Jeff Duff

Text: Sonya Voumard

Public nudity and Jeff Duff are mutually inclusive. But when we arrive one Friday afternoon to interview and film my near neighbour ‘Duffo’ at his private waterfront studio apartment in Elizabeth Bay, he is well clothed. In a beautiful pink suit.

Jeff Duff. Photography by Dakota Gordon / @dk.gordon

There is something unsettling, improper almost, about entering the lair of one of Australia’s best-known exhibitionists, this gender-bending punk angel singer-songwriter and diviner of David Bowie, who has a passion for cricket, tennis, make-up and women’s clothing. He is not “for the record” gay but he cops sweet the fact that he has been bashed and persecuted by thugs who assumed his gender play meant he was. “I’m not pretending to be anything, I’m just me,” he explains. “I’ve always worn makeup and dresses and leotards and things. …I’ve never considered that I dressed any different to anyone else but everyone else thinks I do, so anyway.”

We perch around Jeff’s bed, studious, while our host plays Scheherazade for a rollicking few hours of outrageous show and tell, laughter, tears, self-deprecation and an apology for going off on tangents. His designer shoes are white as are his bike and his bed.

I ask him his very first memory. “It was very dark in the womb. Trying to find an opening to get out,” he says. And then, “…being sick. I was one of those kids who was really ill. I had a lung infection. I remember being in bed all the time…that’s where I created this incredible imagination for drawing and writing songs. I had imaginary friends because I didn’t have any real friends. My inspiration has come from my ill health.” It also made him a health freak. “I’ve been vegetarian all my life. I was vegan in London. I love cooking for myself – to the extreme where it’s ridiculous, where I don’t like eating anyone else’s food. I probably shouldn’t be so fanatical.” He cooks at home and always eats the same thing: steamed vegetables, tofu and rice.

Jeff Duff is so good at describing himself, it’s hard to describe him anew. His book ‘This will explain everything’ features a photograph on the front cover of Duffo in a black leotard with fake breasts and a woman’s wide open mouthed face where a man’s member would be – or could itself go. “That’s a costume I got arrested in. I made it out of sex dolls,” he says.

The personal confessions come thick and fast – from sickly child to young cross-dresser, to wild 70s music-child to orgies, gay bashings, indecency charges, the London punk scene, love, loss and celibacy. And there’s David Bowie who once lived next door to Duffo in Elizabeth Bay. David Bowie who he met more than once – in London and later Sydney – and with whom he feels a kind of twinning, a sense of the two having lived a parallel life. Upon his death Duffo held a silent solo vigil at Bowie’s one-time Sydney address at Kincoppal in Elizabeth Bay Rd. It still feels a personal loss. He plays it out by doing Bowie-inspired shows including Ziggy and Bowie Unzipped. “I don’t try to copy or impersonate Bowie; I perform Bowie as myself,” he says. In 2013 at a Bowie-inspired concert at the Sydney Opera House, a young girl got on stage. He danced with her, felt immediately connected. His most important ex-lover – over whom he sheds tears – later sent him a photograph of Jeff and the young girl dancing. The girl was her daughter.

The show rolls on. Jeff shows us his hat, costume and sports trophy collection at which moment he reminds me of Dr Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat. Same skinny swagger, same let’s-tip-it-all-out mischief-making. All around us are pictures of Jeff that people keep giving him – a portrait of him entered, not hung, in the Archibald that spent many years at The Basement before being returned to Jeff. A pic of Duffo autographing his album for Andy Warhol who was quoted as having said in 1980: “Sinatra, Presley, Jagger, Popeye and now Duffo.” As Jeff says: “I was famous for ten minutes in London.”

By the time I leave his apartment, there are shoes and hats and costumes everywhere. Duffo gives me a shy peck on the cheek and we bid our farewells, certain we will run into each other again soon, which we do.


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