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David Jones

The Story of Carlotta

"Live life to the fullest, that's my catchphrase," Carlotta, or Carol Spencer as she is known off stage, says as she wraps up her interview with us. If you are familiar with Carlotta and her story, you'll know this isn't just a glib statement but one that is well-learned from having led a colourful and extraordinary life. 

Carlotta was born as Richard Lawrence Byron in Balmain, NSW and at a young age, already craved the spotlight and a grander life. She worked as a window dresser for David Jones, painting mannequins' faces and backdrops, before making her name as a cabaret performer in the renowned all male revue show, Les Girls in Kings Cross. It was here that she started living her life a woman, naming herself Carol Spencer, and then becoming the first publicly-known figure to undergo a sex-change operation in the '70s.

To celebrate the 2016 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, David Jones has partnered with Carlotta on a special collaboration to show support for the LGBTIQ community. 

Here Carlotta shares her story from David Jones window dresser to "Queen of the Cross" and Australia's first iconic transgender diva:

Can you describe the Kings Cross nightclub scene of the '60s and '70s to us? 

The Kings Cross nightclub scene was full of fantastic clubs in the '60s, and the energy was fabulous. We had wonderful coffee lounges that all the entertainers would go to after work. We had people like Mel Gibson, Olivia Newton John, all those people that were starting out in their careers. It was just a fascinating place.

Tell us about Les Girls.

Les Girls was started by a guy called Lee Gordon who had seen a show in Paris called the Carousel. We opened up in a little room called the Reinschloss, on the corner of Roslyn St and Darlinghurst Road and it became Les Girls. It ran for 36 years and it was very well known. It was known all over the world. If you go to Australia you have to go to Kings Cross, and you have to see Les Girls.

Les Girls is still very influential today, how does that make you feel?

Les Girls will always inspire people – it was an institution. People have got a lot to thank Les Girls for because it did open up a lot of paths and got a lot of people out of the closets. Who’d ever thought we’d have this freedom we’ve got today? Maybe because I did it so tough, maybe because I was the one and others got persecuted in the beginning. I just didn’t do it on my own. I don’t like being labeled that I’m the Svengali of the drag queens – I’m not. It was only because I was out there in the open. There were a lot of kids behind the scenes who need a lot more credit than I do, because they fought as hard as I did to get the freedom that we’ve got today.

What advice would you give to a LGBTIQ person who is struggling with their identity?

That’s the way you’re born, you have to grab your identity and be proud of who you are. You may not be as pretty as someone else, but if you’re comfortable in your own skin, that’s the first thing.

Tell us about your time at David Jones.

I was busy painting windows, and painting the faces on the figures. In those days they had beautiful painted faces and individual eye lashes. Painting faces on the dummies in David Jones helped I guess in painting my own face for the shows. But see, I always painted — I always painted from a kid.

What’s it like walking into David Jones today?

Walking into David Jones – it’s always got that elegance about it, I think the ordinary person out there feels a bit posh...and that was always a big thing for David Jones, it was called the posh store – which I loved. We all need a bit of poshness in our life. Let’s face it, David Jones was an institution, and I’m so glad I was part of it in my early days. Mind you, they wouldn’t let me behind the perfume counter now I don’t think!

What does Mardi Gras mean to you?

Mardi Gras is one of the greatest things Australia has got. I just think it’s a way of all us expressing our freedom, of expressing who we are, and I hope it never dies, I really do. 

I just think it’s fantastic David Jones have got behind the pride and gay scene. It would never have happened when I was working here.

Watch the rest of our interview with Carlotta:

Celebrate Mardi Gras with Carlotta and David Jones

To celebrate Mardi Gras, our Elizabeth St and Market St stores will come to life with Mardi Gras pride on Thursday 3rd March from 5-9pm. Carlotta will headline the colourful evening with a performance at the Elizabeth St store, and other performances by iconic Sydney drag queen and show producer, Amelia Airhead alongside Minnie Cooper and Prada Clutch. Customers can get glammed up in true Mardi Gras style with glitter beard stations and lash and nail services, whilst listening to the hottest LGBTIQ DJ acts that will play throughout the stores.  Find out more details here.