Real Life

Meet the amazing grandmother who helped inspire one of Australia’s successful drag acts

Now I'm finally who I was always meant to be
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Aidan Varnas, 30, from Adelaide, SA shares his story:

My grandma, Elena, pulled me on stage.

“Come on, Aidan, it’s time for our routine,” she smiled.

“Okay, Grandma,” I said.

We were on stage at Lithuanian House in Adelaide, where we’d prepared some skits to entertain the crowd.

Grandma was dressed elegantly in a black gown and pearls, while I was her little vampire, complete with fangs and blood trickling down my chin.

At only five years old, I didn’t need much encouragement to perform.

Aidan as a child, dressed up with his Grandma (Image: supplied)

Like my glam gran, formerly a professional dancer, I loved the spotlight – and just like her, I soon became addicted to the applause.

Growing up, Grandma was my best friend. Incredibly, she’d survived three harsh years in a concentration camp in Germany during WW2.

There, she met my grandfather, Nick, who, just like every other man, fell head over heels with her beauty and charm.

After the war, the two of them married, then emigrated from their home country of Lithuania to Australia.

Settling in Adelaide, they brought up their children, including my dad, Edmund.

Grandma started her own Lithuanian school so that children of other immigrants could learn the language.

To make studies more fun, she wrote plays and musicals for the kids to perform in Lithuanian to the community – which is where I came in!

I was Grandma’s willing sidekick, her partner in crime, always ready to kick off a show with her on stage!

The pair share a special bond (Image: supplied)

Each week, Grandma came to my parent’s home so we could practise our performances.

We’d also visit the local fabric store and choose beautiful materials from which Mum, a talented dressmaker, would make my costumes, an integral part of the show.

“Choose whatever you like,” Grandma would say. “You can wear whatever you want.”

Grandma didn’t mind at all if I chose to wear a frock on stage.

To her, I was a natural performer and gender wasn’t an issue.

Wearing a dress was simply considered artistic expression.

One year, after being captivated by the movie 101 Dalmatians, I decided to channel the evil witch, Cruella de Vil.

Aidan was encouraged by his Grandma (Image: supplied)

Flouncing around the stage in my knitted wig, black frock, handbag and cigarette holder, the audience’s laughter was music to my ears.

“You were wonderful,” Grandma said, hugging me afterwards.

I also performed as the Evil Queen in Snow White, swishing around in a gold crown and purple fishtail dress, and adored re-enacting the French heroine Joan of Arc burning at the stake.

“You’re a natural actor,” Grandma declared, impressed.

At seven, I was sent to talent school, which I loved.

I also went to singing school and joined the Australian Youth Choir.

However, my care-free childhood became progressively darker as I grew older.

Aidan before performance with his number-one supporter (Image: supplied)

As a teenager, my flamboyant ways made me a target for bullies.

I began hiding all my dresses in a wicker basket if anyone came over so they didn’t see them.

Eventually, the bullying got too much and in Year 10, I left school and went to college.

“There will always be stupid people in the world,” Grandma said, hugging me. “Just ignore them; they’re jealous of your talent.”

Later, I also did a make-up course.

I began practising on myself, impressed at how I could transform my look from boyish teen to sultry queen with a brush, lipstick and some powder.

I began taking photos of myself made up as various female icons, such as Madonna, Marilyn Monroe and Liza Minnelli, which I put on Instagram.

Aidan’s talents were noticed (Image by Eric Brumfield)

They were noticed by Stephen Craddock, club owner of Adelaide’s Mary’s Poppin, a new gay nightclub.

He reached out to me and before I knew it, I was ‘Wundes,’ one of their star drag acts!

On my first night on stage, I dressed up as Madonna in a white gown and sang ‘Like a Virgin,’ the lyrics reflecting my own life: “I made it through the wilderness, somehow I made it through …”

And with my black beehive wig, winged black eyeliner and fake arm tattoos, I also became Amy Winehouse.

That was six years ago and today, I perform at the hugely popular club three nights a week.

I do my own hair and make-up, Mum still makes all my costumes, and I’m in high heels and a corset for up to eight hours a night!

I love nothing more than impersonating my female style icons, such as Judy Garland, Cyndi Lauper and the two Joans – Rivers and Crawford!

Wundes performing on stage (Image: supplied)

Going up on stage feels like home, and now I feel I’m back where I belong.

And in July this year, I headed to the Gold Coast, where Grandma lives.

Now 95 and still my biggest fan, she saw me perform my drag act for the first time and loved it.

She’s been my lifelong inspiration and support and I can never repay her.

She always loved me for who I was and now, I’m finally who I was always meant to be.

Going up on stage feels like home, and now I feel I’m back where I belong.

And in July this year, I headed to the Gold Coast, where Grandma lives.

Now 95 and still my biggest fan, she saw me perform my drag act for the first time and loved it.

She’s been my lifelong inspiration and support and I can never repay her.

She always loved me for who I was and now, I’m finally who I was always meant to be.

Elena, 95, says:

I always knew Aidan would be an entertainer; he never wanted to be anything else!

I could see he had star quality when he was a little boy.

From the minute he started walking, he was acting, dancing and singing and always trying to make everyone laugh.

I’m so happy he’s doing what he loves and I’m very proud of him.

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