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Many Roads to Their Truth—The Topp Twins

| June 7, 2011

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Topp Twins as Ken and Ken

In what singer-songwriter Billy Bragg calls their "anarchist variety act," the Topp Twins expand their loyal following beyond New Zealand's borders. 

New Zealand’s Topp Twins don't limit themselves when it comes to forms of media. Their repertoire includes singing, comedy, a book, and a TV show, “Do Not Adjust Your Twinset.”

Now they can add a movie to that list with a documentary about their life and career as country singers, a comedic duo, and occasional yodelers. In Untouchable Girls: The Topp Twins by Leanne Pooley, Lynda and Jool Topp talk about how they got involved in political activism through performing.

“In any political movement there is always some music and a song that maybe makes people feel brave or strong or gives them a sense of freedom,” Jools Topp says in the movie, which is screening in cities around the United States.  “People will listen to a song before they'll listen to a speech a lot of the time.”

The twins grew up on a dairy farm in New Zealand and after a stint in the army, started busking on the streets of Auckland in the 80s, quickly getting involved in campaigning for nuclear-free New Zealand, Maori land rights, and gay rights.

“All these issues affected us on a daily basis,” Lynda said in an interview in San Francisco, where the documentary recently screened. “We thought this is wrong and we need to fight this.”

Their sense of justice is deeply rooted.

“It’s pretty clear in the movie that our sense of justice and fairness came from our mum,” Jools said. “She would say you have to be fair and look out for the underdog. Because there were two of us, that was easier.”

Jools believes comedy and song change people’s minds.

“We’re celebrating with passion something we feel strongly about,” she said. “There are other ways to protest besides just being angry. If you’re angry, people are scared of you.

” People definitely aren’t scared of the Topp Twins.  The sisters, who are both lesbians, got involved in the fight for the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, which passed in 1986, decriminalizing gay sex between men over 16. (Sex between women has never been against the law in New Zealand.) Just by the twins being themselves with all their good humor and straightforwardness helped people get over their prejudices, according to Helen Clark, a former prime minister of New Zealand, who appears in Untouchable Girls.

“I think the Topps being so proudly who they were helped make gay issues more mainstream,” Clark says. “It couldn't be sidelined, it had real people, good people like the Topps associated with it.”

The sisters both came out when they were 17 years old.

“Tell the truth quicker, that’s our motto,” Jools said. “We’ve got to say who we are. You cannot give one hundred percent to your audience if you’re hiding something in your heart.”

This is why the Topps included Jools' struggle with breast cancer in the movie. Lynda said she shot the scenes herself, with no camera crew. Both sisters felt it was important to talk about.

“I’ve never hidden anything,” Jools said. “I don’t want to hide the cancer. We hope this will send support to women who do get cancer.” 

The movie, which has won numerous awards, including the audience award  at the Toronto Film Festival, demonstrates the enormous popularity of the Topp Twins in their native country. Proud of being farm girls, the two of them still live on a farm, together with their long time partners. They have appeared with musicians such as Billy Bragg, who calls them “an anarchist variety act,” and Midnight Oil, as well as touring on their own. The movie includes concert footage with the twins playing country music and yodeling, interviews with their parents, and interviews with the sisters’ comedic alter egos, such as the two Kens, a sheep farmer and a failed TV sportscaster, Camp Mother and Camp Leader, a matronly duo and the Posh Socialite sisters, who breed King Charles Spaniels and know all the right people.

The Topps say they added characters to their country music act as another way to reach people. Audiences now think of the characters as real people, the Topps say.

“We just went to a hunting and fishing lodge in the south to perform as Ken and Ken,” Jools said. “There were 400 men there. Not a woman in sight.”

New Zealanders in particular can relate to their characters, Lynda says, which mean they are another way of breaking down barriers and showing that the political lesbian sisters are regular people.

“We’re not trying to make enemies,” Lynda said. “We’re trying to educate, but we educate through laughter.” 

[Photo caption="Lynda and Jools, who is a breast-cancer survivor"]

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