EXCLUSIVE: Carlotta reflects on her wonderful life beyond the stage

"I would have loved to have children."

Sixty years after Carlotta ignited Sydney’s Kings Cross in the legendary Les Girls cabaret extravaganza, Australia’s most beloved showgirl is back with what’s being billed as her final curtain. 

The show is called Carlotta: The Party’s Over, a fabulous farewell as the Emerald City bathes in Mardi Gras Festival pizzazz. But fear not … Carlotta has announced her swansong before, and as we sit down to chat I sense she’s not ready to hang up her sequins just yet. 

“Retirement is for people who’ve given up. As long as I can do something, I’ll do it,” she confesses with a cheeky smile. 

“I can’t do the big shows anymore, but I’ve just signed on with my mate Craig Bennett for a run of stand-up comedy gigs in RSL and Leagues clubs!”

Carlotta wowed audiences while performing in the Les Girls cabaret act
Carlotta wowed audiences while performing in the Les Girls cabaret act

There’s no stopping Carlotta and the supposed finale we’re talking about today will see her performing in an intimate theatre just around the corner from where the magic all began; where young Richard Byron donned eyelashes, bustier and feather boa to intoxicate audiences as Carlotta. 

The all-male revue, in which beautiful boys transformed into jaw-droppingly stunning dancing girls, famously launched Carlotta’s showbiz career. 

“It went for 36 years. I thought it would be a novelty, we were amazed,” she says today. “The idea of Les Girls was to look like Las Vegas showgirls, but we were blokes. People were mesmerised.”

For Richard, as she was then, it was the start of finding her true self: A phoenix from the ashes of her childhood, aching to feel comfortable in her own skin. 

Carlotta launched a production in 2005 and made appearances on television.
When it comes to television appearances, Carlotta starred in the soap opera Number 96 in 1973, before becoming a regular panellist on the talk show Beauty and the Beast. Between 2013 and 2018, she frequently appeared on morning show Studio 10.

The backdrop of that journey, from the gutsy working-class suburb that was Balmain back in the 1940s and ’50s to heady, dangerous, exciting, subversive Kings Cross, is also a vital piece of who Carlotta is, deep inside, and something she never shies away from, even if she rarely visits Balmain today.

“When Prue MacSween was doing my last book, I’m Not That Kind Of Girl, we went over to Balmain and I got such a shock. It had shrunk. I don’t remember it being that small. The street where I lived, the houses. It used to be huge in my mind and I felt sad in a way because I had a lot of wonderful memories, as well as the tough ones. 

“Back then Balmain was an industrial area. Women worked in factories. Men worked in factories. And at six o’clock the pubs closed. I remember the drink man used to come around on a horse and cart with these big terracotta pots on the back with ginger beer and lemonade in them. 

I had two mothers: The wonderful Aunty Hazel and then my [biological] mother, Evelyn. She was beautiful, like Jane Wyman, and men flocked to her. But I don’t think Evelyn should have had children. She was very good to other people’s children, but she was stand-offish with me.” 

Carol, as she is known to friends – Carlotta is her stage name – has never known her father.

“My mother was dancing with sailors at the Trocadero in 1942-43, during the war. I was born in 1943 and was told my father was a sailor. I don’t think she knew, to be quite honest. She kept saying to me that when she goes, there’s a letter there and she’ll tell me who my father was, but there was no letter [when she died].”

MAY 11, 1975: SYDNEY, NSW. Entertainer Carlotta (R) in Sydney, New South Wales. (Photo by News Ltd / Newspix)
1975: Carlotta in Sydney, New South Wales, ready to rev engines.

Just over 10 years ago though, Carol uncovered some clues about her father’s heritage: “I’ve developed Dupuytren’s Contracture, where the fingers in my hand bend over. It’s inoperable and it started happening in my sixties. It’s also called Viking disease.” 

The condition is genetic and most common in men of Nordic descent, which got Carol thinking. “Well, there’s nothing Norwegian on my mother’s side because I’ve done her family tree, and also I’ve got blue rings around my dark eyes. So, yes, I reckon I’m part Viking,” she laughs. 

Evelyn wasn’t ready to be a mother when she gave birth to her son Richard. She was living in a flat in Bondi and wanted to party. “She apparently left me on my own a lot,” says Carol, and that was when the sister of a best friend stepped in. 

“Thank God for Aunty Hazel. She had me from a baby in her house in Balmain. I only remember my mother coming once a month and giving my aunty an envelope, which I found out years later was money to look after me.” 

When Carol was about eight, Hazel won the lottery. “Six thousand pounds and she bought a house in Putney. We moved there and I continued to be brought up with her two daughters and two sons. Just me. Evelyn didn’t live with us at all. I was really happy. 

“Then Aunty Hazel tried to adopt me and my mother remarried. I think married women with children started to get paid money by the government and she didn’t want to give that money up, so she took me back.” 

2005: Carlotta is known for being sophisticated and bold.
2005: Carlotta is known for being sophisticated and bold.

Carol was 12 when she was taken away from Hazel to move back to Balmain, where her mother and new stepfather, John MacDiarmid, had moved into a house. 

“It was very traumatic. I hated it. I went into a shell and I hated him,” she says. John was abusive, and even though Carol continued to visit Aunty Hazel, she suffered in silence. 

“I didn’t tell her. I was too scared to. The older you get you think, ‘Why didn’t I make a fuss about it?’, but with hindsight, I think I was just petrified.” 

At the same time, Carol was starting to realise she was different from other boys. “I knew that, from my teenage years at school. They used to say, ‘Oh, you look like a girl’. I was fine-featured and I liked dressing up.” 

Carol started to be bullied but quickly learned to fight back. 

“There’s an old saying: ‘Balmain boys don’t cry’. We were brought up tough and I made the decision one day not to take it anymore. There was this guy who always tried to bully me, and I just decked him. I never got bullied again!” 

At home it was a different story. By this time Carol was working at David Jones, and had met a group of gay friends who opened up a whole new world. They also had her back. 

“I ran away at 15. I will never forget that day. Christopher Essex, who had a dressmaking business and was working with me at David Jones, came around in a car and grabbed me. We fled.” 

1991: Carlotta poses outside the Les Girls building, which was purpose-built for the show.
1991: Carlotta poses outside the Les Girls building, which was purpose-built for the show.

Soon Carol had joined the art department of Mark Foy’s, the beautiful Sydney department store, helping to create the magnificent window displays. She was in heaven. I ask if she remembers the first frock she went out in? 

“Oh God, yes! I went to an artists and models ball as Holly Golightly. I looked nothing like her,” she chuckles. “They were big gay event balls in those days. The whole of George Street would stop to have a look at everyone getting out of the back of these big trucks in absolutely massive gowns. 

“One night, I got arrested on the street for being in women’s clothes; it was offensive behaviour. At least that was the charge. There was no law saying you couldn’t dress as a woman.

In court they said, ‘You’re dressed as a woman’, and I said to the judge, ‘You’ve got a wig and a robe on’ – because I had a bit of a mouth on me … He laughed his head off and dismissed the case. I was free to go.” 

Carol was also free to be herself without fear and didn’t look back. 

Dressing up “felt great” she says. “I felt comfortable, the same feeling I had when I went on to take hormones. I found a doctor through others who were transitioning and I just went for it. Naivete, I guess, but they took to me like a duck to water. 

“I found out years later that my female chromosomes were a lot stronger than my male chromosomes. That’s why I started to grow shapely breasts on hormones.” 

“I hate these labels everyone has now … I had to fight to get my freedoms. I’m not a woman … I’m just Carlotta!”
“I hate these labels everyone has now … I had to fight to get my freedoms. I’m not a woman … I’m just Carlotta!”

Carol joined Les Girls in 1963 and her new life was blooming. “I loved performing. I loved the creativity of it and the costumes,” she recalls. 

The final piece of the puzzle came in 1972, when she had a sex change. She was the first publicly-named person to have the operation in Australia. 

“It was like having a tooth out, I suppose. I’ve forgotten the pain,” she says. 

“I didn’t tell them at Les Girls. I was on holiday and I went and had it done, but some little queen at the hospital let the newspapers know and when I woke up, I thought I was in a mortuary because there were all these flowers in my room. Then there were headlines in The Mirror newspaper: ‘Balmain boy becomes beauty’.”

Despite the transition surgery and the vibrant feminine beauty that emerged, Carlotta has never identified as a woman. 

“I hate these labels everyone has now. I grew up in an era when I had to fight to get my freedoms. And I’m not a woman, I can’t have children, I’m just Carlotta. But if I said that today, I’d get attacked.”

Carlotta is ready for her return to the stage.
Carlotta is ready for her return to the stage.

In her early thirties, Carol met the love of her life and for a while she quit showbusiness and immersed herself in suburban bliss – watching his soccer matches, making dinner.

They were together for more than a decade. “I worked in a delicatessen and I did a food and beverage course,” she tells me. 

“We bought a house together in Balmain and had a very good relationship.” But it wasn’t to be.

“I realised he’d fallen in love with an illusion,” she muses. 

“I wanted him to have children and I couldn’t give him that. His brother had babies and I could see the look on his face [when we saw them] … So eventually I left him. We sold the house and split it down the middle. There was no animosity.” 

He ended up marrying and having two boys and a girl. “I still love him today,” says Carol. “When I left him, I said: ‘If you’re going to have a family, you must never tell them about me because I’ll totally deny it’. 

“I didn’t want those kids being bullied at school. I’m not being a martyr. I knew what it would be like.” 

If their relationship had happened today, of course, Carlotta could have married and they would have been eligible to try to adopt children. How does that make her feel?

 “I love kids and my goddaughters, who I adore, I spoil rotten… I would have loved to have children,” she says. 

Carlotta is always the glamorous showgirl.
Carlotta is always the glamorous showgirl.

Evelyn remained in Balmain and later got together with a new partner. And while Carol heard that her mother proudly bragged about her in her local RSL, Evelyn never spoke to Carol about her sex change. 

“She ignored it. Never mentioned it once. Aunty Hazel never mentioned it either. I’m a great believer in what their memories of me are, that’s their business though, and Aunty Hazel always called me Richard. She refused to call me Carol.”

Evelyn died 15 years ago and Hazel about five years after that. Looking back, Carol says, “I’ve got a guilty feeling that I must have messed up my mother’s life because she was very young when she had me. But I don’t think I liked Mum, to be honest. I think she was very selfish.”

While Carol is a natural optimist, she has never seen her life through rose-tinted glasses, and that down-to-earth candour is part of her innate charisma. 

Ita Buttrose says Carlotta “has the biggest heart in the world”
Ita Buttrose says Carlotta “has the biggest heart in the world”

In 2020 Carlotta was awarded the Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the Australia Day honours for services to the performing arts. 

“I got a letter in the post and I was just so shocked. I heard on the grapevine it was Ita [Buttrose] that nominated me. Although I’ve never asked her.” 

She could be right. Ita is certainly a fan. 

“When I first worked with her on [the ’90s TV panel show] Beauty and the Beast, Carlotta was just one of the girls. I remember going to her place at Potts Point and we just talked one woman to another,” Ita tells me. 

“She’s natural and very funny and has the biggest heart in the world. Carlotta is who she is, and she doesn’t give a hoot what anyone else thinks. The fact that she’s transgender no one ever thinks about, she’s just Carlotta. 

“There’s no glamour in our world anymore and she’s just glamour personified, a reminder of the Golden Age.” 

Carlotta with her Studio 10 friends, Jessica Rowe and Denise Drysdale.
Carlotta with her Studio 10 friends, Jessica Rowe and Denise Drysdale.

As a regular guest on Studio 10, Carlotta found another soulmate in host Jessica Rowe. 

“From the start she made me laugh so much,” says Jess. 

“She’d come into make-up and it would begin! She despaired at my [now famous] lack of cooking skills and had a great chicken pasta recipe she shared with me. 

“I loved asking her questions and I still can’t get enough of hearing about her experiences, such as when she lived at the Peninsula [Hotel] in Hong Kong and she told me the other guests thought she was Brigitte Bardot – ‘until I opened my mouth darling!’.” 

Last September Carol turned 80 and in a moving birthday speech revealed what her friends mean to her. “Some of us haven’t got good families but there’s one thing you must always hang on to and that’s friends,” she says. 

“A real friend will always stick by you.” 

Carlotta is now a national treasure. It’s something she never sought or expected, nor did she think she would reach 80. 

“What a life! I don’t regret anything. We’re here just once. That’s why I say live it the best way you can and enjoy every moment.” 

Carlotta: The Party’s Over is at the Hayes Theatre in Sydney from February 28 to March 3.

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