The Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O'Brien is hosting TV One's new show DNA Detectives. A bronze statue of his movie character Riff Raff stands on the main street of Hamilton.
By Jennifer Dann
1. You grew up in New Zealand and returned from England two years ago to marry and settle down in rural Bay of Plenty. How's that going?
It's delightful. I love this country. It took me 50 years to get back. Sabrina is from a rural town in Bavaria, so it's quite similar. We went to London recently for the 40th anniversary of Rocky Horror and we couldn't wait to come home. We've got 1ha in the countryside. We don't keep animals, not even a cat, because I love listening to birdsong. We've built a white post-and-rail with some old fashioned gates and a gothic revival-style barn with steep pitched roofs. It looks like an Andrew Wyeth painting, as if it's been there for 100 years, which is terribly nice.
2. What was your childhood in Tauranga like?
I was one of four children. Our father was an accountant. I lived in my head mostly. Being this transgendered person, I kept the shutters down so I wasn't terribly happy. I remember telling my brother I wanted to be a fairy princess when I grew up. I knew from his reaction that I was never going to tell anybody that again. You go slightly crazy because you're keeping all this inside. I couldn't form strong friendships because I never trusted this other person in myself not to appear and make me foolish. I left school at 15 with no apparent potential. But I was able to find some solace in the world of theatre.
3. When did you first identify as transgender?
About 12 years ago. Until then I wouldn't allow myself or anyone else to say it out loud. My brother was surprised. I said to him, "Look at this photograph. It was taken 20 years ago at a barbecue in your back garden. Look at what I'm wearing - ballet tights, a little wrap, makeup and earrings." I mean, didn't anybody see? Perhaps they thought that's how all showbusiness people dress.
4. Isn't it a tragic irony that with The Rocky Horror Show you gave trans people all over the world permission to be themselves, yet you never extended the same freedom to yourself?
I think being gay would have been easier. Being trans is seen as a perversion. You're not supposed to go there. But if I was "in the closet", the door was always open.
5. What triggered your decision to openly identify as transgender?
I went mad actually - stepped off the edge of the abyss, here in Auckland 12 years ago. I'd drifted past the age of 60 and didn't know where my life was going. I went into a dreadful despondency. All I could see in the world was evil - Mr Blair and Mr Bush dropping bombs on women and children under lies of weapons of mass destruction; mad Mullahs telling children to strap bombs on themselves so they could go to paradise. I was drowning and I couldn't strike the surface. It was depression I suppose, with paranoid delusions going on as well.
6. How did you get through it?
I didn't want to go down the medication road. I was talking to my eldest son Linus on the phone one day and I said, "I'm really lost. I don't know what to do," and he said, "Look Dad. We don't care how you've got to where you are. Just remember one thing. We all love you - absolutely." That was a turning point. Another was meeting a doctor who spent his holidays working for free in third-world countries. I saw there were noble people in the world. Being comfortable with who I am was also central to finding my way out. I knew I wasn't 100 per cent male and I certainly wasn't 100 per cent female. I finally found this person in the middle, thankfully, with Sabrina's help. She loves me the way I am. Once you finally say, "This is what I am, take it or leave it", it's such a relief.
7. You're 73 now. Were you surprised to be asked to host DNA Detectives?
No. I'm so glad that they did ask me because I find this whole journey fascinating. One of the things I'd like most is for people to emerge with any inherited prejudices out the window. Genes reduce us to fellow travellers on this great adventure of life. I hope DNA will do away with nationalism and we'll come to see that we're all part of this great family of humankind.
8. Did you have your DNA tested?
I did. It was a bit of a shock to discover I have 2.06 per cent Neanderthal DNA. To know the Neanderthals didn't die out, they hitch-hiked a ride with homosapiens, is fascinating. I've also got quite a bit of Norwegian DNA. That came as a surprise, but it shouldn't really because we know the Normans were originally Norsemen.
9. As the host of DNA Detectives, do you adopt a similar persona to your 1990s role hosting the UK's cult game show The Crystal Maze?
The DNA show character is just Richard wearing a suit, putting on his grown-up voice. My first day hosting The Crystal Maze was a disaster. They dressed me in some kind of dreadful garb and by the end of the day I was thinking, "What the hell am I doing here?" The producer said, "Richard, we've got to talk." As soon as he'd gone, I got my car keys and ran. I drove 80km back to my house and sat ashen-faced in the kitchen, thinking "I can't go back". Then he actually turned up in my kitchen and said, "When we hired you, what we really want was Richard O'Brien. So come along tomorrow, be yourself and wear anything you like." The next day I had a pair of yellow corduroy trousers, a yellow shirt tied at the waist and a black roll-neck sweater. I looked like a daffodil. But we had fun and I was fine from that day forward.
10. Are you financially comfortable from The Rocky Horror Show?
I keep the wolf from the door.
11. Having achieved huge success so early, have you felt a need to keep proving yourself?
My friend Richard Hartley and I have written much better songs than Rocky, but Rocky seems to have entered the human consciousness. If Rocky had never happened, I'd like to think I'd have been equally happy at the end of my days.
12. Do you still write music?
I'm very lazy, I have to say. I wrote a few film noir songs recently but they're just sitting in a drawer. I can sing them to my musician friends from Tauranga when they come by.