The chicest thing you can be right now in Manhattan is Australian! Throw another wombat on the barbie, because Aussies have never been more in vogue, or in Vogue . Reedy Six Feet Under actress Rachel Griffiths, fleshy Hours supporting actress Toni Collette, mad operetta director Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin (Mrs. Baz)-the list is longer than Nicole Kidman’s legs. Exactly what is it, apart from the fact that they share our geopolitical concerns, that makes the “sheilas” and “cobbers” from Down Under so bonza?
I caught up with the other glamorous, long-legged, red-headed Aussie, Boerum Hill resident Nell Campbell, and tried to get some answers. The tempestuous Rocky Horror Picture Show alumna is currently rehearsing for the Broadway production of Nine , which goes into previews on March 21 (Eugene O’Neill Theater; ring Telecharge at 212-239-6200 immediately for tickets). Nell plays Latina legend Chita Rivera’s stern assistant in this revival of the musical based on Fellini’s 81 ¼ 2 , and I knew she would have some pungent insights into what makes her people so triumphant. Nell, formerly of the eponymous nightclub (she sold it five years ago), arrived chez moi wearing post-rehearsal chic: olive, Nanook-of-the-North-ish Michael Kors parka, vintage Galliano navy skirt, black Jasper Conran cardi (Aussies abbreviate everything!) and an exceptionally snappy pair of Claudia Ciuti shoes. “I’m breaking them in for the show, treasure,” gasped the ageless Ms. Campbell, who calls everyone “treasure” and admits to being “younger than Cher and taller than Sonny.”
I kicked off our think-tank-à-deux by asking Nell to address the most endearing Aussie trait: baroque vulgarity. After all, hers is a country where phrases like “I’m so hungry I could eat the crotch off a low-flying duck” litter every conversation. “It’s just part of our native charm,” said Ms. Campbell, coquettishly separating the bangs of her trademark Louise Brooks bob. “If an Aussie bloke is getting sweet and sentimental about his girlfriend, he will probably say, ‘My sheila bangs like a shit-house door.'”
And what about that legendary laissez-faire? “No worries, darling!” Ms. Campbell said, using the most common phrase in the Australian language. “It’s an outdoorsy thing. We’re just not that easily impressed. That’s why Americans adore Nicole: She’s not self-absorbed and neurotic. Despite all the glamour, she’s just a down-to-earth Aussie sheila.”
Ms. Campbell also sees the “no worries” philosophy in the Aussie ultra-casual fashion P.O.V. “You don’t need posh clothes in Australia,” she said. “There’s nowhere to wear them. A barbie is about as fancy as it gets.” What about creative fashion? “If you wore Comme des Garçons,” she cackled through a slash of MAC Russian Red ($14 at MAC counters citywide), “people would just think you were a vagrant.”
I ask Nell about the legendary culinary philistinism of her homeland, where meat dishes are reputedly flavored with a foul-smelling substance called Vegemite, then garnished with tinned peaches and ketchup to add color. “It’s not true! Treasure, that was the 1950’s!” shrieked the protectively patriotic performer. “We have a gorgeous cuisine!”-pavlovas, etc., though she grudgingly admitted that vestiges of that mid-century aesthetic remains; apparently Australia is still the home of the lamington dried sponge cakes rolled in chocolate and desiccated coconut. Bon appetit !
The lithe-limbed, gorgeously proportioned Ms. Campbell is an unapologetic exhibitionist who was demonstrating what she described as “a sense of audience,” or S.O.A., long before her first lamington. She developed her terpsichorean inclinations during a childhood bout with hepatitis that landed her at home in front of the telly. “I spent three months watching the midday movie: Fred and Ginger and Ruby Keeler,” she said. “That’s when I decided to be a hoofer. I just didn’t know it would take this long.” In her current role-she is also understudying Ms. Rivera’s part-Miss Campbell has achieved her dream. “I’m a chorus girl on Broadway,” she said, then groaned and corrected herself. “But you can’t say that, because it’s un-P.C. I’m part of an ensemble cast .” Are there any Bette Davis moments betwixt understudy and star? “God, noooooo !” Ms. Cambell said. “I worship Chita! She’s such a comedian, and sooooo generous. She’s actually teaching me the psychology of her big dance number …. Puerto Ricans and Aussies are very similar.”
As we neared the end of our interview, Ms. Campbell had an epiphany about her homeland. “Australia is great because it’s run by women,” she said. “The sheilas are very strong, and the men are very gay-think of those lifeguards with their cossies up their botties!” The mother of a 41¼2-year-old daughter, Matilda, she waxed rhapsodic on the subject of men. “I’m mad about Antonio Banderas …. He is a Spanish chili with extra salsa: brains, beauty and humor all mixed up in a gorgeous paella of charm.”
Back to the Aussies. What about the dark side? The baby-eating dingos? The picnics at various hanging rocks? The box jelly fish? The blue-ringed octopus! “Treasure, you go into paralysis before you can reach the end of the beach!” Ms. Campbell shrieked with a giggly shudder. “They make sharks look like a bunch of lamingtons.” Not to mention the dreaded funnel-web spiders. “I found one in my welly once and stamped it to death,” said the pale and lovely compulsive entertainer. “They build their own springboards. I hate things jumping on me … other than men.”
Unsurprisingly, all this macabre talk brings us to the subject of Russell Crowe. Does Nell have any explanation for the antipodean actor’s atypical charmlessness? “Treasure,” Ms. Campbell said scoldingly, raising both arms aloft in a showgirl gesture, “he’s a bloody Kiwi! Don’t make that mistake again.”