Using costuming and “campery” to create stage personas has been part of Chris Parker’s repertoire since the ballet-dancing days of his youth. Now, the Kiwi comedian brings a freedom of expression and an unapologetically strong sense of self to everything he touches.
In 1976, three years after the introduction of colour to New Zealand television screens, celebrity chefs Peter Hudson and David Halls debuted their cooking show, Hudson and Halls, to a nationwide audience, bringing frivolity, campness and “in the closet with the doors wide open” homosexuality to Kiwis for the very first time in a public arena.
They spent 10 years lighting up the living rooms of families across the nation, but faded into relative obscurity when the show was canned in 1986 and the pair moved to London.
The spirit of these pioneering personalities was revived in 2017 with the comedy stage show Hudson and Halls Live!, starring comedians Chris Parker and Todd Emerson.
For Chris, it was during his work on the show that his “journey of campness” really began, as he spent about as much time in character as David Halls as he did out. In this way, he discovered the power of harnessing his campness as a means to entertain.
“I love using it as an entertainer because it’s powerful and it cuts through; audiences are like moths to it,” he explains.
“It’s an effervescence and a fizz that just keeps the party up and alive and going. It’s something I’ve been obsessed with for a long time, especially New Zealand’s relationship to it. Because we love Graham Norton in this country, everyone loves Graham, and he’s so camp.”
In a country like ours that ranks typically masculine sports stars in the upper echelons of herodom, it’s important to this Christchurch native to be unashamedly himself in everything he does.
“All I try and do is be the figure that maybe I wanted to see growing up,” he says, which is the premise behind his weekly podcast and TVNZ OnDemand series The Male Gayz, which he creates with friend and fellow comedian Eli Matthewson.
The same desire is behind his 2019 New Zealand International Comedy Festival show, Iconique, which sees the 28-year-old looking to the figures he resonated with growing up – and still does today – for cues on creating an iconic persona.
“My heroes growing up weren’t the All Blacks who could eat a thousand Weet-Bix. It was, like, Judy Garland and Barbra – weirdly damaged but incredible stars,” he explains.
“I spend so much time online watching videos of Dolly Parton, Barbra Streisand, Patti LuPone… Looking at their lifestyles and the way they’ve lived their lives and trying to kind of match that inside of myself. How can I live a bigger and fulfil a more iconic life by drawing inspiration from my favourite icons and maybe making myself,” he gasps, “an icon in the process?”
His costuming for last year’s show, Camp Binch (for which he won the prestigious Fred Award, honouring the best New Zealand show of the Comedy Festival season), was inspired by Broadway star Elaine Stritch, who he describes as “full fashion”.
Drawn to the outfit she became known for in her final years – a silk blouse, stockings and shoes – Chris created his own version of the look, with leggings and a linen shirt (“the next most luxurious fabric”). And while when we met, he hadn’t yet finalised his outfits for Iconique, you can count on the fact that there will be wigs and costumes galore.
“That’s how I make content, whether it’s theatre, comedy, whatever. It’s dress-ups first, because that’s what I did as a kid.”
Jam-packed dress-up box aside, it was early in his childhood when Chris became aware that women were encouraged to have fun with fashion while men often lacked freedom to showcase their personalities through their clothes.
“I think, growing up, I was like, ‘I don’t get how women get to have all these incredible options and I’ve got, like, a suit? What? No, that’s not fair.’ I’d be watching my sisters and mum get ready and it was like, ‘Oh, just throw on a shirt, Chris!’ It’s so boring to me.
So I find it freeing to wear whatever I like. “I love that we live in a world now where Billy Porter’s on the [Oscars red carpet] in that Christian Siriano gown. I just love that so much.”
Talk of Billy’s game-changing tuxedo dress naturally leads to the subject of the 2019 Met Gala, themed around Susan Sontag’s seminal 1964 essay Notes on Camp. Chris says ‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’ is the “perfect theme” and eloquently explores the concept of defining “camp”.
“There’s lots of poetry around it, but one thing I love about it is that camp is knowing but not knowing at the same time. It’s that idea of a hidden agenda, or something that doesn’t understand its own beauty but is then standing proudly.”
“I think that restraint you talk about, in terms of campness, probably comes from being in a time when it wasn’t able to soar, which is why we see it in gay men a lot. That extravagance, the desire to be excessive and give it all, and then that idea of having to kind of hold it back slightly, is what gives us that campness.”
As well as performing in the NZ International Comedy Festival with his solo show and two group shows (Mincing and Snort With Friends), Chris – who has also appeared on Jono and Ben, Funny Girls and The Great Kiwi Bake Off: An Extra Slice – is currently busy writing for a new sitcom set to air this year on Three, in which he plays a “perverted spy that no one likes”.
He recently took Camp Binch to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and hopes to travel to Scotland later in the year for Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
But every Friday at 10pm you’ll find Chris and a cast of other well-known Kiwi comedians, including Alice Snedden, Laura Daniel, Tom Sainsbury and Guy Montgomery, taking the stage at Auckland’s Basement Theatre as the improv group Snort, who have been performing together for the past five years.
Chris says this weekly tradition is a “joy and a privilege” which allows him to clock up the stage time he needs to become even better at a profession he’s clearly well positioned to conquer.
“Alice has been listening to Oprah’s podcast and we were talking about our purpose in life, and I was like, ‘I think my purpose primarily is to just entertain people.’ I think it’s as simple as that,” he says.
“I feel my most dutiful when I’m on stage. This is me using 100 percent of my capacity right now, giving you everything.”
And while Chris is already known for his hilarious, over-the-top, theatrical and, of course, camp stage shows, there’s no chance he’s resting on his laurels, or likely ever will.
“I feel like everyone wants to make an impact in this world, and that’s iconic. [But] how can I make more of a mark, more of a splash? I always feel like my splash is too small, so I want to make a bigger splash.”