The Godmother of Sydney Mardi Gras

Interview with Filmmaker Fiona Cunningham-Reid. 

We sat down with documentary filmmaker Fiona Cunningham-Reid and discussed the legend of Dawn O’Donnell – Gangster, Goddess or Godmother?


Why did you feel it was important to tell the story of Dawn O’Donnell?

From the first time I met Dawn when filming the Mardi Gras for Channel 4 and ABC back in 1991, I was intrigued and appalled in equal measure. She was a controversial woman full of contradictions, loved and hated in equal measure. She was first and foremost a businesswoman and if there was a dollar to be turned she’d do it, and always on her own terms. But was she a gangster? Certainly, rumours swirled around her and some people wouldn’t talk on camera claiming they might be found at the bottom of Sydney Harbour with cement boots.

She was living her own legend. Equally, as so often happens with women, she was being marginalised and even left out of Sydney’s LGBT historical narratives (mostly written by men). Every bar, club, drag-show, sauna, sex-shop and even car-park – she ran them. Dawn started her empire when women were third class citizens and couldn’t even have their own bank account, yet there she was, wheeling and dealing with police, criminals and drag-queens. There was no way I wasn’t going to tell her story – and as for her astonishing physical transformation, she was irresistible – from koala-hugging baby, a rebellious convent girl, then a femme ice-skater to finally morphing into Uncle Jack, a silver-cropped butch dyke.

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The way Sydney’s Mardi-Gras is presented in the film makes it look amazing. How integral was Dawn to the festival, and is it still like this?

Initially, Dawn had zero interest in gay law reform or politics; legal or not she wasn’t bothered, everyone still wanted somewhere to drink and her pubs made money, a lot of money. On the night of the first ever Mardi Gras, which was Sydney’s response to the Stonewall riots in New York, it was pouring with rain and the police were very violent breaking up the peaceful demo and many were arrested.  Dawn, sitting in the safety of one of her pubs, said “that’ll never work, that won’t catch on…” I don’t like sounding like an oldie, but I am and I think Mardi Gras, even though it’s now huge with hundreds of thousands of people involved, is far too corporate and silly, but undoubtedly it has the best parties in the world!

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And finally, did Dawn ever come to Soho? What do you think she’d make of it, then and now?

Dawn’s first trip to London was when she was a professional ice-skater in the early 1950’s. The only place she discovered and was interested in on that trip was the Gateways Club, Kings road in Chelsea. It’s where she came out. Soho wasn’t on her radar – not then. She and Aniek traveled extensively and always checked out the gay life – and imported ideas back to Sydney – she and Aniek installed the fist ever disco lit floor in Sydney, John Travolta style! One of her biggest scams was buying a porn movie abroad and then getting a bloke back in Sydney to copy it and then sell them in her sex shops, so I’m sure she did visit Soho again to buy a few titles! What would she make of Soho now?  Dawn would say “That was a bombed out plot when I was here, knew I should have bought it, put a car-park on it – no overheads with them, and then just let it run itself and I could sell that now for how many million? – never mind”.