Monday 2 July 2012

Richard O'Brien

My previous post on Grayson Perry has unexpectedly become one of the most popular things I have written on this blog. So let me turn to another of my cross-dressing heroes for a much-needed dose of inspiration and humour.

O'Brien as you know him...
To any man who has ever donned a pair of fishnets and heels, Richard O’Brien surely needs no introduction at all. His greatest and best-known opus is the cult musical The Rocky Horror Show, written in about 1973, which he describes as “just a bit of fun”. O’Brien (now 70) would then have been about thirty years old. Later of course, it was filmed as The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975. When I first saw it, I couldn’t actually believe what I was seeing, and I couldn’t sleep that night for replaying it over and over in my head.

O’Brien was born in Britain but his family moved to New Zealand when he was about nine years old. He returned to Britain aged about 22. Most recently, he has just been awarded citizenship of New Zealand, in 2011. Like me, he has seemingly found it a hard place to stay away from.

The story is that O’Brien used to frequent the Embassy Theatre in the town of Hamilton, in New Zealand’s central North Island. As a classic old theatre, the Embassy used to screen the Science Fiction Double Feature movies which O’Brien affectionately lampoons to good effect in the film, but he also saw his first drag act on the stage there.

...and as you don't.
One of the first things which struck me about New Zealand is that it’s a place which is very unfriendly to cross-dressers. Men here are real men: they drive trucks, they play rugby, they drink beer copiously, and they shoot animals for pleasure, later roasting them over open flames. The classic Kiwi male is said to be able to repair any mechanical contrivance using only a bale of number 8 fencing wire. In a sense, Kiwi blokes had to be this way: the country as we know it was founded by the grit and graft of hardy pioneers, who had to endure six months in a cramped boat just to get here. (Of course, when they got here, they found a whole bunch of indigenous people who were already doing just fine, but that’s a whole other book).

As a new arrival, I very rapidly found myself uncomfortable in conversations about rugby teams, trucks, boats, guns, and other masculine topics; I still am! And despite the fact that New Zealand is actually a very progressive country, which was the first democracy in the world to give women the vote, and later elected Georgina Beyer as the world’s first transsexual Member of Parliament, this undertow of roughshod masculinity is still very pervasive.

So if Richard O’Brien were like me in any way, I am sure he would have found himself really quite uncomfortable among this lot. No wonder that he took himself back to Blighty at the first reasonable chance.

There's no crime in giving yourself over to pleasure
O’Brien has written a lot of material, but the only thing which hasn’t sunk, more or less without trace, has been Rocky Horror (can you name its sequel??). In fact, Rocky Horror is astonishingly successful. The film has been described as the longest-running film in cinematic history. Attendance at either the film or the stage show is more or less compulsory for any crossdresser, as it’s one of the few places where you can go along wearing just about anything you like (the more outrageous, the better). In fact, to go in ordinary clothes (as I have once done) immediately marks you out for ridicule.

O’Brien took crossdressing and made it funny; made it blatant (“a Sweet Transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania”) and made it mainstream: at just about any office party or family wedding, you’ll hear them playing The Time Warp. And now I hear that even Glee has done a (sanitised) rendition of Rocky Horror.
O'Brien: Rocky’s allowed a lot of people who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to express themselves have that chance to be more open and to free themselves.
If it had just been about crossdressing, Rocky Horror would have fizzled in a season. What makes it work is not just the crossdressing, but the other stuff too: the loving and careful parodies which are both flagrant and subtle (and Tim Curry’s wonderful performance in the movie is a triumph). Like other wonderful parodies, it was clearly hard for O’Brien to decide how to end the story of Brad and Janet. We clearly couldn’t just have them going back to their normal lives, so O’Brien had to write an ending of even greater weirdness, with something of a deus-ex-machina flavour. (Don’t even get me started about the ending of Blazing Saddles).

O’Brien’s other famous outing was as the presenter of a UK show called The Crystal Maze, where teams of youthful people “locked” inside the Maze competed in a series of intellectual or physical challenges against the clock, and under O’Brien’s half-helpful, half-taunting observation. I watched it regularly. He has also acted in other roles on stage and screen.

O'Brien: a sweet transvestite
O’Brien has been married and divorced twice, and has three children. Currently single by his own choice, he recently celebrated his 70th birthday. In the UK, he used to organise an annual event featuring outrageous crossdressing called Transfandango for several years: again it was blatant, again it was funny, again it was out there in public and in broad daylight, and this time the money went to charity. I regret that by the time I had cottoned on to it, I had missed the last one, and I never got to attend. O’Brien describes himself as a “trans”, although again I am not quite sure what that means. To the best of my knowledge, he has never adopted a fem name publicly. In any case, when dressed, he certainly looks the part (look at these amazing pictures!), and it’s clear from reading his interviews that he really enjoys crossdressing.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show has been selected for preservation by the National Library of Congress; you can’t get much more accepted than that. Richard O’Brien is also funny, clever and quirky: all very endearing attributes from my perspective. I like him most of all because he has taken crossdressing and made it glorious, almost singlehandedly. Give him a medal! Give him a knighthood! (Or a damehood?). Or how about a statue?

Well, there is one! Sadly the old Embassy Theatre was demolished. But on the site it once occupied, there now stands the bronze statue of a man wearing high heels. And that man is Richard O’Brien, in costume as Riff-Raff from Rocky Horror. And this is New Zealand we are talking about here. Not only can you see the statue online, but, night or day, you can check on it via its round-the-clock webcam here.

So far, nobody has shown any interest in putting up a statue of me. But if you ever do, let it be wearing high heels! Hot patootie!


Addendum 19th March 2013

The BBC has just published an interview with Richard O'Brien, where he describes himself as "70% man". Apparently he has been taking oestrogen for the last decade, and has developed breasts as a result. There follows a bit of discussion about gender identity. You can read the article here.

Addendum 8th August 2015

Happy 40th Birthday to the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which just turned 40, and is still gorgeous and still just as popular as ever.


  1. RHPS has always been a troublesome issue for me. On the one hand, it's SUCH a fun show and the music is painfully addictive, and of course there is the crossdressing theme. On the other hand, there are two messages in it that I don't like. The first is the celebration of unrestrained sexual excess. Believe it or not, once you get past the whole "guy who wears dresses" part I'm a pretty conservative bible-thumper and much of RHPS comes across like a guide on the best way to load yourself down with an assortment of STDs.

    The other problem I have with it is that from that moment on, public perception of "transvestite" was Frank N. Furter who isn't just a run-of-the-mill crossdresser but an affirmation of every negative stereotype in the book; a full-house pansexual drag queen.

    That probably sounds like I'm reading out of Fred Phelps' book, but that's not what I mean. Homosexuality is an issue I feel is best left between the person and God; I have too many logs in my own eye to gripe about the speck in someone else's.

    All I'm saying is, it's a frustrating exercise to convince the general public that most crossdressers are straight when the media portrays us like Frank. THAT's the message that sticks in people's minds, regardless of what the real trannys say.

    1. Hi Ralph, and thanks for posting.
      You're quite right, of course. Sadly the image of Frank'N'Furter is what a lot of people conjure to mind when crossdressing is mentioned.
      And you're right about the unrestrained sexual excess too: "It's not a crime to give yourself over to pleasure," notes Frank, with that lovely British drawn-out rolling of the word "pleasure".
      I could make some comment about O'Brien deliberately choosing a character as completely at odds with Brad and Janet as possible; but I think it's far more likely that Frank'N'Furter is O'Brien's id allowed to run wild and then given not just a voice, but a face too.
      On the other hand, RHPS has really brought crossdressing into mainstream entertainment, and it's fantastically popular. For some people, it's popular because it's clever, funny, and the music is toe-tapping. For others (and here I include myself) it's popular because you can wear your highest heels, your shortest skirt, your reddest nails and lippy, and you are positively celebrated for it.
      I don't disagree with your points. I just think there is more positive than negative about it.