Although a celebrated star of cabaret, comedy, television and theatre, you might not instantly recognise the name Mark Trevorrow. However, his safari suit-wearing, blond, helmet haired alter ego Bob Downe has cult status in Australian culture, with a huge local and international following spanning 40 years. Travis de Jonk finds out where it all began.
As the Sentinel sat down to chat with Mark Trevorrow, Sydney was buzzing with festive summer vibes and impending Mardi Gras excitement. Trevorrow had just celebrated his husband’s milestone birthday and gone straight into rehearsals for his highly anticipated gig hosting the pre-parade entertainment at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade.
It was a busy time for him and it took a few attempts to schedule our interview before it finally happened – so I used that time to indulge in nostalgia and revisit some YouTube videos spanning this much loved artist’s life. Doing so, I was struck by just how much he has done.
Trevorrow’s collective achievements include creating hit singles and national tours with the Globos, recording numerous solo music and comedy albums, and performing selling out solo shows at no less than eighteen consecutive Edinburgh Fringe Festivals.
He has graced stages from London’s West End to the Sydney Opera House, hosted nine telecasts for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, and made countless appearances on local and international hit TV shows including Good News Week, Kath & Kim, The Pam Ann Show and his own program, The Bob Downe Show, for Foxtel. He even performed for the Queen at the 1995 Royal Variety Show.
That’s an impressive career by any standards. When we sit down to talk, the first thing I want to know is how his amazing career began.
Mark from Murrumbeena
Mark Trevorrow grew up in the Melbourne suburb of Murrumbeena. In 1980, he was nineteen and a cadet journalist for the Sun News-Pictorial. On weekends, Mark and his mates would hit the thrift stores seeking outlandish retro relics to wear when they hit the town. Such was his love of ’60s fashion and style that he even shared a ’60s period house in South Yarra, complete with a theatrical proscenium arch which set the scene for a series of infamous parties that would take on a life of their own.
“We put on a huge party for all our mates – a huge ’60s revival TV show style party where we lip synced to old pop hits and TV commercials. There were seven of us but the main drivers were me and my old mate Wendy De Waal,” he explains.
Those house parties were where it all began. The parties and their shows were a tremendous success, and before long Trevorrow was gigging around Melbourne’s cabaret circuit with friends and contemporaries, many of whom we recognise today as acclaimed stars in their own right. Among them were Wendy Harmer, Gina Riley and Jane Turner, and groups like the Doug Anthony All Stars.
Where punk and new wave was angry, edgy, moody and future focused, Trevorrow and his friends’ milieu was retro nostalgic satire, with an aesthetic so camp it was almost political. Camp was the perfect counterculture aesthetic for this creative crew, and they refined it into a colourful, vivid theatrical style which simultaneously sent up and celebrated a bygone international culture, with a particularly Australian twist.
This cauldron of camp gave rise to the Globos; a saccharine retro pop group that included Jane Turner, Tim Conigrave, Wendy de Waal, Nell Schofield and of course Mark Trevorrow. Their determination, style and talent soon garnered a recording contract with Mushroom Records, leading to Top 40 hits (’Tinterella di luna’, ’The Beat Goes On’) and national tours.
Their first Sydney gig was a pivotal moment that set the meteoric trajectory of Trevorrow’s career. He describes that gig at Kinselas as the group’s first taste of what he thought of back then as “mega fame”.
“There was a new wave of cabaret in Melbourne which coincided with what was happening in London in the late ’70s. We got booked to open at Kinselas in 1982 by TV and film producer Penny Chapman … people weren’t really sure how we would go. On the second weekend, there was a line around the block all the way around Oxford Street. We realised as we got closer to the entrance that it was for us! We were still ‘nobodies’ but by the time we got to the top of the stairs, we were stars,” he recounts.
“At the same time our cover of ’Tinterella di luna’ was released, and the record was a hit. We were hosting Countdown and we were a smash hit at Kinselas in Taylor Square at the height of the fun and glamour and craziness of Sydney nightlife.”
The birth of Bob
The Globos were huge for a while. Wendy de Waal’s styling was a masterpiece of classic retro and camp. Trevorrow’s subsequent performances would become the embodiment of ’60s fashion spawned from the Globos and that, in turn, lay the foundations for the international phenomenon known as Bob Downe.
“I created Bob Downe in 1984 for a little random sketch I was doing with my friend Cathy Armstrong at a venue called Café Troppo. It was during the Glebe Food Fair and everyone used to host little skits outside their cafés. We put on a sketch that featured me as Bob and Cathy as a ditzy Hollywood starlet. Bob became an ongoing part of my repertoire and before I knew it, I was performing as Bob during the week and then on weekends I’d perform with the Globos at Kinselas,” Trevorrow explains.
Bob Downe and his comedy were at once both familiar and noticeably out of sync with the times. The safari suit-clad, singing clown in blond helmet hair was simultaneously a satirical representation and an homage to former teenage heartthrob crooners from a bygone era. Bob proved to be such a hit that he would eventually become a household name both locally and internationally.
Bob goes international
Having already achieved so much, Trevorrow set his sights to the world stage. By 1988, success catapulted him out of Sydney and onto the international stage of the world’s biggest arts festival, the Edinburgh Fringe. On a Qantas wing and a prayer, he took off to the UK. He was unprepared and hoped he could wrangle his way in to perform somewhere in the festival.
“Fortunately there were already a bunch of Australians over there on a Bicentennial Grant. I wasn’t considered good enough to go with them. My mum and dad were so outraged that they gave me the fare to go and so I went. Within days I had taken over from a couple of shows that weren’t doing so well and I blasted them out of the water,” recalls Trevorrow proudly.
“I went over there with one gig on opening night and one on closing night. I luckily already had a lot of friends living London – the Doug Anthony All Stars – so it was kind of a magic carpet ride. London was the place to be at the time, and within a year I was living there.”
Trevorrow lived in London from 1989 to 1999, travelling between the UK and Australia, touring with the likes of the Doug Anthony All Stars and Pam Ann, and garnering an ever-escalating acclaimed career performing as Bob Downe.
Bob Downe’s fame and notoriety quickly became bigger than the artist who created him. Decades later, the character is a much-loved and celebrated Australian icon. One might think that after all of these years performing as Bob that Trevorrow might be over it, or even somewhat resentful of his inescapable creation. But it’s quite the opposite. While more recently, Trevorrow has been doing more performances as himself, he remains eternally thankful to Bob and says since going solo with Bob Downe in 1987, he has never been out of work.
“How else could I have had a career doing what I love, singing my favourite songs? I never get bored with it. I taught myself to sing doing Bob and I’ve become a really good singer because of him,” he enthuses
“If it wasn’t for the music and the connection to it that he gives me, I may have given up on the character ages ago … I still love Bob, but more recently I’ve just wanted to focus on performing as myself. I’ve done a lot of radio and TV presenting as myself. The more I do that, the happier I am to put on the wig and the polyester as Bob,” he says.
Trevorrow eventually came back to Australia and got stuck back into life here – particularly in Sydney, where he’s based (the weather here suits him better than Melbourne). Quite naturally, he got involved in gay community events and Mardi Gras in Sydney. It would be where his life would take a wonderful and unexpected turn.
A fine romance
Meeting his partner Stefan was a game changer. They had met and known of each other through various interactions and involvements volunteering for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, but hadn’t had a chance to really to get acquainted until a friend sat them together at a World AIDS Day event. They both almost hadn’t gone out that night, changing their minds at the last minute. However, once they started talking, that was it; they’ve been together ever since.
Trevorrow lights up at the mere mention of his partner’s name.
“If you had told me ten years ago, twenty years ago, thirty years ago that I would be in love and get married to my male partner at the age of 58, I would have laughed at you … I’d never have believed it would happen to me. And I didn’t believe that gay marriage in Australia would ever happen. But Stef proves the saying that ‘they are all the wrong ones till the right one comes along’,” he remarks.
The couple married in 2017, shortly after marriage equality was legalised in Australia. They bought a fabulous house together in Darlinghurst from a friend and recently adopted a cute little Schnauzer puppy they’ve adorably named Alfie.
“I live in a city that I love, with an incredible family that I love, and doing the work I love and that I want to do. Life doesn’t really get better than that!”
You can catch Mark Trevorrow performing as Bob Downe in four performances on Friday, 9 April and Saturday, 10 April for Factory Espresso Comedy, at Factory Espresso, 135 Kite Street, Orange, NSW. For tickets and further info, visit https://factoryespresso.com.au/comedy/.
BREAKING: As this story went to print, a new Bob Downe show – entitled Viva Bob Vegas! – had just been announced, with dates in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Wollongong on sale. Sydney dates commence at the Paddo RSL, 220/232 Oxford Street, Paddington, at 7pm Sunday, 23 May. Visit www.stickytickets.com.au/a1luc/viva_bob_vegas.aspx for tickets and further info.
For more on Mark Trevorrow and his alter ego Bob Downe, check out our recent interview with Mark on the Sentinel’s official podcast, The Sentinel Speakeasy.