By Shelby Brooks
One of Australia’s premier drag queens who has surprising roots in Dandenong is being catapulted onto the worldwide stage of drag performing.
Karen from Finance, aka Richard Chadwick, has been announced as a contestant on Ru Paul’s Drag Race Down Under, a TV show which sees drag queens compete elimination-style for the title of the next drag superstar.
Karen, a self-proclaimed comedy queen, grew up in Hallam and attended school in Dandenong but most recently performed an award winning cabaret show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in March.
Surprisingly, Karen’s childhood in Hallam was filled with sport.
“I tried to play basketball, football, tennis, cricket and swimming. I really did try everything and I hated all of them equally,” she said.
It was only after she tried drama school in Cranbourne that she found the right fit.
“It took me trying every [sport] for my parents to realise none of them were going to work or that I wasn’t interested in them. Drama school came after that and that was the one that stuck,” she said.
“I went to Helen O’Grady’s Children’s Drama Academy in Cranbourne for four years which was life changing.”
Although she gained performance and acting skills at the academy, once out of school Karen spent several years without any thought of becoming a drag queen.
But many nights spent at burlesque shows in Melbourne had planted a seed in her mind, so when a friend announced her birthday theme was ‘Dolly, Denim and Diamantes’, Karen’s journey into drag began.
“I thought I looked like Dolly Parton but I actually looked like a monster,” she said.
“Before that, I was sitting down at a bar at a burlesque show in Fitzroy one night and I was watching the girls dance around to other people’s music in sequin gowns and having a lovely glamorous time thinking, ‘oh I wish I could do that’.
“Skip to the next weekend when I was at my friend’s birthday and I was like hang on, maybe I can!”
Karen had met plenty of drag queens spending time in the Melbourne gay scene in her early 20s, but she said she hadn’t considered doing it herself before that.
“I was 23 when I first started doing drag, so I had been out on the club scene for five or six years, seeing drag shows and partying with drag queens before I ever really considered doing it for myself,” she said.
“It never really crossed my mind and I never thought I would become a drag queen, let alone a performer.”
Along with the essential wigs, make-up and sequenced dresses needed to do drag, so came the need for a name.
“I had already come up with the character of ‘Karen from Finance’ a few months before I did drag for the first time but… it wasn’t a drag character,” she said.
“When I did do drag for the first time and someone asked me what my name was, I hadn’t actually thought about it yet…so I told them my name was Karen from Finance and it just stuck.”
Karen did actually work in finance when she was freshly 18.
“I hated that too,” she said.
“But the character wasn’t really based on that experience.”
It took several years for Karen to become the professional performer that she is today.
In the beginning, she hosted epic parties and events.
“I was interested in throwing events and parties and I really existed in the alternative queer space,” she said.
“I was all about creating stages and spaces for people from all walks of life to come together and perform.
“My parties were known for not just featuring your typical drag queens, but they featured AFAB (assigned female at birth), burlesque and circus performers. I really tried to bring all the freaks and geeks together to my parties!”
These days, Karen is a comedy performer and has credits as a headliner at comedy and cabaret festivals across Australia, the UK and New Zealand.
“I absolutely adore performing, it’s my absolute favourite thing in the entire world,” she said.
“I love making people laugh. That’s my number one goal.”
Karen described the current Australian drag scene as vibrant and thriving.
“Australia and New Zealand have such an amazing scene, and not only an incredible scene but an iconic scene,” she said.
“It’s not a small community. The drag scene is pretty big in Australia but it’s a lot smaller compared to places like the US.”
So when Ru Paul’s Drag Race was announced to be coming Down Under, Karen said she thought it had only been a matter of time.
“It’s been almost thirty years since Australian drag was last put on the map with Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and I felt like it was high time that we had another landmark in the history of drag in Australia,” Karen said.
“So, it was perfect timing for Drag Race to come along.”
Ru Paul’s Drag Race Down Under was filmed in New Zealand earlier this year, having already gone global with versions of the show produced in the UK, Thailand, Canada and Holland.
“I’m not just a big fan but I’m a big advocate for it too, I absolutely love it,” Karen said.
“[Filming] was completely surreal. It was the wildest experience of my life.”
Karen from Finance will be a guest at CPAC Musical Theatre’s opening night of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert at the Cardinia Cultural Centre in Pakenham on Saturday 24 April.
She will be available for pre- and post-show photo and meet and greet opportunities.
Producer and CPAC founder Lee Geraghty taught Karen for year 7 maths at St John’s Regional College Dandenong.
Karen said she was thrilled community theatre was taking on productions like the iconic drag show, Priscilla.
“People usually associate drag, and even sometimes with the queer community, with being in the cities and the centralised hubs, but queer people are everywhere, the LGBTQIA+ community is everywhere,” Karen said.
I think it’s really important for community groups to be presenting shows like Priscilla because the more activations like this, that we can have wide spread in the community, the more recognition the community is going to get and the more safe the community is going to feel and the better represented they’re going to feel.
“It’s so cool that something like Priscilla is happening, not just out in the city but in the suburbs as well.
“My gosh, if I had when I was little while I was playing all the sports and trying to find something to do with my life, if Priscilla the musical was an option back then, that would have been life changing, so it’s really cool that it’s happening now.”
Ru Paul’s Drag Race Down Under will air on Stan Australia on Saturday 1 May.