Gretel Pinniger, along with her larger-than-life alter ego Madam Lash, has outraged, titillated and enriched the Australian cultural scene over the past forty-odd years. The publicity blurb for this biography proclaims that “she has been stretching the boundaries of creativity for decades in a life of operatic proportions”. I’d be hard pressed to find a better one-line summary of a life so brightly lived.
A quiet and solitary child, she was born in 1945 to parents who divorced when she was only five. She had little contact with her father afterwards and this early abandonment, along with her teenage experiences as a school boarder in Sydney, is a recurrent theme throughout the book. By the time she finished school she was a shy, solitary girl who was deeply attracted to the idea of a religious life of sacrifice. However her mother insisted that she attend university and it was in her first year of an abortive attempt at an arts degree in Melbourne that the creative side of her nature flourished. She had always been a talented artist and now this expanded into the formation of her own image as she made her own beautiful and unusual clothing and began to experiment with drugs as well as the sexual side of her nature.
By the time she returned to Sydney she was ripe for further transformation and work as a life model morphed into work as a stripper. Through this Madam Lash was born. The fringe fetish scene was, and is, a place very much outside the mainstream. Here she found an outlet for both her creative impulses and her deepest desires. A compulsive self-publicist she was photographed everywhere. She crashed parties and openings and became embroiled in a very high profile libel case. As she grew older, she moved away from the Lash persona and towards a career as a fashion designer and then as a painter. She has twice been a finalist for the highly esteemed Archibald Prize and in recent years has moved into more experimental forms of painting – what she describes as 4D.
Controversially, she did not attend the launch of this book. Instead her chauffer read a statement denouncing it as lies and a character assassination; although she had been involved in workshopping and editing the book. Many disparate theories abound as to the reason for this back flip. But it is, perhaps, not that surprising for those of us who have read the book. She has always been unpredictable and her sudden change of heart is, perversely enough, completely in character.
Madam Lash is an adult book with very adult themes. But it is also a fascinating insight into a highly creative maverick. She is a woman who has been very much in the public eye, linked to several well known men including chef Tony Bilson and the late Clive Packer, and this is a wild, exhilarating ride through her life. While I would have appreciated a more nuanced look at the complexities of her personality, it is still a very enjoyable read and it is a book that helps to illuminate a particular period in Australia’s social and cultural history.
Sam Everingham is also the author of Gordon Barton, a biography of the maverick businessman, who was one of Madam Lash’s playmates, and Wild Ride – The Rise & Fall of Cobb & Co.
Title: Madam Lash
Author: Sam Everingham
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Publication Date: June 2010