Their career spans 40 years and is emblematic of changing attitudes to gay and lesbian people. The Topp Twins, Jools and Lynda, started their lives in entertainment as “underground performers” with a unique blend of comedy and politicised country music.
Now, they’ve been well and truly recognised in their homeland by the establishment and by “Mr and Mrs Joe Bloggs”. In October, they were invested as dames by Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy.
“You have the right to reject a damehood, but we felt it was more important and radical to accept it,” says Jools.
The sisters see the title as also honouring others in their community who “stood up and were counted. Changes come from educating people and New Zealand has been very cool about accepting openly gay and lesbian people.”
The Topp Twins grew up on a small dairy farm “out in the wop wops” at Ruawaro in the Waikato. Their “sensational” parents Jean, now 88, and Peter, 90, always maintained that girls could do anything. Never judgmental, they coped when their twins were “plastered all over magazines when it wasn’t cool to be openly gay”, says Lynda.
After training in the territorial army, the duo were “hurt and devastated for a couple of days”, when their parents “put the kibosh” on their dream of taking over the family farm. “Mum and Dad saw it as a bit of a prison; they gave us the freedom to do something bigger with our lives.”
As girls, the Topps would ride their horses to a neighbouring farm, which had a wind-up gramophone, to steep themselves in Australian country music. Not the outback, round-the-campfire songs, but the slow yodels of Shirley Thoms.
“Mum wouldn’t let us take the guitar on our horses so we had to race back home and try to play what we were holding in our heads.”
In their army days, friends thought they were a bit weird when they would get out the guitar at parties, instead of turning on the stereo. “But in the country it seemed like it was a bit rude to have the record player on if you had guests,” Jools says.
Jools admits that among older members of the community “there can be a sense of loss. We talk about the good old days when women arrived in their Guardsman jackets and their men’s shoes. At the time of the Stonewall riots in New York [in 1969] you could get arrested for wearing more than two items of men’s clothing. It just seems so archaic now.
“What is really cool now is that we have young lesbian women, young gay men who know nothing of this stuff. It’s a funny old world that we live in. People don’t bat an eyelid now. In saying that, we must always be vigilant. Certainly the pink dollar is worth a lot; corporations think we are a big deal but we don’t want to be controlled by them.”
“It’s not a bed of roses all the time for the gay and lesbian community. Discrimination comes down to education and having an awareness. You cannot judge and you cannot bully anybody… early on we were very aware that if someone was bullied you would stand up for them. It helps if you are a twin because you have always got someone behind you.”
Realising that serious country music was “not everyone’s favourite”, the Topp Twins’ act evolved to include comic characters and their own songs that tapped into the political issues of the time – a nuclear-free New Zealand, Maori land rights, homosexual law reform and, more recently marriage equality.
(Lynda and her wife Donna Luxton were in the New Zealand parliament in 2013 when the vote passed). Top issues today for the Topps include breast cancer (which Jools has confronted) and environmental issues such as pollution, intensive farming practices and the protection of waterways. “Maybe New Zealand is not as ‘clean and green’ as the world thinks we are,” says Lynda, a fly fisherwoman who releases her catch.
Yet New Zealand has been a receptive audience for the entertainers.
“We’re funny little political animals,” says Jools. “Everyone has an opinion; we never sit on the fence. I guess in some ways our acknowledgement by the establishment – from underground performers to damehoods- says a lot about this country. We have come a long way.”
The Topp Twins will host and perform at the Strictly Kaftan Party, at the Ivy, on February 19, as part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Australia.
Story by Shona Martyn – Stuff