She's known simply as Vonni.
Vonni Brit Watkins is Adelaide’s most vivacious transgender identity.
Indeed, she is the effortless essence of glamour.
She’s long been a popular pub and club DJ and tireless supporter of kindly and charitable causes.
It was Trevor Ashley, one of Australia’s great legends of drag showbiz who had the brainwave that Vonni could stretch those beautiful wings and take on some legitimate theatre.
He was casting the glittering Gold Coast Casino production of the musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert and he envisaged Vonni in the pivotal role of Bernadette, the wise transgender spirit of that now classic story. In the 1994 hit movie, the part was very memorably played by the great British actor, Terence Stamp.
Almost two decades later, Vonni flew through the stage audition and was whisked away to the Gold Coast for a two-month run in the wild Australian transgender musical.
It was a daunting and huge learning curve for the Adelaide performer, the first transgender artiste to play Bernadette.
Vonni cut her showbiz teeth strutting under the spotlights of the legendary Le Girls club in Sydney, starting out as a stripper in the 70s and then being tucked under the wings of Carlotta, Australia’s leading lady of drag burlesque. The two performers formed a strong bond back then and continue to be the closest of friends. Carlotta also was in the Queensland Priscilla cast and, in Adelaide, Vonni recently performed alongside Carlotta singing at The Regal. Just now, she has returned from Carlotta’s 80th birthday celebrations in Queensland to resume her place in the newly formed cast of another production of Priscilla, the Musical.
Vonni is starring with the G&S Society of SA in a brand-new staging of the rollicking musical version of Priscilla.
And she will be re-embodying wonderful Bernadette.
It is the meatiest and most serious role in the show. Not that it does not involve singing and dancing, neither of which Vonni claims as her strengths. Vonni’s strength lies in personality and beauty, along with a disciplined professional approach and a fabulous stage presence.
The story of Priscilla revolves around recently bereaved transsexual Bernadette travelling with two drag queens to a remote desert location to put on a classic drag show, lip-synch and all.
They travel through the outback from Sydney to Alice Springs on Priscilla, a lavender bus which is another star of the show. They stop here and there meeting all sorts of Aussies and having assorted adventures and turning on assorted routines in the most astonishing and spectacular costumes.
Vonni is finding working with G&S quite a contrast to the big-budget bling of the Gold Coast Casino.
But, despite its constraints as unfunded local theatre, G&S has a strong reputation for good work which is one of the things which attracted Vonni to working with it, as well as a recommendation from Kinky Boots star Mark Stefanoff.
“So, I Googled it and had a look,” reveals Vonni. And, she now notes, it is a company equipped with some stunning costume creators. Look out for the cupcake number, she tips.
There is new choreography for this show. Vonni praises choreographer Sarah Williams.
“Rehearsals are videoed, and I watch the work at home later to make sure I can get it right,” she says.
“Also, surprisingly, the lavender bus itself is much bigger than the one we had on the Gold Coast.
“Up there it was more like a combi and there is a line about where do you sleep and we’d laugh because there was clearly no room. This bus in Adelaide is an almost full-sized bus with cut out sides and top.”
The camaraderie of the G&S players has made a big impression on Vonni.
She says it is a part of the experience she loves most.
“And the way everyone pitches in and does things.”
“And there are some fabulous singers in the cast. I’m not a great singer but I can hold a tune."
And what tunes there are: I’ve Never Been to Me, Mama Mia, I Will Survive, and Finally.
This show, which is all Australian but has been presented all over the world, has played quite a significant role in its positive portrayals of LGBTQI+ characters and also in depicting the phenomenon of homophobia as experienced in outback towns by the travelling drag queens.
Its themes remain as relevant today as when the show was conceived by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott as a road trip jukebox musical.
The G&S production will be directed by Gordon Coombes and also stars Billi St John and Benjamiin Johnson along with Vanessa Lee Shirley, Bec Pynir, Lance Jones, Trish Hendrix, Nadine Wood, Damien Ralphs, Chany Park Hoffman, Charissa McCluskey-Garcia, and Danielle Greaves.
Jillian Gulliver is musical director and those wonderful costume mistresses are Ann Humphries and Helen Snoswell.
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert will play at The Arts Theatre from September 21-30.
When: 21 to 30 Sep
Where: Arts Theatre