The Aussie Queen of Amsterdam
She might not be a familiar name in her creator’s hometown of Sydney but Jennifer Hopelezz is a drag superstar in Amsterdam. While hanging around the Dutch capital for a few months, Danny Corvini comes to discover that there’s much more to love about this queen than her huge butt, beard and smile.
It’s winter in Amsterdam when I meet Jennifer’s creator Richard Keldoulis for the first time. We arrange to meet at an apartment that he and husband Elard are renting while theirs is being renovated. Naturally, the canal views are to-die-for.
“I just felt a bit suffocated in Sydney, to grow and be who I wanted to be,” says Richard, referring to his big move two and a half decades ago.
The Greek-Australian left Sydney in 1989 at the age of 23 and settled on Amsterdam following stints in Melbourne, Adelaide and Tokyo. Now he returns every year or two for family visits or to attend a Mardi Gras with Elard.
From DIY beginnings, Richard has gone on to have a major impact on Amsterdam’s gay scene. He founded a gay information kiosk, Pink Point; started the annual Drag Olympics and Super Ball events; ran for the role of Amsterdam’s Night Mayor as Jennifer and now he’s a part-owner of a gay sauna and nightclub.
“It was hard in the beginning but it just snowballed,” he says.
While Richard’s debut drag appearance was in Sydney, as Effie from Wogs out of Work in the 1999 Mardi Gras parade, Jennifer Hopelezz was born in Amsterdam in 2001. She has appeared just once on Australian soil: in the 2005 Mardi Gras parade.
“Jenny is a single working mum and she’s got 55 drag children,” says Richard with a wry smile. “She’s an Greek Australian girl who likes a lot of jewellery and flashy clothes. She’s a business woman, a political animal and she organizes a lot of events. And she’s a sporting woman – that’s why she does the Olympics.”
Enter stage left Mark Bennett, aka Vicki Leaks, a fellow Aussie who moved to Amsterdam with his partner in 2006.
“I saw Jennifer on television being interviewed for Gay Pride and I thought, ‘That’s great, a bearded drag queen’,” he laughs.
Mark started frequenting Richard’s club, the Church, on a Thursday night – the only night that it’s not hosting a sex-themed party.
He describes the Church as a “community center” for its diverse but inclusive crowd that includes sexual exhibitionists, drag queens, artists, transpeople, muscle boys and more.
“There is a core of people there, definitely,” says Mark. “It’s got this kind of Mardi Gras on-a-micro-scale feel. We’re preparing for an oil party this Saturday and we’re laying down carpet through the whole fucking Church. We’re doing it properly, you know?”
Another Church-goer, Joris Nees, who organised a swap-meet party where patrons exchanged the clothes that they were wearing, compares the Church to the movie Shortbus. More than a sex club, says Joris, it’s a “creative space”.
Mark puts the venue’s success down to Jennifer’s influence: “I think what Jennifer inspires is a place where people can be creative,” he says. “A lot of people come for the joy and then they discover that they’re welcome – and most people want to do something so that they’re really part of it.”
Richard stresses that Jennifer’s a “bad performer and a bad lip-syncer”; rather she’s a political person who’s interested in a lot of local issues.
“I like combining drag and politics,” he says. “It’s a double edged sword though because you get a lot of attention but people don’t take you seriously.”
Among the issues that Jennifer’s addressing are taboos surrounding HIV and new approaches to safe sex like PrEP; confronting stereotypes of masculinity within the gay scene and problems with party drug use, especially GHB. “I try to make this problem as open as possible – in good Dutch tradition,” he says.
Following Jennifer’s bid for the position of Night Mayor in 2010, in which she won the popular vote but was controversially not awarded the main prize because of jury opposition, she’s particularly concerned about Amsterdam club closures (the number of gay clubs have halved since he arrived, says Richard), opening hours and ensuring that the city safeguards against rising moralism.
“Even in tolerant Amsterdam there’s been a conservative backlash to sexual freedoms,” he says.
All things considered, though, there’s not too much to complain about.
“Holland has always been very liberal and Amsterdam is a city with a real liberal tradition,” says Richard. “It was the first city in the world to introduce gay marriage in 2001.”
“I would probably prefer the climate in southern Europe – but to live in a country where it’s a bit more conservative? I don’t feel like going through those battles again.”
This article appeared in SX Magazine in December, 2015