Topp Twins by Karen Phelps
My meeting with the Topp Twins could have been taken straight out of one of their Camp Mother/Camp Leader comedy routines. After madly dashing round Grey Lynn when I forget to take my diary with the address I finally find the twins in a café. Flustered and apologising profusely for being late I pull a chair over to join them and - it breaks in half. The twins break into peels of laughter.
Seemingly the bossier of the pair, Lynda immediately takes the lead and decides we should go inside which means Jools must put her gorgeous poncy little Cavalier King Charles Spaniel in the car. It is more air dog than farm dog but Jools insists her pup has taken to life at her rural property at Helensville like a duck to water.
“Hurry up then,” Lynda orders her in a voice that is more gravel of the earth than salt of the earth and marches inside.
It is not long before the twins warm up and reveal a softer side. Jools is dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt covered in dog hair. Lynda is also dressed in the same style of black t-shirt and jeans only she has thrown a blue shirt over the ensemble. They both have the same friendly blue eyes and punctuate their conversation with short sharp guffaws. They are different yet the same.
“We did have a bit of an identity crisis when we were growing up, we had to find who we were. Growing up we shared everything including friends. We didn’t hang out with each other for a while and had a bit of space so we could start to form our own lives,” says Jools.
In their professional lives the twins change identity with ease. Everyone has their favourite Topp Twin character and on their national tour in April/May the twins will be introducing two new additions - Hertie and Gertie, a pair of yodelling pig farmers. They have been flat out in Australia touring after ABC bought their TV show. It has been an easy transition across the Tasman with Aussies warming the Kens, Camp Mother, Camp Leader and the like. The twins have also just released a CD called Flowergirls and Cowgirls, which they describe as being like a family album in song. They show me the cover, which has a picture of the twins aged five with their mother sitting inbetween them.
The twins were born in Huntly in 1958 and raised on a small Waikato dairy farm. Their mother performed every year at the local federated farmers’ Christmas show and comedy obviously ran in the family.
“One year she was a can can girl and we were quite excited to see how mum was going to lift her skirts and do the splits at the end. When she lifted her skirt she had made a sign sewn onto her bloomers that said ‘I’m watching you!’” says Lynda.
Their mother didn’t know she was expecting twins. Lynda is the younger by five minutes. The girls grew up singing to the cows and made their debut performance at the age of five at a cousin's 21st party.
“Put it this way [singing to the cows] wasn’t our big break,” laughs Jools. “But dad was convinced if we sang to them we’d get better milk so we sang all the time in the cow shed.”
It is the Twins' rural upbringing, which probably explains their essentially country roots and, love it or hate it, their mastery of yodelling. The pair first discovered yodelling with a neighbour's record collection of Shirley Thoms, Judy Holmes and Patsy Montana.
After that Lynda in particular became obsessed but it was a pain staking process involving riding to the nearby farm about 30 minutes up the road on horseback to listen to an old wind-up gramophone. She would then jump back on her horse, race home, get out the guitar and try and remember what she had just heard.
But it was soon no longer enough performing to cows alone. The wider world beckoned and at the age of 16 the twins joined the Territorial Army:
“It was a free trip to the South Island, which seemed like another country to us, we crossed over the water and everything,” laughs Lynda.
After completing their training they jumped off the train due to take them back up North and stayed in Christchurch where they got their first break into show business.
They were listening to a singer in a pub and afterwards, being from a rural background invited everyone back to their house for a party. Nearly 200 people turned up and the twins started a sing a long also playing some tunes they had made up themselves. Their songs went down a treat and later combining characters, music and yodelling they began busking and playing in small cafes for five dollars each and as many toasted sandwiches as they could eat. In their early twenties, with a guitar each and a highly original political repertoire, the Topp Twins moved to Auckland and soon developed a cult following as buskers.
“We are true entertainers in the old fashioned sense. It’s easy to go out and sing a couple of songs but it’s quite another matter to hold an audience for two hours. Now 27 years later I think we can honestly say we are the longest standing group in New Zealand still performing as we started out originally,” explains Jools.
It was the days before famous out of the closet lesbian coupling such as Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi and the invention of the term ‘lesbian chic’. The Topp Twins came out about their sexual orientation in 1977 when the mainstream press refused to even print the word.
“When we got to Christchurch we saw some lesbians in a bar and thought ‘they’re just like us!’ But of course we were rural kids and didn’t know there was a word for it. We [came out] because we felt we had to be honest about who we were. How can you be yourself and be natural on stage when you are hiding who you really are?” questions Lynda.
One of the unique qualities of the Topp Twins is that they have successfully crossed from the fringes to the mainstream. Today at a Topp Twins concert you are just as likely to see a grandmother or child sitting in the audience as you are a punk rocker.
“In New Zealand at the moment there is a sort of moral judgement thing rearing it’s ugly head, we won’t name any names but we all know who we’re talking about,” says Lynda. “We’re about fun, entertainment and having a good time. No one can ever attack you if that’s what you’re doing.”
To amuse but never abuse is the twins’ motto:
“A star will be born in every centre,” promises Jools who says audience participation is always a key part of their shows. It is Lynda however who chooses who will be brought up on stage:
“It’s sort of an intuition thing. By the end of the first song I have chosen all the people I will be bringing up on stage that night,” says Lynda. “Although one night I did pick a woman who had crutches because they were hidden underneath her seat. So we retired her immediately,” she laughs.
Lynda tends to take the lead during the shows driving things forward while Jools “fills in the gaps.” They play the same roles in the business side of what they do. Lynda originally acted as manager but their schedules now necessitate they employ someone to fulfil this role. The twins both take a hands on approach with their business affairs though they insist they are far from rich:
“We live hand to mouth. We’ll perform then live off the money then go and do it again. It’s a lifestyle and means we are our own bosses. When the money runs out we just go and make more which is what millionaires do but we’ve just never taken it to that level, “ says Jools. “We don’t think about what the tour is costing us we just think it’s going to be great. The key is to find something you are passionate about and just go and do it. Every great business person in the world takes risks, look at Donald Trump.”
“He’s taking a risk with his hair even,” interjects Lynda.
The twins have rightly been called a New Zealand cultural institution but interestingly their popularity has also spread around the world. Tours to Britain, North America and Australia have attracted a strong and diverse audience.
“We live in a mad world and laughter is a great stress reliever. We want to make time stand still and make people live in the moment. That’s hard to do for everyone apart from perhaps the Dalai Lama,” says Jools.
“We’ve stopped analysing our success. We don’t rehearse before a tour to keep our edge. Every show is a challenge. The fact is even on this national tour there will be parts of the show that will be different every night and we don’t know what is going to happen. It’s one night in people’s lives and we want to make it something they can remember. There will never be another show quite like it ever again,” says Jools.
“We still get nervous but the spontaneity is the beauty of it for us,” adds Lynda. “That crossover from nervousness into energy enables the show to happen. Being twins I suppose has been part of our success because it is an unspoken rule we will always be together - no matter what happens!”
The Topp Twins tour New Zealand during April and May. Their CD Flowergirls and Cowgirls has just been released. For more information www.topptwins.co.nz