Tim Chappel’s imaginarium

Tim Chappel is breaking new ground with his costumes for The Masked Singer in Australia and the US. Image: The Masked Singer Australia/digital collage by Travis de Jonk.

Tim Chappel was catapulted to the world stage in 1995 when the costumes he and Lizzie Gardiner created for the hit Australian film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert won them Academy Awards. 26 years later he is as relevant and in-demand as ever, embarking on an exciting new chapter in his career. Features editor Travis de Jonk finds out more from the man himself.

In many respects, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert continues to be a global phenomenon. The cult film, which morphed into an evergreen international musical theatre production, put queerness into the mainstream with unashamed celebration and humour; things not usually afforded the LGBTQI community in 1994, when the movie was released.

Tim Chappel’s costumes were a huge part of the Priscilla phenomenon. Unlike anything else audiences had seen, they were quintessentially Australian in their aesthetic and sensibility. Chappel’s work in Priscilla arguably did for the costume industry what the Sydney Opera House did for architecture: it redefined the possibilities of the art form. Whatever came after Priscilla in the worlds of costume and drag faced inevitable comparisons to the iconic film.

The incredible costumes from the film The Adventures of Priscilla Queen Of the Desert (far left and far right); Tim Chappel and Lizzie Gardiner accept their Oscars for Best Costume at the 1995 Academy Awards (centre). Image: composite of film stills/file photos by Travis de Jonk.

The unexpected downside of success

Winning an Oscar was a significant achievement, especially considering Chappel was just when 25 at the time. It would change his life forever. Bur surprisingly, he found that period of his life quite difficult – and was completely unprepared for it.

“We didn’t expect to win, and it took me by surprise. I was only 25, gay and I didn’t have a clue about anything,“ he tells the Sentinel.

“All I knew was suddenly I had all this responsibility and pressure to have a massive career and be successful. It’s something you can’t understand until it actually happens to you. But it was horrible,“ he says.

“I’ll put it this way. I’m 54-years-old now. It took me till my 40s to fully appreciate the Oscar and accept that I deserve it.”

There were certainly positives, though, which Chappel took solace in; his win had elevated the costume industry in Australia – as well as the community that inspired him and his work.

The incredible costumes from the film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen Of the Desert. Image: composite of film stills by Travis de Jonk.

“Nowhere had drag queens like we had in Sydney in terms of our creativity, performance and logic. They weren’t trying to be women, they wanted to be drag queens. They were unique, larger-than-life performers doing personal theatre. It was powerful and they were absolutely my inspiration,” Chappel says.

“When I won the Oscar, I didn’t just win it for me. It was a win for the whole gay community. You see, I didn’t invent that style … It was Maudey (Maude Boate), Cindy Pastel and all the drag queens. I absorbed the inspiration around me. I filtered it, interpreted it, celebrated it in my work.”

Chappel went on to win many more gongs, among them AACTA, AFI and BAFTA awards. In 2010, he won a Laurence Olivier Award and in 2011 a Tony Award for Best Costume Design in the hit musical adaptation of Priscilla – all of which live on top of his fridge.

Tim Chappel and the iconic green costume from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen Of the Desert worn by Hugo Weaving. Photo: National Film and Sound Archive of Australia/film still.

Post-Priscilla life

Chappel literally worked through the pressures and anxieties of success. The work kept coming and he kept delivering. He has barely stopped for a breath, enjoying a steady stream of high profile opportunities across everything from film, theatre and television to sporting events and pop music videos. He has worked on multiple films including Miss Congeniality, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie and Australian hit film Mental. On TV, credits include reality programs I Will Survive, Australia’s Got Talent and Dancing With the Stars, as well as Pamela Anderson’s cult classic show V.I.P. He’s even worked on music videos for Cher, Matchbox Twenty and Missy Elliott.

Not the kind to rest on his laurels, Chappel rarely does what’s safe, easy and expected. Rather, he actively seeks opportunities that excite and challenge him as an artist. It explains why, when asked what his favourite gigs have been, his responses aren’t what most people would expect.

Amongst his personal career highlights are the Hayes Theatre Co production of Little Shop Of Horrors (where he did the costumes for just $2,000), the 2017 Islamic Solidarity Games in Azerbaijan and the Opening Ceremony of World Expo 2020 in Dubai, on which he worked almost entirely remotely due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“There is a common thread in these jobs … They offered me exciting, unique opportunities to work, create and immerse myself in a culture I’ve never experienced before, to work at a level or scale that I had not worked with before and to work at a level that challenged me,” he explains.

Tim Chappel’s award winning costumes in a stage adaptation of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen Of the Desert. Video: Theatre People/YouTube.

The Masked Singer Australia

Chappel was most recently hired to create the challenging costumes for the last three seasons of The Masked Singer Australia – one of the highest rating TV shows in the country. The extraordinary costumes are what makes the show so captivating. They defy expectation, create a sense of wonder and are as important (if not moreso) than the stars themselves. The show and Chappel seem like a perfect pairing.

Asked how the opportunity came about, he replies: “I’d been working on another huge Australian show – Dancing With the Stars. I know it’s daggy but I love it and it has been a wonderful show to work on.”

Dancing With the Stars (DWTS) required Chappel to design extravagant couture fashion for the contestants. Couture is traditionally designed for beauty – not longevity, practicality or comfort. However his costumes not only had to look amazing but allow for ease of dynamic movement while withstanding the rigours of athletic exertion. Quite a challenge for any costumier! Chappel hit all the right notes with producers, audiences and contestants alike. He was asked to work on five seasons of the show and his designs were the talk of TV.

While working on his fifth season with DWTS, Chappel was approached by a Warner Brothers executive asking whether he’d be interested in a new concept show they were producing. It turned out to be The Masked Singer Australia – a Western take on a hugely popular Korean show, which had already produced a US spin-off version. It presented the kind of opportunities and creative freedom Chappel had been dreaming of.

The Masked Singer is one of those treasures that every costume designer wants, but I got to do it – three seasons now. It’s a fantastic project to work on – a dream come true.”

There are obvious parallels between DWTS and The Masked Singer that made Chappel perfect for the job. They both posed a considerable design challenge requiring enormous creativity without hindering the performer. Contestants need to sing, walk, breathe and move with relative ease – requirements Chappel jokingly says he always seemed to forget.

Tim Chappel takes us behind the scenes of The Masked Singer Australia, showing the making of his incredible costumes. Video: The Masked Singer Australia/YouTube.

Chappel’s creations wow the world

Since the US version of The Masked Singer had already begun, there were suggestions that Chappel simply to copy the American costumes. He flat out refused. The compromise was to use the US concepts as a foundation, but allow Chappel creative freedom to give his own take on them, as well as deliver some original concepts of his own.

What resulted blew everyone away right from the first episode of season one. The costumes were nothing short of genius – unexpected, eccentric and captivating. Each subsequent season saw Chappel take his offerings up a notch in complexity and creativity, building the sense of surprise and wonder.

By season three, Chappel’s costuming was so next-level in terms of innovation and sophistication that audiences and industry alike were floored. These characters were integrated with animatronic facilities that allowed them to take on a life of their own. We had never seen anything like them before on prime time TV, even in America. The Americans clearly thought so too and came knocking.

At the time of our interview Tim Chappel delights in telling the Sentinel he had just signed a contract with producers in the USA to design the costumes for the next three seasons of American version of The Masked Singer; he is now in the US working on the show. But it won’t be a permanent move, he maintains: “I first moved to LA in 1991. It took me 14 years to get back to Sydney and I’m not leaving.”

Instead, he plans to work in the States for the duration of production and then head back home for the rest of the time to live and work.

Tim Chappel with one of his extraordinary costume creations from The Masked Singer Australia. Photo: The Masked Singer Australia/Facebook.

They do things differently in the States

In Australia, the costumes on The Masked Singer are created first and the celebrities are ‘shoe-horned’ into them as they are booked. The contestants don’t get any significant input. The show is done differently in the US; the celebrities are known in advance and more concerningly for Chappel, they are also allowed input into the costuming. He was concerned they would want to be sexy nurses or something equally naff. Most of the US celebrities didn’t even know he had won an Academy Award.

“Americans can be myopic, rarely looking beyond what immediately concerns them. I don’t take it personally. Luckily there’s a lot of respect and trust between us. Not one of them has made any changes to my proposed designs. That’s both a relief and deeply encouraging,” he reports.

As we get on in life, it can at times feel like our best days are behind us. However in the scheme of Chappel’s long career, this moment is shaping up to be a renaissance of sorts. This time around, Chappel isn’t 25, unprepared and inexperienced; he’s firing on all cylinders and bringing the sort of A-game that only comes from success that has been earned.

He is once again a creative pioneer and innovator, on the front line of an exciting future. His best is yet to come.

“Working with the innovative fusion of technology and costume has put me on the map, and it has been exciting for me as an artist to extend my artform. I’m hoping this is the segue [to] the rest of my life – working with technology and costume. I’m really happy, in a good place … doing what I love.”

Tim Chappel was recently a guest on the Sentinel Speakeasy – the official podcast of the Sydney Sentinel. Listen to the full interview below:

Travis de Jonk is the features editor of the Sydney Sentinel.

Additional reporting by Peter Hackney. Peter Hackney is the editor-in-chief of the Sydney Sentinel.