The life of queer performance artist Mika laid bare

by Linda Herrick / 06 November, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Mika I have loved me a man

Mika photographed as “Māori Barbarella” in 2014.

I Have Loved Me a Man holds Mika's career up as a mirror on a changing society.

A new book detailing the life and times of flamboyant queer performance artist Mika is enriched by photos from his vast archive, including a bunch of full-frontal nudes. That may not be particularly startling for his fans – but for those prudes among us, I Have Loved Me a Man could have merited an advisory sticker.

Its writer, Sharon Mazer, associate professor of theatre and performance studies at Auckland University of Technology, agrees. “Oh, we debated it,” she says. “Mika has a friend in the Censors’ Office that we checked with. We went back and forth over questions such as whether it should be wrapped, but in the end, we thought, no. You can’t look at his body of work without those images.”

It’s worth noting, though, that when the book is released in the US later this year, the nudes will be removed lest they offend American sensibilities.

I Have Loved Me a Man, taken from the Allison Durbin pop song Mika released in 1990 (and remixed in 2016), is not so much a biography as an academic study that measures his performance career in terms of our evolution as an increasingly tolerant society.

“It’s about what the performances tell us, not just about Mika, but about New Zealand,” says Mazer, who grew up in rural Oregon and taught at the University of Canterbury from the mid-90s for 20 years. “How do I see New Zealand through this lens? What can I understand about the social history?”

The result is a narrative largely devoid of personal details. But there may be more to be told, if anyone needs to know. There’s a clue in the foreword by writer Witi Ihimaera, who discloses his nickname for his long-time friend, “Mika, of a thousand lovers”, undercutting the title of the book.

“Other people can interview him and get all of that,” says Mazer, laughing. “I’m not there to get controversial with it. He’s not shy about exposing himself, he’s really happy to be open.”

Mika was born in Timaru 56 years ago, named Terence Pou by his Pākehā mother, who had become pregnant by a Māori man. But he became Neil Gudsell a few days later when he was removed by a doctor and given to a Pākehā family for adoption.

Mika, who grew up as Neil Gudsell, aged 18 months with his adoptive family.

Mika, who grew up as Neil Gudsell, aged 18 months with his adoptive family.

The transfer of part-Māori babies to white families was an informal practice described by some historians as “pepperpotting”. Mika likens it to Australia’s legislated system known as the Stolen Generations.

But because data on “pepperpotting” here remains largely unexplored, it’s hard to know how many children were affected, or when it occurred. “But Mika has had people talk to him who were similarly treated,” says Mazer.

A happy, energetic kid raised by a loving family, young Neil was a good athlete and dancer who knew he was gay from an early age and came out with great enthusiasm when he was 12. Although he met with “repressive force in some quarters, even violence”, as Mazer writes, he stood up for himself.

Without any male Māori role models in his life, Neil Gudsell – later dubbed Mika by singer-producer Dalvanius Prime – started piecing together what he calls a “pick’n’mix” cultural heritage, informing his ever-evolving brand of disco, song, hybridised kapa haka, high-camp cabaret and a whole lot of fierce tongue-flicking.

“His career is very magpie,” says Mazer. “It’s all these shiny objects, ways of being in the world, people to be working with.”

Mika has had his fair share of sceptics, including Mazer’s former Canterbury colleague Peter Falkenberg, an actor-director quoted as describing his performances as continuously plumbing what might be called “the depths of the shallows”.

“Peter always meant that in a derogatory way, but I don’t,” says Mazer. “I mean, I write about Mika and wrestling [she has published a book on American pro-wrestling as a spectacle sport]. From my point of view, what’s wrong with paddling in the shallows?

“Mika skims that surface, but he is serious about it. What makes that successful is he pulls these tropes; it’s a beautiful pastiche. He loves all those things so it’s not cynical, the way he puts it together. It flows through him and comes out in his own voice.”

Mika played it straight in the late-80s TV series Shark in the Park, as Constable Ra, “the most boring Māori character you can imagine, of course, as written by a white person”, he told Mazer.

But he went full-camp in Jane Campion’s 1992 film The Piano, playing Māori chief Tahu as a takatāpui (transgender). On set, he met resistance from “a number of Māori activists” uncomfortable “with the way Mika linked being Māori with being gay”. Mika simply blocked them.

The Piano, in which he appeared fleetingly, also marked Mika’s decision to end any acting ambitions. “The depth of engagement is what he was looking for, and what he was doing was just a blip. Everything else in the film is pretty programmatic,” says Mazer. “He always wants to make it his way. You can’t do that when you’re being directed.”

Mika’s more recent career moves include mentoring at-risk kids through his Mika Haka Foundation. “He is very serious about taking good care of himself and that’s what he teaches young people,” says Mazer. “It’s ironic, isn’t it, because we have this image of this flamboyant dissolute, and there is certainly enough of that to go around, but at base, he is really serious that if you want to have a career, if you want to look like him 20 to 30 years from now, you have to start now. You have to exercise, eat properly, limit the amount of drugging and drinking, if not forgo it, don’t smoke, use condoms, be alert to yourself in a profound way.”

In I Have Loved Me a Man’s parade of photos, aside from the nudes, there’s another body part that’s on regular show: the tongue. “Oh yeah! It’s his default,” Mazer says, giggling. “I suppose you could say, ‘I’ve seen enough of your penis today, Mika, I’ve seen enough of your tongue.’ But it’s true. He really does like that tongue thing. He has tropes, he has things he does, the same jokes, in part because he’s self-made. He’s going to approve things to bring out, like his tongue. They’ll be variant when you look at the performances – but they’ll be there.”

I HAVE LOVED ME A MAN, by Sharon Mazer (Auckland University Press, $59.99)

This article was first published in the November 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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