Chrissy Amphlett: the original bad girl of Australian rock ‘n’ roll

Chrissy Amphlett Photo: Denise O’Hara

Wielding a neon tube, spitting venom and tugging coquettishly at the hem of her trademark school uniform, no-one was better at being bad than Divinyls front woman Chrissy Amphlett. The snarling pout, the eye-grazing fringe and the Lolita-esque sex appeal made for an irresistible confection.

On stage, she teased and taunted her audience, offering a sneak peek of fishnet suspenders beneath her tartan uniform before launching herself headfirst into the front row, limbs flailing. Utterly seductive, Amphlett was the queen of the tease and loved nothing more than lashing out at the unsuspecting fan, journalist or fellow musician.

Against the gritty backdrop of the 1980s, the Divinyls were dynamite with a very short fuse. From her humble beginnings as a singer and ballet dancer in Victoria’s quiet industrial suburb of Belmont, Amphlett hitchhiked her way the hell out of there to become Australia’s first queen of rock ‘n’ roll and the most daringly sexual and outrageous female performer to ever hit the Australian live music scene.

I remember the first time I met Chrissy Amphlett. It was backstage at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre after a Divinyls reunion show in 2006. Diminutive and dressed in a little lace blouse, she was more interested in introducing me to the theatre’s resident stage cat than being a rock star. While McEntee skulked around in the shadows, Amphlett was warm and gracious: a far cry from her reputation as the volatile villainess of Australian rock ‘n’ roll.

Her onstage persona is a carefully-constructed “piece of theatre,” explains Chrissy’s cousin Patricia Amphlett (famous in her own right as Australia’s sweetheart, Little Pattie).

“Offstage she is nothing like that. She is very lovely, worldly-wise and vivacious company.

“Before Chrissy Amphlett and the Divinyls, rarely did a female performer front a band. And if they did, they weren’t actually fronting the band.

“But when Chrissy came along it was like ‘move over you fellas, it’s all about me now’. She broke the mould of the very male-dominated world of rock music. She broke that forever.”

Patricia describes her rock star cousin as “a pretty complex character”.

“She’s unique. She’s incredibly charismatic. She’s the wild gal. On stage she’s like nobody else – before or after her.”

Every rock fairy tale has its great romance and Amphlett found hers with Mark McEntee. For 16 tumultuous years the shyly eccentric guitarist was her professional and personal other half. The blonde bookend to Amphlett with the page-boy haircut and the matching snarl, McEntee came with a background in jazz and an insurmountable knowledge of chords and melodies.

Together, the duo formed the stable core of an ever-changing line up of Divinyls musicians. Amphlett revelled in her rebellion and thought of Divinyls as a gang of outcasts and orphans: she their fearless leader. With a middle finger firmly in the air and a trademark squat that fuelled rumours of onstage urination, she purred about pleasure and pain and wailed about all the boys in town.

Unsurprisingly, she counted wild child Janis Joplin as her heroine, alongside queen of soul Aretha Franklin and girl group The Supremes. She could be heartfelt too though, her voice dripping with loss and longing on acoustic tracks “I’m Jealous” and “I’m On Your Side”.

The Divinyls’ early sound is best described as a runaway train, driven by drums, drugs and an appetite for destruction. Unashamedly rock and unmistakably Australian, no-one was better at tarting it up than Amphlett.

Not one for pleasantries onstage, she would simply slap her band mates if she felt they lacked animation. This usually resulted in them shoving her back- in the stomach with a guitar, before throwing their instrument down and storming off stage.

Speaking to Rolling Stone Australia in 1997, Amphlett said even though she’d already travelled the world as a teenager and been thrown into a Spanish prison for three months for singing on the streets, “none of it prepared me for being on the road with a rock ‘n’ roll band”.

In her self-penned words, it was a spectacular case of “too much too young” and she eventually found herself and her band descending into an all-consuming hell of debt, and drug and alcohol abuse. The band indulged heavily and wholeheartedly in the rock ‘n’ roll dream and every excess that came with it.

Chrissy Amphlett Photo: Tony Mott

Smack-induced paranoia riddled the Divinyls and began to eclipse their talent and success. For an artist who had sold millions of records and should have been a millionaire many times over, Amphlett found herself in the throes of an alcohol addiction and with a million dollar debt hanging over her like a black cloud.

The band’s inability to crack the all-important American market had always plagued them but in 1991 salvation came in the form of their fourth and most commercial and deliciously controversial record yet, diVINYLS. Proving that sex does indeed sell, “I Touch Myself” was unequivocally their biggest hit, reaching top 10 charts in Australia, the UK and the US. Twenty-one years on and the party anthem is still being slurred from bar tops galore every Saturday night.

Amphlett quit drinking in 1996 and paid back every dollar of her debt. But her battles were far from over. While playing Judy Garland opposite Hugh Jackman in the Australian production of The Boy From Oz, Amphlett began suffering bouts of physical instability and unsteadiness. Unkind onlookers simply assumed she was back on the booze but were silenced when Amphlett later announced that she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Incredibly debilitating, the brain and spinal cord disease attacks the central nervous system and can render its victims unable to walk.

Amphlett even told her husband, Divinyls drummer Charley Drayton that he had “married a dud” and could divorce her if he wanted to.

These days Amphlett does not consider her illness a life sentence. She lives in New York with Drayton, her husband of now 13 years,  and their dog Holiday. McEntee lives in Perth with his partner Melanie Greensmith, Wheels and Dollbaby fashion label founder and designer. Despite the two band mates being back on speaking terms after a crushing fallout, Amphlett officially hung up her school uniform forever in 2009 when she announced the split of the Divinyls.

In recent years the ferocity has been replaced by fragility, her body wracked with MS and, more recently, breast cancer. But the fire still burns. Amphlett yearns to perform, her health permitting, and has been a passionate advocate of revolutionary breakthroughs in MS treatment. In January last year she announced she was cancer-free. She is a fighter and on the rare occasion that she still performs, she walks on to the stage aided by a skull-topped walking stick and decked in layers of lace and ruffles.

Patricia Amphlett most admires her cousin’s strength of character, bravery and courage.

“But it breaks my heart at the same time because there’s nothing I can do to help her,” she adds.

“I love her to pieces. We’re the closest in the family and we understand each other like nobody else does. I just wish she would get better.”

Amphlett has a new band in New York now but the legacy she left behind as the original bad girl of Australian rock ‘n’ roll still burns brightly. Her charisma made her unforgettable.

And apparently she never actually peed on stage.

Well, not as far as she remembers anyway.

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