Portrait

How a Footscray fitter and turner became the king of Crown Casino's male burlesque hit, Princes of the Night.

By Kate Holden.

Skin in the game

Naturally, we expect diamantés. G-strings, baby oil, thundering music, dry ice, whitened teeth. Puffy pectorals. Waxed chests and gleaming thighs. Bendiness. Raunchiness, tackiness, temptation, fantasy. Pheromones and flashing smiles. Gorgeous implausible young men bumping and grinding, and flexing, oiled, sinful buttocks. 

He used to set his groin on fire. “An ashtray we’d stick on our G-strings: we put wick stuff in there, the guy would come and light it up, and the lights would go off, and they’d think you were on fire.” Yes, that’s the kind of thing. “The problem is you can only have that on fire for so long before it gets really hot, or you’re finished. So I’m running around and I’d jump on my knees. I’m praying to the audience and they’re laughing and screaming… the guy comes up behind with a wet cloth, reaches between my legs and pssssssh. I’m like, ‘You’re five seconds late!’” 

That was for the yakuza, in Japan. Once his friend’s American Indian costume caught fire. “The crowd was elated,” Craig chortles. “They’re thinking, ‘This is value for money! They burn for us!’ ” The yakuza would’ve looked after you, surely? “Yeah. They’d have broken our legs.” 

No flames today. No gangsters. Blue eyes, turquoise short-sleeved shirt, a little modern man-fringe. Freezing politely in the St Kilda sea breeze as the shadows close down the sunny afternoon. It’s his daughter’s birthday.  Drinks his coffee and talks, a little nervous, keen to explain. 

“At blue-light discos when I was a kid I danced a bit different to everyone else. I was laughed at a lot.” Were you better? “I thought I was.” He was a fitter and turner in Footscray. Worked for Dad. “I worked in factories and did my apprenticeship with Australian Defence, in Moonee Ponds. I never heard the word ‘uni’.

“I always knew there had to be something more in this life. But coming home with my jazz ballet shoes on, my dad thought I was, you know – your woolly woofter sort of thing.” So Craig went travelling; danced, danced, danced away across the world. Returned to the Spanish bars of Brunswick and leapt on top of the bar to make the girls scream. “I’d rip my singlet off and flex my muscles. They thought I was a stripper. So I thought, I should be making some money out of this!”

Years later, after stripping for agencies, after Japan, after a job in sales, all through the doubts: the dream. His own show, his own dancers. “I did sales, marketing, phones, costume design – I was at Spotlight all the time, picking fabrics out – everything. Doing a striptease on stage, compering the show, organising the guys, booking the strippers to come in, seating up, cooking the food. In the breaks I’d be cooking the squid and the chicken – you know,” he laughs, “go down to the wholesaler’s, get the whole squid thing, cut it up during the day, my girlfriend would do the fruit salad… At the end of the night I’d have to clean up, put all the seats away.”

What does your father reckon? “He’s never been to a show. I don’t think he’s likely to.” Dad worries it’s a dark business. “But it’s not like the female strip industry. It’s not gangsters and heavy dudes. It’s light.” Things changed “when I got into Crown. That’s when Dad pitched in. He knows it’s a respectable profession and job, and I’ve finally got the recognition that I would have liked to have after all those years. Otherwise it was just some kind of wild and woolly thing I was doing. Get a real job, go back to the factories.” 

His current show, Princes of the Night, has been going for 10 years at Melbourne’s Crown Casino, catering mainly for hens’ nights and birthdays. The boys are like his sons – he’s 48 now, Craig. He produces it, directs, and plays the king, in a little gold crown and fake British accent (“Maidens! Now to release… the virgin hunter!”) as he presides over a cheesy, cheerful, energetic show. Monkish cowls, audiovisual intro with slow-motion flames, booming baritone voice-over and grinning young beefcake stripping to leather-look undies. It makes hundreds of women scream happily each Saturday night. “The oestrogen’s flowing! You can smell it!” he gloats. Their fake bridal veils and bunny ears bob madly and there’s a photo-op afterwards. Aunties come along, and nannas – even straight men; the rowdy country girls calm down, and the mortified Brunswick hipsters relax and enjoy themselves. Does he like his audience? “I love them. You get women at their happiest.” He shakes his head. “Boy, they get loud sometimes.” 

Craig lives in St Kilda now: danced himself to the other side of town. Now he asks himself if he’s living to his full potential. “It’s given me a lot of life nourishment and it’s attracted very good people to my life, like really great dancers and people with a positive outlook. So there are more things keeping me up than pulling me down.” He is really cold now in the chill spring St Kilda breeze (“just numb, really,” he grins) but is too polite to complain. He has beautiful posture. 

So, where are these diamantés? He had a sparkling cod-piece made. “I had it in my bedroom for months, I didn’t know what to do with it. Then one day I walked into my bedroom; my daughter, who was only about four, had it on her head! She goes, ‘Daddy, I love this hat!’ ” He laughs; breaks into a deep voice, mimics himself: “That’s not a hat.” 

Now it appears at the crescendo of the show, as the King reveals his Crown Jewels. The music goes aaaaaaahhh! and a beam of light hits the spot. Craig shrugs, sheepish. “Just hanging in there as king of the princes.” He’s beginning to think this might be his last year in the role. But the show is, like, totally slick. 

“Slick!” he hoots. “I should be, like, the Royal Slickness.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 13, 2014 as "Skin in the game". Subscribe here.

Kate Holden
is the author of the memoirs In My Skin and The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days.