Gary Nunn introduces us to some of Sydney’s most colourful eccentrics, free spirits and one-offs: the characters who give Sydney its personality, colour and flair.
Sydney is a sparklingly diverse city. But it doesn’t always get the credit it deserves for it.
The inevitable Melbourne comparison often juxtaposes Sydney as the flashy one that, behind the shiny Opera House and Harbour Bridge, lacks the depth, variety and character of its rival in Victoria.
That comparison, though, is trite, outdated and tired. And the most powerful riposte to that enduring Sydney myth remains the truth hidden behind the picture perfect postcards: Sydney’s people.
With that in mind, the Sentinel decided to select, track down and interview our most colourful characters, who bestow upon the city its diverse left-field richness and quirkiness.
It was a tough editorial process: dozens of names were considered. Like any such list, the selection was completely subjective and sometimes dependent on who was available or willing to be interviewed.
There are so many people who make Sydney what it is, but our First Nations People are the original custodians of the land on which this city is built; every large character that walks here now walks on land whose sovereignty was never ceded, and we at the Sentinel pay our respects to their elders – past, present and future. Always was, always will be Aboriginal land.
Meet the idiosyncratic and wildly different characters who make our inaugural ‘most colourful people’ list.
Danny Lim, sandwich board peace activist
Having tried, unsuccessfully, to pin down Danny for a face to face meeting after a couple of phone calls, I ended up doing what many Sydneysiders do: I spotted him in the street. As is typical, it’s hard to miss Danny: he’s made himself into a walking, waving, cheeky sandwich board.
“Look at all these miserable faces, Gary!” he says, embracing me. “We live in one of the world’s richest countries with the best standards – and they’re miserable! I want to make them smile! They should be smiling.”
Danny’s everywhere, illuminating your otherwise pedestrian commute on the roadside to being the literal light at the end of the lengthy Central Station tunnel. He’ll stand for hours waving to complete strangers who soften the minute they see that he is the humorous human billboard.
As I spot him, he’s stood just after a crossing at Martin Place, early in the morning, waving to drivers, smiling and flashing his usual peace sign by fashioning his fingers into a v.
The commuters are smiling. You can see that from their cars. You can also hear it. Danny’s sign – written in his usual gently provocative puns – is encouraging them to hoot their car horns.
“WHICH CUM 1st?” the sign reads in giant colourful capitals. “HORNY OR LOVE.” It’s accompanied by a smiling emoji and a picture of Smarty, Danny’s trusty chihuahua-pomeranian cross sidekick and the love of his life. He still gets sad when he talks to me about Smarty, who died early this year. The sign off is classic Danny: “PEACE BE WITH U.” The back is equally playful: “DON’T GET HORNY. JEST SMILE.”
It’s causing the happiest sounding traffic jam there ever was, a queue of drivers behind red lights, beeping their horns and laughing.
It’s hard to pull him away – he’s adoring the attention and the act of turning frowns upside down. When I do, finally, a tradie stops him for a picture. As he goes to walk off, Danny shouts “No! Stop! You must take a picture of the back too, it’s a different sign!” and he revolves, laughing, his two fingered peace sign still hovering like a paper plane.
It takes twenty full minutes to get Danny to the nearest coffee shop, a few hundred metres away. Martin Place’s commuters snap him on their phones; some ask me to take a picture of them next to him, others take selfies with him. He stops for every last one of them. Some call “Hi, Danny!” and he flashes them a peace sign and that giant grin. When it’s time to go in, he looks around to see if there are any final remaining smiles he can provoke. He seems completely out of place in the quiet coffee shop.
In addition to the playfulness, Danny’s double entendres are often political – and that’s how he went from street performer to news headline maker.
In 2015, he was fined $500 by Rose Bay Police for a sandwich board taking aim at then PM Tony Abbott reading: “PEOPLE CAN CHANGE. TONY YOU CVN’T.. LIAR, HEARTLESS, CRUEL.” Crowdfunding campaigns quickly raised the money for his fee.
Then, in 2019, after a single phone complaint from an offended woman over his placard reading “SMILE CVN’T! WHY CVN’T?” Danny was arrested.
In a classic story of what many perceive to be Sydney’s notorious police state over-regulation, three uniformed officers handcuffed Danny as he called for help. Onlookers filming on their phones were called “f***ing pathetic” and “social justice idiots” by the police officers themselves in body camera footage played to the court. One officer accused Danny of being “full of shit”.
Danny later won a case finding that the sign was “cheeky but not offensive”. The magistrate blasted his arrest as “heavy-handed and unnecessary”.
Today, Danny calls the NSW Police “bloody bullies”. He says that law students study his case.
The mood lightens as he recounts his past slogans, chuckling.
His first ever, in 2004, read: “Strathfield Council, have some morals! Stand down!” and was ripped from him by an angry councillor. In 2008, he ran for Strathfield Council as an independent and got in for two years.
Today, he continues to be political – he talks to me at length about his opinions on Australian politics. He’s no big fan of PM Scott Morrison who, he says, has “a terrible problem with women”. But the PM seems to love Danny; he shook his hand at a recent Sharks game, telling him: “Thank you Danny. Everyone in Cronulla loves you – you should come here more!”
What keeps Danny so sprightly? “Sunshine, fresh air and always learning. Just talking to you, meeting you, I’m learning. You’re my teacher,” he says. “I keep myself physically and mentally fit by having cold showers for the past 30 years.” He eschews coffee when I offer him one, opting instead for a warming hot chocolate.
His favorite part of Sydney is Newtown. “Come with me to Newtown and see how many people know me. People are so happy to see me there. It’s a special part of the city because you can be what you want there,” he says.
He reserves a special sign – another pun – for when he ventures to Newtown: “BE HAPPY / BE WEIRD / BE YOURSELF. GET PEACE. NOT DRUNK!”
“That sign was for them, the Newtowners. I love them and they love me,” he says. “You’ve got to believe in yourself.”
Many others believe in Danny, 77, and he became part of the city folklore when he was recently immortalised in a mural by Sydney graffiti artist Scott Marsh.
He has rebuffed financial offers from advertisers and bids to buy his sandwich boards: “I won’t sell myself like that,” he says. He’ll donate them to the NSW State Library eventually.
Danny’s tips to achieve that elusive peace and happiness he espouses?
“Swimming, fishing, go in the countryside and have a good scream. Let it out. It’s enlivening. Life is for living, not for waiting.”
Eileen Kramer, 106-year-old dancer and choreographer
Eileen, 106, speaks to me from her aged care home the same day she receives her Covid-19 vaccination. When the nurse knocks to tell her it’s time for her jab, it’s the only thing that stops the spirited centenarian from talking animatedly about her colourful, long life.
She’s still a “working woman” – Eileen still dances, choreographs, writes and publishes books, and gives media interviews. Her latest dance film, The God Tree, takes place in a Moreton Bay fig tree in Glebe and comes out later this year.
She writes a story every day from her Sydney aged care facility and was the oldest ever entrant to the prestigious Archibald Prize with a self portrait at 104.
Although she wouldn’t describe herself this way, she’s become somewhat of a celebrity in Elizabeth Bay, where her aged care home is.
A socially distanced party was put on by a team of dancer friends outside her window for her 106th birthday in November. “I was surprised, delighted – and very touched,” she tells me. “They fixed a chair inside my bay window and gave me balloons to shake when there was a pause.”
When asked how it felt to be selected as one of Sydney’s most colourful characters, Eileen says: “A little surprised! As a dancer I think it’s quite fitting because dancers add colour to the place they live. There are plenty of dancers here so I’m not the only colour in this city.”
How does she respond to Sydney’s reputation, over time, for being showy but shallow?
“I wouldn’t say it’s a shallow city but they do like sports more than they like dance – but we dancers think that’s weird!” she says. “It’s beautiful. Everywhere you look there are trees. Especially the jacaranda trees. Manhattan, where I lived, doesn’t have trees the way we have here.”
She has said it was the smell of gum trees, the sight of the huge Moreton Bay figs and the sound of laughing kookaburras perched on them that enticed her back to Sydney after spending her childhood and early adulthood here.
“People haven’t changed much – they’re still friendly. After living in NYC, I think Australia has become far more sophisticated,” she says. “We like to think more deeply about certain things. But who wants to think when they’re going to Sydney’s beautiful beaches?”
It’s since returning to her birthplace of Sydney aged 99, after decades in New York and Paris, that Eileen has had a creative burst. She has performed in two big dance festivals in Adelaide and Brisbane, written three books, released various dance videos with her collaborator Sue Healey and is the head of her own publishing house, Basic Shapes, under which she’ll release a book about the making of her latest dance film later this year.
One thing to remember if you see Eileen, though: don’t mention the words “age” or “old”. She bans them.
“I’m not old, I’ve just been here a long time and learnt a few things along the way,” she says.
Devon and Shalini – couple dressing amongst the muscles
You cannot miss them. They’re often dressed in themed, matching outfits and platform boots. The only thing bigger than their outfits are their smiles: huge, warm, inviting.
Across an ocean of muscled, topless gay men at any given Sydney dance party, no club night is now complete without the fabulous Devon Indig and Shalini Scholtz. Their friendly, generous spirited humility belies a fact they’d never tell you themselves: they are Sydney social scene royalty.
And yet, Devon and Shalini never did dress ups prior to being together. “In fact, I was one of those people who looked down on matchy-matchy couples!” Devon says. Now, being “matchy matchy” is part of their charm. It was even in their wedding vows – exchanged on an Atlantis gay cruise ship.
Devon spoke to me on a special week: her 50th birthday and the couple’s 10th anniversary.
The couple dressing started a month after the two became an item: they went in female drag to a Mad Men inspired dress up. “Shalini looked like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s with pearls and I got a friend to do my makeup, which was very out of character for me. Literally the first time I’d worn full makeup and I never wear dresses – hence why I felt like I was going out as a drag queen,” Devon says.
While she was “gutted” not to win best costume that night – “we lost out to a real drag queen!” – something very special was born.
It started incrementally – a few pairs of giant platform boots here; some silly costumes there. “The giant platform boots were both practical – in terms of being as tall as the men and able to find each other across the room – and silly, which meant more people would come talk to us,” she says. Now, the couple’s costume wardrobe has expanded to an entire closet.
“It breaks down the barriers for people,” Devon says, adding she enjoys the creativity of adapting outfits. “It has sparked many friendships over the years of like-minded people.”
Standing out came by accident rather than design: “As two lesbians wearing matching outfits and high platform boots at parties with mostly gay men, we do tend to stand out, plus we’re both quite friendly and will talk to anyone – so maybe that approachability mixed with some colour and lights is enough to earn the honour of being named among Sydney’s most colourful characters,” she says, somewhat bemused by being selected.
The couple now bring more of their ‘non-dress up friends’ into the fun of group dress ups, including going out en-masse in theme. One theme they chose was Prisoner to satirise the lockout laws; another superhero theme had them dancing around tiny handbags on the dance floor. It’s these tongue-in-cheek details that make them beloved by all who come into their camp, creative, enveloping orbit.
“Gay men know how to have fun and we love to dance so when we’re surrounded by happy topless men, the energy and joy is infectious” Devon says. “Since they aren’t interested in us sexually, we can just dance all night long and never have to worry about each other’s safety or being hit on.”
She feels Sydney has “a great diversity of colourful characters – particularly in the queer scene, at alternative parties like Bad Dog” – something she has noticed can be lacking overseas, where “not all gay parties are welcoming to lesbians or women in general. Dressing up seemed to help us be more accepted there and people were more friendly to us,” she says.
A preference for “more mainstream gay handbag music” led the couple out to parties like their favourite, I Remember House. “When we first started going in our silly costumes, we’d say hello and hug and kiss lots of people even though we didn’t know if we actually knew them or not!” she says – an indication of the friendly vibes they create and spread wherever they go.
One thing abundantly clear about the adoring couple is their love for each other. Having met through a mutual friend at a lesbian night in Slide a decade ago, their friends joke about how many anniversaries they have: “The day we met, our first kiss, when we finally became a couple and when we got married!” Devon says. “We’re happy for any excuse to celebrate our love!”
The couple both agree Sydney is “very diverse and inclusive”. It’s something Devon noticed as a differentiator from her time in San Francisco: “The gay, lesbian and straight scenes are very separated there and in other scenes around the world,” she says. “The thing I’ve most loved about Sydney is how diverse, mixed and welcoming the gay scene can be to people of all sexualities, genders and backgrounds.
“I guess we stick out as those two extra-tall lesbians!”
Have you met any of the characters we’ve featured? Who’s your favourite Sydney character? Are there any you‘d like to see us interview in a follow-up article? Share your thoughts at the Sentinel’s Facebook and Twitter pages.
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