Broken Hill: Australian mining town’s $1m drag queen makeover

It’s Saturday at noon and hundreds have packed the town square of Broken Hill. More than 1000kms west of Sydney and 500kms north of Adelaide, it’s about as remote as you can get and still be in New South Wales.

On a podium in the shadow of the Line of Lode, an artificial hill made entirely of mine tailings that dominates the town of 17,000, there’s a commotion — someone is late.

She finally bustles in, all apologies: “Sorry, sorry, I was tearing my hotel room apart. I just could not find my tits.”

There are two big annual get-togethers in this outback town. One revolves around a horse race, the other drag queens. There’s no contest as to whose got the biggest staying power — nope, it’s not the racegoers, it’s the drag queens.

“Drag queens know how to back it up and party all weekend,” Esther La Rovere, the publican of the town’s Palace Hotel tells

“The only other big event is the St Patricks race day and that’s just one day and a recovery but the drag queens run over four days. It’s quite a feat to do the whole thing.”

Ms La Rovere should know, she’s the brains behind the annual Broken Heel festival. This weekend marks its fourth year and thousands have rolled into the town to witness it.

It’s more than a festival, she says, it’s the event that’s helped a “hard drinking mining town get over itself”. But, as witnessed, there are still some locals who have yet to be won over by blokes in frocks with feather boas.

Under the midday winter sun, Dolly Diamond is the first to face the crowd, many of which have donned neon wigs for the occasion. In a clipped British accent, she says she’s been up early putting on “inch thick” make up and is now “poofed out” — it’s a knowing cheeky wink to drag’s roots in the gay community.

Kids throng the edge of the stage giggling at the sight before the them; one boy has a Star Wars T-shirt on. Dolly kneels down, and disposing of the female voice says deep, gruff and slow: “I am your father”. The boy looks stunned but the mums and dads fall over themselves in laughter.

There are a smattering of transgender people watching on. But drag is different. Drag artists are performers. They may look like extreme versions of masculinity and femininity, but under the garb most drag queens are all male, and drag kings women. It’s all a riotous act.

The gay men and lesbians in the audience are outnumbered by straight people; many locals, but also those who’ve made a pilgrimage to see the acts, marvel at the costumes and crack up at the lewd jokes.

There’s a posse of healthcare workers from Whyalla, a couple of grey nomads from Albury. They’ve all heard it’s “a laugh”. One Sydneysider says Broken Heel has “turned the outback outrageous”.

The town’s normally quiet railway station — two trains a week — is where many of the festival goers arrive after a fourteen-hour sequin flecked voyage from Sydney aboard the Silver City Stiletto express.

“Last year was our first train and you could see all the passenger’s faces as the train pulls up; they’ve been partying the whole way and then we have flags and music on the platform so everyone gets off to a bit of fanfare,” says Ms La Rovere.

Why is a town in the middle of the desert, better known for being the birthplace of mining giant BHP, welcoming thousands of drag fans? One word: Priscilla.

The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, a small film from Australia which followed the cross-country progress of two drag queens and a transgender woman, became a worldwide phenomenon. Broken Hill played a starring role. But not exactly in a positive way.

“Broken Hill had quite a horrible scene in the film where the bus was spray-painted with ‘faggots go home’. So, it’s nice to really embrace and remind people we’re actually not like that,” says Ms La Rovere.

“There are a lot of colourful characters out here; we’re all on our own journey trying to be as wonderful as possible.”

The town’s reputation as the centre of Priscilla-mania was boosted when the film’s director Stephen Elliot gifted the Palace Hotel, where key scenes were filmed, the silver bus the trio travelled on and the huge stiletto that sat upon its roof. The latter sits proudly in the foyer. But don’t touch.

“Sixty per cent of the movie was filmed around here; this is Priscilla’s spiritual home.”

Ms La Rovere started the festival in 2014. Every year since then, she says, it’s doubled in size with Broken Heel 2018 potentially pumping as much as $1 million in the local economy.

It’s parade day! Massive thanks to the wonderful Rachel Story & Associates Lawyers for sponsoring our “Walk The Main Drag In Drag” parade today! We’ll have family friendly shows and games from Noon at town square before the parade kicks off at 1pm ✨

A post shared by Broken Heel Festival (@brokenheelfestival) on

Broken Hill is one of a number of country towns that has seen the benefit in wooing the pink dollar. From the Chill Out festival in the Victorian town of Daylesford to the New Year’s takeover of Lismore in northern NSW by Tropical Fruits.

As well as the obligatory pub performances and a screening of Priscilla, the centrepiece of Broken Heel is a street parade along the main drag — a mini Mardi Gras far from the coast. Christine Anu has top billing alongside indigenous queens Jojo Zaho and Felicia Foxx and big names on the drag scene such as Maude Boate and Karen from Finance.

Ms La Rovere says there is something special about taking the frocks out of the capitals.

“Visually, it’s such a wow factor to see someone done up in drag and a pair of heels in the desert,” she said.

“It’s four days of disco divas. It’s about the glamour and the spectacle but it’s also quite an art form, and very funny.”

Not everyone sees it that way. At the Woolies a kilometre from town, some shoppers spoke to weren’t as enthusiastic.

“Men running around as ladies doesn’t do much for me,” says Gary, summing up the view of a few. Yet even he admitted it was good for the town’s coffers.

“Sure, there are some who don’t like it,” says Ms La Rovere. “But what people say when they come from out of town is they’ve never had so many chats with people they didn’t know and they’ve seen the rainbow flags flying all around town and it really hits a special place.

“That’s especially the case for older people who felt ostracised, who struggled years ago. They come here and see how a hardworking, hard drinking mining town can get over itself and say ‘you know, you lot are all right’.”

Has she ever been tempted to step into drag herself. “You bet. I had a full length, really big beard on one of the days last year and people were like ‘when are you going to take it off?’. I was like, ‘mate, this is staying on, this is me today’.”

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