by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN Contributing Writer
As the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) has progressed, one of the major unexpected delights has been the New Zealand music documentary The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls. A pure burst of inspiration, this movie presents celebrities Jools and Linda Topp in all their comedic, yodeling, Lesbian, country-music-singing glory. For over 30 years, these two icons have busted any and all conventions while expanding their gigantic international fan base, while not once pulling their punches or bowing to pressure to keep their political and social opinions to themselves.
Here to present their film to SIFF audiences, I got the opportunity to sit down with the Topp twins to talk about the documentary, the state of LGBT rights in the United States and whatever else might have been on the pair's minds. Here are some of the highlights from that conversation.
Sara Michelle Fetters: As I was watching the film, I couldn't help but wonder if 30 years ago, when you were both just starting out, you could ever have imagined you'd be where you are now. Did this sort of stardom, this sort of fame, did the possibility of it even remotely cross either of your minds?
Linda Topp: Not really. Not really at all, because we grew up on a dairy farm and when we left home we ended up in the Army for a little bit, so we never really planned a career as entertainers.
Jools Topp: We really wanted to take over our dad's farm. That's really what we wanted to do. We wanted to be farmers.
Linda Topp: But I think, in some ways, maybe that is why we're here. It just seemed to happen. We never started off thinking we wanted to be movie stars or we wanted to be entertainers or we wanted to be activists. But we love doing it. We really love doing it. So we just started doing it [entertaining], and eventually we got to where we are now. I do know that, for at least the past 25 years, there has been some sort of a plan, because we did become entertainers and we did start to become popular in New Zealand and in Australia.
Jools Topp: We've made a lot of conscious decisions along the way - let's try this, let's do this. And the other thing is, too, when you live in New Zealand, you have to create your own stuff; you're not living in Hollywood and it's not all out there in front of you. You can't really say 'I'd love to work with that person' or 'I'd really like to do that thing,' you sort of have to make your own stuff happen in New Zealand. You're a long ways away from the rest of the world.
But, I think the other thing about it is that because we are so far away from the rest of the world, we really know what's going on in the rest of the world - we're eager for information. I think, because of that, we've been able to become hugely political, but we're also quite strong. We stand up for ourselves.
Linda Topp: Yeah, that's true. We've done that for quite some time. But to answer the original question, no, in our wildest dreams we could never have imagined it. We'd never imagined we'd be where we are now.
Fetters: And you are hugely political and always seem ready to tackle any issue out there that strikes your fancy, whether it be the fight for LGBT rights, Maori land ownership issues, apartheid, or nuclear proliferation, just to name a few. Yet you also seem to have been able to do this in a way that hasn't alienated the majority of the masses, no matter what their political persuasion or stripe. How have you been able to do that?
Jools Topp: You've got to love your enemy. You just have to be honest.
Linda Topp: Yeah, for us it has always been about honesty. In New Zealand, what happened was that we came out and then got famous. In other places, people get famous and then they're too scared to come out. They think they're going to lose something. But if you're hiding something, if you're hiding your sexuality from yourself and from your whole audience, there is a bit of a void there.
Jools Topp: When an audience comes to watch you, what you hope for is that they're going to be with you 100 percent. Every artist wants that. But it's a funny profession. You might have your degree in arts, but that's jack shit; it doesn't mean nothing if the audience doesn't like you.
Linda Topp: We need applause. We need those types of things. But I think the whole idea is & to embrace an audience, but if you're not being honest with them, you're already lying to [them] before you even walk out on stage. So you come clean. There's no dirt on the Topp twins because we've revealed every secret there is. That makes you free. It makes us free to say pretty much anything we want.
Jools Topp: And, you know what? Even those who don't agree with you can still respect that you've been honest. Most people understand honesty. They really do. Even if they're far, far away from your ideals, they will understand honesty. In a lot of ways, you have to respect the people that have a different opinion.
Linda Topp: My really great horse trainer Buck has a saying: "We're not here to judge; we're just here to comment." And he's right. When you talk of a judgment, you're already putting something down, you're saying, 'My judgment is more important than your judgment.'
You can have an idea and you can comment about it, and that's basically what we do. We're very, very strong about our ideas. We're anti-nuclear. We feel the Gay and Lesbian community must be acknowledged by the rest of the community. That sort of stuff is really important. But the way we've done it is that we've commented on it, we've written a song, and I think sometimes if you're going to be a political entertainer first and foremost, you've got to entertain. Once you've got them [the audience], whammo! You can hit 'em with the big stuff.
Fetters: But it doesn't seem to matter where you go; the audience always seems to embrace you completely.
Linda Topp: Because we're having fun with them. And it's the characters. Those characters that we play? Those characters are weird. Camp Mother and Camp Leader. Who would come up with that? We did.
Jools Topp: And everybody in the world has an aunt like Camp Mother or a sister like Camp Leader, and these are honest, hard-working people who, in some ways, can take you anywhere you want to go. We can go anywhere with these [characters]. We were having a laugh because I remembered this one time we were playing the Tamworth County Music Festival - which is redneck country in Australia - and then we went straight from there to the Montreal Comedy Festival, then we went home to do some weird little [LGBT] festival in Australia and then we came home back to New Zealand and performed at this dairy farmer convention.
Linda Topp: And who else would do what we do? We can take all of our characters to a farming community and they just love [them], and we can take them the next week to the Gay and Lesbian festival and they love them there, too. And we do not change our show to suit our audience. We do not change the content at all. We talk about all the same things that are important to us, no matter who it is we're playing in front of. Those characters just come and do what it is that they do, while our songs are as political or as timely as ever.
Jools Topp: But it's because those characters are relatable. We knew we'd made it when the Canterbury Rugby Union asked Ken and Ken, our two ultra-male farming community characters, to give away their awards at the end of the year.
Linda Topp: These are the Crusaders, the big team down in the South Islands, and they got Ken and Ken - not the Topp twins - to give out the awards at this big black-tie dinner. How surreal is that? Jools and I would sometimes look at ourselves backstage and just smile. Here are these two Lesbians dressed up as men giving away awards to some of the top athletes in all of New Zealand. It's too weird - it's maybe even too weird for us, and we've done a lot of weird.
Fetters: But what is that like when characters that you've created have taken on a life of their own, when they've entered into the public zeitgeist to such an extent they start to become flesh and blood in the eyes of your fans?
Jools Topp: It feels amazing, because what's happened is I might run down to the local store and I'll be pushing my trolley around and someone will yell out, 'G'day, Ken!' even if I'm dressed as myself. But that'll be there vision of me, their vision of me as Ken. They love Ken. That's their character.
Linda Topp: Just before we came over here [to Seattle] about two or three weeks ago, we were doing this big concert with the Philharmonic Orchestra. There were like 70 musicians with violins and cellos and all those things like that, and they trusted that those characters would still play for an audience in an [environment] like that. They asked for us for the characters. They asked if Ken and Ken and Camp Mother and Camp Leader and the rest of our characters could play with the orchestra for an evening.
Jools Topp: And they televised that! T.V. came onboard and they televised the whole thing, and now it's going to come out as a DVD. But for us, that was kind of a major pinnacle. It was an honor. To be acknowledged like that in the true music world for both our songs and for our characters, that was amazing.
Linda Topp: Because we're not always seen as musicians. We're seen as artists and as performers and as comedians and as political activists, but not always as musicians. I think what's happening now is that we're being honored for our music, because really, if you look at the film, if you look at our careers, the music is the vehicle. It's what gets us through everything. It's the focus.
Fetters: But how do you stay so passionate? More than that, how do you make sure the audience is feeling that passion during one of your concerts or performances?
Linda Topp: We send things up rather than put things down.
Jools Topp: But you have to know how to do something if you're going to send things up. You have to understand where the emotion behind it is coming from and you have to be able to feel that for yourself.
Linda Topp: If you're going to send something up, if you're going to really play on something, you've got to really know about it. It can't be phony. Anybody can play anything. Anybody can put something down and not know anything about it. But if you're going to send something up&.
Jools Topp: You've got to study it like nothing else!
Linda Topp: Right. You've got to study it to really understand it. When we started out we had this motto: amuse but never abuse. And that has always been our way. Our way in how we approach our form of entertainment, especially in regards to comedy.
Jools Topp: And we're also icons in the [LGBT] community now. We're really seen as people who broke out, people you could look at and see that they're Gay, and in New Zealand, that was a huge responsibility. We got this beautiful letter from this young guy, his mum and dad just adored [our television] program, and he was Gay and he thought this was fabulous, that he'd go home and watch the Topp twins with his parents and come out to them at the end of it.
So, at the end of it, he was a bit worried about the whole thing so he turned to his mum and dad and said, 'I want to tell you something really important, I am just like the Topp twins.' And his mother turned to him and said, 'Don't be silly, dear. You'll never be as funny as the Topp twins.'
Linda Topp: So he didn't get it quite right, but he sent this letter to us because he thought it was so funny. But to get to the heart of it, his mum and dad didn't probably know a lot about Gays or Lesbians, but they adored us as entertainers and for being funny, and that was just such a barrier breakdown that this family could talk about what was going on with their son.
Jools Topp: If you can make people laugh, then [things] aren't so scary.
Linda Topp: Quite right. If you can make people laugh, then any barrier they have or any blockage they have is gone. As soon as you laugh, it's like some sort of endorphin kicks in and you're suddenly receptive and vulnerable. You're vulnerable when you laugh, and you're vulnerable when you cry, and, if we can, we'd like to take our audience through both of those things within the show. If you can make an audience laugh and if you can make them cry, then you've completely and utterly taken every barrier away from that person and then they become open to ideas and to the things you might want to say to them.
But that's how it happens. We've never, ever stood up and said 'this is the way it should be, and this is how it is,' which is what politicians try to do. It's protesting. It's boring. We're not protesting. We're just celebrating who we are and what we believe. It's a celebration about Jools and me. We're Lesbians. We're happy about that. Why shouldn't we celebrate that? We don't want any more rights than anyone. We want the same rights. It's really simple.
Fetters: I love that you say "amuse but don't abuse," because when you watch the portion of the film where you're working on overturning the anti-sodomy laws and fighting for Gay rights, the juxtaposition between your being so accepting and warm to those standing against you while they're spewing so much venom and hatred is quite remarkable. Is any of that transferable? In the wake of things like Proposition 8 in California and other ongoing battles here in the United States, why can't we learn from your successes in New Zealand?
Linda Topp: It's all about being defensive. When you take it personally, it can't work. We were talking about this yesterday, actually. Nothing is personal. In this whole world, nothing is personal. It's a big statement, but it's really important. If you take it personally, you can't get over it. Your defenses are up. Boom! Straight up. So if you said to me, 'How do I fix the world?' I'd say back to you, 'Don't take anything personally.'
Jools Topp: But take some sort of action. Don't take it personally, but get activated - let your opinion be heard.
Linda Topp: Enable yourself. You have to fill up the well before you can give anyone else a drink of water. So like, for us, as artists, we said to ourselves that we had to come out. Someone's going to ask someday if we were married with children, and what would the answer be? Gibberish. We'd be clucking like chickens. So if we come out, then we're going to be saying no, of course not.
Jools Topp: And people do get weird. For a time there, people thought Linda and I were together and I'd look at them [quizzically] and ask, 'Are you weird?' After all, Gay people have morals, too, don't you know.
Linda Topp: Yeah, so because of stuff like that, we're educating people in some sort of way. We're all human. If I bang my hand, it hurts, and if I cut my finger, it bleeds - just like everyone else - so let's just get real for a second. You have to treat everyone with respect and with honesty, and if you do, that's how dialogue can happen.
Jools Topp: But the thing to remember is that if you're comparing New Zealand to America in some ways, we are way smaller than you are, for a start. So we think we can make things different. We believe it.
Linda Topp: When there's an issue of a huge magnitude, like some of the protests we've been through, those were big to us. They were things that we really believed in, that we had to fight for. And we were able to mobilize enough people to get out on the streets and say to the government that this is wrong and that we weren't going to put up with it.
But it's really difficult now for people. Young people don't know what a protest is. They're on their computer. What's happened is that now people are alone in their rooms trying to save the world or trying to do things, and it's become very impersonal.
Fetters: So how do you change that fact? How do you get them off of their computers and back out into the streets?
Linda Topp: Well, that's a difficult question, but here in New Zealand, we've already started a movement in that we don't buy gas or anything from BP stations. If you're driving along in your car and you come to a gas station and it's a BP, then you keep going until the next one. Because eventually what will happen is that if the people stand up and say this is what they believe in and this is the little bit that I can do, then eventually it spreads and spreads. It's like the oil. The oil is just spreading and spreading and spreading. So stand up and do something to that company. And if enough people do, then their statements will spread just as far - hopefully further - than that oil does. Make them realize that they need to stop what they have been doing and reassess.
Jools Topp: If the world stopped buying what they're producing, then they're down the gurgle - they're gone. You can't stop this [in the Gulf] that's going on now; it's happened, but they need to know they were wrong in the first place. They had no contingency, no nothing. You can tell them they're wrong by hitting them where it hurts. Hit them by getting rid of their profits. Stand up. Make it personal.
Linda Topp: And it's universal. As Gay people, I think, that we have a responsibility to always stand up. We must always stand up. Because the one day that we don't, we're goners. Like in Arizona. They think they can stop anyone on the street and ask, 'Where are your papers?' One day, that might also be Gay people.
Jools Topp: And it's happened before, and we don't want that to happen again, so I say to all those people who might have a tendency to be stopped [in Arizona], quit working for a week. Those white collar people who are making those big bucks up here wouldn't be making it if those Hispanics weren't working for them down there. Who's going to clean their house? Who's going to make the beds at the resort? Who's going to pick those fruits and vegetables?
Linda Topp: I'll tell you what, if every illegal migrant in this country did stop working, even for a day, America would just fall apart. But you know what keeps them from doing that? Fear. There's a power balance. It's about making someone feel bad. And you have to overcome that. You have to be willing to stand up for what you believe. You can't give into that fear. And by not giving into that fear, that's when you can shift that power imbalance back into your favor.
Listen, when people leave the theater after seeing our movie or after they've left one of our shows, I want them to feel empowered, I want them to feel like they can make a difference.
Jools Topp: And to feel good, too. To feel good about whom they are and where they've come from.
Linda Topp: To feel good about being Gay and Lesbian. To feel good about being a man. To feel good about being a woman. To feel good about being whoever they are or whomever they want to be. Feel proud about it. There's no real message. If you feel good in your heart, and you feel proud about yourself, then you can go out and make a difference. You can go out and do good.
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