We all wear masks. Our daily lives consist of a masquerade ball, a series of pseudo-personae that we adopt to fulfill society’s prescriptions.
Some hide only our deepest truths, while others offer absolute protection, suits of armour as far removed from our real selves as possible, a sanctuary for the souls that we closet away in fear of judgment or pain. For most, this is nothing more than a metaphor. While flesh and bone may be exposed to the core, the truth remains buried deep. But for some, these alter egos have taken on a life of their own.
Ilona Harker answers my telephone call with a bubbly joie de vivre, the confident familiarity borne of a career in the public eye.
“I’ve just been doing a mad house clean,” she confesses. “I’ve just got a new puppy and she’s been messing the place up.”
The Ilona Harker I meet on the other end of this digital umbilical cord is not the person I thought it would be. A down-to-earth working mum, cleaning up puppy poop and juggling daily chores, the image belies the flip side of her life.
“I’ve perfected my withering look,” she says of her week-old puppy training techniques. “I just have to look at her and she’s like, ‘oh shit, now I’m in trouble!’ She understands who the big bitch of the house is!”
Ilona grew up in the Northern Territory. Born in Darwin and growing up in Armidale, her childhood was a far cry from the stage and spotlight life she lives today.
“I had a bit of a wild childhood,” she recalls, “but although I was wild, I was also very sensible. I’d watch a lot of people doing quite nutty stuff and I think my inner snob held me back from doing those things. It saved me from some quite hairy situations.”
An activist from a young age, Ilona quickly discovered that performance was the perfect vehicle for her message. Taking to the streets and performing acts such as stilt walking, fire breathing and street art. But, at the age of 19, Ilona’s life took a very different turn.
When her uncle was diagnosed with cancer, Ilona moved to Sydney. In a drastically contrasting environment, she nurtured her uncle through his ailing health. Completing a degree in business management, she entered the corporate world, remaining in Sydney for a year and a half while dividing her time between a business career and nursing her uncle. Life, as it so often tends to do, then dealt Ilona a wildcard. Falling pregnant, she had to swiftly re-evaluate. Added to this, her mother too, fell sick and Ilona had to once again uproot her life and head north to Brisbane.
Always holding a dream to perform within her, Ilona’s personal life was put on hold, placing others before herself but keeping those dreams dormant, rather than ever discarding them completely.
From tragedy comes new life and, though it shattered her, the devastating passing of her mother allowed Ilona to live the life that had for so long been placed on hiatus.
“I always had this great vision to get into the music industry, not to perform but more on the management side, because I was ‘too old’ to perform. When my mum passed away when I was 27, I just picked up a guitar and taught myself to play. I just jumped in – I didn’t want anyone else to know I’d started writing songs. I put a couple of bands together but it was tricky because there were a lot of things that I couldn’t do; I couldn’t really go out and socialise – and that’s how you meet a lot of people [in the music industry], so I found myself writing a lot of stuff and performing on my own.”
Glimmers of success, as a fleeting member of Butterfingers before her mother’s passing and as a solo and band performer in Brisbane, were never forthcoming, or accommodating enough, for Ilona to achieve a level of success. Unable to tour due to her parental commitments, struggling to keep her head above water in a schizophrenic life of music and single-parenthood, she reached a crossroads; to continue to pursue the dwindling spark of a music career in the Big Smoke, or to step off the treadmill, get out of the rat race and move to Brunswick Heads.
And it was the latter that won out.
“When I was with Butterfingers, we were nominated for an Aria, and because I couldn’t go on tour with them I had to leave the band. It was really hard. People would say, ‘why did you leave the band? That was pretty stupid – you must be really disappointed.’ But I just had to bite the bullet. There was a slight amount of disappointment, of course, but there’s no way I would have given any of my life up for a small amount of fame.”
With this mindset, she re-evaluated, recognising the important aspects of her life that money, fame or glory could never replace. But once a performer, always a performer and, with a newfound outlook on both her personal life and her musical career, she marched out onto the stage once more.
“When I was caring for my mother, I was wound up like a Jack-in-the-Box. All the ideas were there, but I couldn’t do anything with them. It was frustrating. But now that I have the ability to express all of those things, it’s like a constant deluge. Working with Butterfingers, I saw how much fun it was to work a crowd, how easy it was and how much I enjoyed it. That’s when I invented my first character, Lady Mumma – a bad-ass single mum who was, like, ‘f**k you, I’m here – don’t question me.’”
The rollercoaster of Ilona’s life had always been ridden for others; her uncle, her son and her mum. In many respects, though she would never change anything, she had to shut up and deal with the bitter pills life served her. Through love and disappointment, joy and loss, Ilona’s characters manifested, always kept tucked away, companions in her rare solitary moments and finally they could break free and see the light of day.
Mae Wilde leapt onto the stage to renown and acclaim. Ilona’s ultra-sexual, superpowered alter ego was the inner self that she could never express in her day to day life. She was brash, she was coarse, she said wildly inappropriate things, and she didn’t give a damn. Ilona had awakened a beautiful, sexy monster, a shield for her vulnerability and a big ‘f**k you’ to all the prejudice and social pigeon holing she had suffered in her years as a single mum, forced into meekness by circumstance.
“I can acknowledge that Mae is an element of me. She’s a very strong character, she’s very strongly sexual, she is very demanding – all these things, that I’d love to behave like in real life. I love the idea of flipping something on it’s head and exposing another side. May is an overly-sexualised woman who asks for what she wants and demands whatever she likes, and that’s what I really like about Mae. It’s definitely a reaction to judgment of being a single mother and carer.”
From Mae sprang more characters, Emmy-Lou Amethyst, the new-age country singer, Poppy Seed Loaf – demented elf and purveyor of fine MDMA, Coco Dada the existential critic and Foxy Bold (feminist alien).
Each character that Ilona has moulded is another aspect of her inner-self or a conduit for her observations on life. It’s a challenging thing to stand up, to strip yourself bare to the soul and embody your wildest side or most confrontational perspective, but as an act, it becomes achievable.
Just as with her activist street performances, Ilona can speak to the world, put voice to her every thought, be brash, arrogant, rude, sexual – whatever she chooses. Ilona’s shows can be confronting. They can awaken thoughts, shine a beaming spotlight on insecurities, expose metaphorical private parts, and that’s speaking for Ilona.
But it is comfortably confronting, a prescribed, socially acceptable rattling of our cages. In these personae, Ilona finds catharsis. She can be bigger, wilder, greater than she could possibly allow in her personal life, even to the point that the characters take over.
“People sometimes tell me I said something really funny, but I’ve got no idea what I said. Sometimes I’ll get off stage and think, ‘where did that time go?’ I’m there to serve the music, my craft and my art. If you can do that, then you transport yourself and then you’ll transport your audience. That’s your job as a performer, and if you do it properly, then your audience will respond – if they’re not complete philistines!”
With this multi-faceted, publicly displayed exploration of her inner-psyche, Ilona has found harmony. She can balance her parenting (of both puppy and son), her life as a single mum and her music-teaching career with her music writing, her yearning to perform and her larger-than-life alter egos.
On the one hand, she is entirely content in her simple life, but that contentment wouldn’t exist without the life lived vicariously through her characters.
For Ilona Harker, A mask has become something not to hide behind but to live beyond the constraints of her day-to-day. Each character has it’s own story, it’s own personality, but somewhere, deep down, they are all another page of her soul.
– This article first appeared on Common Ground Australia on Feb 27, 2015
All photos: ©Kirra Pendergast Photography