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 these run the gamut from serious and pastiche country ballads to the distinctive Topp Twin yodel — sung at an alarming and 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.