Authors: Craig Revel Horwood
Angela and I went to lessons after school, in a big church hall in Ballarat. Suddenly, I found that I was actually enjoying myself and, to my surprise, that I was rather good at it.
On the night of the ball, I hired a suit and we had our photos taken. Then the girls were paraded down the stairs one by one. It’s all very American, a bit like a prom, except that you have to learn the dances beforehand and then you do them together.
That evening, I had a brilliant time. I loved the progressive routines, where you swapped partners and worked your way round the room, because everyone danced differently. Some were absolutely hopeless and I found that amusing. The dancing made me feel confident and all my self-consciousness disappeared. It was fine that other people were watching me because I had found something I could do and which, in fact, came so naturally to me that I found it odd others were having problems.
Given everything I’d endured at Ballarat East, it was an amazing night. I simply wanted it to go on forever. I was about to discover that, with the right training, I could make that dream a reality.
ll this time, I kept up my weekly jazz classes with a zealous dedication. The man who led the sessions was a local TV personality called Fred Fargher, which added even more allure to my new vocation than the dancing itself, about which I was now passionate.
Fred was creative director of the TV station BTV6, which is now called Win TV, and he also had his own live variety programme,
, on Channel Nine. Some great show-business names appeared on it, including Shirley Bassey, Neil Sedaka and Sophia Loren. Legend has it that all Fred offered them to secure their services was a limo ride to Ballarat and dinner.
Everyone in Ballarat watched the show. I remember one particular programme with Marcia Hines, the American singer who was hugely successful in Australia, which became her adopted homeland. She is now a judge on
In the 1970s, she was my absolute hero. I worshipped her. I used to chop the wood to her album. My mum was helping out at BTV6 that night and actually ironed Marcia’s costume, which we all thought was the coolest thing in the world.
Around that time, I got to meet the Australian songwriter Peter Allen backstage at the TV station. He’s written some extraordinary songs, including ‘I’d Rather Leave While I’m in Love’,
‘I Honestly Love You’ and ‘Don’t Cry Out Loud’. Later, in 1982, he also won an Oscar, with his co-writers, for ‘Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)’.
Seeing him was a life-changing experience because it was the first time I’d met anyone backstage in a dressing room. I was so excited, I couldn’t speak. He was so nice and vivacious and he was asking me questions … and I was speechless.
The Channel Nine crew used to come up every Saturday night to do the live show so, in Ballarat, Fred was famous. I was totally star-struck by this huge celebrity, and astounded when he took a shine to me and spurred me on. After my first class, he took me aside and said, ‘Craig, you’re very good at this. You have some natural ability. Would you like to take it further? Would you like to be in one of my shows?’
Fred starred in, directed and choreographed amateur productions for the Ballarat Lyric Theatre, which played at ‘Hermaj’ (Her Majesty’s Theatre). He wanted me to appear in a revue he’d created called
, which was to be my introduction to dance performance. I’ve still got pictures of myself after the show, pretending to sign autographs. How embarrassing.
It was a typical, although very good, am-dram production. I really enjoyed it. It wasn’t just the dance – I found a whole new social crowd and established some real friendships for the first time in my life. The company had a lot of members who were older than me and I got on better with them than with my own peer group. They were interesting, they had cars and could drive me around, and they invited me to grown-up soirées. I started smoking Alpines because Margot Hood, one of the company, smoked them and she would say, ‘Come on, let’s have a fag.’ I loved those parties.
I was relieved not to embarrass myself in front of Margot on the smoking front. By that time, I’d already experimented with cigarettes. I had my first fag aged about twelve, when I nicked a
cigarette from Corinne. It was a menthol ciggie and I took it down to the garage. I couldn’t draw it in; I just put it in my mouth and blew it out again.
The first time I did the drawback was with a friend with whom I occasionally played table tennis, who was a bit of a scallywag. He used to smoke regularly. We were standing at the bus stop near the old BP station in Ballarat when he handed me a cigarette and showed me how to inhale. Not wanting to appear uncool, I tried it. It made me feel violently ill. I felt sick, I felt dizzy, it was ghastly – but, by hook or by crook, I was determined to master it. By the time I was on to Alpines with the am-dram crew, I was a pro.
, Fred suggested that I take the next step and study all the facets of theatre – acting, singing and dancing – properly. At that point, I had only learned ballroom in any depth, for my debutante date with Angela, but he encouraged me to train with local teacher Janet Brown.
‘All dance is based on a good foundation and that, Craig, is classical ballet,’ he told me. ‘A friend of mine runs a school here in Ballarat and I urge you to go. You must have good technique, be like a tiger and have a killer instinct.’
Fred couldn’t have been more right. But back then, I knew absolutely nothing about classical ballet – I couldn’t even spell it. I just knew it was a girly thing to do that only weirdo boys did. Even so, I agreed to give it a try.
I started to train in Cecchetti, a classical ballet discipline, with an outrageous blonde woman – Janet Brown – who ran a dance school with her sister Cheryl. Those classes led to probably one of the biggest moments of my young life: putting on my first pair of tights.
The basic ballet uniform for boys was a white T-shirt, black tights, white socks and black ballet slippers. However, for my first two months with Janet, I just wore something I felt comfortable in: footy shorts and a singlet. The final ultimatum eventually came.
Janet said that if I didn’t wear the right clothes in class, I would no longer be able to attend. After that session had finished, I met up with Fred and he took me to the dancewear shop, which was underneath the dance studio, to buy these horrific tights and the rest of the kit.
I took my purchases home, went to my room and shut the door before I tried them on. The tights were really thick and – to add insult to injury – I had to put on a dance support (a type of sports G-string) underneath, which was even worse. It was the most uncomfortable thing I’d ever experienced. It looked like something surgical and it went right up my jacksy, which was horrible. It is a necessary evil, though, because it gives you a neat package and protects the tackle when you’re jumping about.
The first time I had to wear the tights in class was hideous. I pulled them on in the changing room and came out into the dance studio, where I was surrounded by mirrors. It was torture, especially as I was the only boy. You’ve got to be bloody brave and I wasn’t feeling it at the time. The tights represented a commitment that, at fifteen, I wasn’t sure I wanted to make. Did I want to go the whole way with dance, or was I becoming something I didn’t want to be?
‘Only poofs do ballet,’ I was thinking as I walked out, ‘and I don’t want to be one of those.’
Obviously, I was still in denial.
As discomfited as I was to see myself in tights, there was no reaction at all from the rest of the class. It was normal uniform for them. I’d been thinking that the whole world was going to cave in and the floor would eat me up, but they totally ignored it.
Janet just said, ‘At the barre! First position … Music!’
Then we started warm-up, the session went on as normal and my moment of excruciating embarrassment was over.
That first year I was studying ballet, I lost so much weight, I became extremely thin and really tall. It was bizarre. Within six months, I had grown from 5 foot 7 to about 6 foot 2 and lost every
inch of fat. I remember putting on my jeans and saying, ‘Mum, look,’ because they didn’t reach my ankles.
It was at this time that I left school to become an apprentice chef, having convinced myself that – whatever might be happening in the dance studio – my immediate future lay in a restaurant kitchen.
The reason for this insight was that I had recently won a prestigious culinary competition. Our home economics teacher wanted us all to enter a local contest to become the Sunbeam Junior Chef of the Year, so we all had to put together a dish that was entirely our own creation. I entered a recipe for Jellied Prawn Cocktail and won the Ballarat heat, so BTV6 came round and filmed me. (For readers who may wish to try my concoction, the recipe is as follows: blend together lemon jelly crystals, prawns, mayonnaise and fresh parsley, and put into a cocktail glass. It sounds awful, but it was really tasty.)
My triumph gained me some anomalous popularity at school because I had a TV crew following me round lessons for one day. I was going to be on the news that evening and people were really excited. Suddenly, everyone wanted to be my friend. That finally made up for the mortification of the colouring competition.
After the local heat, I had to attend an annual event called the Melbourne Show, where the provincial winners came together to compete for the state title. Here, I was on a stall and people gathered round to watch the contestants as they cooked, like chefs do in supermarkets. I heard someone in the crowd say, ‘Look how much he’s shaking!’ I had to cut something up really finely and I was wobbling like a jelly. Years later, I was to react in the exact same way in a famously humiliating moment on
Somehow, I got through my shakes and emerged triumphant, which meant I was representing Victoria in the finals of the Junior Chef of the Year contest in Sydney. Mum bought me some new clothes for the event, including a white calico shirt,
which I loved, though it was so stiff that it scratched my nipples like hell.
On the day we left, I packed all my knives in my hand luggage and, not surprisingly, they were taken away from me at the airport and put into the hold.
Mum and I travelled together and we had a wonderful trip. It was a real adventure for us because we were flown to Sydney and put up in a fancy hotel, then taken on a Captain Cook cruise around Sydney Harbour. It was a beautiful day and I thought it was the poshest thing. It was fantastic.
Mum loved it because it was a weekend away and everything was laid on for us, including breakfast, lunch and dinner. She could really relax and we had a great time together. In a large family, the chance to be away with your mum by yourself is a rare treat, so it was lovely for me. For once, I didn’t have to share her.
On the day of the show, I was just as nervous as before and, this time, I didn’t win. I was runner-up, but apparently it was very close and the guy who did come first was already in his second year of a chef’s apprenticeship, so I didn’t do too badly.
The whole escapade convinced me that I had fallen in love with cooking – when, actually, I could make only one dish. I had no idea what it was really like to be a chef. I imagined it was rather easy and that this pleasant lifestyle went with it, so when I got back to Ballarat, that was what I had decided to do with my life. Needless to say, the experience of working in the kitchen of the local restaurant was not quite the same.
However, an apprenticeship was the only way to get out of school early. If you didn’t have one, you had to finish. That was impetus enough for me.
I had undertaken two previous work experience stints in professional kitchens before I left school. The first was in Sydney, in year eight at Granville Boys’ High, when I spent a week in the catering department at Auburn Hospital, where Trent was born. All I did that week was eat cheese toasties with lashings of butter,
because we only ever had margarine at home, and mix up masses of ‘deb’ potato (instant, dried, mashed-potato mix).
The second was in year nine at Ballarat East High, when I helped out at Dyer’s Steak Stable. Mum said I always came home reeking of garlic and stunk the car out. She never used to cook with garlic or strong spices much when we were growing up, so she was sensitive to the smell. During that work placement, I probably peeled and crushed enough garlic to sink a battleship. Garlic prawns were also very big on the menu, so the smell permeated my clothing and skin.
Actually, the apprenticeship that enabled me to leave school was secured through sheer maternal force. I was sent for the interview, but when I got there, they said the job had already gone. Mum went straight for the jugular and said, ‘How can the vacancy be filled when we’ve only just been dispatched here for an interview?’ Faced with the wrath of my mother, they decided to give me a trial.
The hours were dreadful. We’d finish the lunch shift and go home, then we’d have to go back again for dinner, and all I did was prep, prep, prep. I was always the last one in the kitchen doing the desserts, but I used to get migraines and faint sometimes, which at least got me out of work.
The head chef was such an arse. He called me every name under the sun, including ‘poofter’ and ‘gay boy’ and told me I was as thick as pig shit. He screamed at me all the time, saying things like, ‘That’s the fucking wrong sauce, you stupid c**t! How can you not know that’s a white sauce? It’s white!’
In my defence, there were, of course, two white sauces in the fridge. I chose one of them and, naturally, it had to be the wrong one. The béchamel sauce was white and the fish sauce was also white. He dragged me by the scruff of the neck into the fridge, shouting and screaming and generally being a dick, and rubbed my face in the fish sauce, saying, ‘That’s the fish sauce, you stupid little poofter and this is the white sauce. Don’t fuck it up again!’