Colin McLean: Staging a life as Pollyfilla

In show business, you don’t stand a chance if you don’t stand out. For costume maker, Colin McLean, this means shopping online for his drag persona, Pollyfilla. 

From the outside, Colin McLean’s 1960s-style apartment is nondescript. But those who receive the rare invitation to step inside will find themselves swept up in a stunning medley of colour, texture and pattern.

Since Colin moved in a decade ago, what was once a common living space found a different calling as a costumer maker’s studio and is now home to an extraordinary array of sewing machines, vibrant bolts of fabric and trimmings, trays of shiny accessories and rows of Styrofoam head wig stands.

“This is the heart of the whole house,” he beams. “It has the best light, the most warmth and is just a good space. This is where I do my best work.”

That work has graced stages, film sets and museums in his homeland of New Zealand, across Australia and around the world. Among Colin’s 1,000-odd creations is a silver Marie Antoinette-inspired outfit that his drag persona, Pollyfilla, donned this year for a New Year’s dance party and the winning Mardi Gras float.

Colin, 39, has been doing drag since 1996. But he has been a performer since the age of four when he played the role of Santa Claus in a preschool production.

“I’ve always loved performing in front of an audience and making people laugh. Growing up, I did a lot of theatre, musicals and clowning for children’s parties. I loved street theatre in particular – all that makeup, wigs, platform shoes and sequinned fabric.”

Yet show business wasn’t part of Colin’s career development plan. He thought he was destined to be a primary school teacher. Then he caught the musical, Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, and that plan came to a swift end.

“Everything suddenly came together and I thought, oh my god, that’s me! That’s what I want to do! I came out so I could do drag. You can’t be a drag queen and be in the closet. It doesn’t make sense. Closets are for frocks, not drag queens!”

While Colin’s drag persona was born immediately after his musical epiphany, landing on a suitable name took a little longer. He had initially pounced on ‘Polly Esther’, a name from a book aptly titled, What Not To Name Your Baby.

The name perfectly matched his fabric craze but alas, it already belonged to a drag queen in Cardiff. After six months of going by a drag name he no longer remembers, Colin was out one night when a stranger called out, “Hi Polly!”

“That’s when I thought I have to be Polly but Polly what?” he says, laughing. “I was still a drag baby at the time and my makeup was starting to fall off that night. I was furiously patching it up when my friend said, I don’t know why you don’t use flesh-coloured polyfilla instead of makeup.” And with that, the search for a name was over. 

Colin moved to Melbourne in late 2006 but not before Pollyfilla was recognised as a Wellington icon by the city’s then mayor for her sell-out shows and involvement in the city’s culture and LGBT community.

Once in Melbourne, she went on to snag a lead role in one of the city’s premier drag troupes and very quickly made a name for herself in the local entertainment scene.

“Pollyfilla is inspired by five different comedies with larger-than-life female roles,” Colin explains. “She’s very bubbly, brightly-coloured, a little silly and all about insane glamour. You’re a man in a dress, you can’t take yourself too seriously!”

What he does take seriously, however, is his role as a costume designer. Colin, who graduated from fashion design school in New Zealand, spends most of his offstage hours transforming swathes of fabric into spectacular costumes for Pollyfilla's wardrobe, custom orders or to sell on Etsy.

“The worst thing about costumes is that you can never throw anything away because you never know when you’ll need the little bits,” he says while pulling out little trays filled with shiny buttons, buckles, spikes, studs and his current obsession, rhinestones.

“You need to be resourceful and thrifty. Drag looks expensive but you don’t get paid that much for it. You do it for the love.”

Colin’s first drag costume was a pair of black-and-white striped Lycra flares with a halter neckline, an oversized white belt, two blue clown wigs from a toy store and a pair of shoes that were a size too small.

“Looking fabulous but also having the worst night,” he says dryly. Online shopping has put those days far behind him. More than that, it has “changed the game for drag.”

“Tell me where you’re going to get a pair of size 14 ladies shoes off the rack? Having said that, when I started doing drag, I knew of only two or three online shoe stores but even then you couldn’t make a straight up purchase. You had to email them your order and once they emailed an order confirmation, you’d email back your credit card details.”

These transactions are now seamless and these days, Colin shops almost exclusively online. He attributes his roaring success rate to an individuality that can only be achieved when one has access to something no one else does.

“There’s nothing worse than turning up to the club to see another drag queen wearing an outfit in the same fabric! I can’t even imagine what drag would be like today without online shopping. We’d definitely be paying a lot more for things. And I’d have to leave my home to get stuff.”

“I have a show this weekend and I’ll jump online to order a wig from Sydney and fabric from Brisbane. I’ll get it sent by express post and it’ll be delivered the next day while I’m at home working on something else.”

Convenience and individual expression are just two of four merits that online shopping has offered Colin. The third is the connection he’s struck up with other drag queens in Australia, and the fourth is the opportunity it offers him as a merchant.

“I’ve gotten to know other drag queens through online banter and chatting. And I’ve been able to recommend them for interstate jobs that I’m unable to take on. Talking to them and understanding what they do has really boosted my creativity.”

“As a designer, I’m able to earn an income through selling my costumes on Etsy. It has enabled to turn what I love into a fulltime job and work from home.”

In December, Colin will start planning his outfits for the usual slew of big events and parties that begin with Christmas. After New Year comes Midsumma, a couple of Pride events and then Mardi Gras, which Colin dubs the “epic event of the year.”

“It’s three months of craziness,” he says. “I try to have an idea of my Mardi Gras outfit by December so I have three months to work on it. As I get older, I’m putting more time and effort into making costumes that last so I can sell them if I want to.”

“Probably the hardest thing about drag is that it can be time consuming and energy draining. People don’t realise how much work goes into it. A three-minute performance involves two days to sew the outfit, another two days to put diamantes on and an hour to style the wig.”

“But my favourite bit about drag is making costumes because I just love creating. Drag for me is like a blank canvas. There are no rules.”