‘A man in a dress can get away with a lot’

2018-01-16 07:00

Channel24’s Herman Eloff meets the man behind the big-haired drag star Cathy Specific, whilst local photographer Jacobus Snyman gets unprecedented access backstage to intimately capture the most personal moments at Cape Town’s premier cabaret venue, Gate69 

Cape Town – Just around the corner from the Mother City’s trendy Bree Street sits a little gem of a theatre with a gigantic heart. With its big wooden doors and bright lilac wall, it’s impossible to walk past Gate69 without taking a second glance. The same goes for its colourful troupe of residents.

On any other day a red carpet would be lining the pavement leading up to the doors and into the foyer where guests are always warmly welcomed by the vivacious Cathy Specific. But today it’s Brendan van Rhyn, the man behind it all, who opens the door for me. 


(NOW SHOWING: Brendan van Rhyn as Cathy Specific and business partner, Luanna Shonfeld standing at the colourful entrance to Gate69. Photo: Jacobus Snyman)


(DRESSED TO THE NINES: Cathy always personally greets her guests on the red carpet at Gate69 as they arrive. Click here to see more photos. Photo: Jacobus Snyman


Once inside you are instantly transported into a theatrical world thanks to the dark and dramatic setting draped in heavy velvet curtains, sprinkled with glittering details and finished off with shiny gold touches. A sweet floral scent hangs in the air as the sound of a vacuum cleaner hums somewhere in the background whilst the staff prepare for the night’s service which kicks off, with a lot of fanfare, promptly at 18:30. 

After opening its doors only 16 months ago the much-loved establishment has not only won over the hearts of Capetonians, but has also raked in the accolades including being tipped as the top theatre experience in the city by TripAdvisor and making it onto The Inside Guide’s list of 10 must-do things in the Mother City. From its quirky name, a mashup between an airport boarding gate and suggestive sexual reference, to its lush aesthetic – Gate69 is a magical escape from the mundane that promptly transports you to the extraordinary in a matter of mere minutes. 


(HELLO SWEETIE: Cathy waves at a motorist driving past the entrance to Gate69, just around the corner from the trendy Bree Street in Cape Town. Photo: Jacobus Snyman)


(IT'S THEATRE, DARLING!: The moody interior of the Gate69 theatre that can seat up to 100 guests depending on demand. Click here to see more photos. Photo: Jacobus Snyman)


The cabaret venue is home to Cathy (Brendan) and her titillating Trolley Dollies - the bitchy Holly (Christopher Dudgeon) and full-figured Molly (Rudi Jansen). “For 10 years Cathy has wanted a base. She didn’t want to put her 20 metres of tulle and wigs into an aircraft anymore. She needed a place where she could open a closet and have it all there,” Brendan, who co-owns the business with Luanna Shonfeld and Christopher Dudgeon, explains why this once travelling drag act decided to put down roots right in the heart of the city. “Ten years ago, when I started Cathy, I knew this is where I would end up. I knew I’d have my own venue,” he adds. 

Brendan attributes the success of the theatre and the dollies to the fact that the show and venue is uncomplicated, uncluttered, unpretentious, and always welcoming. “And of course, the food is fantastic. You know, it gets more attention than me in a dress. Which I’m not always very happy about,” Brendan jokes as Bo, the resident Shar Pei named after American actress Bo Derek, excitedly runs up to greet us. 

“It took us two-and-a-half years to find this building. It was probably the 55th one we looked at. But when we walked in here we understood why the other options didn’t work out. I mean it’s prime position. It’s all about location, location, location. It’s in the heart of the CBD.

“We’re very hands-on here. We do everything from the office, to the red carpet, to the make-up, to dinner, to the show, we change outfits again, we do ice cream, and we kiss you goodbye. You’ll see all three owners here every night. We haven’t given it over to anyone else to run and we won’t.”


(BIG HAIR, DON'T CARE: Some of the wigs used in the show are imported and styled locally. Photo: Jacobus Snyman.)


(MIRROR, MIRROR: Brendan backstage transforming into the vivacious Cathy Specific. Photo: Jacobus Snyman)


(EXIT TO THE RIGHT: Cathy adjusting her headpiece worn during dinner service in the first class seats. Click here to see more photos. Photo: Jacobus Snyman)


Cathy, Holly and Molly entertain the crowds weekly from Wednesdays to Saturdays in the theatre that can seat anything from 80 to 100 guests comfortably. After the success of their maiden production, Hedwig and The Angry Inch, the trio is currently entertaining crowds with a bewitching new production titled Macbeth – The Adult Panto which promises to be Shakespeare like you’ve never seen it before. 

Not only do the dollies entertain the adoring crowds on stage but they also serve their patrons seated in the first-class section. Guests can even book their seats in first-, business- or economy-class. The playful aviation theme pays homage to Brendan’s roots as a flight attendant. Even Cathy’s own name is a nod to the Cathay Pacific international airline.

“We encourage our guests to dress up. No shorts or sandals. Just like flying was in the 70s. You know Cathy, Holly and Molly are three flight attendants straight from the 70s. Big hair, big tits and big numbers. We say what we want. We laugh in the show. It’s what makes us real. I always tell people that if you came here for The Sound of Music, you’ve come to the wrong fucking place.

“You can’t spend four hours in our presence without being touched mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically, inappropriately…and all of the above…not necessarily in that order,” Brendan says without missing a beat. 


(LIP SERVICE: Rudi Jansen transforming into the the marvelous Molly. Photo: Jacobus Snyman)


(TAKING A DRAG: Christopher Dudgeon, Holly, takes a quick smoke break backstage. Photo: Jacobus Snyman)


(DOUBLE, DOUBLE TOIL AND TROUBLE: Rudi Jansen, Brendan van Rhyn and Christopher Dudgeon do a quick soundcheck during rehearsals. Click here to see more photos. Photo: Jacobus Snyman)


Brendan has been doing drag full-time for ten years now but says he “delved into it” when he was younger: “I was always wearing something from the cupboard that had a tassel on so it could move, and always tried on my mom’s high heel shoes. I just never outgrew it and at the age of 30 I decided to do it full-time. I just had this burning desire to be this blonde bombshell. 

“I flew for South African Airways for six years. They always say talk about what you know. I know about flying, and I know about call bells, and I know about people taking their shoes off in an aircraft. So, Cathy embodies my love for flying and my love for performing. I guess you can say that now I’m flying higher than ever. I’ll be the first to say that the sky isn’t the limit.”

He adds: “People are mesmerised by drag. 90% of our clientele are straight. People are inquisitive and if we are here to curb their curiosity, then we have no problem doing it. They remain curious and they came back to see what Cathy has had done this time around – like, is her bum smaller? Are her tits bigger? What does she look like? 

“You know we get those questions every night. Where do you put it? They want to know where Alvin goes. Well, Alvin goes where I put him. Yes, there’s an art to it and getting it right. You don’t want a piece of skin to be pinched because then there’s just this dull burning sensation the whole night which is unpleasant. No duct tape required. All that stuff. We don’t hold back. This is a safe space. Here we can say what we want and get away with it. You know, a man in a dress can get away with a lot.” 


(DRAW THE LINE: Christopher, Holly, transforms into one of the witches in Macbeth – The Adult Panto. Photo: Jacobus Snyman)


(FINISHING TOUCHES: Cathy's dresser, Dylan Reynolds, assists her with the last few touches before welcoming her guests. Click here to see more photos. Photo: Jacobus Snyman)


“Drag is all smoke and mirrors. It’s hocus-pocus. It’s magic. It takes people away to a place they’ve never been before and if they have been there before we take them to a place they want to return to. We’ve had all sorts through our doors and we welcome them gladly with open arms. I always say to myself I’m one of three things: Either very brave, or very clever, or bloody stupid. But to be honest I wouldn’t do anything else. It fuels me and is incredibly rewarding. I now have a big purpose in life. It consumes me night after night. 

“You know it took me a very long time to get here. It took me 30 years to finally get comfortable in my own skin. If I wasn’t comfortable with being Brendan, how on earth was I going to be comfortable with being Cathy. This is me. This is what I stand for. If you don’t like it walk away. Take it or leave it, baby. I am meant to be dressed up. I have a gift when I’m dressed up. I can’t tell you what it is…but it sits here,” Brendan says gesturing to his heart, “I can feel it.” 


(A HELPING HAND: Cathy's dresser, Dylan Reynolds, assists her during quick costume changes. "He's got a very important job!" she says. Photo: Jacobus Snyman)


(THE END: Cathy grabs a refreshment backstage at Gate69. Click here to see more photos. Photo: Jacobus Snyman.)


Five drag terms by The Queendom to make sure you don’t get lost in translation. 

Beat: To apply the perfect amount of makeup on the face, resulting in a flawless look. Example: “Her face is beat for the gods.”

Gag: To react intensely, usually as a result of shock; may also be used as an exclamation. Example: “I am gagging on that giant wig!”

Kiki: A term used for gossip, small talk, chatting, or a heart-to-heart. 

The library is open: A phrase announcing that a queen is about to share some criticisms about another person or queen. These criticisms are known as reads. 

Reading: To wittily and incisively expose a person’s flaws. Example: “Read them like a book.”

SEE MORE PHOTOS HERE: Cathy Specific and The Trolley Dollies 

Read more on:    musicals  |  theatre

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