut-throat business and it is imperative one remains at the top of your game if you want to survive.
WHAT VOICE TRAINING HAVE YOUHAD AND WHAT, WHEN AND WHERE MARKED YOUR ENTRY INTO THE WORLD OF SHOWBIZ, AND YOUR FIRST THEATRE ROLES?
I had voice training while I was on gap year at St. Christopher’s School in the UK, in 1996. I sang my Grade 8 Royal Schools exam over there and don’t think I did too badly, if memory serves me right.
The school had A-level Theatre Studies as a subject and I played Lockit, the jailor, in a little touring production of The Beggar’s Opera. The bug had bitten and my plans of becoming a doctor were in jeopardy. I had a sneaky suspicion that life would then take me in a totally different direction.
I also auditioned at the London School of Musical Theatre and although I was offered a place for the following year (one of only 16 students per annum) circumstances brought me back to South Africa.
My father always says, why was he not born rich instead of beautiful! I then completed a three-year Musical Theatre Diploma at the Tswane University of Technology in 2000.
While in my third year of studies, I auditioned for Me and My Girl at The State Theatre in Pretoria and was offered a role. Unfortunately, this was a trying time for theatre throughout the country and many managements were closing their doors, as was the case here.
I then had to search elsewhere and booked two productions – Janice Honeyman’s panto, A Lad ‘n a Lamp at the Joburg Theatre (then The Civic) and The Judas Kiss for Pieter Toerien at the Alhambra Theatre.
I was rehearsing for the one in the day, performing in the other at night and also trying to complete my studies at the same time! Just for the record, The Judas Kiss had me speaking in Italian and with not a stitch of clothing!
YOU WON AWARDS FOR YOUR GRACE JONES-LIKE FRANK N FURTER IN MATTHEW WILD’S “ROCKY HORROR SHOW”. HOW LONG DID YOU PLAY IN THAT PRODUCTION AND WHAT WAS MOST MEMORABLE ABOUT IT?
I won the 2013 Fleur du Cap Award, the 2014 Naledi Award and the 2015 Broadway World South Africa Award for best male performance in a musical, for my role as the debaucherous Dr Frank N Furter.
That show lasted, on and off, for two years, alternating between The Fugard Theatre in Cape Town and the Pieter Toerien Theatre at Montecasino in Joburg. Believe it or not, 444 performances altogether. I had no understudy and did not miss a single performance.
The entire time in that production was memorable. Such roles only come along once in a performer’s career, that role you know was written for you and that you were born to play. I could not believe it when I got the part the second time around, and I promised myself I would not take ONE performance for granted.
I always say there’s a lot of Frank in all of us, there’s just a hell of a lot more in me!
YOU HAD PLAYED FRANK N FURTER SOME YEARS BEFORE? PLEASE ELABORATE – AND DISCUSS HOW YOUR TWO FRANKS DIFFERED.
I did, yes. Six years earlier I was cast as Frank in a production at The Victory Theatre in Joburg and enjoyed 149 performances. I had big shoes to fill, as many South African greats had played the part before me: namely, Jeremy Crutchley, Ian von Memerty and David Dennis, who has just won this year’s Fleur du Cap Award for his role as Bernadette in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. David also happened to be my Shakespeare lecturer at Drama School.
The first time around, I was 30 and the role was my biggest leading role to date. It was completely daunting but exciting at the same time. Here I was, fortunate enough to play a part that is probably every male musical theatre performer’s dream, and everyone’s eyes were on me.
Cathy Specific had also just been born a few months earlier so if there was one thing I could do, that was wear a pair of heels!
The second time around I was a few years older, so with the performance came a maturity. I wasn’t scared of what portraying the role entailed and wanted to sink my teeth into it so badly.
I almost didn’t audition for The Fugard Theatre’s production in fear of not getting the part! With age comes a sense of ownership and a loss of inhibition, so I embraced the role wholeheartedly, with both arms.
This time he was ballsy, brash and desirable – both men and women lusted over him. That’s the secret of playing the part, it’s more than just a man in 6-inch platforms. He can camp it up but he is not camp.
HOW, WHEN AND WHERE DID CATHY GET INVOLVED WITH THE TOURING MADAM ZINGARA SHOW?
The producer of Madame Zingara had seen me perform as Cathy and approached me to join the dinner cirque spectacular. I had already signed to play one of the leads in Deon Opperman’s award-winning musical, Tree Aan (a huge career highlight) but they were very accommodating and prepared to work around my contractual obligations.
I was the MC at the tent for four years in total, if I add up all the tours. My last appearance was in January 2016 at Montecasino, in Celebration,
I always joked and said if you came to the circus and I wasn’t there you were just seeing Zingara – but if you came when Cathy was there, it was Madame Zingara!
WHAT HAVE BEEN THREE BIG HIGHLIGHTS OF CATHY’S PERFORMANCE CAREER TO DATE?
There have honestly been so many in the 10 years that Cathy has been around, including Madame Zingara, my own shows, my Trolley Dollies trio. But highlights also include various front covers, travelling, hosting the Fleur du Cap Awards, the Mr Gay World Competition and the Mr Gay South Africa Competition, a charter flight into Africa, being voted the fifth Best Dressed Woman in SA… the list goes on and on.
Of course, the biggest highlight is that after years of being consumed by this idea to have my own venue I can now say that Cathy has a permanent home, Gate69 in Cape Town.
The fact that I can share my craft with others and show them that she is more than just a man in a dress is a blessing. She has a past, a present and a future. Men want her and women want to be her.
WHAT HAS BEEN CATHY’S MOST EMBARRASSING MOMENT ON STAGE? ANY WARDROBE MALFUNCTIONS OR OTHER MISHAPS PERHAPS?
There are ALWAYS mishaps somewhere or sometime – that’s the joy of doing anything live! Once or twice a zip has gone and, by the grace of God, the garment has remained on my body. Nothing major at all, I take particular care in ensuring this is the case, but certain things are unavoidable.
I have fallen twice at Madame Zingara – once over my own floor-length gold sequinned gown (I nearly took an audience member with me) and once I slipped on someone’s sleeve hanging on the floor as I was making my grand exit. Not my most glamorous of moments! But in my defence, I had no sooner hit the ground and I was up again.
HOW MANY WIGS , SHOES AND COSTUMES DOES CATHY HAVE – AND WHAT WOULD YOU VALUE THEM AT?
Let’s just say my wardrobe is FULL! I’ve got her signature wig which never changes, but I have three of these which I alternate. All my garments are designer gowns (nothing off a hanger) and made to fit – like a condom!
Shoes are all imported or purchased from a shop in Joburg, as a size 13 is not freely available. If I wore a size 8 I would be in heaven!
Then, of course, I have all the wigs and wardrobe as a Trolley Dolly, so be assured the rail has many hangers. The value of all this? Let’s just say I need a sugar daddy!
HOW HAS CATHY CHANGED, PHYSICALLY AND OTHERWISE, OVER THE YEARS?
Oh, she’s changed a lot – and for the better! For starters, her make-up has changed and one finally gets to a point where a certain look works for you, whether it be the eyebrow, or eye, or cheek, or lip.
I have been experimenting for the past 10 years but have settled on certain things that work for the character. Admittedly, I sometimes still get it wrong, perhaps the lips are fuller than usual or the contouring is not as accurate as I would like, but that is just part of the process. I’m rather OCD when it comes to painting my face and intent on ensuring the right side resembles the left side!
As far as her body is concerned, well let’s just say she’ll always be a voluptuous lass. A bit of fat and some shading and you’ll soon wonder who my doctor is. Has she had a prick or two? Of course! It’s the only one she gets at the moment…
HAS CATHY EVER HAD TO DEAL WITH BIGOTS OR NASTY HECKLERS – AND HOW HAVE YOU HANDLED THEM? ANY PARTICULARLY MEMORABLE MOMENTS IN THIS REGARD?
There are always bigots and nasty hecklers, but these are just uneducated individuals who choose not to move with the times. Sadly for them, this is the 21st century, and if they don’t up their game we’re going to leave them behind. Gladly.
Cathy handles them however she thinks they deserve to be handled. She is a lady after all, at least most of the time. Some are luckier than others and get away with just a scratch… and the others, well now, that would be telling wouldn’t it?
I am the first one to agree that a man in a dress is not everyone’s cup of tea. But if you come into MY diningroom for dinner YOU BEHAVE.
At Madame Zingara it happened a few times that people (men, in particular) would not warm to Cathy at first, especially on the red carpet. Not sure what the course of the evening did to change their minds but they were loving her by the end.
When dressed up she’s instantly intimidating,but totally harmless. When people are with work colleagues they react differently as to when they are with friends or family. There are so many factors that contribute to people’s attitude towards her.
In all these years it just makes me realise that it takes all kinds to make a world. It took me many years to be comfortable in my skin, 30 to be exact. Many ups and downs to take my rightful place in society. In fact, if anyone doesn’t like what they see they can f@*&k off! Period. Pass begin, do not collect R200.
WHAT SORT OF FAN MAIL AND REQUESTS DOES CATHY GET? AND WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST UNUSUAL?
She gets quite a bit of this – individuals wanting to know where she buys this where she buys that; make-up tips; just a casual ‘hello’; perhaps pay her a compliment and she always responds. I prize myself on that!
Nothing unusual. No stalkers, no offers for x-rated movies (hahaha) none of that. She hasn’t been asked to jump out of a cake or pose for the cover of Playboy…yet! Marriage proposals? Tons!
HOW, WHERE, WHEN AND WHY DID THE TROLLY DOLLIES COME ABOUT? AND HOW DID THE THREE OF YOU MEET?
I was returning to Madame Zingara as their MC extraordinaire and wanted to offer something different. I wanted to create a proudly South African drag troupe unlike any other. It was my mission to find another two girls who were big like me, who could sing, act and who could move.
While playing a soldier in Tree Aan in 2011, what I describe as the Afrikaans Les Miserables, I found my two sidekicks: Christopher Dudgeon, who would become Holly, and Rudi Jansen, Molly.
Can you believe it, right under my nose! Neither had done drag before – no heels and no Polyfilla ever. Boy, did I have my work cut out for me!
Well, the two of them took to it like a duck to water and we have been performing together ever since. We had a six-month stint at Madame Zingara and this was just enough to cement our place in the business and for us to realise that we had something wonderfully special as a threesome.
I had now opted to not fly solo and it was triple the trouble…
TELL ME ABOUT THE CONCEPT OF GATE 69 AND HOW IT WAS ARRIVED AT AND ACHIEVED?
The idea was in my head for about 10 years. It’s the first thing I thought of every morning when I wok,e and the last thing I thought of every night before I went to bed.
The first time I ever put my blue little uniform on as Cathy Specific I knew I would one day have my own venue. I saw a gap in the market. Nothing like this exists in the country and we’ve had many foreigners who have been through our doors telling us that nothing like it exists in their countries.
We wanted a space where people could feel safe, let their hear down and be themselves without being judged. There is so much heartache, sadness, worry, fear, uncertainty etc, out there that if we can just take you to our world for a few hours and make you forget about all that, then one of our goals has been achieved.
It’s a venue where guests are encouraged to dress up and walk our red carpet! Plush, ornate, cosy, intimate and filled with love. It’s a recipe that’s too fresh to flop.
I approached my two business partners a few years ago and they didn’t, for a moment, hesitate in bringing this dream of mine to life. They wanted to be part of it and gave up everything they were doing to make this happen – careers, relocating, sacrificing all of the above.
Finding the money we knew was going to be a challenge but perseverance paid off. The three of us make a super team – my two partners are like gold.
A lot of people say to me, “Brendan, you’re living your dream” and as much as I want to agree I have to correct them by saying, “I had a dream but I’m living my truth”.
WHO ARE YOUR PARTNERS AND HOW HANDS-ON ARE THE THREE OF YOU?
I have two business partners, Christopher Dudgeon and Luanna Shonfeld, and us three are completely hands-on. Rudi is not a partner but very much involved in running certain departments in the business.
It is a great ensemble that our guests have come to know and love and expect to see when they visit us. We eat, sleep and drink Gate69, there is just no other way.
With it, as you can imagine, comes a lot of sacrifice, but we do it gladly. It’s our baby and we are going to nurture it as long as it takes. Gate69 will grow into the institution it was born to be and deserves to become.We have changed the way people experience a night out, one performance at a time.
HOW DIFFICULT WAS IT TO FIND THE RIGHT BUILDING FOR GATE 69 – AND HOW LONG DID IT TAKE TO FIND AND REFURBISH THE BREE STREET VENUE (AND AT WHAT COST?)
It was most certainly not easy, to say the least. Buildings like the one we are so fortunate to now call ‘home’ do not become available every day. It took us two years to find the right building and probably about the 55th building we saw.
You think to yourself, why did building No 3 not work out, what about No 27, hey No 31 was almost perfect, as was No 44… and then you walk into building No 55 and you know exactly why the others weren’t right.
It took us and the incredible FVE Interiors four months to transform. It was a huge renovation with lots of input from many people. The end product is just as we envisaged – perfect! Cost-wise? Wwell, let’s just say there were many zeros…
WHAT DID THE BREE STREET BUILDING ACCOMMODATE BEFORE?
As much as it is one building it was very much two separate spaces, one with its entrance on Bree Street and the other on Hout Street. We then cleverly bashed through and made the two spaces come together beautifully.
The upstairs area which houses the actual theatre used to be Rudd’s Auctioneers and downstairs used to be the premises of the couture designer, Hendrik Vermeulen.
Funny thing is, a few years ago I (Cathy) stood in his shop having a fitting (he kindly dressed me for a one-woman show I was doing) and little did I know that years later I would occupy the exact same building.
Many moons ago the building used to be a Masonic Church so there was already a lot of singing before we arrived! The plans we initially were given dated back to 1895..
WHAT DO YOU THINK THE REASONS ARE FOR GATE 69’S SUCCESS?
There are many reason for our success, although that’s a strong word. Let’s rather say there are many reasons why this business works.
Firstly, it works because somehow the universe brought three individuals together who each, in their own right, had something unique to offer the business. Secondly, it is owner run, we are there day in and day out. And thirdly, for our patrons, it is an uncomplicated, uncluttered experience filled with honesty and sincerity.
We know nothing else. What you see is what you get. We have most certainly not tried to reinvent the wheel, we are just doing what we know. I always say stick where you are better acquainted – and we are doing just that!
WHAT PLAN AND HOPES FOR CATHY AND GATE 69?
Many! I will be around as long as people want to see me and experience the best night out. I just want to continue doing what I do, making people smile, think, reconsider, evaluate and appreciate.
Like I always say, the sky is not the limit! Reach for the moon and if I don’t succeed, at least I’ll be amongst the stars.
Watch this space…maybe a Gate 69 somewhere else in the world?
IF CATHY HAD THE CHOICE TO PERFORM ALONGSIDE ANY TWO HUNKS WHO WOULD THEY BE? AND WHAT TWO FEMALES WOULD SHE CHOOSE?
She gets to do that every evening with her two sidekicks, Holly and Molly. She has the best of both worlds – Christopher and Rudi the guys, and Holly and Molly, the gals! Together, The Trolley Dollies have something incredibly special, something that doesn’t exist in any other drag troupe out there. Most certainly not on the African continent.Ok, if she had to be honest perhaps maybe the likes of Channing Tatum and Chris Pine? Although she’d swallow them whole and spit nothing out! This probably means that Cathy would need to do a movie? Females? Tannie Evita and Ceri Dupree.
WHAT IS CATHY’S MOTTO IN LIFE?
I said it earlier, ‘The sky’s not the limit.’I do have a few others but this one is important to me.
If you can dream it, you can also do it. I’m living proof of that. Nothing fell into my lap or was given to me on a silver platter. Times have been tough, rubbing pennies together, having doors closed in my face or being turned away on many occasion – and thankfully so, because it just made me want to succeed even more.
WHERE AND WHEN WAS BRENDAN BORN, WHERE SCHOOLED, AND IS HE LIKELY TO ALWAYS LET CATHY BE TO THE FORE?
Brendan was born in Pretoria in 1977 and remained there for 18 years. He matriculated at Pretoria Boys’ High School where he spent five glorious years and likes to tell people he’s a “well-raised Afrikaans boy”.
He is quite happy for his alter-ego, the divine Miss Specific, to take the spotlight when needed and remain in the wings while she shines. There is thankfully no rivalry between these two creatures and whenever the one needs to come out and play, the other one politely steps back.
ANY OTHER NEWS YOU WOULD LIKE TO SHARE?
News, well there’s lots but unfortunately not much I can divulge at the moment. What I can say is that there are exciting developments on the horizon. That is the most wonderful thing about Gate 69, the fact that new opportunities present themselves when you least expect them.
We also work incredibly hard at our Purple Palace to ensure that these developments present themselves.