Are you ready for Freddie? One Night of Queen is back at the Civic Theatre in Invercargill on Monday and Gwyneth Hyndman talks to Freddie Mercury impersonator Gary Mullen about being "a fan singing to fans", how he brings a crowd of farmers to their feet with We Are the Champions, and why he's not performing for the money.
Gary Mullen knows he's a tad much for small town stages sometimes.
The Freddie Mercury impersonator brought One Night of Queen to Blenheim this week and got a familiar reaction from rural folk to his arrival in tight pants, gyrating hips, bare chest and coiffed mo, singing Crazy Little Thing Called Love.
"The whole front row was terrified, to be honest," he says cheerfully in a thick Glasgow accent, hours before he and his band, The Works, got on stage in Nelson to do it all again.
"It's 100 per cent or nothing. At some point there is a light that comes on in their heads and you see them go ‘Ahhhhh. It's a rock concert. I get it'."
Mullen, who rocketed from computer salesman to TV stardom after winning a record 864,838 votes in Britain's Stars in Their Eyes in 2000, was offered a chance to perform as Mercury in the Queen tribute show just four weeks after winning the competition.
As well as giving him an opportunity to stretch out his celebrity status, it was also a chance to leave Glasgow and do what he had been doing for years in Scottish pubs and karaoke bars: sing Fat Bottomed Girls to an adoring audience, night after night.
Mullen first remembers hearing We Are the Champions at age 4 on Top of the Pops. From that moment, he was hooked on Mercury's sound. Doing a tribute after years of memorising Queen stage performances was both scary and thrilling for his family.
"My wife said just give [the show] a year and see what happens," he remembers. After 18 months of doing it solo to backing tracks, Mullen formed a backing band to give the show more energy.
Twelve years later, Mullen and his band The Works are still selling out theatres and halls around the world, by bringing Queen back to life again.
The real Freddie Mercury died in 1991 of Aids at the age of 45.
Mullen and his bandmates - David Brockett on guitar, Jonathan Evans on drums, Billy Moffat on bass and Malcolm Gentles on keyboards - are really just "fans singing to other fans", he says.
"It's not really a job - it's five guys who have always wanted to play on a stage in a band, playing on a stage in a band."
Ask him if there's a difference between New Zealand audiences and the Germans, the South Africans, the French crowds they've played to, and he'll tell you it is more nuanced then that.
"It's as subtle as town by town. Each one is different. And you might not believe it but the bigger venues can be a bit of a struggle."
Some people know exactly what they are in for when they get there; others enter theatres with the same mindset as going to a string quartet, he says.
The more reticent the audience, the harder he has to work as a performer to give them a good night.
"You can't just walk on and then leave. People expect the same sights and sounds of Queen show. Freddie just had that natural born talent; the way he played piano . . . the way he was on stage, like ‘I am untouchable, I am a superhero, and you will enjoy yourselves'.
"The thing is that he was also very personable. I remember his personal assistant saying that he never saw Freddie turn down an autograph. Some singers want it all quiet when they sing; Freddie would always get the audience to join in. He got off on that. And I do, too. I love it when people come up afterwards and say hoarsely ‘I can't speak because I've been singing all night'."
That kind of energy requires a lot from his vocal chords, he says. In turn, he has to go to extremes to protect them.
"I try not to speak to people during the day. Obviously, this is pretty hard. I watch what I drink and eat; try to rest as much as I can."
He also practises yoga and asks for quiet in his dressing room a few minutes before the show starts.
"If Freddie had a bad night, it was just Freddie having a bad night. If I have a bad night, the audience won't come back."
While some may think he tours relentlessly in the Queen tribute for the money, Mullen says Queen has always been his obsession.
"Some people are into Warlords [video game]; I'm into Queen. I've read every book that's ever been written on Freddie. I'm a Queen geek."
One Night of Queen is at the Civic Theatre on Monday at 7:30pm. Tickets from ticketdirect.co.nz.
- © Fairfax NZ News