One Night of Queen has stood the test of the time and is returning to Palmerston North next month during its fourth tour of New Zealand. Carly Thomas spoke to Gary Mullen about why, after 14 years, he still loves impersonating the late Freddie Mercury.
Gary Mullen has loved the band Queen since he was very young. He wanted to be Freddie Mercury but never really thought that for 14 years that is exactly who he would get to be in his tribute band Gary Mullen and the Works.
In 2000, Mullen won the grand final of the British celebrity impersonation programme, ITV's Stars in Their Eyes, after his wife and mother secretly entered him. Mullen received a record 864,838 votes.
That catapulted the ex-computer salesman into a new career as a performer and he formed his band, The Works, in 2002. They have toured extensively over the past 14 years, with spectacular lighting and special effects, recreating and celebrating Queen's timeless anthems and singalong hits such as We Will Rock You, Bohemian Rhapsody, Another One Bites the Dust, Fat Bottomed Girls, and We are the Champions (Mullen's favourite when he was 4). He encourages people to sing along, get up, play air guitar and enjoy the show because that is exactly what he is doing.
"I get to be my hero and I get to act out the extrovert in me. I am a naturally up kind of person but I'm not the person who starts the conversation. If someone says ‘hi', then I'm on, but otherwise I am quiet," says Mullen. "When the lights go down, the other guy goes on stage. I get butterflies in my stomach and we go out and have a blast. We just give it hell and we really do want the audience to come along with us."
Freddie Mercury died in 1991 at the age of 45 from complications of Aids. Mullen was a teenager at the time and a huge fan. In later years he used to sing karaoke at The Horseshoe Bar in Glasgow, Scotland, and the songs of Queen featured heavily when the drinks started to flow.
"I'd just get drunk and sing Queen tunes," says Mullen. "Somebody would yell, ‘Hey! I'll buy you a pint if you sing Bohemian Rhapsody'." And he did and still does. With his uncanny Freddie Mercury persona, he belts out the songs that are still his favourites, only now he has a bigger lighting rig, some pretty grand venues, and a production and management crew.
This will be the show's fourth trip to New Zealand and Mullen says they love coming here - it's the place they look forward to the most.
"It'll be great to get back," says Mullen. "New Zealanders are incredibly chilled out and relaxed, and then the audiences are great and they really get into it and you think, ‘whoa, I wasn't expecting that"."
This time will be a bit special for Mullen, as his 16-year-old son, Ben, will come with him on the Australia and New Zealand tour, starting this month.
His wife, who is also his manager and promoter, will be staying home with his daughters, aged 13 and 10.
"We will really miss the rest of the family but we skype and stay in touch that way," says Mullen. "You have to find the balance with touring, and in life in general, otherwise you can go a bit mad. I see a lot of hotel rooms, and I have this ritual of when I open the door of my latest room I shout out ‘Honey, I'm home'! The day someone answers back, I'll know I'm in trouble.
"It will be great having Ben with me. He wants to study film-making, and I met Peter Jackson last time we were here, so I am hoping we can meet him again."
Mullen has met some pretty great people along the way, he says, and the highlight so far was being invited backstage by the original Queen guitarist, Brian May.
"Billy Moffat (The Works bass player) came with me," says Mullen, "and the next thing I know, Brian is sitting next to me. I was lost for words, I didn't know what to say. He was a lovely guy."
Mullen was also given the tick of approval from Freddie Mercury's mother in an email in which she thanked him for "keeping my son's memory alive".
Mullen says that is important to him and the band, honouring a legend and creating an experience that the audience will remember.
"We work off the audience, so we go out and have a blast," says Mullen. "The crowd feeds off us, too, so we give it our all. You can't expect people to enjoy it if we aren't enjoying it. I just think that each audience is new, and we will never get that configuration again. It's not just about the ticket and the money, you know? Like it might be a couple's date night and they have paid for a taxi and a babysitter, and we want to give it hell, and give them a memorable night. The day I'm not feeling the excitement will be the day I know it's time to stop."
Mullen works hard, and has toured tirelessly over the years, chalking up about 150 shows a year. He traces that work ethic back to his grandfather, who would tell stories of when he started working at the age of 10 in a lumber mill in Scotland. Mullen laughs at a recollection of when his grandfather was unemployed for a day.
"He lost his job on Friday and found a new one the next day, and started on Monday and that was the sum of my grandfather being unemployed. Brilliant! I have always loved that, he would say to me, ‘if you want to get somewhere, son, you have to work hard at it'."
And if Mullen weren't touring the world impersonating Freddie Mercury? He isn't entirely sure what he would be doing.
"I wouldn't be a builder, I know that much, I am the world's worst at DIY, so it's a good thing I am still loving performing."
One Night of Queen is coming to the Regent on Broadway in Palmerston North on June 5.