Witi Ihimaera writes about his irrepressible friend, queer performance artist Mika (born Neil Gudsell) in this extract from Mika’s biography I Have Loved Me a Man: The Life and Times of Mika (Auckland University Press), which was launched last week.
People forget that Mika was once a Timaru boy.
They still talk about him down there in that staid southern town where he began life as rugby-playing Neil Gudsell, adopted and beloved son of a Pākehā couple. Based on his adopted background, in fact, Mika actually said one of the bravest things I have ever heard a Māori say: that it wasn’t blood ancestry that was important if you wanted to claim being a Māori.
Of course, I had heard of Mika’s fabulosity years before I actually met him. The great Carmen first told me about him in one of her clubs in the red-light Kings Cross district of Sydney when I was trashing myself at some point in the 1980s. Up to that time I had known Mika only as one of the regulars of a television series called Shark in the Park where he played, of all things, a young constable or police officer.
Yes, our Mika, the trans-everything hypersexual all-guns-blazing celebrity, playing a nice inoffensive officer of the police force! What was television thinking? That was in the days of black-and-white television, too!
But there was nothing black and white about Mika. He was totally Technicolor; I have to say that he was much better typecast as the desirably dishevelled Māori boy sitting on a tree and showing off his wares in Jane Campion’s The Piano some years later.
At the time that Carmen inveigled me across the street, Mika was planning to make a movie of the great drag diva’s life. Not only that, but he also planned to star as Carmen, who was always one of the great icons in his life. And why not? Mika was a star himself!
I first met Mika with one of his lover-protégés in Herne Bay where I was living with my partner. I didn’t think he knew who I was, as I usually appear in high-quality glossy publications and not the kind of trashy, slutty reading material that he favours. But from the beginning each of us recognised something in the other: two Māori boys off to conquer the world. We became fast friends, womb to tomb, birth to earth.
At the time he was, and still is, a force of nature. He was working as a gym instructor — once I went with him, and when these young muscle Marys saw that he was taking the session they walked out because he was known for his punishing routines.
He was also putting shows together for various clubs up on K Road and particularly for Mardi Gras and other dance parties around New Zealand. I once went with him to a Wellington dance party where, after taking something that was probably illegal at a hotel room before the event, I found myself fighting all these queens for mirror space as they put on their false eyelashes; they won.
The dance party was totally fabulous. Mika was due to have the final starring spot, and he couldn’t make up his mind as to whether he should wear a leopard-skin coat or a lurid green jumpsuit. As the spot approached he kept on asking, “Which one? Which one!” As if it mattered. When the spotlight came on, he had decided not to wear anything. There he was, like some Folies Bergere fan dancer, striking a pose without a fan.
I’ve been with Mika during good times and bad. During the heady gay-carnival 1980s, his “Lava Lover” period, I foolishly proposed to write a cabaret act for him called something like “Luana, Queen of the South Pacific”.
I planned to model it on an old Maria Montez movie called, I think, Cobra Woman, in which Maria played both the Queen (a badass gal) and her twin sister (a good girl). At the end of the cabaret, I planned to have a volcano erupt on stage into which the Queen would be thrown, leaving the twin sister to take over as ruler of the island and marry the hunky hero.
When I began to tell Mika about the scenario, he so wanted to be the bad Queen, dripping in pearls and nothing else. “I can do that!” he said. Alas, when I explained about the virginal twin sister, he also said, “I can be a virgin!”
Yeah, in his dreams. The point is that he wanted to play all the roles and, you know, I reckon he could have.
In the 1990s, our friendship deepened. My long-time lover thought we were having an affair. His short-term lovers (I used to call him “Mika, of a thousand lovers”) came and went with not so surprising regularity, but he managed to maintain most of them as friends. I say most, but there was a certain occasion when he pleaded with me to come to his apartment just in case a recent ex-lover was waiting. The lover wasn’t but, before he had left, he had taken the scissors to everything. It was like a movie, truly.
As I’ve said before, Mika was always working it: projects, projects and more projects. There was an ill-advised couple of jaunts to Japan with a covey of innocent dancers … but God looks after fools and Mika, and all casts returned without having been sold to any Arabs.
He also went to New York, where he appeared with some fabulous gay icons including Grace Jones (yes, Grace Jones!!!) and stayed at my friend Leni Spencer’s apartment on the Upper East Side. Leni adored his glamour and sassiness.
There were two really interesting projects. One of them was the writing of a sitcom for Māori Television called Pania’s Palace: Ginette McDonald, Mika and I were all contracted by Ripeka Evans to do that one and the scripts must be somewhere. They were pretty good. I think Mika expected to star in that one, too.
Then, when my novel Nights in the Gardens of Spain was published, Mika produced a launch party to end all launch parties. Imagine this: a coffee bar filled to the brim with publisher and writer types, and all the entertainment looking as if it was coming out of La Cage aux Folles. And in the middle of it, Mika and I dancing a mean, sexy, down-and-dirty tango.
We’re still friends today. He looks exactly the same now as he did forty years ago. And he’s still working it, though he numbers the rich and the famous among his friends now. He’s still fabulous. And working for so many charities.
Most recently he was to be seen, glamorous as ever, campaigning for a political future in Gareth Morgan’s party. He didn’t make it this time, but I’m betting this is just the beginning and looking forward to when he makes his first speech in the Beehive. Watch out world! Still a star.
This is an extract from I Have Loved Me a Man: The Life and Times of Mika, by Sharon Mazer with foreword by Witi Ihimaera (Auckland University Press), RRP $59.99.
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