The Australian cabaret star shares the struggle of “getting inside the skin” of the legendary queer icon.

Eyelids lightly dusted in pale blue shadow; cracked parchment cheeks smudged with rouge. A pinched, birdlike face, part smile part sneer, framed with a wispy yet meticulously styled purple-grey quiff and topped by a well-appointed, listing red velvet fedora. Orating with a devil-may-care irreverence in his curdling R.P. accent, Quentin Crisp’s gender-bending style, arid wit and talent for shock and awe earned him both adoration and infamy during his lifetime. But while he was unquestionably a trailblazer of queer culture, Crisp was a reluctant poster boy for a movement he never wanted. Summarised by gay rights activist Peter Thatchell as a “self-hating, arrogant, homophobic gadfly,” Crisp was notorious for his oxymoronic attitude to Pride and Gay Liberation, once noting, “What is there to be proud of? I don’t believe in rights for homosexuals.”

And yet today, 17 years after his death, Crisp still holds an enduring fascination as one of the first gay celebrities to be truly vocal about their sexuality and lifestyle. For Australian cabaret star Paul Capsis, his first contact with Crisp was a formative moment....