Sister Act

With their soaring two part country harmonies, skillful yodelling and a suitcase full of alter-egos, the Topp Twins are real Kiwi cultural icons. Lynda and Jools Topp talked to Jo Bailey about being in the entertainment business, and facing their most difficult challenge yet.

It’s been a while since we’ve seen some of our old mates – the hard-case Kens, bossy Camp Mother, poor, hard-done-by Camp Leader, and the straw-sucking, yodelling Gingham Sisters. They’ve been taking things easy the last six months or so, while their co-creator Jools Topp recovers from breast cancer. It’s been a very public battle with the disease for Jools, which she admits has left her feeling vulnerable at times. “I pulled back from performing during most of my treatment, although we did fit in a gig at the Tamworth Country Music Festival between chemotherapy sessions. Now that my treatment is finished I’m starting to feel stronger and looking forward to getting back on the road.”

Lynda Topp says the biggest thing the sisters have learned from Jools’ illness is that there is nothing more important than good health. “The focus of the last six months has been about me hanging out with my sister rather than thinking about rehearsing or figuring out shows. We’re glad to be through the other side of the treatment now. Jools looks like Annie Lennox as her hair has grown back a fabulous snowy white.”

One of the Twins first shows back was at the Havelock Mussel Festival which they didn’t even rehearse for, despite the six month break from performing. “It’s second nature to us. Whatever happens on the day is the performance. Some people would freak out without a script, but we never script anything. That way we are able to react to the crowd, as that’s our real craft,” says Jools.

With the spontaneous interaction and friendly banter between the Twins and the crowd such a big part of the show, do they have trouble getting people to join them on stage? “It can be scary to come up there with us, but we find the characters help scoop them up. People are more than happy to help Ken and Ken or Camp Mother and Camp Leader.” Jools believes it is their ability to “send up, rather than put down” that ensures the willing participation of the audience. “Anyone can put someone down, but that’s not comedy. If anyone is going to look silly on our stage, it’s us. When we bring someone up from the audience it’s our job to make them feel comfortable and look amazing, so they are the star at the end of the night.”

While the music and comedy duo’s business is providing entertainment, they don’t consider it work. “If being a Topp Twin became simply a job we’d give it up,” says Lynda. “For Jools and I it is our lifestyle, and one of the most rewarding businesses in the world.” They may not earn enough to ride around in limos, or live in flash houses, but that was never part of their business plan, Lynda says. “We’re happy to have a tractor and a few dogs and get out on the road and perform. The rapport we have with our audience enables us to receive just as much love as we are trying to give out.”

The Topp Twins are very much a family business, “but we don’t make pasta,” quips Jools. Like any sisters working together there can be challenging times. “We have a big commitment to each other and the business, and it can be stressful being on the road and away from our homes for long periods. Sometimes we do bang heads when we’re trying to figure things out, but most of the time we are able to accommodate each other and communicate.”

The Twins love of music goes back to their childhood. “Our parents loved to have people over, get out the guitar and have a bit of a sing,” says Jools. “Lynda and I used to sing away with our tennis rackets and hair brushes and would write a few songs to sing to the cows in the cowshed.” When the Twins were nine, their 11 year old brother Bruce bought them their first guitar with some extra money he had saved from his lawn mowing job. “He also bought us a book called Play in a Day that provided the only formal guitar training we’ve ever had.”

Further musical inspiration came from a neighbour, who had a country music collection of old 78s. “We used to ride up to the neighbour’s farm 30 minutes away, listen to the records on their wind-up gramophone, then jump back on the horse and ride home. Mum wouldn’t let us take the guitar on the back of the horse, so we’d get it out as soon as we got home and desperately try to play what we’d just heard.”

After a short-lived stint in the Territorials, the Twins spent some time in Christchurch before moving to Auckland in their early twenties. They soon had a cult following as buskers, attracting crowds of several hundred people to their regular Friday night performances of musical mayhem and political satire. It was in the eighties the Twins career really took off when the Student Arts Council offered to support a nationwide tour. “We didn’t have enough musical material to fill an hour and a half show so came up with the idea of creating some characters who would interact with the audience,” explains Jools. The Twin’s first alter-egos were those lovable Hillbillies, the Gingham Sisters. The shows were such a success that the best were filmed for a Television Special for which they won several NZ Film and TV Awards, including Entertainers of the Year. “That’s where it all started. The next time we toured on our own without the Student Arts Council, and that’s when the business emerged. We were never going to be singers, it just happened. Our ambition was to take over the family dairy farm. We could have been a couple of old spinsters milking cows by now,” Jools laughs.

Their hugely successful prime time television show Do Not Adjust Your Twinset also received numerous awards, and the Twins have performed to rapturous reviews around the world. As well as public shows, the Twins do a lot of corporate gigs, and perform at fundraising events at least three or four times a year.
Lynda also recently produced her own television programme, Ken’s Hunting and Fishing Show which screened on TV1 earlier this year.

With their bevy of brilliant characters, Lynda jokes there are actually about 20 people in the Topp Twin’s business these days. She says the characters are created from generalisations, rather than being based on people they know. “It’s amazing that some people believe that Ken and Ken, and Camp Mother and Camp Leader really do exist.”

The sister’s creative sessions are all about having fun and trying to make each other laugh. “That’s the beautiful thing. When we are creating we don’t have to sit down in lengthy meetings with thousands of people. We just sit at home, make each other laugh, and maybe write a new song.” Jools says they usually write new songs separately then give it to the other twin to sing. “After we’ve sung it once we’ve got it, boom, it’s in the repertoire and we never have to rehearse it again. It must be a twin thing.”

As they prepare to get back to work in earnest, Lynda says the Twins will continue to follow their mantra of being positive, truthful and having fun. “Jools and I haven’t lost the ability to play, as that’s where creativity comes from. If you can hold on to the art of playing and having fun it makes life so much easier.”

IN TOPP FORM

The Topp Twins have bounced back from Jools’ brush with breast cancer and are happy to be on the road again they tell Jo Bailey.

Breast cancer is an indiscriminate disease. It doesn’t care what colour, age or size you are, or what level of celebrity. In recent times there has been a spate of high profile women in their 30s and 40s receiving a breast cancer diagnosis. Think Kylie Minogue and Sheryl Crow to name just two. Then last year, we found that one of our own cultural icons, Jools Topp, had also been diagnosed. It can be hard enough dealing with breast cancer news and the changes that occur to your body during treatment, but imagine having to live through it in the full glare of the media.

The Topp Twins’ fabulous alter-egos including Camp Mother and Camp Leader; Ken and Ken, and the Gingham Twins took a six month hiatus while Jools underwent her treatment. “We took the time out from the business to concentrate on getting through this. It was time to hang out with my sister rather than thinking about rehearsing or figuring out shows,” says Lynda. While a little vulnerable at times through her treatment, Jools bravely shared her story in a bid to help other women battling the disease. “It was important that we did the first interview with the Woman’s Weekly near the end of Jools’ treatment as we wanted to be truthful and positive. The reaction to that and subsequent stories has been fantastic. Lots of women have come up to us after our shows to offer their support to Jools and tell her their own breast cancer stories. It seems to be an epidemic out there.”

It was January 2006 that Jools found a lump in her breast while having a shower. While she immediately got it checked out, the resultant mammogram gave her the all clear. That should have been the end of her worries, but Jools had a nagging doubt that something just wasn’t right. “I was due for my regular smear a few months later, so asked them to check the lump again. This time they found it on an ultra-sound scan and gave me the breast cancer diagnosis. Before I knew it, I had had the breast removed, and woke up with leads and tubes coming out of me.”

Jools has a scar stretching from under her left arm to the middle of her chest. Her operation was followed by six months of aggressive chemotherapy. “I wear the scar proudly, and feel pleased with myself that I’ve gotten through this. I said yes to the poison and got through that as well, but decided not to have radiotherapy.” Rather than take Tamoxifen, Jools has found a natural alternative, a derivative of broccoli which lowers her estrogen in a similar way. With a fairly significant weight reduction and loss of her hair from the chemotherapy, the sisters had a unique way of describing Jools’ changed appearance. “We would say Jools no longer has cancer, but she is being affected by the chemo, as that is what you visibly see when somebody is going through treatment,” says Lynda. Jools’ hair grew back a completely different colour. “It is a fabulous snowy white, she looks just like Annie Lennox.”

Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis prompted Jools to ask some serious questions about her lifestyle. “I started thinking what am I going to do? What do I have to change?” While she sources good quality organic food as much as possible, Jools isn’t fanatical about it. “I don’t deny myself the non-organic foods that I love.” She encourages women going through breast cancer treatment to find out as much information about all aspects of treatment and recovery as they can. “It such a personal journey and every woman is so incredibly different. I don’t think anyone can tell a woman who has been diagnosed with breast cancer what the right choices will be for her, it’s something she needs to come to for herself.”

Jools says Lynda, and partner Mary provided incredible support throughout her treatment and beyond. “They are amazing women who really pulled me through. This experience has made me realise that nothing is more important than good health.” Lynda says she remembers vividly the day Jools rang her with the news of her diagnosis. “I simply said, ‘I’m on my way’ and hooked up the lodge to the back of the car and headed out to the farm.” Lynda stayed at Jools and Mary’s farm right throughout Jools’ treatment. “Basically whatever she couldn’t do, I did it. Some mornings after chemo she didn’t have the energy to feed the horses or the chickens, so I’d do it. That’s the twin thing. If they need you, you’re there.”

It was a little ironic that after supporting the breast cancer cause for years and assisting organisations such as the Breast Cancer Foundation and In the Pink, that the Topp Twins would need their assistance themselves. “When Jools was diagnosed, any help we had given them came back tenfold. Their support was brilliant.” Lynda says the sisters will continue to use their celebrity to assist the cause. “We will lend our support in whatever ways we can to continue to raise the awareness of the disease.”

After her treatment finished in March, Jools was keen to breathe life back into the Topp Twins and return to the stage with Lynda. They got back in the saddle at the Havelock Mussel Festival, where they played their first show without a rehearsal, despite the six month break. “It’s second nature to us. We never work with a script anyway,” Jools says.

The journey has been a tough one, but Jools is pleased to be continuing along happier trails these days. “I feel really well and happy, and am so pleased to be back on the road with Lynda again.”

By Jo Bailey