Priscilla, Queen of the Cruise: Award-winning costume designer Tim Chappel takes drag fashion on the high seas

By : Jeremy Williams
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The queens are trading in the mighty tour bus in the Australian Outback for a cruise ship on the Atlantic as the musical sensation Priscilla, Queen of the Desert opens on board the Norwegian Epic cruise ship leaving out of Southampton, England, Oct. 19 for a final destination in Barcelona.

The musical, which is based on the 1994 Oscar-winning film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, played on Broadway in 2011 and 2012 and won a Tony award for the same thing it won the Oscar for: those fabulous costumes.

Tim Chappel is one half of the dynamic costume design team who brought home the Oscar and Tony for Priscilla. The Aussie native chatted with Watermark while in Tampa, home to the headquarters of the Norwegian Cruise Lines, working on the costumes for the new production.

Watermark: How are you enjoying yourself in Tampa?
I love Tampa. I love the humidity here; it feels exotic. It feels wild here with the swamps and water everywhere. I saved a huge turtle off the road the other day. It is incredible.

So how did you get involved in costume design?
Well, should I tell you the real story? It’s probably not printable [laughs].

It’s ok, we’re an alternative magazine, and we can print anything we want.
Oh, okay. I was dating a producer while I was at university studying fashion design. He said, “You should come work on my show during school holiday,” so I started working in costumes for TV and never looked back.

And that was your foot in the door.
[Laughs] Got my foot in the door; I got something into something. Yeah, but that’s how I got into costume design. You know, it’s better than fashion because there is always such a huge variety of things you’re doing. There’s a lot of travel involved, and it’s great being a part of that creative process, watching an actor transform in front of your eyes into the character. It’s pretty satisfying.

You are best known for the film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. How did you get involved with that production?
I was actually making costumes for drag queens at the time, and Stephan Elliott, who was the director of Priscilla, had seen the costumes I did and knew I would be cheap so he asked me to join the film.

Is that how you first met [Priscilla co-costume designer] Lizzy Gardiner?
No, I met her while working on costumes together on a soap opera called A Street.

You won the Oscar with her for Priscilla in 1995. What was that experience like?
The funny thing was, at the time, we were told we were very unlikely to win. The other people in the category were very famous and were kind of due for an Oscar, so we were actually the odds on least favored to win in Vegas. So that was amazing winning it, but it was amazing because before that, I had no plans of moving to America and then, after the win, I moved to Los Angeles and had an instant career. It was the same with Lizzy. It was a crazy experience. I’ll tell you one of the best things: If you’re ever going to win an Oscar, try and do it with somebody else. That way you get that time on stage when the other person is talking to appreciate the moment. The funny thing is while Lizzy was talking, I was looking out at the audience and expecting to see a lot of bored faces waiting for you to get off the stage so they could get on with the Best Picture, but it’s not like that at all. They were all so excited. I remember looking out and seeing Oprah and she was smiling and Tom Cruise was smiling and all these people looked so happy. I thought I was going to explode, it was so much fun.

So where do you keep your Oscar?
I gave it to my mom to look after. It’s with my brother’s billiard trophies.

Out of the success of Priscilla the film, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical was born and you and Lizzy came back to do the costumes and won the Tony. How did that experience differ from winning the Oscar?
It was good to show the first one wasn’t a fluke. I don’t think there are any more awards for us to win; I think we swept them all as far as costume design goes. The Tonys were nowhere near as fun as the Oscars though. When I did look out at the audience, then they all did look really bored.

You’ve worked a lot in television, including Dancing with the Stars.
That’s my guilty pleasure; it is so much fun. Live TV has a real energy to it. I prefer working with live shows, because it happens and then it’s gone. You just live in that moment. You just really have to appreciate it because once it’s finished, it’s finished.

Who’s the most difficult person you have had to work with?
Lainie Kazan is a totally insane “see you next Tuesday.” The woman is truly insane. She was the most horrible person I have ever worked with. You know, generally, the bigger the star, the nicer they are. The people who give you the most trouble are the people whose star is either waning or rising, who are insecure about their position. I’ve worked with people like Sandra Bullock and Pamela Anderson and they are always so nice.

What’s next for you after Priscilla?
I’m going back to Australia to work on Little Shop of Horrors next, and then back to L.A., where I’ll be doing another season of Dancing with the Stars.

I read somewhere that your nickname is the “Breast Man.” Where did that come from?
I have no idea where that started. When I was in L.A., I was just really good at boobs. I seem to have worked with every actress that has great boobs; Salma Hayek, of course Pamela Anderson. I’m just good with boobs – real or fake.

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