As a Timaru boy in the 1960s, Neil Gudsell, understandably, had limited name recognition. But, as his talents blossomed and his ambitions and horizons expanded, he’s tasted stardom here and overseas as Mika. His stage performances may have been uncomfortably outrageous for some folk, but his all-round “fabulosity” has been a winner. Here he talks with Dale about the paths he’s taken.
Kia ora, Mika. I’ve had a look at your biography, I Have Loved Me A Man, which shows what a colourful and artistic life you’ve been living since your early days in Timaru. Can you please take us back to the beginning?
I was born in Timaru to a Pākehā mother and a Māori father who’d separated. At that time, many babies in New Zealand were taken from single mums and adopted out. It was just a thing that society did. There was, in Australia, something similar on a much larger scale going on with mixed-race Aboriginal babies and young children. They were taken away and brought up white. They’re the ones called The Stolen Generation.
I was lucky in that I was given to a wonderful family, the Gudsells. Both Pākehā. When I say both Pākehā, that wasn’t quite true because, when I was almost 20, I learned that, on Mum’s side they were connected to Kāi Tahu-Kati Mamoe down in the South Island.
But there was no mention of that when I was a kid. Māori things weren’t talked about. And Mum didn’t like me having Hori Māori friends. She didn’t like that kind of Māori being around me.
There weren’t many Māori in Timaru in that period, anyway. In fact, I first learned about Māori culture from a Weet-Bix card. I collected those cards.
I was cutting out this Māori one and going: “This is really interesting.”
And as I was looking at it, I asked Mum: “Am I a Māori?”
And she said: “Yes, you are.”
That was the ‘70s. It was a different then. I’m not judgmental of that time. That’s just how it was. It’s different now.
When I was at Timaru High School, the only Māori thing we had was the rugby haka. But, when I went back to the school in 2009, there was a festival and they actually had a pōwhiri for me.
Did you ever catch up with your old man?
No. He was dead by the time I met my birth mother about a decade ago. He had passed much earlier. I’m a Pou. I’ve connected with some of that family since then. A little bit. There’s been a book written by one of the whānau about the whakapapa and, apparently, I’m in that book. But, no, I never met my father, although I have some photos.
But I did get to meet my birth mother and I was glad of that. Also, I have a blood sister. Both of them lived about 400 metres up the road from us when I was a child. They were so close, but we didn’t know they were there.
Amazing. I know you’ve got great affection for those who raised you, Dawn and Bill Gudsell. But there must’ve been a time when you realised that you were different? When was that?
Oh gosh. Very early on. All my cousins are white. They’re white as white. And there’s me. Sometimes there’d be the odd comment. You don’t really understand that when you’re a child. But, by the time I was in intermediate, I knew that I was definitely different.
Also, I knew at intermediate that I was attracted to guys. So, by the time I was in the third form or Year 9 at Timaru High, an all-boys school, I was pretty much out.
But I was a good athlete. I played rugby. Also, I became a champion disco dancer. So I had a few qualities that would’ve dampened down any kind of hostilities.
Obviously, there were some guys who’d give me grief. But there was the old-fashioned way of dealing with that. We’d have a scrap. I’d win. And he’d move on. That’s what we used to do. I’m not encouraging that in schools. But, in those days, that’s what we did. You stand your ground, have a scrap, and get on with it. And I had the advantage of being a big, strong kid. And fast. That helped.
So there wasn’t a major backlash because you were attracted to boys rather than to girls?
No. It’s quite bizarre but there were only about three guys in the whole of Timaru Boys’ High who caused me grief. So, over several years, what I did was catch them on their own somewhere, and sort them out, as we used to say. That’s what you’d do. Then they’d calm down.
Back then, remember, a lot of guys didn’t know what a gay person was. Not like today. “What’s a gay guy? What’s that?” Many of them thought gay behaviour was an act: “He’s just being silly.” There seemed to be so few gay people around. In Timaru, anyway. Just a couple of what people called “homos”. And there weren’t, apparently, any gays on TV.
My impression is that students these days don’t give a lot of thought to guys who’re effeminate. It’s no big deal. But we’re talking about back in the 1970s when coming out as a boy or young man came with some risk. But perhaps you were keeping your feelings secret.
I had a boyfriend when we were at intermediate. He and I went to school together. It was very playful. Kissing, holding hands. Not hardcore sex. Just having feelings for each other. But I also had girlfriends, too. Funnily enough, both of my girlfriends, in later life, are lesbians. We instinctively must’ve been attracted to each other for whatever reason. That’s interesting, isn’t it?
The hardest part came when my mother eventually found out. I was going to tell her when I left school. I’d decided I’d wait till I finished school. But my father had just died. So I didn’t tell her then. I told her a year or two after he died. She got very upset.
In those days, they sent you to the doctor. I was sent to the same doctor who’d taken me away from my birth mother, who’s now passed on. Dr Burnett was his name. He said: “We’ll have to recommend you to a psychoanalyst.” Which is also what they did back then.
Now here’s the interesting part. I’d just given a speech at Timaru Boys’ High a year or so beforehand about gay rights. I got away with it because Time magazine had just released a report to say homosexuality was not an illness. So I showed that to the rector of the school.
And, when I was talking to the psychoanalyst who, I found out later, had a habit of admitting gays and lesbians to mental hospitals, I told him Time magazine said homosexuality wasn’t an illness.
He said: “You’ll get called a faggot. You’ll get beaten up.” I remember saying: “Who’s gonna beat me up? I’ll scrap back.” And he kind of gave in. I found out later that it was very common for parents to commit their gay or lesbian child to Sunnyside Hospital in Christchurch. The parents could do that. Later, my mother told me she could’ve committed me to Sunnyside. That’s how bad it was back then. But no, Mum didn’t want me committed.
Bizarrely enough, after I left school at 17, I came home with my boyfriend. He wore lime green pants. Bleach blond hair. And he greeted Mum with: “Hiiii! How are you?” And she fell in love with him. She was like: “Come in. How are you darling?”
She was so accepting, it was great.
As a young fulla, you probably had some favourites or role models in the entertainment world.
Boy George was one. And Farrah Fawcett, too. I had her poster in my bedroom. It pleased my mother. It was her hair! I had my hair parted in the middle for the disco — a part in the middle with the flicks. I was very much into pop culture. And track and field. I only went to track and field training or out to discos. That was it for me. But that was a lot for a kid.
You’re still regarded as a guy for whom health is important. Got any vices at all?
No. One Christmas, when I was 15, Dad offered me a beer. I said: “Nah, I don’t want a beer, thanks. I’m a track and field star. It might slow me down.” I don’t do cigarettes, either. And I don’t do drugs. Really.
I was actually a health freak from quite young. I remember when I was nine going for a run and hearing my mother telling someone: “He started going for runs in the evening because he thought he was getting fat.”
But, if you look at all the kiddy pictures in the book, you can see, I’m not fat. Even then I may have had what we now term “body dysmorphia”. That’s where you believe you’re fatter than you really are. So I’ve always been careful with my food and my diet.
The other reason I keep fit and healthy is so that I have the energy to do stuff. I’m now closer to 60 than 50. But I’m really active. I’ve spent a lifetime looking after myself. I know my skin is good.
I love these people who hit 40 or 50 and say: “I must start on a health kick.” I look at them and think: “Surgery might be the only thing for you, darling.” It’s that belly that people start getting and they can’t lose it at the gym because it’s there now.
I’ve always been a health activist. In the 1980s, in the aerobic championships, I called our team, Ngā Toa. I’d been doing a lot of work around reducing obesity and getting people more active. And the whole team was Māori. Nobody in the team, at that point, spoke a word of Māori. Had never done a haka or anything in their lives. City Māori.
But, I’ve always, as you know, embraced Māori who aren’t in the conversation. So many of our Māori people are whakamā about being in the conversation and whakamā about using te reo Māori. So many Māori won’t participate in things Māori because they don’t feel part of it.
You’re a very flamboyant, confident performer. And that flamboyance and confidence, along with your talent and hard work, has taken you all over the world. But how do you explain your appeal?
Well, I’m not a drag queen, as such, because that’s actually quite an art. I’ve always been, if you think about David Bowie and Grace Jones, a gender bender. For instance, I might wear high heels with men’s pants. There was a small period when I had the artificial titties in one of my costumes. That was in 1991, because I remember pulling them out and going: “That’s the last time I do that.”
I have portrayed Carmen and drag queens on television and in films. But, in my own performances, no. It’s definitely more gender-bending. Neither male nor female. And it’s neither white nor brown. It’s like when I had my company which I called Mika Haka. And the reason I called it Mika Haka is so that people were aware this wasn’t traditional kapa haka. This was Mika haka.
And the name Mika? How did that come to be?
That came about in the back of a car with Dalvanius — with a whole bunch of whānau in the car, too. He had just signed me to Warner Music, one of the major labels at that time. It was with New Zealand’s first-ever gay pop single I have loved me a man. (Hence the title of the book.)
He saw me sing that song one night and he said: “We’ve got to release that.” I said: “Oh, okay.” And he did. But I was still Neil Gudsell then. He said: “Neil Gudsell’s not really the name of a popstar or actor or singer.”
He was thinking a Terry, a Paulie, a Kylie or something.
I said: “Something Māori, please.” And he said: “Mika.” And that was it.
Dalvanius was very influential in many ways. He had so much musical vision. He came back from Australia with all this ability and then started weaving in Māori things. How inspirational was he for you?
Very much. He and Merata Mita were two of the major influences in my career. There’s no doubt about it. Both of them are renowned here and internationally, bizarrely enough, especially after their deaths. Both of them for being trailblazers and for not being afraid to have their own voice.
I’ve definitely captured that uncompromising spirit off them. Both of them taught me that. They also taught me very early on: “Look, you’re the only gay Māori male in the whole country who’s actually out. No one is going to help you. You better pull your socks up and start raising your own money.”
My first international show was Uncooked (1990). Merata directed it. It went to Adelaide Fringe. And in 1992, I did the big tour: Barcelona Olympics, San Francisco, Edinburgh — my first Edinburgh festival. Lots of stuff. Then there was a period where there was a lot more TV stuff.
Dalvanius and Merata were around their whole lives with me. Merata was supportive, too, when I was in America. She’d always house me and look after me when I was in the States. It was wonderful to have that constant support.
That’s partly why I set up my own foundation to house and help our next generation of Māori and non-Māori, including a whole bunch of LGBT. I can see why performers do it as they get older. While it’s lovely to be on stage — and I still love performing, don’t get me wrong — there’s something nice about giving.
And anyway, they’ve got no money and I’ve had money. As single gay men, we often have more money than we need. So I feel it’s part of our job to help the ones in need. I think of families out there — a family of three kids and a mum and dad and on a minimum wage. How the heck do they survive?
So I sometimes can help. I’m not the only one. There’s lots of people who help others. I just don’t make a big song or dance about how much I give away of my own money.
I take an interest in their health, too. People are trying their best. But, as an academy in the early days, we had no smoking, no drinking, no junk food at all. That was everyone. So, if you joined our crew, and you did any of those things, you were out. I was black and white back then. I’ve softened now. If you want to smoke and drink — not my problem.
I wonder if you’d reflect for a moment on any of the high points in your career.
When I first met my birth mother, she and my blood sister saw me do a show in Timaru. That was about 10 years ago. And there they were in the audience. That was a lovely feeling of inclusion. Mmm. My mother seeing me. And now, wherever she’d go in her life, being able to smile and reflect on the time she’d seen me perform.
Māori are natural performers. And we’ve been making an impact for many years in the entertainment industry along with progress on many other fronts. But should we be focusing on more support and more progress?
Okay. I’m going to give you a brutal, honest answer. You ready? As far as Māori development is concerned, I believe there’s way too much money at the top end. I see it all the time. I’m the only place that I’m aware of where there’s free accommodation, free vehicles, and so on — all the stuff that a young creative needs. They can’t do it without a studio. They can’t do it without offices.
And yet there are many, many millions going to Māori developments with lovely press releases and government-sponsored funding and people at the top on six-figure salaries while the artists and the digital natives are virtually on nothing. These things we call internships. But it has to change. We aren’t doing anything. It’s lip service. Here we are, with “smiling young Māori” on another brochure while mega-millions are spent elsewhere and not on them.
Your book, as I expected, is an interesting read as well as an amazing collection of photographs. Even some full-frontal nudity. What were you hoping the book would achieve?
Sharon Mazer, the author, has focused on my work and on the social changes in New Zealand in the course of my life. So the readers will see what was happening in gay culture or Māori culture during that time.
And, for myself, I found it interesting to read that I’ve done this and this and this. Very nice.
But what was more important to me is that it embraces a lot of New Zealand. What was happening in the world. What was happening with HIV. And what I was doing was often a reaction to what was happening out in the world at that point. They were the motivation for me to do the thing I was doing.
Sharon spent eight to ten years on the project — and they had an archivist go through 155,000 images to get the photographs for the book. And the nudes in the book are also a statement about the artistic freedom we once had. Nudity is now everywhere. You can just google dick pics and they’ll be on your phone. Whereas back then, it was photography, often by very famous photographers.
There was a period when we were a lot more expressive in the arts. Things have changed because of digital technology. People aren’t naked the way they used to be. We don’t even party the same way we used to because there could be a camera around now.
So the freedom we had, right up until this digital age, won’t ever be repeated. And that’s captured in this book, I believe. There’s this time-capsule feel there in the book.
Where is all this leading for you as a performer, Mika? What are your plans?
I’m working on a film right now. I have other projects. I always have things going on, but I’m not rushing anymore. There’s no need for me to do more than I’ve done. When I want to do something, I can take as long as I want. I don’t have to sprint out and be the first. Those days, thankfully, are behind me.
Of course, I’m mentoring young Māori talent. Those with unique voices. I don’t mentor giggers — people who’re just looking for a gig. The ones I’m mentoring are the new digital natives. But, as for my own creativity, there’s always something popping along. And you’ll see it when it pops out, I suppose.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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