In late 2019, the Ashburton Museum hosted Te Manawa Museum’s popular exhibition ‘The Topp Twins: An Exhibition for New Zealand’.
It celebrated the outstanding contribution these inspiring women make to our nation’s social, cultural and political landscape. The Topp Twins relates well to our small town, kiwi can-do attitude common to many communities around New Zealand, like Ashburton.
Who are the Topp Twins
The Topp Twins consist of Dames Lynda and Jools Topp, twin sisters who were born in Huntly in 1958, and are best known as a folk singing and comedy duo.
They have performed for over 30 years, have had TV shows, albums, written children’s books and eventually their exhibition helped to highlight their lives.
They have also been inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame, received the New Zealand Order of Merit and Honorary Doctorates, and with these great achievements comes acknowledgement of years of hard work, which started in their early years.
Their comedy characters of Ken & Ken, Camp Leader and Camp Mother, Raylene & Brenda, Prue & Dilly, the Gingham Sisters and the Bowling Ladies are loved by audiences everywhere.
The twins started out singing to the cows on the family dairy farm in Ruawaro in the Waikato, where supportive parents Jean and Peter encouraged the twins that they could achieve anything they put their mind to. This ambition and down to earth qualities created by the rural upbringing helped gain their appetite for country music, with their first performance at the age of five at their cousin’s 21st party.
Their mother Jean taught them to sing standards like Springtime in the Rockies and My Pinto Pony, with the latter sending Lynda into an obsession with yodeling.
After 16 years of living the country life, the twins joined the Territorial Army in order to see the country. The stint was short lived, after stopping off in Christchurch they began busking and playing in small cafes.
The Victorian was where they made their first big break, earning $5 and all-you-can-eat toasted sandwiches. Their early twenties saw them, their guitars and highly original political repertoire, move to Auckland and develop a cult following as buskers.
Crowds of several hundred soon gathered at their shows, especially the Friday night ones, and when the crowds grew so large at one event, they were arrested for obstruction, where they defended themselves in a court case, which they went on to win.
This early time saw them calling themselves Homemade Jam, but that didn’t seem to catch on and they soon rebranded to the Topp Twins.
Rise to the Topp
The Topp Twins came of age as performers in the 1980s when political protesting was at its height in New Zealand. The twins were actively involved and used music as a way to express themselves.
As out lesbians since the late 1970s, at a time when the main press refused to print the word, the Topp Twins have always been visible and proud about their sexual identity.
However, the Twins’ ability to relate to all kinds of people, and their gift for humour, has ensured that this is not an issue.
Part of the Topp Twins’ phenomena is that is that they have successfully crossed from the fringes to the mainstream and are accepted for who they are. Their songs often challenge people to stand up and have guts, to fight for what you believe in.
During this time they released a succession of albums which helped establish their country-influenced musical sound. They also toured every corner of New Zealand with the help of the Students Arts Council, and managed to sell out theatre shows based on their life-stories and laced with political satire.
In 1987 they won Entertainers of the Year, Best Entertainment Program and Best Original Music for their television special that highlighted the best of the twins’ stage shows, at the NZ Film & TV awards.
Highly successful tours in Canada, Britain and the USA, performing alongside well known artists at festivals and enjoying long-running theatre sessions in London and Edinburgh, created great reviews and extended their following globally, helping with their success.
Returning to NZ they developed and produced their own primetime TV series ‘Do Not Adjust Your Twinset’, which became one of TV3’s top rated shows and won them even more awards.
Then, in 1998, Camp Mother ran for mayor, but after attracting a large share of the vote the decision was made to support Christine Fletcher who won the top job, achieving Camp Mother’s goal which was to give Auckland a new gay-friendly leader.
In 2004, the Topp Twins received the Queen’s Medal for Services to Entertainment and in 2008 were inducted into the NZ Music Hall of Fame.
Touring Australia and New Zealand regularly is what the twins have been up to in recent years. But when they aren’t on stage, at A&P shows, or any other event, they can be found outdoors. Jools practices natural horsemanship while Lynda enjoys fishing.
In 2009 a feature-length documentary called Untouchable Girls was released and in 2016, Topp Country, a factual series which is a celebration of New Zealand’s beautiful country and passionate people, was released. The show was so popular that three seasons have been created and in 2018 it won the Best Director: Documentary Factual and Best Lifestyle Programme at the NZTV awards.
The Topp Twins are celebrated as national treasures who have brought many issues to light like LGBT issues, feminism, gender, the nuclear free movement and Bastion Point.
Paired with their stage characters, they have done a lot for New Zealand in many fields, but especially in arts and contemporary issues.
The exhibition featured costumes of the iconic characters and the process of becoming the characters themselves in all aspects.
The themes of the exhibition included family, the characters, music and entertainment, activism, empowerment and achievements. Also included were archival footage, objects, writing and documents on display, and interactive activities.
The exhibition was curated by the Te Manawa Museum in Palmerston North and the Ashburton Museum was the only South Island venue to feature it.
This article has been altered for publication on this blog and originally appeared in the Ashburton Guardian, 1st of December 2019.
By Rosie Twamley
- Jools and Lynda, the twins who have made people laugh and made people think throughout their years as performers and activists. Credit: Bruce Correw, courtesy of Diva Productions.
- The twins performing on stage in 1986. Credit: Gil Hanly, courtesy of Diva Productions.
- Original costumes of Camp Leader and Camp Mother, as well as Ken and Ken, on display for the exhibition.
- Activism HQ – a portion of the exhibition which highlighted the twins’ efforts in tackling important issues.