Risque business

Mark Winmill as one of his burlesque characters, Captain Kidd.
Mark Winmill as one of his burlesque characters, Captain Kidd.

ON A tranquil and manicured riverside property north of Grafton, two of the world's finest variety revue stage performers are honing their skills.

One is Mark Winmill, an Ulmarra lad who wears the crown of 2011 King of Burlesque, a title he won last June after performances before rapturous audiences in the glittering American gambling and entertainment capital of Las Vegas.

With Mark is his partner in life and show business, Samoan-born Fez Faanana. They've taken a break from the world stage to spend time with Mark's parents, Vickie and former Grafton caravan dealer Paul Winmill.

Mark - now a member of the Burlesque Hall of Fame - and Fez are members of an all-male troupe called Briefs. The name of the touring company refers to the scant costumes they wear on stage.

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There is no nudity, but plenty of toned male flesh and tattoos. Their act is a combination of burlesque, circus trapeze, vaudeville, comedy, parody and mockery.

It's as camp as a row of tents, and it has filled venues internationally and across Australia.

Proud father Paul Winmill, himself a former vaudeville clown, tumbler and turner who kept his clothes on in performances years gone by, has taken wife Vickie to many of Mark's Australian appearances.

"Look, I know I'm his dad," Paul says. "But Vickie and I haven't been to a show where there hasn't been a standing ovation for these boys. It's a class act."

Mark Winmill, a former South Grafton High student, came to Ulmarra with his parents in 1989. Impressed by his dad's talent, he learnt tumbling routines from his father and then branched out into the wider world of circus trapeze.

Mark learnt his chosen craft at Byron Bay and on the Gold Coast before becoming a teacher himself at the Club Med Resort in Malaysia.

"I spent a year teaching kids the art of trapeze," Mark says, while gazing across the Clarence River on his parents' property just north of Ulmarra.

"I was obviously hooked on performing on stage and I knew that was to be my career. I moved from Ulmarra to Brisbane to chase work and create acts and it all took off from there."

Mark has since performed in the United States and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, as well as the Sydney Opera House and many other top venues across the nation.

The Scotsman newspaper in Glasgow described his work as "absolutely mesmerising".

Another critic wrote: "It is gay, but also straight. Hilarious and beautiful."

Mark Winmill and partner Fez Faanana are constantly working on ways to refine the act.

"We need to stay in touch with what the audience wants," Fez says. "Attention span is very important. We have to keep things brief and to the point. And we've been working on that during our stay in Ulmarra."

So diverse is the show, that it has ended many times in the traditional Aussie meat raffle.

After one recent appearance in Brisbane, Mark's dad Paul Winmill - seated as usual with wife Vickie in the front row - was called on stage to draw the winning ticket in that night's raffle.

The ticket was held aloft in the right hand of a very tall Fez Faanana. Paul, who is 66 years old and extremely vertically challenged, couldn't reach the winning ticket. So he harked back to his vaudeville days, grabbed a chair and performed a forward somersault - plucking the ticket from Fez's hand on the way down. Enormous applause.

Like father, like son.

As I picked up my stuff and prepared to leave the Winmill's riverside hacienda, Mark Winmill asked me how I thought an act like Briefs would be accepted by the Clarence Valley community if he brought the show to Grafton's Saraton Theatre.

"I've always wanted to play the Saraton," he said. "I'm told they held vaudeville acts there in the 1940s and this could be a welcome return to that era."

Well Mark, I did a bit of research by talking about your show to 40 people up and down river.

After explaining the content of the act, one elderly gent said - and I quote: "I wouldn't cross the road to see a bunch of poofs prancing around on stage."

But Mark, the other 39 rolled out the red carpet.

"Bring it on," they said. "We need first-class entertainment here and we need it bad. Raise the curtain as soon as possible."

For what it's worth Mark, I agree.

Topics:  briefs

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