The Empire Hotel building in Kings Cross, which stands on the corner of Darlinghurst Road and Roslyn Street, has had a long and fascinating history.
For 30 years it was home to Les Girls, one of Sydney’s original and most famous cabaret shows. Not only has it has celebrated drag in all its glittering glory, it also helped inspire a famous Aussie movie, and enthralled audiences of local fans and international celebrities alike.
A star is born
The long-running cabaret show, Les Girls, began life in 1963 in a built-for-purpose building in the heart of Kings Cross. Now the Empire Hotel, the building that once housed Les Girls was then owned by Sydney identity Abe Saffron.
A hotelier, nightclub owner and property developer, Saffron’s legacy is no less sensational than that of his former building. Alleged to be part of an organised crime syndicate, over time the Sydney media dubbed him, variously, ‘Mr Sin’, ‘a Mr Big of Australian crime’ and ‘the boss of the Cross’.
Les Girls ran from 1963 to 1994 – an icon of Kings Cross for 30 years. The original cast of 11 performers would lip sync songs by artists such as Shirley Bassey and Eartha Kit – later on embracing modern-day icons like Kylie Minogue, Madonna and Tina Turner. The performers’ extravagant costumes were bedazzling confections of sequins, feathers and beads. Les Girls became a must-see for both locals and visitors to Sydney, including many international celebrities.
In 1993, Les Girls hit the road, travelling Australia and taking the show to new audiences across the nation, many of whom would have never before experienced live drag performances. So it was little wonder that this road tour went on to inspire the famous LGBTQI classic, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
Meanwhile, the Les Girls building continued to host cabaret shows throughout the 90s, including the much-loved Sunday night club, The Tender Trap.
Carlotta, taboo smashing Cabaret Queen
Undoubtedly, the most famous of the Les Girls was ‘Carlotta’ – the stage name of Carol Spencer OAM, a transgender Australian cabaret performer, political activist, comedian and television personality.
Carlotta began her career in the 1960s, as one of the city’s earliest drag performers. She quickly became the star of Les Girls, thanks to her hilariously brutal honesty and witty repartee as its Master of Ceremonies.
By the time she left Les Girls, Carlotta had performed with the show’s troupe for 26 years. During that time, in 1973, she famously appeared in the soap opera Number 96 as Robyn Ross, the new girlfriend of Arnold Feather. In the story it was soon revealed that Robyn was in fact a transsexual showgirl. To preserve the surprise ending to this storyline, the true identity of Robyn’s actress was kept secret from all but a few central cast and crew members of the series, with her scenes shot on a closed set and Carlotta credited as ‘Carolle Lea’. It made history as the first time anywhere in the world that a transgender character was actually played by a transgender actor.
In 2005, Carlotta featured in her own extravagant stage production, Carlotta’s KingsX, presented at the Big Top, Luna Park, Sydney. Produced by Brett Elliott and Richard Bernardo, the 90-minute show treated delighted audiences to stand-up comedy, lavish costumes and Les Girls dance performances to a backdrop of video footage of Kings Cross throughout the decades. Carlotta has continued to tour the world with her standout – and often sold out – solo shows.
A legendary transgender activist
Carlotta has been an important spokesperson and activist for transgender people not only locally but worldwide. Her sex-change operation in the early 1970s, while not the first such procedure in Australia, was the first to receive media attention thanks to her local celebrity.
In 2020, she was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for services to the performing arts and the LGBTIQ community, alongside several other important awards for services to the arts and tourism. In 2018, a bronze sculpture was dedicated to her in Kings Cross, where she also has her own star on the pavement.
Redevelopment of the Les Girls building
In 2017, Iris Capital lodged a development application to demolish the block of buildings at 18-32 Darlinghurst Road, which includes not only the Empire Hotel/former Les Girls building but also the equally iconic Bourbon Hotel – formerly the site of the Bourbon and Beefsteak – as part of a planned $47 million apartment block development.
This led to some objections from locals, community groups and heritage activists, including protests and a petition on Change.org that gathered 12,000 signatures.
The DA was ultimately withdrawn, with new planning controls put in place to help protect the building’s history. These include heritage listings for Kingsley Hall and the façade of the Bourbon. The Les Girls building, while not heritage protected, was listed as socially significant, meaning that future development must attempt to interpret the building’s history.
“These controls have been created to preserve the unique character of Kings Cross and Potts Point and ensure that any new development respects the area’s history,” Lord Mayor Clover Moore said.
The spirit of Les Girls and the indomitable Carlotta live on in the hearts and memories of many who were lucky enough to enjoy the show in its heyday.
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Photo credit: https://www.rwebay.com.au/empire-hotel/