Pure white dressing gowns. Feather boas. West Coast Cruisers. Botox. These are just some of the accoutrements and accessories I witnessed during my journey to the Knox Community Arts Centre.
The girl groups I’ve spoken with have tangled with fame and come out the other side: tough, determined and talented. Putting them in a competitive circumstance has made them polish their acts, resew their costumes and tune up their voices. They’re ready for the performance of a lifetime. I’m here to tell you about these four groups and what The Swing Sisters, The Variations, Shazam and Girl Power are going to bring to the stage come July 2nd. This is Skirts, Battle of The Girl Groups, and they’re all ready for a fight.
Not that you’d know it speaking to the Swing Sisters.
“If I had to describe us in one word?” says Sissi Swing, head poking out of a fluffy white robe, “It’d have to be Swing.”
“I would have thought Fun!” chimes in Missi, eyes to the pale blue ceiling as her make-up artist applies eyeliner with surgical precision. The Swing Sisters are hardly intimidating to look at: hometown sweethearts Sissi, Missi and Krissi form an adorable and admirable trio, rendered even more harmless by their pre-show robes and slippers. Her pale skin blending with the robe, Sissi responds to her sister: “Of course, we like to have fun, but we also are very serious when it comes to our singing. We like to entertain.” Entertainment aside, the Sisters have a well-known and well-publicised anti-war leaning. Before breaking into show-biz proper, they signed on with the armed forces and were shipped off to perform for the troops.
“We figured there wasn’t a lot we could do. We are against war in all its forms, but there wasn’t a lot we could to actually stop the war, because it’s bigger than the three of us.” explains Sissi.
“War happens!” chimes in Missi, slipping off her slippers and selecting her first pair of heels from an impressive rack beside her chair. Despite their demeanours, the group have not only seen their share of conflict, but have had to deal with the aftermath.
“I think the worst and best performance we did was in that hospital on the front line. That was godawful!” says Missi.
“They were missing arms and stuff! People don’t tell you that when you go to war.” adds Sissi, frown lines appearing in her usually smooth face. Some research into the group’s history reveals that the Swing Sisters played over 150 shows during the war, their ‘tour’ often taking them deep into enemy territory, unaccompanied by a band. However, the group’s can-do attitude extended even to these grim circumstances: “You’d be surprised how many people can play instruments in the trenches!” says Missi. “The harmonica, beautiful.” The show Missi mentioned in the makeshift hospital on the front lines retains particular significance to the band during their wartime efforts. The famous 10-song performance is rendered all the more impressive by the fact that it was largely unaccompanied.
“Soldiers in the beds would clap, or tap what they could on the beds and keep time for us. It was quite wonderful!” says Missi. “Although, with the morphine, they weren’t quite on the beat!”
Sissi recalls laying eyes on a certain soldier mid-performance. “He had no arms, and no legs, and he lost an eye…”
“But he still had an ear!” adds the quiet Krissi, turning from her brightly-lit mirror. “I like to think he was dancing. He wasn’t moving, but, in his head, blinking his eye in time…”
“You could feel his finger clicking along, even though he was missing his hands.” says Missi.
After the war ended, the group rocketed to stardom. Sissi produces a newspaper clipping, showing the trio arriving home for the first time. Descending the gangplank, flowers raining down on them they look as radiant in ink as they do in person.
“It was a little scary,” Sissi admits. “We’d heard stories about people listening to our records, but we had no idea until we saw these people all over the pier.” Leaning over from her chair, Missi adds: “When we were getting off the boat, and they were throwing the flowers at us…and do you remember that one nincompoop who threw a pot plant?”
Sissi laughs, moving her fringe aside to show me a concealed scar. “The note was lovely, though!” she laughs. Their carefree optimism extends to the looming competition as well. When asked for their reasons in participating, Missi simply states that “We love doing charity!”
“The other groups all have different styles and everyone has their place. And if the other groups happen to win, then good on them.” adds Sissi.
“But they won’t.” finishes Krissi.
Some groups aren’t as magnanimous in their confidence, however. Shaniqua of Motown sensations The Variations says “We don’t need to prove anything to ourselves. It’s just proving it to others.”, and while The Swing Sisters have their pop culture history to support them, the Variations possess a certain element of independence and class not usually seen in modern showbiz. Selecting a purple feather boa from her meticulously-kept accessories, Frangeliqua tells me that this attitude of independence began when the group was first formed. “We were all auditioning to be a backup singer for a big name that we won’t mention. We were all…we didn’t get through. We didn’t do too well. But we got along, in the queue…”
“And I knew that I wanted to sing with those voices.” finishes Martinah, mistress of The Variations’ wardrobe and s brainchild behind the group’s formation. Since Shaniqua, Martinah, Frangeliqua and Monique first broke out from their backup careers and hit the club circuit, they’ve revelled in each other’s unique talents. Frangeliqua, talking around the team of hairdressers preparing her for tonight’s show, relates how the group found their stride as musicians: “Initially we were very nervous, because we’re all very different in sound, which is why we’re called The Variations. In a unique way, I think our voices are awesome, because they fill in the gaps in the sound. They create a whole sound, and the audience was blown away. It was something they’d never experienced before. ” Indeed, there’s a consistency in their differences that shines through even in their dressing room. Martinah’s mirror, festooned with the group’s unique and varied accessories (“I stole them from Dusty!” she tells me covertly, gesturing to their now-ubiquitous feather boas), obviously outlines what she brings to the group, but as she hands petite Monique her gloves with instinctual speed, I can see that the ladies fully acknowledge the roles each of them serves in making their group run smoothly. Tensions are always bound to arise, however, and that seems especially so in this group. Self-proclaimed diva Monique, invisible behind a cloud of hairspray, tells me about her relationship with the rest of the group. “They fill the gaps, what can I say? I’m a princess, and I’ve always been a princess and always gotten what I wanted. Now I want to win.” Her group-mates share the (usually) friendly rivalry:
“We all know who the real talent is, if people want to start all the songs by themselves then that’s fine.” says Shaniqua.
“Monique originally wanted it to be called Monique and The Other Three, like Diana Ross and The Supremes.” adds Frangeliqua. When I expressed surprise about this animosity, Martinah simply told me “We’re nice to her face…”. Spats and stage time aside, The Variations make a point, perhaps even more so than The Swing Sisters, to maintain their image: “We are utter class, let’s be honest.” Shaniqua says, emphasising with a sip of white wine. Frangeliqua adds “We don’t like to disclose what happens in our personal lives, that’s nobody’s business but our own!”, perhaps referring to Girl Power and Shazam’s frequent tabloid appearances. With their classy reputation and unique sound, The Variations are more than ready to show the other groups what they can do, reflected heavily in how they perceive their chosen style.
“I think it’s the most classic era of music. We’ve kept it simple, and simple is best.” says Monique.
“We don’t have any padding, no cheesy dancing, no gimmicks.” says Martinah. When asked about their chances against the other groups, Martinah simply told this reporter:
“They better bring it.”
Stepping over the empty bottles and into Shazam’s dressing room, I begin to realise that not every group in this competition is so focused on the music. Timidly asking for a description of the group’s style, Shazza hurled a “Grouse!” in my direction, followed by a half-full Smirnoff Ice. Between the near concussion from the bottle and being blinded by the fluoro rainbow that makes up Shazam’s wardrobe, I immediately felt the harsh attitudes and theatricality that made the 80’s group such a sensation. Beryl, Shazza, Kazza and Razza, all either mid-sip or mid-hair crimp don’t put nearly the amount of thought that Martinah of The Variations does into their stage outfits.
“Lime green taffeta is so in this year!” shrieks Razza with a laugh, yanking her ponytail to the side of her head. Oddly, for a group so musically talented, they seem to have an utter disregard for their voices, insisting on screaming at each other and at me even in their cramped dressing room. Then again, based on the group’s history, a more…’organic’ approach to their music should be expected.
“How we got together is…uh…that we got totally drunk on West Coast Coolers at our boyfriends’ footy ball one night.” says Beryl, lighting up a Winfield already stained with lipstick.
“We got up to sing karaoke and –Shazam! – our group was born!” finishes Shazza, with the group letting out an ear-splitting cheer. Despite their demeanour, the girls of Shazam are perhaps even close than Sissi, Missi and Krissi of the Swing Sisters.
“We’re like a family,” Kazza tells me. “ Shazza’s expecting her third kid, which is a pretty ace achievement for a nineteen year old, and Beryl is getting married soon, so we’re all gonna be bridesmaids at the wedding.” As well as their closeness, Shazam have been remarkably modest about their rise to fame, making a point to hang on to their first jobs.
“We didn’t finish Year Ten cos we got kicked out of school, but it’s ok because we all got jobs at Safeways at Eastlands. Shazza works in the deli, I stock the cans, Kazza keeps us all supplied with Winnie Blues on the front counter and Beryl is a checkout chick.” Razza tells me, wincing as she haphazardly pokes her eyes with a bent mascara brush. The tensions experienced by The Variations are also hardly a problem here.
“Well, there was also one time when Kazza got her chewy stuck in Razza’s hair.” Beryl says, when asked for any tales of tension. “We couldn’t get it out…so she just crimped over it.”
“I think it’s still there somewhere!” adds Razza, pulling at her thick mane of hair.
If Shazam are raw attitude, then Girl Power is that attitude gone corporate. Munching from a bowl of red (and only red) M&Ms, I watch the quintet dart like manic pixies, throwing anecdotes at me between applications of powder and injections of Botox. Whether it’s method acting or meth abuse, I find it impossible to get out the real names of any of the group, and I’m forced to refer to them as their current personas, the Spice Girls.
“We’re poptastic!” quips Scary, who despite her snow-white skin is doing a decent job of living up to her namesake. After informing them of some of the other group’s talents, she breaks character long enough to outline what makes the 90s pop super-group so unique: “ Girl Power are special because we’ll be dancing and singing at the same time in every single one of our songs and that is very rare, because lots of people sing, and lots of people dance, but not many people can sing and dance at the same time.” she tells me, somehow not out of breath.
“There’s no miming, there’ll be no Britney Spears…” adds who I assume to be Posh, popping a microscopic piece of macrobiotic lettuce in her mouth and savouring it. “We’re double threats.” she adds.
“We don’t need to act, it’s a pretty big thing in the music world today, most people can’t do even be a single threat.” chimes in Baby. In a strange way, Girl Power seem to exhibit an even more rebellious attitude than Shazam. When asked about their thoughts towards the other groups, Ginger wasted no time in putting her two cents in: “You can tell they totally want to scratch our eyes out. And that’s fine! We like a bit of competition!”
Sporty is quick to jump in: “And we’re all pretty hot too. I’d say we’re the hottest group. Write it. ‘They claim they are the hottest…’” she dictates. Sex appeal does seem vital to the success of their group, according to past experience. Scary shares some of the group’s past struggles: “We learned quickly that sex sells. On our very first single, on the cover, we were wearing a lot of clothes and it didn’t sell well.” Her publicist passes me a copy of the second single, which my editor has forbidden me from describing in any great detail. I mention that The Variations have made a point to stay classy, Ginger offered a counter-argument to class.
“It’s more than just being a whore, it’s about the choice! You can be a whore, or be a nun.” She steps behind a curtain to swap to a more low cut top, and Posh continues: “We think that living life, it’s much better to be a whore, more exciting! And…well our boobs are quite impressive!” I try and leave the mammaries aside to focus on memories. Despite the manufactured origin of the band (“Simon Cowell saw the double threat in all of us and just put us in a group,” Scary tells me), the ladies share a very creative soul beneath the layers of makeup and airbrushing. Baby drifts out of character long enough to detail their songwriting career, usually shrouded in mystery.
“To be honest, we wrote most of the Spice Girls catalogue. In ‘Wannabe’ we wrote the “I wanna”, and then some other guy came in to do the rest. But “I wanna” was all us.”
“It just happened, like, we were just jamming, and it just sort of happened, and nobody wrote it down for ages because it was really easy to remember.” adds Ginger. Posh passes a mobile phone back to her agent and says “For our first song, I think we did well, it was very creatively challenging!”
Creatively speaking, the girls have struggled to acclimate to the environment of Skirts.
“It’s upsetting,” Sporty tells me, somehow frowning through the layers of botox, “we’ve had to scale down our act a lot, you can’t have pyrotechnics and flashing lights and a 32 piece orchestra.”
“I don’t know what we’re doing in this sh**hole, honestly” murmurs Posh, mid-collagen injection.
Despite their showmanship taking a hit, Girl Power are ready to take the stage and the competition. “They should be jealous. Nobody else is going to be able to sing and dance with such intensity, and such skill in both.” says Scary.
As the groups leave their respective dressing rooms, I see that, although disparate stylistically, they’re joined by their competitive spirit. They all share parting words with me as they head for the stage.
“Tell the other groups, please try not to be too upset when we win!” Sissi Swing tells me, genuine grin contrasting with the determination in her eyes.
“No-one’s gonna shimmer and shine like us!” Martinah says, flipping her feather boa over a shoulder.
“Nobody puts Shazam in a corner.” roars Kazza, with raucous cheers to back her up.
“The others should be scared.” mutters Posh through an accent and freshly plumped lips.
Skirts will be fierce. It will be intense. The four groups are going to compete, clash and perform their hearts out, and no matter who wins I left feeling confident that the real victors won’t be on stage, but sitting in the auditorium.
Skirts runs from the 2nd of July to the 10th of July, at the Knox Community Arts Centre. Tickets are $26, call Melinda on 9720 3205 or check the What’s On page for more info.
The groups are:
Katie Packer, Natalie Silsbury and Kate Trickey
Vicki Barden, Kelly Sherman, Stephanie Daniels and Julia Duke
Rhiannon Jones, Karlie Gooding, Alannah Guthrie-Jones and Kathryn White.
Candy Sweetman, Jacqui Levitas, Melissa Trickey, Eleanor Horsburgh and Kat Walduck.