Singing sisters The Topp Twins have been winning over audiences for decades. The combination has its own magic. When Jools Topp is performing on-stage, she sometimes finds herself laughing at her sister Lynda's jokes, "60 years down the line".
The duo have been an influence on a generation of entertainers, including Sam Wills (aka Tape Face), who remembers "The Topp Twins coming out of an egg" as his earliest character comedy moment.
Growing up on a dairy farm near Huntly, the two sang at a cousin's birthday at age five. Their brother Bruce "started the ball rolling", by buying his sisters a guitar and instruction book; Jools quickly took the guitar and threw the book away. "I've never looked at another guitar book ever," she says. "I just learned all the chords that I could. They're all just very basic chords."
After a stint in the Territorials they began busking, attracting a keen following with regular Friday night performances in Auckland. The task of getting crowds to stop forced them to up their showmanship. "That was our training ground, how to woo a crowd", Jools recalled later. The busking began when the twins headed into town from the bush in their decaying Holden stationwagon, and realised they didn't have enough money for supplies. They thought "let's just go and sing on the street, and get enough money to get home".
Crowds grew so big that year, that one performance saw them taken to court for obstruction. They later won the case, and the publicity helped win them gigs on a university orientation tour.
In the heady political days of the 1980s, the Topp Twins provided music at a range of protests, including nuclear-free marches and the homosexual law reform bill. Says Jools: "Every good movement needs a damn good song, and we were just in the right place at the right time."
She also remembers a memorable gig in London with Billy Bragg as one of the only times she lost her cool on-stage. After she swore at a punk rocker who was heckling them about his dislike of yodelling, the audience began enthusiastically pogoing to the music.
Upfront about being lesbian, the twins unique act of country and western inspired songs and comedy, wo over a wide audience. "There's something quite beautiful about having a green-haired punk rocker sitting next to a 90-year old grandmother and they are all laughing at the same thing".
Once they began playing longer shows in theatres, the twins realised they needed more comedy, and began inventing characters. They began by splitting a horrifying gingham skirt found in a second hand shop. As Jools says: "We made ourselves look ridiculous ... we asked them to laugh at us, not to laugh at someone else's misfortune."
In 1987 a Topp Twins Special showcasing the duo's stage material won three television awards, including Best Entertainment Programme and Best Entertainer. Since then The Topp Twins have made frequent TV appearances, usually working with their longtime producer Arani Cuthbert. In 1996 they debuted in the first of three seasons of primetime series The Topp Twins. The show saw the twins mixing comedy and documentary material, with fictional characters like Camp Leader (played by Jools), and the two Kens taking part in real-life situations. Said Jools: "People feel self-conscious when they've got a big camera pointing at them, so we needed to create those characters to make people feel at ease to really communicate with them".
In 2000 Camp Leader and Camp Mother hosted quiz show Mr and Mrs, in which couples answered questions about how well they knew each other. As Camp Leader, Jools escorted contestants onstage, announced results, and fed the audience a run of risque jokes during breaks in filming.
Topp Twins documentary Untouchable Girls was released in local cinemas in 2009. The film was directed by Leanne Pooley, who was keen to answer the question of how two "highly politicised" gay women found their way into the hearts of mainstream New Zealand. Part concert film, part biopic, and part historical record, Untouchable Girls won positive reviews (the Herald called it "a Topp effort, all round"), and a raft of international awards at both queer and straight film festivals. Locally, the film's $1.85 million gross also edged it into the top ten list of Kiwi releases on NZ soil. Theatrical releases followed in Australia and the United States.
In 2006 Jools was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. The sisters chose to speak out about the disease that kills hundreds of women every year in New Zealand, integrating their personal story of treatment and recovery into their stage show, and developing a fundraising event for Breast Cancer Awareness.
In 2014 the Topp Twins returned to television screens on Topp Country. This time they played themselves as they take a culinary journey around New Zealand. The show was one of the highest rated local programmes of 2014; NZ Herald reviewer Colin Hogg praised it as "truly wonderful television". A second season in 2015 scored the twins a New Zealand Television Award for Best Entertainment Presenter — three decades after they first took out the same category, for a Topp Twins special.
In 2018 the Twins were each named Dames Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to entertainment.
A skilled horsewoman, Jools established her own business specialising in shoeing horses, before opening a bed and breakfast down south.
Updated on 5 February 2020
Topp Twins website. Accessed 5 June 2018
Diva Productions website. Accessed 5 June 2018
Russell Baillie, 'Untouchable Girls' (Review) - The NZ Herald, 8 April 2009
Frances Grant, 'They're Topps' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 30 June 2000
Colin Hogg, 'Colin Hogg: Topps shine as rambling foodies' (Review of Topp Country) - The NZ Herald, 13 May 2014
Hannah McKee, 'The Topp Twins take a break from telly' (Interview). Stuff website. Loaded 15 October 2015. Accessed 4 November 2015
The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls press kit