Chapel Street's Benevolent ALIen. By Kate Holden.

The ardour of Sibyl

She was sometimes glimpsed from passing trams: the smeared tram window, dumpling cafes, discount shops, the grey street beyond – and a woman walking in a jewelled robe, garlands on her beautiful brow, clad in a mist of gold. Or at least that’s how it seemed when I saw her. An apparition, a marvel, perhaps a Norse harvest goddess. Sif of the Golden Hair, come astray down to earth and unexpectedly strolling among mortals down Chapel Street.

With plastic flowers threaded into her gold locks; with Dolly Parton hair or prairie pinafore; psychedelic rainbow tie or Aztec torque, brocade gown and chiffon shirt; captain’s cap or Minnie Mouse ears, lace burlesque, a belt tied as a headband or a vine of red flowers flowing in her wake… It was the colours that caught my eye: splashes of scarlet, flashes of blue and green, yellow trailing like the plumage of a bird of paradise. She wore them down Swanston Street, splendid, celestial, a head taller than the Melbourne crowd beneath the signs for adidas and Australian souvenirs. A cloak, sequined kitten ears, a bike chain for a bracelet, a necklace of blue evil eye amulets. The tram whisked me past even as I craned to see: the goddess statuesque, lit by unseen sunlight, beatifically smiling in our wake at inner revelation. She was pagan flame, warming the winter drab.

“The Bird of Paradise, the Oracle of Melphi, Ally in Wonderland, the 5th of MAYan (now in rainbow body form), the Bohemian Raggle Taggle Gypsy O, Allycat, Allygator, the Benevolent ALIen…” Some of the things Ally Warren calls herself. “You’re a fairy, you’re a mermaid,” chant little girls when they see her in the street. “You’re Cinderella!”

Inspirations: Oscar Wilde, Tchaikovsky, Andy Warhol, Helena Bonham Carter, Björk, Baltic folk costumes, Dr Seuss. Missions: authenticity through adornment. Making people laugh. Making people dare. Self-sovereignty. Culture jamming. Arcana. Beauty.

She calls herself a presence artist. “I like to think I validate people more than my Myki card.”

I interviewed her finally: leapt off a tram, stood astride the footpath, waved her down like a runaway horse. We met at a cafe, Ally waiting outside, feet neat in bobby socks and mismatched shoes, a scarlet satin cocktail dress, pink handbag, turquoise and magenta eyeshadow, huge hot-pink star-shaped earrings framing her attractive face, nose ring, Inca necklace and a rack of giant silk peonies for a hat; a big smile. The day is frozen grey, “but I wanted to wear this vintage dress,” she says, “and my odd soles and all my flowers and bring that energy, that lighthearted energy out.” Heads certainly turn. It feels, as we enter the cafe, like sitting down with a tall, enthusiastic, Bo Derek-resembling, Norse-goddess-channelling, chai-drinking peacock. “I know, I’m a cyclotron! People say to me, ‘You’re like a walking art gallery.’ It gives them a laugh. Sometimes I step on the tram and I know I’m meant to be that force of light and I pick up energy that’s dark and depressing, but I know I’m meant to be there to centre it with my light and energy.” It’s hard at times but she has a sense of mission: provocation by play. “I like the idea that I turn on the lights, and I feel that I do that with people. They might have been a bit dulled by life but I switch it on. I turn on the lights.”

What a relief, that she turns out not to be an ad exec, or sponsored by a yoghurt brand. She’s a genuine old-style esoteric special spirit. Morning and night she listens to her heart on a stethoscope bought for her own birthday: “Because I pick up so many forms of other people’s thought-forms and energies it really helps me balance.” And to pay tribute to Dr Hart, who delivered baby Ally breech, sole-first, “soul-first”, as she puts it, on the same day as Adele, a soul singer. She reads palms, she studies arcana, gazes every day at a painting of the Sibyl of Delphi. “On my 6´2" being,” she emails later, “I’d rather advertise sacred geometry that reawakens people’s hearts and reconnects them to their true selves than Calvin Klein.”

She studies and delves, queries and collects. Another passion is quantum physics. She is frequently to be seen in the state library, a stained-glass window in the leather-bound gloom, pursuing the histories of neglected renegades. Nothing is as important to her as being her true self. I never do find out what she does for a job, but I learn one thing: this woman is awake.

She seems someone wandering with intent, flamboyant flâneur, consciously following the stiletto prints of prior divines, consciously tracking her own, unselfconsciously playing the fool for people’s delight. Not really a fool. She is jester, harlequin and sibyl, has been strolling through centuries, strewing both questions and enchantment.

Or as Ally herself put it, “I like to think of myself as a Christmas tree which I get to adorn each day.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 11, 2015 as "The ardour of Sibyl".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road, winner of the 2021 Walkley Book Award.

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