To recap: Matthew Mitcham was the first Australian bloke since 1924 to win gold for diving at the Olympics – for perfect dives with perfect scores. But he found it hard to come to grips with the let-down afterwards and struggled with long-time depression and addictions which he faced head-on, subsequently writing a terrific book, Twists and Turns, a frank account of his struggles.
Having aired all his dirty washing in public he's now set it to music and we have the all-singing all-talking all-dancing stage version! Well, almost.
I spoke to him during a break in rehearsals at his musical director's home in inner western Sydney
How can you deal with such serious topics in song’n’dance?
Oh, God! [laughs] We sat down and had a look at the themes in the book and what we thought were the most important and the ones we thought would translate best to the stage. And we had a look at the emotions and the main message we wanted to relate through song. Then I put forward most of the songs we’re using. It's really awesome to have so much say over what goes into the show. And it’s not all doom and gloom. There are some really difficult themes in the book but only to give it a good perspective and balance the extreme highs and lows in my life. A full picture. The show is much the same. There are some dark moments, there are some high moments. And we match them with song.
Hear Matthew talk about Twists and Turns Cabaret [duration 02.19]:
What songs do you use for the low moments?
There’s a song by Alanis Morissette, Perfect, and it's really perfect – pardon the pun – to represent my continual striving for perfection and positive reinforcement. It’s about constant negative feedback and just never being enough for people. I felt like that as a small child and as a teenager growing through my sport. It was ironic for someone with such self-esteem issues to get into trampolining and diving where the feedback you're given is represented in numbers. I used to be quite reliant on seeing 9s and 10s from the judges as a way of boosting my self-esteem and I didn’t realise this was the case until I was injured in 2010 and I stopped being able to compete and suddenly this external positive reinforcement was taken away from me and my teenage depression, which I'd never addressed, came back with a vengeance.
Hear Matthew sing Amy Winehouse's Cherry [duration 02.35]:
You said in the book being gay is incidental to who you are, nothing to do with your sport, your goals, your achievements. Yet it's one of the defining things that separates you from others and is a part of who you are. Do you get frustrated being treated as the poster boy for the gay community?
Ah, I guess I like it when I think it’s appropriate and when I think it’s irrelevant I'll say so. When it comes to being an athlete sexuality should be as inconsequential as hair colour, race, religion. It says it in the Olympic charter: sport should be free from discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality. I think in exactly the same way.
On the other hand, because there are so few athletes that are out – sport’s still one of the places where people feel the least comfortable to come out. Because I was fortunate enough to be in a position where I felt comfortable and supported and safe I was very lucky to be able to come out and I hope being so open and proud and successful makes me a good role model and I hope I make it easier for others to feel comfortable enough and safe enough to do the same thing.
What a shame Russia doesn’t have the same attitude.
[laughs] I’m not gonna get into that right now [laughs and, feeling safe, relents]. I read this wonderful article this morning – the Australian men’s and women’s bobsled teams are being sponsored by Principle 6, an LGBT anti-discrimination group. I think that's absolutely wonderful. Making a statement in its own way. And they're Australians. They’re not persecuted like these Russian people but they’re doing this in solidarity for the Russian LGBT community.
Obama has made a very strong statement about Russia by not attending the Winter Olympics and not sending high-level government representatives. Would you go? Would you compete?
Um, I . . . would . . . go . . . but just to be visible, obviously not to spread any propaganda because that’s a jailable offence but just to be a proud man who is who he is and to support the Russian LGBT community. I think it’s more powerful to be there than it is to boycott.
So the most important thing is to be true to yourself. Which must be very difficult for someone in the spotlight like you, with your achievements and also your honesty. You've told us so much about yourself you have even more to live up to. Is it easier or harder to be Matthew Mitcham these days?
I’ve had a lot of help over the last couple of years. A lot of quite intense psychology and psycho-therapy and AA and NA – I’ve had a lot of help around my mental health and myself as a person. Yeah, it’s been a long and really intense journey. But it’s something I had to do. I wasn’t born with or I didn’t develop healthy self-esteem and boundaries and that stuff so I had to learn it a bit later in life and, unfortunately, I had to hit rock bottom before I could take this proactive step and work on my mental health. But better late than never.
I wasn't born with healthy self-esteem so I had to learn it later in life and, unfortunately, I had to hit rock bottom first.
In regards to all this stuff being public, I don’t feel burdened by it at all. I’ve always believed if the potential benefit to others outweighs the potential detriment to myself then it’s totally worth it. And all the feedback I’ve had these last couple of years supports that. No regrets. I guess it holds me accountable, too. If things go badly I'm forced to address stuff before it gets out of hand. That’s a really good thing. I have to maintain my integrity and my sobriety as a role model and that’s very important to me.
In your book you eloquently said there was this big deep hole you couldn’t fill. Maybe it’s not so much a hole as a sense of dissatisfaction – no matter which way we turn, the world is conspiring to send us all the same message that we're not and never will be good enough.
That’s certainly relevant and pertinent to my story. It was that message that I was essentially giving myself as a child. I wasn’t good enough to get the attention I craved and I had to be more, I had to be better, I had to be the best in the world for people to like me. When you place so much emphasis on what others think it leaves your self-esteem in a very precarious position and takes the control away from you. That’s what I’ve been trying to learn these last couple of years – how to control my self-esteem and that anything external is a bonus . . . or inconsequential. But I feel secure enough now that I don’t need further external bolstering.
You also wrote about your rivalry with Tom Daley in London those few years ago. Were you surprised when he came out?
Yeah, I didn’t know. I was pretty surprised but I think that rivalry stuff, I was just jealous, I guess, but things have been heaps better between us since London. He’s come out twice – I mean, he’s come out to Australia twice [laughs] – and we’ve hung out and gone to dinners with other Australian divers and I’ve got to know him outside the pool and that’s been really rewarding. I didn’t know he was gay or he was seeing anyone until he came out to the whole world and while I was a little surprised he hadn’t mentioned anything when he came here last time, the other aspect was I know what it’s like to be in the public eye and to worry about what everyone’s gonna think if you come out and whether you’re gonna be OK so I had a lot of empathy for him. The most important thing that I took out of it was that he was happy enough and in a good enough place to be able to tell the world. That was the most important thing for me – that he was happy.
Do you talk to him regularly?
Yeah. I reached out and said if you ever wanna talk about anything I’m always here, but he’s a good kid and he’s really got his head screwed on and he’s got a really good support team so next time we talk it won’t be to do with any of this.
You two have faced the same sort of pressures . . .
Me less so than him. He was thrust into the public eye at such a young age. I was fortunate I didn’t become famous until after I knew I was gay. I didn’t have to deal with the whole identity thing in the public spotlight, I didn’t have to go through this feeling like I’d been lying to the public even by omission and then having to come out and admit, yes, I'd been deceiving people – even though it’s not like that but these are the stories people tell themselves when they have to do this big coming-out thing, whether it’s about sexuality or addiction or anything else. I feel very fortunate I didn’t start blooming in my sport until later in life, after I'd really become comfortable with my sexuality.
What are the humorous highlights of the cabaret show?
I had a unique childhood. I grew up with a single mum who’s crazy, she’s nuttier than a bag of trailmix, and one of the anecdotes I use in the book and the show is that she and I lived without electricity for six months when I was about 6. She was fighting with the electricity company. She didn't want to pay a disconnection-reconnection fee because they hadn’t actually come out to disconnect the electricity. She was like, well, stuff you, come out and disconnect it. So we lived without electricity for six months. No lights, we lived by candlelight, we boiled the water for our bath on the gas stove, we didn’t have any CD players or anything like that so we had this old wind-up gramophone and we listened to old vinyl records, like Has Anybody Seen My Gal? and Blue Skies, fabulous jazz standards.
My mum is nuttier than a bag of trailmix and she and I lived without electricity for six months when I was 6. She didn't want to pay a disconnect-reconnect fee because they hadn’t actually done it. She said stuff you, disconnect it then!
Which ones made it into the show?
Both of those actually. Has Anybody Seen My Gal? by Cole Porter has always been one of my favourites because it was one of Mum's favourites. It reminds us both of that six months without electricity. All up, we've got about 10 songs in the show. We’re only changing the lyrics for a couple. Another song is Dog by Andy Bull and Lisa Mitchell, two Australians. It’s a cute little song I heard on Triple J. Andy and Lisa have wonderful voices. It’s in three-four time so it’s a bit of a waltzy feel. The lyrics refer to the Black Dog.
How does the show pull together? Do you link with drama or voiceover . . .
It’s a one-hour show and we weave the narrative through the songs and sometimes into the song and pick up the rest of the song later. The songs tell part of the story and the narrative tells the rest. Essentially it’s a one-man show though there is one other character . . .
Don’t tell me you play your Mum as well?!
No, OK, so we have a voiceover for that. I don’t know if it’s a secret or not but we're actually getting my Mum to record some banter between us at the beginning of the show and then for the rest of the show there’s only one character on stage for half the time. I play the ukulele. I dance a bit, not well. There's no formal choreography but it’s still early days. I’ve got a whole month to change as much as I like.
What should Tony Abbott do about marriage equality?
I reckon he should give it to them. Of course, because I’m gay, I’m gonna say I want anyone who wants to be married to be able to, but at least he should give it to Australia to vote on it. Aren’t there polls that say more than half of Australians want gay marriage? So he should just give it over to the people to decide.
Even if only for his sister.
Well, yes. ❏
■ Dates: Twists and Turns Cabaret plays the Perth Spiegeltent (February 1 to 8) for Fringe World festival, Sydney's Slide nightclub (February 19 and 20), the Melbourne Cabaret Festival (festival runs June 19 to 29) "and my hometown Brisbane and if all goes well Adelaide and, hopefully, Edinburgh or something like that . . ."
■ Details, bookings: Slide nightclub, Sydney, or 8915 1899.
■ Read Ian's other interviews:
Debbie Reynolds for Behind the Candelabra – What a glorious feelin’, I’m workin’ again
Lily Tomlin for Web Therapy – Lily Tomlin caught in Phoebe's web!
Todd McKenney for Grease – Todd’s got chills, they’re multiplyin’
Matthew Rhys for The Scapegoat – Seeing double -- and the Walkers' wine was real!
Casey Donovan for Mama Cass tribute – Casey Donovan has found her own idol
Amanda Muggleton for The Book Club – A book club for those who'd rather laugh than read!
Rachel Griffiths for Magazine Wars – We owe a big debt to Ita and Dulcie
Simon Burke for Mrs Warren’s Profession – A timeless take on the oldest profession
Ellen's mum Betty DeGeneres on marriage equality – Not supporting gay marriage is bullying
Amanda Muggleton for Torch Song Trilogy – Return to the spotlight
Matthew Mitcham for Twists and Turns – He couldn't believe the moment would last