Madam Lash Shocker Strip Act Sickens shouted the front page of the front page the Sunday Sun sometime in the seventies. And in those days this is how much of the world responded to Gretel Pinniger. Today she is still shaking off the image of the character she created and as "the redeemed scarlet woman lives her life in an environment filled with art, music and theatre.
Gretel is an accomplished painter. After six months of almost non stop work on her submission, she became a finalist in the 1993 competition for the Archibald prize with her portrait of a lawyer friend. However, don't be misled. Her artistic identity is neither sedate nor reclusive. Her life is filled with larger than life events, loud parties, sleepless weekend workshops, extravagant nights at the opera and days and nights of frantic artistic creation under a gold lurex pyramid, to the music of Wagner.
As a young Sydney woman in the heady flower power days, Gretel came to Melbourne to study Fine Arts, at the same time hoping to reconcile with her estranged father. To her great disappointment she was only to see him three times in several years. More than twenty years on she believes that the invention of her controversial alter ego sprang partly from her unsatisfactory relationship with him. "I know now that Madam Lash was a plea for attention from my father and perhaps a way of trying to break away from my religious nature, an escape from the intensely philosophical and self absorbed person I had been as a child."
Gretel has unhappy memories of her childhood - of being misunderstood and unfairly and cruelly punished at school, and having few friends. This, she says, she inured herself to, by immersing herself in a world of abstraction. "I spent my childhood reading. I would spend my whole holidays in my pyjamas immersed in books. I was fed by my reading and by my fantasies - epics were my passion. I saw nothing but epic connections for myself." However, social ease, she says, was something she had to learn.
"I still feel detached from others - that there is a distance between me and other people perhaps more than they feel it. I have always felt that I was a square peg in a round hole. I attract people into my scenarios but I'm not a person who easily lives with others " As a student artist and dress designer in the early seventies her life was turned around when a friend suggested stripping as a way to bulk up her meagre student income. "He took me to Sandra Nelson's AO Club in Sydney's Kings Cross. I had read about Sandra Nelson as a schoolgirl. I remembered her going topless on the Manly Ferry and having an affair with a politician. She was gorgeous with huge pneumatic lips. I had longed to be like her."
Gretel started work as a stripper at the club and met the person who was to change the course of events for her- "a drag queen called Shelley, the Marque sa de Sade, who did a whip act to the Avengers music. Although I didn't know anything about S & M this act just triggered some thing for me. It dug me in the ribs, gave me a jolt. I knew this was for me, that it was destiny. Shelley was able to pull upon herself this charismatic mantle of glamour which I had thought about and knew I could do. I knew immediately how I would dress."
Shelley who was leaving the club taught
Gretel her act. "I called myself Madam Lash, after the evil heroine of
a comic strip on the back of the Kings Cross Whisper. I became instantly
popular and soon was earning more money than the other girls.
"A friend suggested that as a joke I create a torture chamber. With the help of a cheap shower curtain, some wood, a blowtorch and plenty of imagination we set up this room in a house I was renting in Darlinghurst. Here we had some wild parties. Then I be came interested and involved in S & M. It appealed to my nature. I was fascinated as a child with the lives of the Saints, especially St. Catherine who practiced fasting and self abnegation."
Gretel loved the character of Madam Lash.
"I used to go to parties wearing my stripping gear and makeup. I would
change every event - a mysterious presence coming and going, and I wouldn't
have to get dressed up again for my act later on!"
She found the clothes she wore as Madam Lash had the power to change her into another persona. "When I put on the black lipstick and the leather I became a completely different fantasy person with powers I didn't know I had as Gretel."
This fascination with clothes and the ability they had to change a person found an outlet in a shop in Oxford Street, Paddington. "At 'Game Birds' it was leather, lace, lame and fantasy fabrics. I would do surrealistic translations into leather of things we see in other fabrics - for example, underwear. I wanted to do for my clients with clothes what Madam Lash's clothes did for me. I wanted to change the person wearing them - and countless times people told me how different they felt in my clothes. They were art. I designed evening dresses and tops styled like black medical corsets with flanges and lashes and radiating tapes around them." Some of Gretel's clothes are to be seen to day in the Powerhouse Museum and the National Gallery.
Today, however, Gretel is trying to shake off the Madam Lash yolk. Many people, she says, still associate her with those days. "I have experienced a lot of prejudice from people I don't even know. They think that I represent a whole lot of things they don't get into. The name Madam Lash has the power to evoke and what it evokes in some people is still negative."
For the past 25 years portrait painting has been her priority. "I had to wait until I had the maturity to paint even though I always knew I would be a painter." Gretel is a true child of the 60's. She talks about the frequent "acid trips" of past decades and today "vibrations" are one of the important things in her life. "Only people who emit high vibrations are allowed into my life. "I was told by a numerologist two years ago that the name was highly vibrational, but if I put an "e" on the end of Madam(e) Lash I would become financially successful. I paint people who vibrate - who give out energy. What I saw before on acid I now see naturally- it is a kind of drug-enhanced vision."
Her vision today includes the creation of a type of 1993 'Yellow House - "a live-in art work". She is currently turning her seven bedroom house, a former guest house in Sydney's Palm Beach, into a creative haven for artists and musicians. "I want people to come and go, to be en tertained and create. I expect to be at the beginning of a new art movement which is bringing quality back to art. An old friend and artist is going to teach the " Renaissance Old Masters" technique. Paintings done during this time represent painting at it's best. The technique of using many layers of oil paint is a lost art which I want to bring to everybody - to whoever wants to learn it."
Gretel is negotiating a series of paintings of opera performers by arrangement with the Australian Opera including a portrait of Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge. "My portraits now are going to be substantially those of classical musicians - as a group of people they vibrate to the highest frequency. They are the people I want to have around me."
Gretel's urban headquarters, an 1879 church called "The Kirk", is a favourite entertaining pad. However, even here she is still haunted by the image of Lash. In her attempts to get permission to build a 23 metre high "visionary" tower in which she proposes to hold musical and the atrical performances for her Aquarian acquaintances, she is still being misinterpreted. "My neighbours believe that the bronze figures on the door, some of them naked, and bronze swords out of the doors mean I'm having black masses inside, that these are Satanic signs. In fact they represent the ring cycle of Wagner operas."
Gretel admits she is not a normal mother to her 12 year old son who lives with his father "more an Aunty Mame than a mother". In fact a "normal" life as wife and mother is not for her. "I don't want marriage for myself. It didn't work for me when I had it even though I loved someone with a body like Joan Sutherland's voice. I've only ever fallen in love with epic people. I have loved the most handsome man in the world, the richest man in the world, the best musician. I've always loved people who I'm not connected with. I don't want to see the mundane side of someone nor vice versa. I bring to a situation where I see some one only occasionally and briefly, my best, and then I go and live off that and do my stuff. I want to connect with someone when they are vibrating at their greatest frequency and to be there for peak experiences."
Only weeks ago, Gretel says, something changed dramatically in her life. "The Gretel behind Madam(e) Lash wants to come out". Gretel is on a mission to retrieve her youthful, lithe figure - a transformation that she hopes will be complete by the time Florida House is finished. She is intent on shedding the buxom Lash image. "The real Gretel is going to come out in the best body I can give her - my hairdresser, body sculptor, plastic surgeon are all going to work together to create a new me by Xmas. I feel signs of returning youth every day. I am now focused on changing my appearance. I'm on a self love affair. I wish now to communicate myself as I really am."
Gretel's new body awareness has steered her back into the clothing business. She is busy putting together a collection of "clothes that can be ripped off in record time" - zipless, sexy fantasy garments that "open with hooks and velcro - bustieres, fancy torsos for drag queens and others, pants, gym wear and clothes for dancing parties", she explains. The garments will be sold through a friend's boutique in Palm Beach, not far from Florida House.
Gretel throws herself into everything she does, considers herself a perfectionist and can find any amount of physical energy for things she wants to achieve. She describes herself as "a living art work". Whether she sees the new year in with a new body or not, her black hearse/ limousine with a number plate, "STIFF" and her gay chauffeur who dresses in leather will continue to remind us of those good old days. She will always be larger than life.