Capsis sings, frocks off

Paul Capsis is someone whose grin stretches from here to there, who is himself one minute, and several other people the next.

A short time after sitting down for this interview he toyed with the idea of doing a quick song in the rather refined lobby of the Furama hotel and suggested to the Post's photographer the possibility of using the sofa he was on as a chaise longue, looking a little disappointed when the photo-opportunity was not taken up.

'Are you getting my best side? Do you do airbrushing?' It is not every day shoulder-length ringlets and a Greek-Maltese-Egyptian face are unleashed on a splendiforous Hong Kong hotel, and the hovering staff were loving it.

Capsis flew in from Australia to perform his new one-man show at the Fringe and also out of loyalty to his friend Michelle Garnaut, arriving to help celebrate the 10th anniversary of one of her restaurants, M at the Fringe. He wouldn't be anywhere else this week, he insists.

'I was offered the role of an alien ant with an androgynous voice on an American TV show just before I came.

'I turned it down because I was on my way to Hong Kong. I said there's no way I'm giving up Hong Kong to play an ant. My manager was quite cross. He said it was a great career opportunity. I said: 'I don't see how playing an alien ant is a must!' ' For fans who saw him a couple of years ago, his show this week is a simpler act, concentrating on the music. 'I've abandoned the frocks,' he said. 'This time it's more Elvis than Ann Margret - well, OK, a cross between Cher and Elvis. I'm doing James Bond and Baccarat medleys. It's electro-cabaret, flash with trash.' The frocks were a distraction, he felt. 'They were an ability to exaggerate what I was doing. I got rid of a lot of anger through wearing them. But I never ever wanted to look like people I imitate. I don't make conscious references to them anymore. I'm not doing Queen Of The Desert. Don't leave the house if you expect that.' He came across a 'channeller' once, in touch with the spirits of Hollywood's stars, and decided the whole thing needed sending up. He portrayed legends from Janis Joplin to Judy Garland. But his drag act was always about capturing the essence of the character rather than trying to impersonate them. They were his heroines, 'strong women, who took everything further, unmatched performers'.

'They inspired me to perform. My struggle was always finding myself, my own voice. I've paid my respects to them, honoured them and although I don't do the frocks now, they will always, always be there for me.' They leap in and out of a conversation that is one moment outrageous Las Vegas, the next a quiet recollection of the precarious start to his career. His first gigs were at talent shows in Sydney pubs. 'I had no idea. I'm inner-city-raised. I got on the train and went out to the suburbs and put on my frocks and feathers. I was lucky to get out alive.' He really started performing much, much earlier. Raised by his grandmother - 'I was obsessed with the stories she always told of Malta, poverty, the war, but I get obsessed with things, they take me over, I have to know everything' - after his parents divorced, he was big at Maltese weddings.

'I would always find myself in the middle of a crowd doing a belly dance, moving faster than you could possibly imagine, and I'd see my aunt looking at me in horror,' he said.

At primary school he found he had a talent for mimicking. 'I somehow picked up mannerisms. When I was young I always felt very neutral, like I didn't have any personality. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought I was plain. So I would take on other personas, as I found them much more interesting.' Sydney schools were obviously not ready for him. 'I was very free, I expressed myself naturally, which seemed to press a lot of buttons. I had a teacher at primary school who was very encouraging but I learned a lesson at school that you can't always express yourself. It upsets people.' At high school, it took him a few months to realise children were laughing at him, not with him. 'They called me faggot and a poof, so I stopped.' He rejected performance and you cannot make more of an attempt to conform than leaving school and setting out to be a travel agent. 'But it was in my blood. Community theatre saved me.' At an after-show party one night, rather drunk, he did a quick sprint through impersonations of 20 well-known women singers. The director was stunned and insisted he star in the company's next show. A star was born.

Life is considerably different now. His cabaret work has taken him around the world and was a huge hit in Edinburgh last year.

He is touring with a toned-down show that opened here last night and runs tonight and tomorrow, he's played a good deal of straight theatre - 'I did Brecht and played 'German connection and gangster', I was Marlene Deitrich popping up out of the bowels of the stage and flying in on wires' - but his big achievement is an award for an Australian film, Head On, in which he played a Greek transsexual, a close friend of the lead character.

'I'm very proud of it. It's a long way from when I was a kid being told to stop showing off because I was being embarrassing.' Paul Capsis Alive. Today and tomorrow, 8pm. La Cremeria Theatre, Fringe Club. Tickets cost $150. Urbtix: 2734 9009