Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls
They’re identical twins with unique appeal
The Topp Twins are your basic identical twin-sister lesbian country-and-yodeling comedy act from New Zealand. Nothing you haven’t seen before. Oh, wait.
That you haven’t seen anything like Jools and Linda Topp before, and that they’re widely beloved performers in their home country, is proof that the planet has not yet shrunk to the size of your Web browser and that there are still some surprises left. Leanne Pooley’s 2009 documentary, a big hit in New Zealand, is a fond, uncomplicated love letter to two irrepressible good-time Charlottes.
Born in 1958 on a rural dairy farm, the Topps were and remain plain-talking “country girls’’ — a chief source of their appeal to a general public still living close to the old ways. We see videos of their rise in the 1980s, busking in subways and featured in news programs that even then were fascinated with this two-headed explosion of music and mirth.
The sisters’ political activism during their early years covers ground that’s familiar to a stateside observer but also fresh, in part because the country is so small and the Topps’ impact has been so outsize. Would anti-gay legislation have been squashed and New Zealand have become a nuclear-free zone without them? Certainly, but you could also argue that the Topps helped sell these issues to a mainstream audience deeply wary of the left’s stridency.
It was with their television show in the late 1990s that the sisters became something bigger: icons not just of entertainment but of Kiwi national identity. In addition to performing their songs — upbeat close-harmony numbers pitched somewhere between C&W and folk — the Topps dressed up for comedy, creating regular characters who became, in some cases, more famous than the twins. Pooley interviews the Topps both as themselves and as some of their creations: the phlegmatic small-time sportscasters Ken and Ken, the dithery upper-class matrons Prue and Dilly, and so on. Here at last we begin to see what makes the sisters special. They’re Tracey Ullmann crossed with k.d. lang. Times two.
“Topp Twins’’ gives us glimpses of their personal life while staying at a friendly remove. We meet the sisters’ life partners and are nearby for Jools’s recent (and successful) battle against breast cancer. Interviews with their parents down on the farm are priceless, as mother and father Topp describe coming to terms with having two loud, famous, gay daughters.
Most cheering is the way the Topps have managed to stay themselves while appealing to just about everyone across New Zealand’s cultural spectrum. Their comedy characters never “take the mickey’’ of the types they portray and their favorite gigs are still country agricultural fairs. A Topp acquaintance relates a surreal story about the sisters in drag as Ken and Ken drinking with a group of farmers and not being sure whether the farmers knew who was really what. Then he realized it didn’t matter. We could use the Topps over here.