When it comes to slashie careers, Olympic diver/cabaret artist is one of the more unusual ones. For Matthew Mitcham, the leap from the diving board to the stage began with the ukulele.
“I had to take three months of bed rest because I had stress fractures in my spine,” says Mitcham, who famously won gold with an unprecedented perfect score at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
“That was in 2010. Because I was going stir crazy I bought a toy ukulele for $24 and started teaching myself how to play it by watching YouTube videos. And from there, that ignited a hunger for more information so I went on these little learning adventures and taught myself music theory, chord theory and jazz theory. It was insatiable, I was like a sponge and couldn’t stop learning.”
Ever the perfectionist, Mitcham spent hours fine-tuning his playing and during the 2012 London Olympics posted video clips on YouTube of him playing Beyonce’s Single Ladies and the Family Guy theme tune from his room in the Olympic Village.
To his surprise they went viral. Musical director Jeremy Brennan saw them and invited him to play in a couple of cabaret nights at Sydney’s Slide Cabaret.
“From there the Melbourne Cabaret Festival invited me to MC and perform at their closing gala in 2013 and the producers were so impressed that they asked me if I would consider turning the book (his revealing 2012 autobiography Twists and Turns) into a cabaret show,” says Mitcham.
They put him in touch with Rhys Morgan (aka cabaret artist Spanky) to help write the show and director Nigel Turner-Carroll, while Mitcham approached Brennan to be involved as musical director.
The resulting show Twists & Turns premiered at the 2014 Perth Fringe World Festival where it won Best Cabaret and has since toured widely. Mitcham is back on the road with it again now. After selling-out in Melbourne, he plays Brisbane and Perth before winding up in Sydney at the end of this month to perform as part of the Mardi Gras Festival.
Mitcham, who turns 27 next month, has quite a story to tell. Behind his Olympic triumphs, the openly gay diver – who was brought up in Brisbane by an alcoholic single mother – was struggling with low self-esteem, depression and drug abuse, including crystal meth addiction.
As he did in his autobiography, he discusses all this in his show with an unflinching, winning honesty. He is equally forthcoming in an interview situation, replying openly and straightforwardly when questioned but without it ever feeling like he is grandstanding or dramatising. Nor does he seem remotely bitter.
“I’ve had really good experiences with being very candid in the public spotlight with the coming-out just before Beijing,” he says. “That was received so well by the public and handled so well by the media, (I received) just unanimous support. That was really heart-warming and gave me the confidence that I could be vulnerable with the public and the media and that I would be held and supported. So when it came to writing the book, I was a bit more comfortable to be as candid as I was,” he says.
“There were some pretty serious topics that I spoke about but I kind of thought there’s no point writing a biography if you are going to skim over things. So I went into quite a lot of detail because I felt if the potential benefit to others outweighs the potential detriment to myself then I really ought to share it, and so I just shared everything.”
Mitcham admits that at the last minute he got cold feet and almost deleted the darker, more confronting material but finally decided to go ahead.
“I’m so glad that I did it, because it opens up a dialogue and it gives people permission to be able to share their stories. I’ve had a lot of people share their stuff with me after the show,” he says.
“I think there is a positive outcome to my story and I guess that means it’s easier to share the harder stuff because there is light at the end of the tunnel. I think it is a positive story and an encouraging story.”
Mitcham certainly seems to be happy. Despite a decidedly unconventional upbringing and some seriously troubled years, he now appears centred and levelheaded – though he admits to a pathological need to be loved. He is still diving, having won silver and gold medals at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, and he is in a settled eight-year relationship with Lachlan Fletcher who tours with him on Twists & Turns, looking after “logistics” and merchandise.
– “I think I’ve always been a performer, a show pony. If you were going to psychoanalyse it, it would be searching for validation and positive reinforcement” –
In putting the show together, Morgan wrote a first draft, which he and Mitcham discussed. “We got up to about four or five drafts before we knew the show well enough to stop using it,” says Mitcham.
“We wanted to keep the story-telling more natural. I’m not an actor so it’s better for it not to be a set script because I don’t have the practice to deliver a script naturally. Now it’s just me telling the story.”
Morgan – in his trash-drag Spanky guise – also features in the show, personifying Mitcham’s childhood invisible friend and his inner demons, as well as singing backing vocals. The show also includes a trampoline (Mitcham was a trampoline gymnast before he began diving, winning an event at the 2001 World Junior Championships), an eclectic selection of songs, and some pre-recorded voiceovers by his mother Vivienne (who he describes as “nuttier than a bag of trailmix”).
One of the stories Mitcham tells is spending six months without electricity as a five-year old when his mother had an argument with the electricity supplier. During this time, she bought a wind-up gramophone on which they used to listen to old records.
His mother was certainly eccentric, I suggest. “That’s the diplomatic way of putting it,” says Mitcham with a laugh. “But she has given me some fantastic anecdotes to tell in the show.
“Recording the voiceovers was so painful. She’s not done anything like that before. I had my laptop and my microphone and she was just bouncing all around the living room doing them over and over again. Nigel (the director) had to stand in the other room to try and keep a straight face. It was like a puppy with the worst ADHD you’ve ever seen. It was hilarious.”
Mitcham says that his mother likes the show. “She was even quite supportive of everything I put in the book because it is my story and she’s at peace with all that stuff from my childhood. She knows she could have done things better but we both know she did the best she could at the time. She’s done a lot of work on herself since, in the last seven years or so. She’s gotten sober as well and done a lot of personal development. She’s been diagnosed with Asperger’s and stuff so she’s working on those kinds of behavioural things as well.
“Before the book came out I gave her the manuscript because I was kind of worried about how she might feel about it all and after she read it she said, ‘Oh God! I thought you were going to be so much harsher than that, you could have been, I wouldn’t have blamed you.’ I think she’s a lot harder on herself but she is forgiving herself,” says Mitcham.
The songs in the show are well-chosen and include Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies, Pink Martini’s Sympathique (one of his mother’s favourites), Nick Cave’s Water Song, the Spice Girls’ Too Much and New Order’s True Faith among others. Brennan also uses some Erik Satie and Philip Glass as underscoring.
Another telling song choice is Alanis Morrisette’s Perfect. “I felt there was no way we couldn’t have that in the show because it is perfect. It basically tells my story,” says Mitcham.
As for his singing, it has developed steadily since he began performing due to “hours and hours of practice” with Brennan.
The quest for perfectionism again? “Yes exactly,” says Mitcham. “I think it’s a pathological need for people to love me. It’s the perfectionist in me. I don’t like to do anything half-hearted.”
Having contemplated retirement after the London Olympics, and again after the recent Commonwealth Games, Mitcham is still diving – for now.
“I’ve been on reduced training since the Commonwealth Games because I have been trying to rehabilitate an injury,” he says.
“I tore a tendon in my elbow. I was dealing with that all last year. I got to the point where I had achieved everything I wanted to achieve in sport (having won a gold medal) at the Commonwealth Games so I’m just about ready to let the sport go but I’ve been talked into staying until (the Olympic Games in) Rio, which I’m OK with. But my condition was that I want to be injury free before I begin ramping up the training again.
“So I did this fairly new procedure where they harvested some tendon cells from the wrist and they injected those cells into the tear in my elbow tendon and hope that fills in the gap and repairs the injury.”
In the meantime, he has been training in the day while performing at night. “Diving Australia has been really wonderful. They have facilitated that I can train at any sports institute wherever I go with the show,” he says. “I don’t think I have totally integrated into the cabaret life, which involves a lot of late nights and alcohol. Everyone else goes out drinking (after the show) and I go back to the hotel and go to sleep so I can get up in the morning for training.”
The move from diving into cabaret wasn’t actually such a big leap, says Mitcham.
“I think I’ve always been a performer, a show pony. If you were going to psychoanalyse it, it would be searching for validation and positive reinforcement. They way I was discovered diving was because I was at the Chandler Aquatic Centre in Brisbane – which is one of the national diving centres but used to be open to the public – and everyone was doing bomb dives.
“I was doing double flips into bomb dives and showing off and one of the national coaches happened to be walking along the pool deck and called me over and said, ‘how do you know how to do that?’ So I started diving the next week. And that’s because I was showing off and performing. I’ve always felt that diving is a kind of performance art.”
Twists & Turns plays at the Brisbane Powerhouse on February 5 & 6, at the Perth Fringe World, February 10 – 16, and at Sydney’s Seymour Centre, February 26 – 28