On Grindr I told people I was breaking into the business, but that I was also waiting for the right time. I was a triple-threat—a dancer, singer, actor—and then some. I had it, and it was going to make me famous. I just didn’t know exactly when or how.
At the time, I was living on the Gold Coast. It was kind of like California with theme parks, palm trees and water, but it wasn’t California. I didn’t have the money for a plane ticket there but it didn’t matter. I still sensed a kind of glamour, a feeling that my dreams were not only possible but imminent, and all I had to do was reach out and take them.
I’d come following a lead to go-go dance in a nightclub but when I arrived, there was a ‘For Lease’ sign propped against the club’s blacked-out windows and I hadn’t booked a return flight.
I took a room in a small house, really a bungalow, with two sisters in their late twenties who were both lesbians and matronly. I hadn’t needed to pay bond and my room could only fit one single-size mattress on the floor. The yard was all tall grass and weeds and the front porch had rotted and in the corner was a hole I’d once seen a snake slide into. It lifted its brown head at me, just for a moment, then continued on.
The house was always humid, everywhere was always humid, and mould grew in small constellations across the bathroom ceiling. The sisters worked during the day and carpooled together in the morning. They were something like secretaries. At night they cooked their lunches for the next day and sat in the living room smoking, watching Foxtel marathons of Medium.
I didn’t do anything during the day. I didn’t practise or prepare. Mainly I massaged the sisters’ concealer into the bags under my eyes and streamed episodes of TMZ and E! Entertainment on my laptop. My favourites were the retrospectives where they showed you where a star came from and then where they came to be. I loved it when they interviewed old friends, classmates. ‘Yes, we always knew,’ I imagined the sisters in their shitty house repeating on camera.
After a morning of E! I walked around the house taking photos of myself. I took hundreds in different light, my head angled a slightly different way, my body posed, my chest topless, my chest not topless. Sometimes I put them on Instagram and dating apps, not because I was looking for sex but because I liked being complimented.
No-one ever said it aloud, but my body was not the body of a go-go dancer. I didn’t exercise, or really eat, either. My nipples were weird, kind of far off to the side and I was slim, yes, but my stomach was doughy, like a small child’s.
When the sun was out, I’d take a bus to the beach and walk around the strip of skyscrapers that lined the coast. Then I’d walk down to the sand and pour Diet Coke on myself. I’d read the artificial sweetener helped to get an even tan. I did things like that then, take the internet at its word. I lay down on the sand, ants crawling over my chest, and basked in the light till the skyscrapers’ shadows lengthened to meet the water and the hummer limousines came out ferrying groups of bridal parties from one hotel to another.
My phone sometimes buzzed with apps or my mother’s name flashing across my screen. I’d let it ring out. I didn’t have time for any of it.
I was 18—I’m not much older now—and I truly believed I would be known.
The woman I dealt with at the unemployment agency didn’t think what I did classified as work but she didn’t know anything. She’d call me and I’d make excuses for why I couldn’t come in.
‘You don’t really know anything about the entertainment business,’ I said. ‘It’s completely different. I have things lined up. This is a waste of time.’
‘If they pay you you’ll need to report that as income.’ She always sounded as if she had a cold. ‘I can see you’ve got some missed attendance.’
To collect benefits I had to enrol in a hospitality course, but that was only one day every two weeks. There were modules online but it was the kind of thing where if you clicked the wrong answer they would tell you and you got to pick again.
The other students were all eager. They wanted to do the course five days a week, finish in half a month and work out on the strip. I was happy it stretched out. It was like home economics class except we also learnt about alcohol, what drink went into what glass, how to make a highball, a mint julep. We got to taste them at the end of the class, though I never touched my own. I didn’t want to drink drinks I had made, I wanted the world to give them to me. You know, VIP.
I told her it was fine.
‘You’ve got to work with me. You need to do something.’
But I did do something. At night I went to Cabana. It was a karaoke bar next to the casino. It had a Tiki theme. Drinks came in deep totem mugs, chunks of pineapple skewered on cocktail umbrellas. There was a water feature by the bar. It was kitsch, tacky if you know what I mean but it was close to the one recording studio I could find on Google and I figured agents or producers might hang out there.
It took me hours to get ready, to do my hair, de-lint my clothes, although I always wore the same thing. I’d sit in the corner in my sunglasses, my gold lacreme woman’s bolero, then walk to the stage, pick up a ticket and wait. I tried to go on at a specific time, 11.15. It made me feel like I was a lounge singer, a regular, someone to be discovered.
Things like that happen. People don’t think they do but they can. It’s on E!. This star did it, this one too, it’s all towards something. Every star had a story they told once they were famous about when they weren’t. I spent a lot of time just thinking how I was writing my own.
When my song came on, I’d step onto the podium, my bolero flaring in front of the silver drapes, stare out at the crowd and sing. I was happy to sing. It gave me pleasure and in turn I gave it a lot. I had moves, my own choreography and looking out I’d feel giddy, because I had a secret, and it was that one day they would all be paying to see the show.
I’d do two songs and when my set was over I’d tell everyone my name then go back to my corner and drink soda water till closing time, when a man who looked Indian began wiping the tables and stacking the chairs. Night after night, no-one ever spoke to me.
I liked it. I felt that was how it was meant to be.
One Friday, as I was dressing to go out, the sisters came home from their work Christmas parties. The older one was wearing a Santa hat. They were drunk and barged into the bathroom as I was using their cosmetics. They didn’t say anything about it, they just wanted to know where I was going. I was coy but finally I told them and they begged to come with me. They said they’d pay for a taxi, we could all take it. I said I was fine with the bus.
‘We’ll be your entourage.’ The two of them looked at each other. I had to think about it. I said yes.
We waited in the kitchen for the taxi, and I remember the sisters sitting at the linoleum table, ashing their cigarettes into an oversized Movie World mug. The sun had set hours ago but outside it was still hot and the sky faintly glowed the way it does in summer. I stood in front of the fan and looked out the window at the palms, the lone streetlight.
We got to the bar and they ordered drinks. One ate the other’s pineapple chunk. I can’t say which—it was difficult to distinguish the two of them because I wasn’t interested in them or their lives. Looking back, it is hard to say why I disliked them so much. Sometimes they let me pay rent late. I think it was just that their lives were ordinary. They were everything I feared and despised.
‘When’s your slot?’ the one with the Santa hat asked.
The other, ‘Do you have fans? Are there regulars?’
They were making fun of me but I was very earnest at the time.
The sisters sang the duet from Cheers and then I got up and did a number. Halfway through, one of them fell off her stool. A Tiki mug rolled across the floor and a bouncer approached them and asked them to leave. I kept singing.
I sat down with my soda water and somehow missed them. I spent a lot of time alone watching other people be around other people. I watched the stage. A couple sang the song from Aladdin about a whole new world, an Asian woman whispered ‘Time after Time’, a fat man in a Hawaiian shirt sang Cher. They were all ugly, their choices uninspired, the delivery all derivative.
Close to one o’clock the stage was empty. The couple who sang Aladdin were in a booth but the girl sat on top of the guy and he put his hands up her skirt and she giggled, brushing them off, then placed them back. My phone vibrated with a notification. It was Grindr.
The man was 36 and his profile photo showed a sunset on a beach. The message read, ‘ur voice is very beautiful.’
I played it cool, not looking around. I just watched the couple. My phone vibrated again.
‘I work in music.’
My heart leapt. I replied, ‘Tell me more.’
After that night the bar started charging a cover fee. It was only 15 dollars but it was a lot for me. My benefits weren’t high. At first I tried to walk in like I worked there but every time the bouncer, who resembled more than anything a TMZ cameraman, stood in my way and held out his hand.
At home, when I did eat, I boiled rice and then to flavour it I skimmed from whatever the sisters had put in tupperware for the next day. I was beginning to get nervous that I would have to leave before I was discovered. That I would return home to my mother’s, to a shitty suburb in Perth, and go back to working at the pharmacy handing out samples of celebrity fragrances that weren’t my own.
My life in Perth wasn’t bad but like the sisters’, it was ordinary. My mother took medication for a botched operation that was meant to put in a gastric band. I had no brothers, no sisters. I was all she had. The last time I saw my father he’d shown me a building in Midvale where you could collect food stamps. On the Gold Coast I told people I was an orphan.
I had high hopes for my messenger. He’d told me, or at least I was sure, that he had connections but I had to wait for him to put those connections into play. ‘send more pics’, he messaged. And I did. I had the sisters take my headshots and then some photos of me posed topless on my bed—selfies seemed unprofessional. The sisters agreed.
He sent me a photo of himself. He looked cool, like he could be in a magazine. He was wearing a tan blazer and had sun-kissed skin. He was like George Clooney.
Sometimes I looked at his profile picture and tried to guess where it had been taken. The sunset didn’t seem to be the kind you could see here—the sun was setting over the water, so the water was to the west. I thought maybe it was the same Pacific I looked out at, but from the other side.
I still wanted to go-go dance. I thought, now that my career was in motion, I had to be more forward thinking. I felt karaoke in a tacky bar was better than karaoke in just any bar, but it wasn’t enough. It wouldn’t justify an E! special that could last an episode, let alone a multi-part mini-series. It also didn’t pay.
I went back to the closed nightclub. It was the same bus I took to the bar. The lead I had gotten to come to the Gold Coast was from months earlier, from a drag queen named Madame Chiffon. She had performed in a bar in Perth with a troupe of barely clad men. Drinking from a jug of beer, she told me to come to her club and audition. After the show, the dancers moved around the bar and were given free drinks.
I thought about that night a lot then. How people took photos of themselves with the dancers and how I watched a woman in her forties try to tug at the elastic of one of their thongs. It wasn’t fame but it was something that could tide one over.
This time, when I arrived, the club’s windows weren’t blacked out and I could see inside. There was empty space, sawdust and labourers. I asked one as they came outside what was happening. He wore an orange vest and said the space was being turned into apartments. I asked the workers if they knew Madame Chiffon, they looked at me, told me to get lost, they weren’t fags. I told them to fuck themselves. I walked a little down the road and sat on the footpath. I did what I always did then. I focused and visualised myself surrounded in bright, flashing light.
A week later at the learning centre, I sat at a pasteboard table and role-played being a customer. I had put my hand up when the teacher asked for a volunteer. I’d done drama at school.
I sat at the table and asked, ‘How do you want me to say the line?’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
A student walked over to me. He had red hair, a septum piercing, and wore a K-mart T-shirt. He had no style. He handed me a piece of paper, my menu, and mimed filling a glass of water. He asked, ‘What can I get you?’
I said what I wanted, but left it slightly unclear with my delivery because I figured most people don’t know what they want and when they do they’re not bold enough to get it. I really opened up the scene. The redhead just stood there.
‘What was that?’ the teacher said.
The teacher looked at me. ‘Just ask, can the sandwich be gluten free? That’s it.’
We went again. The teacher asked for someone else to take my spot.
At home, as I lint-rolled my bolero, I thought, I don’t need any of this. I messaged my messenger. ‘Do you think I could be on TV? At some point I want to do TV.’
He said, ‘ys. we make video.’
I saw the benefits. A show reel.
After that I stopped going to my classes, didn’t sign in online. It was too much. It made me self-reflexive. It took me to a bad place. Instead, I went to the beach.
On the bus, passing palm after palm framed in a blue sky, I dreamt of Beverly Hills, Rodeo Drive, Malibu.
When I came home, without looking up from the television the sisters reminded me it was rent week. Then one of them said, ‘The internet is going very slow.’ It wasn’t a statement, but an accusation. Then she said, ‘There’s mail for you,’ and pointed to the bench. It was from the employment agency. The humidity had already made the envelope damp. I didn’t open it. I walked outside and dropped it in the porch’s hole. It was their third letter. They all sat together in the dark. I came back inside.
Lying on my mattress, sweating, I tried to stream an interview with a singer who had once cleaned the houses of record producers and left copies of her demo tapes in their stereos. The internet was slow. The singer stuttered. ‘You … have … to re-ally … wa-nt … it.’ I shut the laptop and lay in my want. I wanted my messenger to message me and for him to call a black car for me, a limousine with reflective windows that would take me to a dark, soundproof room where I would make my future.
When I imagined my future then, it was always fame. I didn’t question it. It was something that was rushing to meet me, to envelop me and, when it did, people would recognise and want to be me. Personal assistants would open and reply to my fan mail. Luxury brands would send me pieces and kiss my feet if I chose to wear them. I would smile, or my eyes would suggest a smile, and that image would be across the covers of tabloid magazines, smartphone backgrounds and projected, 100 × 100 metres, onto the backdrop of an arena stage.
My phone vibrated. It was him. ‘hi.’
I asked if that night he could put me on the list for Cabana. He didn’t reply.
Eventually I did find Madame Chiffon. I had found the club’s Facebook page and trawled through their uploaded pictures until I found one of her that was tagged. The page showed that she was a she, and not a man. I sent her a private message. She replied immediately, which I took as a good sign.
I was frustrated because it had been weeks of the man texting me and nothing was happening. I had a growing sense that nothing would happen. I intended to get a new agent, someone who would take me where I needed to be.
I met Madame Chifon in a food court beneath the CBD. She was already sitting down. I wore a dark mesh singlet and oversized pumps. I wanted to impress. I told her that when we’d met I thought she was a drag queen.
‘Oh, I put, like, gel packs in my bra and use a wig. Do my make up like a clown. The scene doesn’t love women.’
She tilted her chin towards her neck and then sort of goggled her eyes. I saw the resemblance even though she now wore an outfit identical to something the sisters might wear: nylon tights, plain skirt, a business blouse.
‘You told me to come by when I was in town,’ I said. ‘I was ready to audition.’
She looked at me, really looked at me and then said, ‘Did you look different?’
‘You came to Perth and did a show.’
‘Honey, when I’m dressed up I’m off my tits. The club’s shut anyway.’
‘So what do you do now?’
‘I call people and tell them about insurance packages.’
‘Oh.’ I held my hands in my lap.
She took a mouthful of Thai, followed it with a swig of Coke.
‘Yeh,’ she said. ‘My break ends in ten.’
‘Are there any places I should try?’
A cleaner came and waited in front of us, then took her plastic plate. I held my breath.
‘I don’t know.’ She got up. ‘Maybe start going to a gym.’
Feeling low and stupid, I walked through the city and onto the beach. I held a can of Diet Pepsi to my chest. The city seemed so small. It was sunny but I didn’t care.
I sat down and pulled my top off, splashing my shoulders with Diet Pepsi that ran down my chest and stomach in rivulets. A man jogged by with two white balls of muscle, pit bulls, off leash. They bounded towards me and I put my hands up, scared, but all they did was lick at my nipples. The man ran up to them and grabbed them by the scruff. He wore a blue wife-beater, a Southern Cross tattoo on one bulging tricep. I put my arms down and he stared at me as if to say, what the hell’s the deal with you. I didn’t look back. I stayed poised. When the dogs were two white points in the distance I got up and began to walk back to the bungalow.
I stopped outside the strip mall near the house, thinking to buy a juice, something to elevate my mood. The strip mall was dark, with lots of fake marble stucco and plastic palms. It was the kind of place that sold glow-in-the-dark Buddhas, fake porcelain cats, two-for-one packs of tracksuit pants. There was an Asian grocery store, an accountant’s and a beauty parlour. If I wanted juice, I had to buy it in a carton.
I walked into the parlour. I remembered that a singer I adored had once told a talk-show host that in a dark period of her life, whenever she felt down, she got blazed and had her driver take her to see a woman, ‘her girl’, who injected her face full of Juvederm. The singer wasn’t even 30 years old.
I asked the woman at the front counter if they did fillers. She was middle-aged and kind of bloated. Looking at my face, she scrunched up her eyes, and said ‘yes’ and then, ‘you’re very young’.
‘I know how to take care of my skin.’
We went to a room in the back that had no windows, just brown carpet. I said I wanted Juvederm. It gave me a high, just saying those syllables aloud, as if I was saying lu-xu-ry, bo-ttle ser-vice, pa-tron. I sat on a padded chair like at a dentist’s. The woman put purple latex gloves on, pulled them taut, then left the room and came back wheeling in a tray with syringes. She asked where I wanted it. I pointed to under my eyes. ‘My lips too.’ She stared at them, gauging them. I liked the attention.
When she told me how much it would cost I pulled out my phone and checked my bank balance. It was low—my payments had been suspended. I said I didn’t have enough.
‘How much do you have?’
I showed her the screen. She nodded.
‘It’s not Juvederm but I could do a bit of something.’
My lips were swollen but I thought they looked good, like Angelina Jolie. I went home and tried on different outfits, then settled on my bolero, doing a twirl as I put it on. I felt confident. I felt good. I had a word in my mind that night and the word was slay.
I sent a text to my messenger. I typed, ‘Tonight we should meet,’ and crept out of my room, taking 15 dollars from the purse of one of the sisters.
At Cabana I sang but the notes were botched. My lips were numb and the words stuck to each other.
Someone heckled. I got off the stage and went to the bathroom, splashed my face with cold water. I thought the world was awful but that the crowd, all of them, would be on my E! special too. I waited in line again to sing. I thought E! special, E! special, but when I stood in front of the silver drapes, I didn’t do any better.
My phone vibrated. ‘yes, we meet.’
I said, ‘I’m sorry I botched all the notes.’
‘a star isnt notes.’
I asked, ‘Am I a star?’
I held the phone to my chest.
It was 5.15 in the morning. He had sent me his location. He didn’t want to meet at the club. He said the club was seedy. Instead we met somewhere worse—his flat, one of many, making an L around a gravel car park like a Holiday Inn. I don’t know what I was expecting. A view from a great height, glasses of Cristal.
I stood in front of his door and sent a message, here. I thought about doing scales, warm ups, but my face was too hot. I stood there and scratched at my cheeks, the skin between my eyebrows and eyes.
The door opened. He didn’t look like he did in his pictures because the man in his pictures was someone else. They didn’t even have the same haircut. He was middle-aged, his stomach bulging out of his singlet, long cracked toenails visible in sandals. It was the cleaner from the bar. He put a finger to his lips, made a sort of cooing sound, then took my arm, leading me into a dark room and closing the door behind me.
It was squalid. The sheets on the bed were dirty. There were crumbs, stains, a rolled-over glass. It wasn’t all that different to where I was living. But there was a dog, the kind you could put in a handbag. It looked like a big rat. It bit at its skin and yapped.
The man looked at me the way the beautician had, up close. He told me I was pretty, then kissed me. He put a hand up my top and ran his fingers over my nipples. He was very gentle. I still wanted to talk about myself, my big career, but he turned me over, placed my face into the mattress, pulling on my hips till I was on my hands and knees. He tucked my underwear down. It felt like my face was on fire and then I felt something wet slide over my arse. It was his tongue. He slid it in.
The dog yapped and yapped and yapped. The man stopped, yelled at it in a language I didn’t understand, then brought his tongue back and flicked it around. He moved up, slowly brought his crotch to my arse.
For a while I stared at the sky through the closed curtains, grey slowly washing to pink, the shadow of a palm, then myself, kneeling, him panting over me in the wardrobe’s mirror. A red rash had spread down my face, and my right eyelid was almost closed over, puffed up like a cyst, a purple balloon. Behind me, I saw a webcam propped up on a tripod, its little red light blinking.
For a moment I thought I couldn’t breathe but then I remembered how. It wasn’t that my face was fucked up or that I was a virgin or anything like that. I wasn’t a virgin any more than he was an agent, but for those moments, for the first time, I saw myself and I knew I didn’t look like a star. I didn’t look like anyone. I looked like no-one at all.
That morning I did the only thing I knew how to do. I turned towards the camera and put on a show. •
Paul Dalla Rosa is a writer based in Melbourne. He is a 2017 Felix Meyer Scholar and is currently undertaking his PhD at RMIT University.