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Recently I had the privilege to sit across from South African theatrical star Brendan van Rhyn, who is playing the irresistible Frank-n-Furter in the Fugard Theatre’s production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Brendan is no stranger to high heels, with his alter ego Cathy Specific, an air hostess who believes that the sky is most definitely not the limit.
So how does it work? A lady, a man and a sweet transvestite all sharing the same heels? Let’s follow Brendan upstairs to the lab to see what’s on the…… (If you don’t know the missing word, shame on you!)
Vada: Why do you think that Rocky Horror has become such a cult classic?
Brendan van Rhyn: I don’t think, I KNOW why it is a cult classic. Besides the fact that it’s been going for 40 years and it’s now in peoples psyches and has been passed down from generation to generation, there’s nothing new, just new forms of the show. It’s a cult classic because during those 2,5 hours audience members can go to where they’ve never been to before or have always wanted to go or are returning to. It is those 2,5 hours where if you’re a straight man and you want to wear fishnet stockings and high-heeled shoes, no one is going to judge or look at you peculiarly. They just think “It’s the Rocky Horror” It’s the one night where you have no inhibitions. This specific production is such a hit due to the large amount of audience participation. The audience is made to feel as if they, too, have arrived with Brad and Janet and are now sucked into this debauchery.
What is it with the LGBT community and its affection for this production?
I think you will find that the majority of the audience is straight, but I think us gays like it when one of our own is playing the lead and are thus able to better identify with him. Rocky Horror is also fundamentally a camp musical and thus lends itself to the LGBT community.
What is the secret behind your voice? Do you have a secret elixir?
I am classically trained and so I have a good foundation and technique. I had never done Rock ‘n Roll before I played Frank-n-furter the first time and was somewhat nervous if I could pull it off. Luckily in some songs I could use my vibrato. I also think vocal hygiene is important to ensure your vocal cords are kept moist. I am very physically fit and I don’t drink or smoke. Also one of my secret tricks is using a humidifier.
How do you keep your place in the music when you have to stop to reprimand naughty audience members and then remain in perfect key?
It’s a gut feeling; either you have it or you don’t. When I heckle the audience I follow my body, I can just feel when the time is “right”. I do whatever my body tells me and it seems bizarre. It’s like the song has been paused and the rest around me freezes too. Even though I am used to this, the slightest disturbance in the audience can throw me.
I would like to understand your alter ego Cathy Specific. Is she a creation of yours or is she an inherent part of you? (Cathy Specific is like a South African Pam Ann, just with better legs…)
She probably was always there inside of me and it just took 30 years for her to emerge. I used to be a real flight attendant with South African Airways and so she was born out of my experiences at the airline. So, yes, she is a creation of mine, but she’s completely separate from Brendan. She was born out of necessity, out of need and she had consumed my headspace for six years. I love flying and performing and she gave me the opportunity to marry my two loves without having to choose. She’s the other half of me.
Brendan is gay and happy being a boy and Cathy is a woman. The two of us are completely separate and she is not a “drag” queen. She’s not a man in ladies clothes, but is a woman. I like to joke that she has her own menstrual cycle. Yes, she might have a masculine body but when I’m “her” she comes across as a woman.
So how do you quantify having this ‘woman” inside of you?
I guess I’m lucky. I’m lucky that I can both be a man and a woman, and do it very well.
So they’re two entities that merely share a body. How does it affect Cathy being in a man’s body?
I’ve never discussed it with her. She seems quite happy and no “identity issues” arise due to this. There’s no grey area. Cathy is 100% woman and straight and Brendan is 100% gay.
Tell us about your journey up to this point.
My career only really started at 30, when I was finally at peace with myself. Brendan needed to be strong enough in himself to be able to support Cathy and I as a person needed the maturity.
I had auditioned once before and been rejected and then auditioned once more and landed the role at the Victory Theatre in Cape Town and now again I have come full circle to play Frank-n-Furter again! Not many people get to play this iconic role twice, let alone once. I think it’s the one role every musical theatre boy dreams of playing. It’s the one character where you get to inject so much of yourself into and make your own. I’m no carbon-copy of Tim Curry and because it’s been done so many times you don’t want it to become generic and same-old.
What are the most important lessons for you that we can learn from Rocky Horror?
Don’t dream it, be it. Give yourself over to absolute pleasure. Life is so serious at the moment and we all could do with a bit of self-indulgence.
Do you think Rocky Horror still has the same SHOCK factor today?
It still shocks, but not as much as in 1973. I mean, today people’s fetishes are more public. People are still shocked. When the dildo appears at the beginning of the second half, you hear the shocked silence. But Rocky Horror’s appeal is that it makes you slightly uncomfortable. It takes you out of your comfort zone.
Do you think you are filling Tim curry’s rather large heels well?
I never wanted to fill his shoes but my own. Thus far the critics have given me the thumbs up, and I have won the Fleur de Cap for Best Male Performer for my role as Frank recently.
Do you think we all have a bit of Frank-n-Furter in us? And do you ever “lose it” like he?
We all have a bit of Frank in us; I just have a bit more. Occasionally Brendan does lose it when I’m hidden behind the make-up and costumes because it’s as if no one can see me.
What other musicals/productions do you have your sights set on?
Anything with a lash or a heel. ‘Kinky Boots’, ‘Priscilla Queen of the Dessert’, ‘Cabaret’. I’ve played the butch straight roles and I didn’t do them to ensure I’m not typecast, but because I fell in love with the character or production team. But I’m best in lipstick and lashes.
How did your family deal with your sexuality and alter ego?
Very supportive! Mom and Dad love Cathy and they are both so proud. Their son is smiling, so they’re happy. I came out at the age of 22, but I told my sister over dinner and her response was “I know” and she prepared my mom and dad, so up until this day I’ve never had to sit them down and have the talk.
What advice would you give to anyone whom is perhaps scared of showing their true selves?
All in good time. You will know when the time is right. Don’t rush anything, the right time will come and you will know it. Don’t pick a fruit too early or you will ruin it.
What is your biggest dream personally?
My dreams are to continue working and continually reinvent Cathy Specific. One day Cathy would like to have her own dinner venue someday.
Do you think Cathy could ever become as big a household name as Dame Edna Everage or Tannie Evita?
I think the scope is most definitely there and depends on how big I want her to be. Also, with the likes of Evita, there was a lot of political material for her to work with. Cathy the brand literally has legs and she’s going up the ranks. It also requires a lot of financial support and backing. Cathy’s clothes are very expensive.
How would you describe “beauty” and how would you quantify it? (This one took some thought and I anxiously shivered with antici……..pation)
I feel like a beauty pageant contestant now, but it most definitely comes from within. While one can beautify oneself with nice clothes and make-up, if you have no soul, you are empty. And while physical beauty is genetic, you determine the beauty of your soul. A beautiful soul can outshine perhaps a ‘lack’ of exterior beauty. I mean, I’ve seen beautiful people, but they are like ironing boards. How do you have a conversation with them? It’s hard work being a beautiful person, and your internal beauty is developed as a child and instilled in one.
And then it was with great distress that I had to let Brendan go backstage to start his 3-hour marathon of a make-up routine for the night’s show. I think that meeting Brendan truly opened my eyes into this artistic realm and gave me a glimpse of his artistic genius, but only a glimpse. You see actors like Brendan are more like magicians, they transport you away to this fantasy realm and afterwards you are left questioning how they did it. Your body remained in your seat but your soul and mind went far far away. The magic of show business will forever remain a secret though because a magician never reveals his secret.