Photos: Noel Kistima
1 September 2015
In a long and colourful career, Terry Fortune has done – and achieved – many things. “Saved” lives on cruise liners. Escaped death on sinking ships. Deported after being in custody . . .
The list is as long as it is varied and there isn’t enough space on this blog to document it all. For that, you may have to be his friend on FB where his exploits have been documented meticulously (as a precursor to a book?).
So, having lived this full life and now reasonably comfortable in semi-retirement, are there any regrets, anything he would do differently or change?
Now, one would expect that a person with such a fertile mind and creative and flamboyant lifestyle would have a list as long as your arm to make a good life even better.
Surprise, surprise . . . just one – ONE – change!
Those who know him very well would, I have no doubt, be taken aback by that.
We’re talking about an individual who started out life as Tyrone Robertson all of 66 years ago and assumed the Terry Fortune persona as a young adult looking to break into the entertainment field. Big change back then already.
“I was Tyrone Robertson, the social worker, Terry Fortune was my alter ego. The persona Terry Fortune was created at the Plascon Talent show at the Luxurama in December 1971, 45 years ago,” Terry says. “Tyrone was never really in showbusiness, not at all.
“It’s not necessary for me to promote Tyrone, or people in the industry to know Tyrone. It might sound a bit fucked up or quite strange. Family and friends still call me Tyrone, 95 per cent of people who I interact with over the past 45 years refer to me as Terry. People are more interested in Terry than Tyrone.”
So what prompted the change? He had made it to university and then scored what was generally considered (at that time, the late Sixties) a top job with the Cape Town City as a social worker. Young Cape Flats types who were in those jobs were considered high achievers.
“Why did I walk away from City Council? When I finished at UWC – I was 20 going on 21 – I had landed this job doing social work, wearing a suit and making decisions about the lives of people twice my age. I wanted to get more out of my life than sitting behind a desk waiting until I turn 65 to get a pension.
“I turned my back on it and went on a hiking trip with my friend Maurice Mohlala.”
Nice sentiment, Terry, but think of that healthy pension you’d be on today if you had stayed on until age 65? Terry has that one covered. “I’ll tell you the story of a friend who started in the council with me. She’s toured China, stays in five-star hotels, owns properties, on a fat pension, not counting a lump sum.
“But, does she have the memories I have? I don’t regret for a split second not picking up that pension.”
Those memorable moments, as it relates to his life as an entertainer started with virtually his first performance.
He and friend Maurice had set off on this grand hitchhiking venture in 1971 through Africa and on to Europe. They only made it as far as Malawi before being deported and ending up in back in Johannesburg.
His first performance was actually in Bosmont, near Jo’burg, where he found himself competing in a talent contest.
“I experimented with drag at Bosmont. I only entered that contest on the instigation of a tobacco rep who was staying at the Bosmont Hotel where Maurice and I were ‘resident’. The hotel manager had given us accommodation – we were sleeping on the barroom floor – in return for cleaning duties.
“The liquor rep had heard me singing in the corridor and he said he’d give us free drinks if I entered the talent contest. It was a small contest and I got to the finals and won. I had initially gone to a costume store to get armourplates for a costume but was convinced at the store to do something like drag artist Danny LaRue. Beauty queen Gail Ryan lived down road and she provided me with shoes and a wig.
“That prompted show promoters Clive Calder and Ralph Simon who were managing another beauty queen, Pearl Jansen, to ask me to go on the road with them for a short tour to the then Rhodesia. I would be a male singer in the first half and a female singer in the second half. Everyone enjoyed the female part and I dropped the male part.”
The Bosmont contest and the short tour – as Tyrone Robertson – might have been Terry’s first gig but he doesn’t think it was the start of his career.
“I returned to Cape Town and back to the council job. I hadn’t sorted out my head but I had a feeling I wanted to be in the entertainment industry,” Terry said.
Went for make-up and modelling training
“Then the Plascon Talent Show came along and I decided to give it a shot. I gave it a lot of thought before committing. Guys like Taliep Petersen and Zane Adams were on it and they were the leading lights.
“From the beginning I knew in order to compete effectively in the industry, there were a couple of things I needed to do. The success in Bosmont taught me a lesson. I knew the female act would be different to other competitors.
“I went Charles Segal’s music school to learn the technical terms, piano middle C etc, I went to Yardley’s for make-up advice, and I went to a modelling school to learn to walk on high heels. I also did a bit of choreography.”
It was a big step in his budding career as a female impersonator/drag artist. There was no real precedent for what he was doing. But what was it that prompted him to go into that stream? Was it just because he wanted to set himself apart from other performers?
“I have been asked this question many times and I have thought about it a million times and I have always tried to answer it honestly.
“I had a feeling within myself of a female, coming to terms with my feminine side. And that stuff when I was a kid– when no one was around– I walked around in my mother’s or sisters’ shoes or things like that, it’s a load of kak. I never did it, not once. I never ever did it.
“When I went to the Luxurama, I never had any real artistic experience but I knew that type of knowledge [the courses] would assist me. That’s how I ended up doing what I did. Terry Fortune was the worker and Tyrone Robertson was the receiver who benefitted from it.”
It was a quantum leap for Terry. There was no hint of a career in entertainment throughout his school career (although he seems to recall doing Eensy Weensy Spider in a concert while in the scouts). His exposure to the arts came through school trips with South Peninsula teacher Richard Rive who took the class to places like the Little Theatre, Space Theatre, the Labia and the City Hall Symphony concerts.
Before his stint at UWC, he had also auditioned at the Eoan Group to be a chorus member and was part of South Pacific and Gems of the Opera. He doesn’t think his stint as a singer in a pop group at Youth Centre in Wynberg counts (he used to sing one song, Ferry Across the Mersey.)
So raw was Terry at this female impersonator game, he had no real role model.
“I never had any inclination, seriously, to make it a career at that stage. I was committed in my head to study social work. My only knowledge of drag artists – this was before the Internet – was Danny LaRue. It only gave me the visual, only the idea, not the role model. I had never seen a drag act in my life. I was a Sunday school teacher, a scoutmaster, YWC, classical things. I never really went to moffie clubs. I had no idea of role models.”
The project of further developing this new persona required a lot of thought and a bit of research. The only place in Cape Town where drag artists got a run was in seedy movie houses in District 6, like the old Star Bioscope and, as he puts it, “he didn’t come from that background”.
His objective, he says, was to fashion his stage image so that people would think it was a female they were watching, not a drag act.
“I went to the Luxurama to check out the big shows with female performers to see their stage image, people like Sandie Shaw who used to perform barefoot. I even copied that little gimmick at one stage. My biggest influence, though, was Eartha Kitt.
Sultry, alluring, demure persona
“I liked her femininity and each song she did was a ‘performance’ in itself. She projected a sultry, alluring, demure persona with that deep, husky voice. I think I actually sing a semi to a tone lower. I could cope with it. I could base my character on that persona.”
He is quite emphatic that he has never been influenced by Lisa Minnelli (“that was Leon Ryan’s thing”) nor drag icon Shirley Bassey.
One singer who has been with Terry since his early days on stage has been the South African legend, Miriam Makeba, an artist he has always idolised. Since day one, he has been singing Makeba’s Retreat Song (Jikele Maweni) . . . and thereby hangs a tale. Rumour has it that he has never sung the right words – ever!
“That’s true, so true. But I blame (childhood friend and noted journalist) Sylvia Vollenhoven (why is that name so familiar?). I asked her to transcribe the song for me and that is what I have been singing all these years. That song and Summertime has been with me all the way. It is part of me.”
As Terry’s career progressed he became a mainstay on the top cabaret circuit singing at the “in” cabaret venues like the Sherwood Lounge with the likes of Zane Adams, Leslie Kleinsmith, and Taliep Petersen, eschewing the urge to work the drag circuit.
It was trailblazing stuff because Cape Town audiences weren’t exactly familiar with a svelte songbird whipping off a wig to reveal a man at the end of the act.
Terry admits it was shocking and confronting for some. “We are talking here about the apartheid-era Nationalist government that enforced a very Calvinistic lifestyle.
“I was talking recently with [fellow entertainers from the Sixties] Terry Smith and Neesha Abrahams and they said they never watched me closely, rather they watched the audience reaction when I revealed myself.
“On my Facebook page these days people still remark how shocked they were when I took off my wig because they thought I was female. But, for me, there was never any adverse reaction that could be termed a type of homophobia during those early years.”
The Cape Town stage eventually proved too small for Terry. He had become a fixture at cabaret clubs and as a supporting act for the influx of overseas artists brought in by the Quibell Brothers.
He made a few trips to England, the first with Taliep Petersen in 1979 to seek more fame and fortune, but it invariably amounted to nought and ended the last time with him being held in custody for a few days before being deported – which led to another of the “Terry Fortune tales”.
“I had flown in to the UK on Germany’s Lufthansa line and after being told I wasn’t being allowed in – and detained – I was put back on a flight to Germany, ostensibly on my way back home to Cape Town.
“When the Lufthansa flight stopped over in Frankfurt on the way back to Jo’burg, I, totally on impulse, disembarked, bought a gay magazine and called a gay nightclub advertising for performers.
“This was about 9 o’clock at night and I was in an airport lounge. The nightclub people listened to my tale of woe and told me to come around. I showered, shaved and dressed in the airport lounge and went to audition.
“I sang my same two signature tunes – Retreat Song and Summertime – got the gig and accommodation that went with it. Three o’clock the next morning I was lying in a bubble bath and in a three-bedroomed flat!”
Terry’s life is peppered with these acts of impulse. Twice he has disembarked at short notice (read: impulse) from cruise liners he was working on only for said vessel to suffer a catastrophic demise (read: sank).
Hailed a hero on ship disaster
Those two incidents did not involve the well-publicised cruise liner Achille Lauro episode where he was hailed a hero for saving people on the burning ship.
“It happened near Las Palmas during a cruise. I was in the ship’s disco chatting up a junior officer when all hell broke loose. Fire!! Fire! There were some elderly family friends on board and I went to make sure they were safe.
“I remember telling them if they can go to the moon, I’m sure they can they can come onto the ship to save us. The Cape Town media heard that I was on board and the next thing I knew I was the hero on a burning ship. I did fuck all, I just stood there.”
Terry also kicked off “on impulse” his long association in working on the top venues on our borders. He had heard of the much acclaimed Penguin Club in Swaziland run by Dave Bestman and wrote to him asking for an audition.
“He sent me a fax saying ‘the next time you’re in Swaziland, stop by for an audition’. I sent back a fax straight away saying ‘arriving tonight’. I flew to Swaziland that same day. The rest is history.”
It was at the Penguin Club that he first met that other “diva” of Cape Town and South African entertainment, Sophia Foster. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that, in one aspect, they have much in common – both dress up to the nines for their stage performances. It’s all fur and feathers, ainnit?
“There has always been that competitive streak between us for our stage shows. Playwright and stage director Basil Appollis recently arranged the Handing The Baton show at Artscape and he remarked that he couldn’t put Sophia and I on the same show because ‘who is going to make the best entrance, who is going to make the more glamorous entrance’.”
Whilst he has received numerous accolades for his solo performances on stage and his cabaret, he is just as chuffed for his performances in musicals. District 6 The Musical was his first, followed by Songbook, the tribute to Taliep, for which he won an award.
He is currently involved in another musical put together by Alistair Izobell called Remembering The Lux, which focuses on that venue’s role in the careers of so many of the Cape Town artists. It will run at The Baxter at end of the year.
District 6 the Musical set the benchmark for productions in this vein, would this new venture take it to a new level or will it be a case of more of the same? It’s as good a place as any to tax him on his views about the future of the genre and why, of late, it seems to be appealing, almost predominantly, to “coloured” audiences.
He says: “District 6 was one of our first musicals. Jo’burg had King Kong in the late 50s. Cape Town hadn’t, up to that time, had its own musical. I think the Kramer-Petersen work was the first Cape Town musical in that it had a story line and original songs. But it wasn’t the first in pitching to a white audience. The Dixies and Follies played white audiences because that is where the money was.
“In a sense, District 6 The Musical introduced local audiences, specifically ‘coloured’ ones, to a story they could relate to. It was about where they came from . . . it had emotion, it had nostalgia. Many had been living 15-20 years outside of D6. It was also very relevant at that time because although certain apartheid laws were being dismantled, those memories were still raw.
“That musical touched on the socio-political issues of our time. I’m hoping this Luxurama production will take it to a similar level as Taliep and David’s work.”
Why then, I asked him, is there a view that local works only pull in audiences of people with similar background? Where is the broad appeal, pushing the boundaries?
“Sadly,” Terry says, “Cape Town is still very much segregated, not only as in group areas. Whites attend white functions and venues and hotels. The Galaxy in Rylands is still predominantly coloured.
“But I wouldn’t say our community is less demanding in what they’d like to see. A huge proportion also goes to see ballet and opera. We have Artscape and The Baxter as premium venues but Artscape is not very ‘user friendly’ as opposed to the convenience of the Baxter for the black community.
“It is one of the reasons Artscape is making a huge play for attracting coloured performers and shows in order to pull in more coloured patrons. There is a black theatrical company at Baxter, but it struggles.
“It is a challenge throughout SA. We never grew up with those facilities. Some good schools encouraged us to see good theatre back in the day and we had teachers who encouraged us to experience the beauty of theatre. Unfortunately, not everyone had that opportunity.
“When people who do have disposable income to see a show and they have a choice between something dealing with a political-social issue or something escapist, they invariably opt for the latter. Right now we have comedy festival that is packed out and the patrons are 90 per cent coloured but only one coloured performer. It is escapist entertainment and one up from going to watch a movie.
“All theatres have audience development departments now after struggling for two decades to pull in coloured and African audiences. They had funding to bus them in. For serious theatre it is a problem. For music productions, it is a little easier to get bums on seats.”
Malaise that afflicts serious theatre
Terry cites the recent plays, My Word! Redesigning Buckingham Palace and Cold Case: Revisiting Dulcie September, as good examples of the malaise that afflicts serious theatre in Cape Town.
“The first time round, all persons in serious theatre went to see Buck Palace. The second time round, when it depends on a broader audience, it was difficult.
“Cold Case did a bit better because it dealt with a political issue and a political person. Politically inclined people or ANC types felt it was their duty to pay homage. It pulled in whites, but it would have been politically inclined whites and seriously into drama. Denise Newman, who had the lead part, also has great pulling power. She has been a crossover artist for decades, so that made it easier.
“I think that issue [of audience preferences] will only change within about a generation. There is now a theatre in Soweto, the first to be built in a black area. It means their schools, community organisations, drama groups, dancers – kids will be walking past knowing that they will have easy access. They’ll grow up with that and much more. Parents will be able to take their kids to the theatre and by the time they grow up they will have a much better appreciation for theatre.
“There is tremendous scope for more shows like Buck Palace and Cold Case. There are some amazing stories to be told. And we have to document these stories before the people who own them, die with that knowledge.”
Terry admits his performing days are essentially over and that he has technically retired for the last 8-9 years. People in the industry have started looking on him as something of a mentor for the young ones coming through.
“In our industry though, you are tempted to come out and do one more ever so often. I do tribute shows, like the one for Zane Adams. I do charity shows, if it is not inconvenient and too far. I don’t do drag any longer.
‘I don’t do drag any longer’
Photos: Noel Kistima
“I get a lot of mainly young people who are in the industry come to the my house. They are really talented. I don’t assist them so much with a ‘walk like this, talk like this’ routine. I help them to get your minds right to succeed in the game.
“I’ve never considered it mentoring, although everybody thinks it is. It was never a conscious thing. I’m not big on going to townships and teaching classes to a group of people who can’t sing or dance but think they can get onto Idol.”
Considering that he has had so many of the young talents under his wing over the years, would he care to pick one that has been a standout? “Are you crazy – and risk being kakked out from a dizzy height by one of the others?”
As he reduced his stage work, Terry channelled his energies into another passion of his, the establishment of a functioning arts body to look after the needs of local performers. He took a 9-5 job working with the Cape Town Arts Festival.
“I believe every city needs a great festival. We catered for dance, music and theatre to give exposure persons in the arts and employment.”
He also had a shot at establishing Western Cape Musicians Association. The provincial arts body tried to get musicians to form some kind of co-operative body.
“I felt very strongly about that. Every Saturday afternoon I made myself available at Manenberg in the Waterfront to talk to musos about why it was necessary to have co-op body. Among the people who came was jazz festival director Rashid Lombard.
“The first meeting I had, 15-20 people pitched up. One of the big issues we just have to address concerns performers dying penniless after a lifetime in the industry.
“I researched what other countries had in place, particularly the United States, Equity in the UK, and Australia to see if I could find a thesis or structure in place. What I realised is that the only way it can change is that we have government intervention to set up something. Artists need to subscribe and be part of the body, they would be required to levy so that they are covered for medical aid and a pension scheme. It is what happens in the UK, Australia and the States.
“Unfortunately, arts is always at bottom of the list of priorities in terms of government support. Quite often the arts budget is raided for other projects.
‘‘Rashid said they had tried a number of years ago to form a co-op among musos. It will never work, and the reasons are obvious – it doesn’t matter how much funding they get, R5 million, R10 million, eventually it runs out. They must have ongoing funding to build on their structures.”
Terry has probably been one of the first to try to thoroughly document his career in the form of a series of anecdotes on Facebook. He realises that in order to do a book one needs content. None of the others has got to the stage where they understand the importance of content.
“The reason I wrote those things, besides the fact that I enjoyed it and it was cathartic, I wrote it because I know the value of content and that that content could be used at a later time.
“In time to come, 10, 15 years, the timeframe is not the point, when our industry has educated itself, they will realise they will want that info, they will be hungry for that information of the Jansens, the Zanes Adams, Talieps, they will want where can they find out this stuff. It will give them an understanding of both the person, and the era in which that person grew up.”
On career lowlights/ highlights: “I have been blessed in that regard. There have not been many lows. I can think of quite a few highs that made me pretty unique. Specifically, for a female impersonator, I was one of the main acts at the Mozambique independence celebrations. I don’t think there are many drag acts who have walked onto a stadium in full regalia at independence day celebrations. I did it at Namibia as well.”
One other thing that he felt he should mention as a “highlight” – he never saw a Caspar and he never saw unrest in the ’burbs in the ’70s and ’80s either. “Things always happened when I was elsewhere.”
On his FB presence and his 3334 friends who are screaming for the book on his life: I’m not sure about a book, it needs lots of editing but it shouldn’t lose the element of entertainment in it and my personality in it.
“I am also working on a one-man show, using material I’ve written. I’d like to take it to Australia and certain places in the world where they hold story-telling festivals. I was planning to do that at the end of the year, but the Lux gig has come along. The Lux show will raise my brand. When I do my Faces of Fortune show it will assist in getting bums on seats.”
South Africa’s No 1 female impersonator has certainly lived a full and exciting life. What then is this ONE thing he’d like to change if he had his time over gain?
“The size of my dick,” he says emphatically.
Mmm, interesting. If it had gone one way, it could have meant the world would have been deprived of a crackerjack female impersonator.
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