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'Helping other Australians': Musical star Todd McKenney is back with a new project

interviews Oct 06, 2020

The entertainer talks his latest venture Todd+Creates, getting naked and spending hours a night on his knees.

After more than 30 years in showbiz and with roles in stage productions from The Pirates of Penzance and Camelot to homegrown successes Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Strictly Ballroom and The Boy From Oz, it's safe to say Todd McKenney is a household name. You've probably even invited him into your home, either as a judge on all 15 seasons of Dancing with the Stars, as a radio host or during his more recent live-streamed concerts.

He was known as the 'nasty' judge on Dancing with the Stars for his critiques and has made headlines more than once for his escapades, but in person (read: over Zoom due to social distancing) he is generous, magnetic and downright entertaining. In August, he made headlines again when he launched Todd Masks, an online store selling face masks made by Australian costume designers whose work had been affected by COVID-19.

On Aussies helping Aussies

Even he was surprised by the overnight success of  Todd Masks, saying, 'it has just blown us away. We're coming up to $100,000 in sales now... And it's not uncommon for us to deposit ten or eleven thousand dollars into a sewer's bank account.' People, he points out, who have had zero income since the pandemic hit.

As an extension of Todd Masks, he and business partner Sas Lyon have since launched an online marketplace for Australian small businesses and creatives to sell their products. Branded Todd+Creates, the premise is Australians for Australians.

Image: Gnome on a Gumnut; Cheezel All-Over T-shirt; Avocado Smash market bag (all available on Todd+Creates)

'Australians have never been fonder of supporting other Australians. We're good like that as a society I think. Through bushfires, through droughts, we're good givers. I think the success of this is because Australians feel if they buy from us they're helping other Australians. They're getting a lovely product but they're helping other Australians and that's our whole focus and that's our whole mantra really.'

'We're good like that as a society I think. Through bushfires, through droughts, we're good givers.'

On getting naked

This isn't Todd's first foray into giving back to the community; throughout his career, he's used his profile to support causes close to his heart, from being an ambassador for greyhound adoption (he has two of his own), to raising money for Westmead Children's Hospital. Most recently, he provided the choreography for Channel Seven's All New Monty: Guys and Gals, where celebrities undress to raise awareness of cancer and had himself stripped in last year's Monty.

Of the experience, he says it was 'terrible, terrifying, hideous. My mum was in the front row, can you imagine? It was a hundred shades of bad.'

'My mum was in the front row, can you imagine? It was a hundred shades of bad.'

His friend Shane Jacobson, who has been involved in all three Monty shows, pushed him into it. 'I said to him, are you going to go naked in the first one? He was like, "yes, but only on one condition – if the show rates well and we go again, you're going naked in the second one". We kind of shook on that at the beginning so as soon as the ratings went through the roof, I started to feel sick.'

Being on the other side this year has been a relief, although still confronting. 'You meet somebody for the first time and then next minute they're naked in front of you. '

Image: All New Monty: Guys and Gals

And do the stars bare all in rehearsal?

'The first year we didn't, we only took shirts off. But what happened is they got to the dress rehearsal on the night, none of them had rehearsed taking their G-strings off and the things you learn... The more you dance, the more wedged the G-string gets so it was a bit of a struggle at the last minute. So for the subsequent shows, for the girls and the boys, we've made them strip down. We do a closed set so there's only one cameraman, me and the cast.'

"The more you dance, the more wedged the G-string gets so it was a bit of a struggle at the last minute."

On learning a new language

Despite his busy schedule as an entertainer and choreographer, his charity work and now the Todd+Creates platform, he is also involved with the Deaf community. He started learning sign language 12 years ago, from his friend Caroline Conlon, then-director of the Australian Theatre of the Deaf. He believes his role is 'to be one of the people who can help bridge the gap and demystify the Deaf community for the hearing community.'

Seeing the discrimination they face every day riles him up. He recounts the time he and some friends went to an almost-empty bar and didn't get served and how, when he orders coffee with Caroline, the barista will ask him 'what does she want?'

Ultimately, though, what he loves about it is that the Deaf community is so welcoming and that 'it's a really beautiful language. The first time I saw sign language was in 1989 at 42nd Street and I remember thinking, wow, that's gorgeous... it looked like dance choreography.'

It also means he doesn't have to worry about music when hosting dinner parties. 'I have completely silent dinner parties [gestures wildly]. It's just windy, it just gets a bit windy.'

On his two passions, dogs and art

Todd shares his house in Pymble with two adopted greyhounds, eight years old and fourteen years old. The latter has 'got five teeth left and he's gone grey'. The former is named after his dear friend, musical theatre royalty and a Member of the Order of Australia, Nancye Hayes.

'I went to pick [the dog] up from Gosford and she was standing in the back of my car, I was looking at her in the rear-vision mirror and I thought I'd like to name you... I rang Nancye on the drive back from Gosford. And I said, "what would you think if I named my dog after you?" and she said, "oh, I'd be honoured darling, but it'll be a needy little thing."

It seems like Nancye the Greyhound isn't the only one out there – there's a cat in Sydney's Potts Point named after the musical theatre trailblazer. And there's even a Todd the Cat.

'Someone follows me on social media and he said, "this is Todd McKenney the cat"... It was a bit moggy to be honest with you.'

Art is another passion of his and artworks cover almost every bare space on his walls. In his office is a poster from his The Boy from Oz days and around the house are eclectic pieces ranging from cheap market finds to artworks that have been on loan to the National Gallery of Victoria and Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art. He says that his collection is 'a real kind of snapshot of my life, I buy something normally in significant moments in my life. And so I have lots of significant moments represented on my walls through art.'

His favourite, though, is Darren Sylvester's 2016 photograph 'Broken Model', a re-enactment from a Jean Paul Gaultier fashion show. Rather like him, it's 'very theatrical, very glittery.'

Image: Darren Sylvester's 'Broken Model' (2016)

On what's next

When the pandemic first hit Australia, Todd was partway through the Melbourne season of Shrek the Musical, where he was playing diminutive villain Lord Farquaad. His first reaction at the news the musical was cancelled was 'thank God, my body can repair. My back was so sore from looking up at everybody all night and my knees – I had to really use my back to to walk the legs and run from one side of the stage to the other on my knees.'

He adds, 'I just thought, we'll have a break for a minute and we'll all be back. But obviously that wasn't the case.'

As the reality of the pandemic hit, he took a few weeks off – something he hadn't done in four years – before his theatrical agent got in touch and nudged him to start working on a one-man show when venues reopen. This, he says, will be touring regional theatres, something he loves.

'The clubs nowadays have great production in their showrooms. So you've got moving lights and brilliant sound systems and all of that. And people that see me in clubs and regionals are in a really great mood before you start the show.'

He'll also be working with Sas Lyon on making Todd+Creates 'the biggest online Australian handmade goods seller around... I want to be accessible and I want somebody from every walk of life to be able to find something on there.'

Asked whether he could do it full-time, Todd laughs. 'I could do both [shows and Todd+Creates]. I'll run them parallel, you know, I still need to get my jazz hands out.'

'I still need to get my jazz hands out.'

Todd's top picks on Todd+Creates

With Christmas just over two months away (though who's counting?) and delays to delivery services, Todd says now is the time to start getting your Christmas shopping sorted.

New products are getting uploaded to Todd+Creates every day, but here are the ones he has his eyes on as Christmas gifts.

  1. Hilltops Honey: DIY beeswax wrap, $18
    'They work brilliantly. I've got a few of them now.'
  2. Little Light Industries: Kitsch-en Apron, $60
    'Designer Lucetta Stapleton does really kitsch kind of tote bags and aprons and also some beautiful masks.'
  3. Gno Me by Tina: Gnomes, from $55
    'It's selling through the roof.'
  4. corde-macrame: Woven bowls, from $74.95
    'There's a white one and a black one on there, which is really lovely.'
  5. Frank & Fur: Real grass pet loo, $185
    'It's a unique Aussie product that could solve toilet training for pups in apartments. It's so creative.'
  6. Berkeley Editions Fine Art: Margaret Olley limited edition print, $3,950
    'I love these because they're limited edition collectible prints by very prominent Aussie artists. A great way to get into the art market.'

Help out local makers and small businesses while picking up a thoughtful gift for a loved one (or yourself) with the range at Todd+Creates.

Catherine Mah

Catherine likes to run, eat and read but not simultaneously. If you can't find her doing these things, she's most likely sleeping.