We're in the Pūhoi Town Hall, some time in the 1980s.
The audience, packed to the rafters, is a strange mix. Militant-looking, denim-clad Māori women with tattoos, well-to-do white liberal hipsters, farmers and their wives. I'm pretty sure there are a couple of nuns up the front somewhere...
The Topps are doing the bit where Lynda — as Camp Mother — gets down from the stage. She and Jools have chosen, with unerring skill, John — a large, shy bloke — to help her. John's doing his best to piggyback her, as she asked him to, but Lynda is stymie-ing him again and again while manifesting vast ungainliness, saying lines like "Don't turn around, John, whatever you do! You'll need decades of counselling".
I've been to a lot of funny shows in my life, but this is the only one I can think of where the audience is actually screaming, and fighting for breath, we're laughing so hard. We're laughing — even if we've seen it before — at Lynda's brilliant beached whale impression, as she eventually rolls off John's back and lurches off the edge of the stage; we're laughing with poor, hapless John as he slowly realises decency is no match for anarchy. And we're laughing, tears streaming down our faces, because we know we're in good hands, and we know that inside this little country hall is the best show on earth right at this moment.
Australian poet Les Murray talks about a quality he calls "sprawl".
Sprawl is the quality
of the man who cut down his Rolls Royce
into a farm utility truck, and sprawl
is what the company lacked when it made repeated efforts
to buy the vehicle back and repair its image.
The Topp Twins have got "Sprawl" — heaps of it. And attitude, chutzpah, generosity...all those words.
They’re unique in this country’s performing arts.
In a long career, they’ve poked fun at us, affirmed us and challenged us; they’re superb performers and songwriters, who have given us some of the great moments in New Zealand music; and as entrepreneurs, they have rewritten the book on how to take art to the people — whether that’s touring with a tractor towing a gypsy caravan, making a TV series complete with hunting, shooting and fishing segments, or opening A&P shows in character, as Ken & Ken.
Back in the 1970s with our small, spread out population and suspicion of anything too intellectual, New Zealand would've seemed an unlikely place to make stars of an act like the Topps. In any other country around that time, a couple of yodelling lesbian political activists would have carved out a small niche — preaching to the converted at the extreme edge of things.
Jools and Lynda weren't having any of that. They swaggered into the limelight and stayed there; courting, and being rapturously embraced by, a wide audience, including quite conservative people, while never softening their outspoken stances on many current issues, and while continuing to make acutely observed work in, and about this particular place. That's a testament to their skill, commitment, and breadth of vision. _____________________________________
It would have been amazing had the Topps merely occupied the place they've carved out in show business here and overseas for over 30 years, while proudly proclaiming their sexual orientation from the word go. By doing that, they've advanced the popular debate about gayness, and been disarmingly matter-of-fact about it. But they have done much more than that. By putting themselves in harm’s way for their beliefs — on the field at the Hamilton Springbok test, at Bastion Point, over the nuclear free issue — they have furthered those causes in ways no lobby group could, while creating an inspiring template for citizen engagement within a democracy. They've pushed back boundaries in a gloriously Kiwi way: laughing with, rather than at their audiences. As a result, they have guided at least a couple of generations of us towards new ways of thinking.
And the songs. Beautiful, simple, strong songs; songs made to last, like good, straight fences that have been expertly built and finely tensioned. 'Friday Night Get Up', about the pure joy of getting your glad rags on; 'Calf Club Day', a song that makes you cry for your rural childhood, even if you didn't have one; and 'Milestones', their lovely evocation of the specific loneliness of the travelling singer-songwriter, which is surely as good as Paul Simon's 'Homeward Bound'.
Dame Lynda and Dame Jools. The Topp Twins. We're lucky to have them. All that laughter, all those songs, all that "Sprawl". Long may they sprawl among us.
- Don McGlashan has performed solo, in bands Blam Blam Blam and The Mutton Birds, and multimedia group The Front Lawn. He arranged and co-produced 2011 Topp Twins album Honky Tonk Angel. and was music director of 2022 tribute concert Topp Class.
I still vividly remember the first time I heard the word 'lesbian'. I would have been five or six and living in Miramar in Wellington, with my Mum and Dad and two sisters. The evening before, we’d sat down as a family and watched a hilarious show on the telly. I was excited to tell my next door neighbour and mate Blair all about it. I ran up the back garden, climbed the fence, and knocked on the door of my very staunch Christian neighbours’ house. "Blair, Blair, did you watch The Topp Twins last night? They are so funny!"
Blair looked at me with a mixture of disdain and concern. "You shouldn’t watch them Karen, you know they’re lesbians." As a five or six year old, no, I did not know they were lesbian. In fact I didn’t even know what a lesbian was. So with my tail between my legs and a feeling of shame I returned home, and decided I needed to find out what this word meant.
I don’t recall exactly how I found out. But I do remember thinking, what’s so bad about that? It turned out to be very lucky for me to have that opinion, all things considered. Despite being made to feel shame for enjoying watching lesbians on the TV, I continued to thoroughly enjoy watching the Topp Twins throughout my formative years, and for some reason (I think we all know what it was) I always felt an affinity for these two comedic, musical, and political women.
Fast forward to November 2018, and I got to meet Lynda and Jools for the first time. The sheer excitement at seeing them was palpable. It was at the NZ Television Awards; I was dressed up in my Wellington Paranormal police uniform as Officer O’Leary. I felt like I’d done a Minogue and accidentally discharged my taser on myself, the excitement was so electric. I went and introduced myself and almost fell over my baton when Lynda said she enjoyed watching Wellington Paranormal. As a trained early childhood teacher, and somewhat of an accidental actor, I already found my life increasingly hilarious; but to meet the Topp Twins and actually have them know of me was even more exciting than the time I watched Martin Crowe score 299 against Sri Lanka at the Basin Reserve!
These were two women who had always inspired me. Their ability to relate to, and provide entertainment for, such a diverse range of people was unparalleled. Their comedy spoke to everyday New Zealanders at a time when two yodeling, lesbian sisters would have been forgiven for expecting not everyone to understand, or worse, have a negative opinion about them. Not content with merely providing laughs and aural entertainment in Aotearoa and around the world, they were also fierce activists who stood up for things they believed in. In a nutshell they encapsulated all of the qualities I aspired too, and have been hugely influential in my growth and development as a person.
When the brilliant decision was made to cast Lynda as my mum on Wellington Paranormal, I couldn’t believe my luck. Admittedly, my actual mum was heartbroken, but she understands I have a new Mum now…ha! You know how people say never meet your heroes? Well I reckon that’s a load of bollocks. Especially if your heroes are just as brilliant as you’ve imagined in real life. Lynda was certainly that — so funny, so charismatic and just so real. And also very gay. We had an absolute hoot filming her episode, and I felt like I’d really made it in life when Lynda invited me down to Methven (where she lives with her lovely wife Donna) to go duck shooting.
The fact of the matter is that the idea of shooting and killing a duck terrifies me. If I didn’t like sausages so much (ironic I know), I’d probably be a vegetarian. But you don’t say no to Lynda Topp...nor would you ever want to, because she is someone that you’d be crazy not to want to hang out with. I haven’t killed any ducks yet, but Lynda and I did have the pleasure of working together again on the final season of Wellington Paranormal. We also had a hilarious time doing the COVID announcement videos for the actual New Zealand police. I mean it would be an absolute conspiracy not to take advice on the most serious health issue of our time from two lesbians — one of whom is pretending to be a police officer, and one who is pretending to be her straight mother.
Lynda and I kept in touch. Together with Jools, we hosted an event to try and save concert radio. I think having three butch lesbians in suits and flannel shirts really put all of the minds of classical music folks at ease.
I’m going to push fast forward one last time, to the end of 2022. With the devastating news that both Lynda and Jools were living with cancer, a tribute concert was organised by their longtime friend and producer Arani Cuthbert. Arani told me that the twins had asked if I’d be keen to MC the show. That’s like asking me if I love cricket — it’s a ridiculous question, and the answer is obviously yes. So, alongside some of the most talented and creative people in Aotearoa, I got to be part of something truly special.Karen O'Leary presenting 2022 special Topp Class.
The Civic in Tāmaki Makarau was chockablock; I've never experienced the amount of love that was in the theatre on that night. Lynda and Jools were there and obviously not feeling a million bucks, but when the lights went down and the curtain went up, they were on. Such consummate professionals, and such brilliant performers. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house after a concert that showcased the unparalleled and positive impact the Topp Twins have had on Aotearoa. Trailblazers? Yes. Hilarious? Yes. Amazing musicians? Yes. Political activists? Yes. My friends? Hell yes. I love you Lynda and Jools.
- Karen O'Leary is an early childhood teacher turned actor and presenter.
Film and television weren’t much on our minds in the early eighties. It was all about live performance; sort of mass conversion events, best experienced with a lot of other humans. In 1980 there was a buzz about the Topp Twins. It happened pretty fast, although there was not a singular thread about them that made straight sense: twins, country singers, lesbians, with a guitar and a world-class yodel, busking on the corner of Queen and Darby Streets to pay for food and gas. Pumped with attitude, they called themselves Homemade Jam; connected to the women’s movement, from the Waikato, something about being in the army. What was this?
In November 1980 friends urged me to see these Topp Twins at a lunchtime show at Auckland Technical Institute. The cafeteria was Seddon Tech era; the enthusiasm of the audience soon drowned out the clattering din of cutlery. At the time I was a year into my term as chairperson of the NZ Students’ Arts Council, a legendary touring arts catalyst. We were programming for 1981, and were looking for an act to pair on a national tour with Auckland political comedy duo Slick Stage — Peta Rutter and Peter Rowell. Immediately after the show I introduced myself to the Topp Twins, congratulated them, and offered them a campus Orientation tour on the spot. They said yes. It was a three-minute discussion, details to be worked out.
NZSAC ran two national Orientation tours. Australian Jean Paul-Bell was booked for the headline tour – audacious programming by my colleagues. Putting a comic mime in front of thousands of beery students proved sensational. Slick Stage and the twins prepared for their show in a vacant office building in Grey Lynn, and performed an out-of-town opening in the hospitable climes of the Kumara Shed, north of Katikati. From the moment the two duos began their 30-show tour from Dunedin to Auckland, it was clear we had a second barnstormer on the road.
From the get-go the Twins found their comic voices, probably to their surprise. In costume they became characters, and they would go on to create multiple personas over the next four decades of live performance, television and film. Their musical roots came from Australian and American country singers and yodelers, but their comedy seemed to spring from BBC character comedies like The Two Ronnies. They were like a lesbian version of The Everly Brothers with a dose of Benny Hill. Lynda: “It’s all about hip movements!” There were moments when Jools, Lynda and entire audiences were convulsed with laughter at their outrageous freedom to invent...to be spontaneous, be silly, be happy.
But we were five years into Muldoon and relations between old and new generations were polarised. With the 1981 Springbok tour coming, people were reaching for their helmets. Half of the country was mad about rugby; the other half was mad about social justice. The goal of the movement was to free Nelson Mandela and to free a country from apartheid, which New Zealand was intrinsically supporting by hosting its rugby gods. The Topp Twins were a unifying and energising force for the social justice side with their presence, songs, and irresistible determination.
In 1982 the Topp Twins headlined their own NZSAC national Orientation tour. The itinerary branched out from campuses to public halls and theatres. A full two-hour show, with production values and honed spontaneity. Lynda getting people up on stage for a dance routine, Lynda going into the audience to interview. There were times Jools didn’t know what was happening, but was all “go for it sister.” Cheers to the students and students’ unions of Aotearoa for providing the circuit, and the opportunity.
In 1983 I set up my own arts and entertainment agency in Wellington, with the Topp Twins as my first clients. Together we got seriously down to business. For the next three years we went pretty much everywhere: every city, regional theatres, seasons and late nights in professional theatres, and dozens of country halls where most of the district would come along. Often the audience included groups that wouldn’t normally mix: farmers, miners and hippies for example. A five-centre tour of the West Coast concluded with a wild Saturday night in Blackball.
There were TV appearances – their debut on That’s Country was a big moment — playing opening act for a Split Enz tour, and numerous gigs in Wellington, where Muldoonism still had two years to run and there were multiple rights that our Parliament had to, and eventually, did address – including nuclear-free, Māori land rights, gay rights. The twins were visible and vocal leaders. With their rousing Kiwiness, they reassured the public of New Zealand that change was possible, positive, and indeed on its way.
My last Topp Twins assignment was in 1985, visiting theatre companies and performance spaces across Sydney to open a door to Australia. I’d take the smallest room in the city to guarantee a sellout season. Belvoir St Theatre in Surry Hills hosted us for a month, and their downstairs room delivered abundantly.
Barry Humphries was playing the Regent Theatre in Sydney at the same time, and fortuitously the shows were reviewed together in the major newspapers. Playing in the smallest theatre in town had the same effect as playing the biggest. Jools and Lynda met Humphries after a matinee show at the Regent. Barry had exquisite stagecraft, deeply observed characters — vile though some may have been — a caustic wit, and a raucous ability to transport an audience. I'd hazard a guess that a bit of DNA from Dame Edna and Sir Les Patterson found its way into the Topp characters. But only the good bits, because freedom and joy are at the heart of the Topp Twins legend. RIP Barry.
After five years we took stock and recalibrated. After a pause, Greg Fahey, the original tour director of the first Topp Twins Students’ Arts Council tours, took up the reins with the Gypsy Caravan tour, and other excursions deep into heartland New Zealand. Since 1992 the professional management of the Topp Twins has been in the exemplary hands of Arani Cuthbert, founder of artist management company Diva Productions. Jools, Lynda and Arani have created award-winning primetime television shows, national and international tours, a formidable songwriting catalogue, and books.
In 2009 we reunited for the documentary film Untouchable Girls, which my partner Jane Vesty and I co-funded. Directed by Leanne Pooley, Untouchable Girls won the People’s Choice Documentary Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and 20+ other awards, and sold to Australia, North America, Netherlands, Japan and the United Kingdom. It was New Zealand’s highest-grossing documentary film for eight years (until it was surpassed by Chasing Great, a documentary about the greatest All Blacks captain, Richie McCaw).
The 40th anniversary tribute show for the Topp Twins at Auckland's Civic Theatre in November 2022 was also, to my mind, a tribute to everyone who has worked back stage, front of house, behind the camera, and on the road, making it happen.
I grew up in Morrinsville, a Waikato dairy town about 50 km from the Topp farm. The highlight of my 12 years there was when Tex Morton came to the Morrinsville War Memorial Hall one Friday night, with his one-man country singing, sharp-shooting, whip-cracking comic vaudeville show. Tex was a popular entertainer in North America in the 1950s — and here he was in my home town, with his go-everywhere brand of Antipodean entertainment. I thought of Tex again that moment at the Auckland Technical Institute cafeteria when I first saw the Topp Twins perform, and had the sense this could be the start of something consequential.
Dame Julie Topp and Dame Lynda Topp – the Topp Twins – I’ll love you forever. A ride of my life.
Brian Sweeney, with Jane Vesty, founded communications strategy consultancy SweeneyVesty in Wellington 1987 following earlier careers in the arts and entertainment.
I first saw the Topp Twins on an autumn day in the Auckland University quad. As I sat eating my lunch, I watched them walk across the open space, each carrying a guitar. They wore leather jackets and an air of invincibility; they looked "untouchable", even back then. Ten minutes later, the sound of double harmonies and guitars strumming in unison drew me inside the packed cafeteria. Standing on top of a table, the twins let rip with the full force of their vocal powers. Uneaten sandwiches and assorted drinks scattered as Lynda leapt onto the next table. Students hollered. It was roof-raising, irreverent, radical. And unforgettable.
One night, soon afterwards, a friend and I walked into Just Desserts café (previously the Island of Real, off Airedale Street). Out the back, where bands performed, we were surprised to see it was packed with women, and we quickly realised they were "not like other girls". I later found out it was a fundraiser concert for 1982 album Out of the Corners, the first ever collection of original songs written and recorded by Kiwi women. It was one of the most memorable, and life-changing, concerts of my life. Incredible artists sang, including Clare Bear, Hilary King, Mahinārangi Tocker, Mereana Pitman and Tracey Huirama; women as talented as our most celebrated singers today.
Lynda and Jools hit the stage. As they sang about politics, and being free, I could feel a collective rising up — the room was electric. We were swooning, not just for these sexy singers with a swagger, but for a better world. The promise had been made. That night I witnessed up-close the power music has to bring people together, and create change. For me personally, I recognised my tribe; after that there was no going back.
But something else remarkable happened. An enormous emotional energy was unleashed that spilled out of the room, onto the streets, and fuelled a decade of protests, and we claimed back our right, as women, to be heard and seen and valued as artists, as anything we wanted to be.
A decade later, I became the Topp Twins' manager. I've now had the enormous privilege of working with these two extraordinarily talented women for 30 years. They were independent recording artists before that was even a thing here. They have scooped just about every New Zealand award for music, television and entertainment. If they had been born in North America or Britain, they would have become superstars. But they chose to remain in New Zealand at a time when many local artists felt they had to leave, and Aotearoa New Zealand is better off for it. They have given us so much joy, brought different people together, and stood up for what’s right. It’s been an honour to walk alongside them.
- Arani Cuthbert has managed the Topp Twins for more than 30 years. She produced hit movie The Topp Twins - Untouchable Girls and multiple seasons of Topp Country and Do Not Adjust Your Twin-Set.
Lesbian twin sisters who dress up as men, sing country music and yodel? On paper, the idea of the Topp Twins seems like a bad joke with fringe appeal, or at the very least, inconceivable. And yet, from humble beginnings in the coffee lounges of Christchurch, the Topps have become national treasures, beloved by theatre and television audiences alike.
The twins' journey towards iconic status began, improbably, in Huntly, where they were born in May 1958. Jools and Lynda spent their childhood on a Waikato dairy farm, and that rural background goes a long way to explaining their taste for country music — and in Lynda's case, yodeling. As teenagers, the twins enlisted in the Territorial Army, and spent six weeks at the Burnham army base near Christchurch. But the army wasn't their calling. Before long, they were busking and playing small gigs in cafes in Christchurch, Dunedin and Auckland.
Right from the beginning, their material contained political satire, but it was laced with such natural charm and cheerful effrontery that no one ever took offence. Likewise, the fact they were out-and-proud lesbians never seemed to bother their growing fan base. In the early 1980s, the Topps took their place at the forefront of struggles for anti-apartheid, Nuclear-free Aotearoa, Māori land rights and Homosexual Law Reform Bill, but by the end of the decade, the mainstream was calling.
The Topps' first foray into television was a filmed special of their sell-out stage show, which they'd toured to every corner of New Zealand. The special won a handful of NZ Film and Television awards in 1987, including Best Entertainment Programme, Best Original Music and Entertainers of the Year.
Throughout the early 1990s, they continued to appear in various one-off television specials (like 1993's Camping Out with the Topp Twins). But it wasn't until 1996 that they created their own show.
The first series of The Topp Twins - Do Not Adjust Your Twin-Set ran for 12 episodes, and screened on TV3. The format was a unique mix of documentary, comedy and music, with the Topps' fictional characters taking part in real life situations, such as triathlons or a catwalk show (like more affable, less exploitative predecessors to Borat).
Original songs form part of their repertoire, and run the gamut from serious and pastiche country ballads to the distinctive Topp Twin yodel — sung at an alarming, virtuoso pace. Two of their releases, Grass Highway and Flowergirls & Cowgirls, have won Country Music Tuis for best album.
Much of their humour stems from gender confusion and sexual disorientation, as Lynda and Jools dress up as a variety of "straight" men and women. For example, Ken Moller the bucolic farmer (played by Lynda) is in love with Camp Mother, "the lady in pink," also played by Lynda.
In September 2008, The Topp Twins were inducted into the NZ Music Hall of Fame, and the following year they were the subject of hit feature film, Untouchable Girls, directed by Leanne Pooley. Back in 2006 Jools Topp had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and her diagnosis and recovery spurred the making of the film, which combines the Topps' story, performance material and political developments in New Zealand.
Following the end of the Topp Twins TV show in 2000, it would be another seven years before the sisters were seen on television in a regular series (the Lynda-only Ken's Hunting and Fishing Show) — much to the bewilderment of their manager and producer, Arani Cuthbert, and no doubt the wide Kiwi audience who had embraced the Topps' unique brand of ‘alternative country'.
The twins demonstrated they still had an audience with Topp Country. The food-themed show launched in 2014, awards, spawned a book, and was judged New Zealand's Best Lifestyle Programme in its third and final season. In 2022 they took part in 40th anniversary tribute concert Topp Class, which screened on Prime TV on Christmas Day that year.
The Topp Twins have earned their place in the hearts and minds of New Zealanders.
- Journalist Bianca Zander has written two novels (The Girl Below and The Predictions) and articles for The Listener and the Sunday Star-Times. She works in the communications team at Auckland Council.