Todd McKenney is marking his 30 years in showbiz with a new show, What A Life, performing songs from the artists who have shaped his life. The entertainer, 51, has trained in jazz, tap, acrobatics and ballroom dancing and is well known for being a judge on TV’s Dancing with the Stars and playing Peter Allen in the musical The Boy from Oz. He talked to me about how he got his start, what he’s learnt from a life in the spotlight, and embarrassing moments from the first time he stepped on stage.
Tell me about your show What A Life.
So we’d been touring with a show called Todd McKenney Sings Peter Allen. I said: Let’s put some new numbers in to keep it fresh for us. We wanted the whole thing to feel like we were in my house, where you could talk back [and] ask questions. So we don’t just sit down and give them a scripted monologue of my life … I had a life before the band, and I had a life before Dancing with the Stars. I think it’s kind of interesting to let [audiences] know where it all began. So I’m going to put my or our own stamp on some of the songs that I grew up with. My nana used to sing me songs as a kid. She taught me my first poem then she taught me my first song, so we’re going to put that in.
What can the audience expect?
We celebrate the artists who have inspired me – such as Peter Allen, Bette Midler and Barry Manilow. There is also a tribute to the incomparable Prince. There’s a moment in the show where I’m going to have like three different songs and I’m going to let the audience choose which one they want … And then there are some beautiful stories about people I’ve met, all the fans that come and thank me … I talk about my daughter and, you know, what I’m going to have to explain to her when she’s old enough to Google me!
Will your daughter see the show?
She might be too young. I wouldn’t call this a family show! I wouldn’t be able to be myself and talk about a bit risque stuff. She’s eight now. She has Googled me and she told me, “Daddy, you’re famous.” We try to get her away from all media. Even my performances, she’s only been to a few.
Is she like you?
Oh God, yes. She’s a little naughty, all little kids are. But she has a really unique take on the world. She gets a joke; I can have a joke with her – an adult joke, sarcastic, all the sort of things that I sort of am. And she thinks it’s the funniest thing.
Is she daddy’s little girl?
Well, she lives with [actress] Anne [Wood], so Anne is the primary carer. But yeah … She has a different relationship with me than she has with Anne. I love her to bits.
Did you always know that your would be a performer?
What would you have done otherwise?
I was a travel agent when I left school … [However] I just wanted to be the best male dancer in Australia, that’s where I was aiming … I wanted to do more turns than anybody else, I wanted to leap higher and I just wanted people to notice me as a dancer … I’ve just had the most amazing, most incredible support. Through a whole stack of them, through theatre, through television and through radio. I realise how rare that it.
You’ve been in entertainment for over 30 years. How did it all begin?
Well, my mum’s a dancing teacher; my grandmother’s a dancing teacher as well. The first time I went on stage, when I was almost four, there were no other boys in the class but me. And mum put me in these lime green knickers … I underestimated the impact of having people looking at me. I got so nervous, I wet my pants … I’ve never been so humiliated! And my lime green knickers, they got darker green every time I would go to the front [of the stage and] it would get worse. But it made the audience laugh, and I remember that!
What was your first break into entertainment?
My very first job was the Fat Cat, Channel 7. The first time I did Fat Cat, I couldn’t see properly out of his head, and I just kept mowing the kids down. So they had to come and get me to take me off and tell me, “Listen, you’re flattening the kids as you walk.”
You’ve won so many awards during your career. What has been your biggest achievement?
Singing I Still Call Australia Home at the AFL Grand Final. I remember standing out on the stage and … 89,000 people flashed up on the screen. And I was standing in the middle of it just thinking, “Oh this is so far from where I ever expected to be.” From really middle-class suburban Perth to one of the most iconic moments in Australia’s calendar.
How has the industry changed during your career?
Social media has changed everything. Everybody has got a review now, and everyone’s happy to put it online. You can’t afford to have a bad night any more.
Does that create a lot of pressure?
It does, yes. But also sharpens your tools. Dancing with the Stars has been on air for 15 seasons.
Have you enjoyed all your years as a judge?
Yes, that’s been great. It sounds weird but the celebrity thing took me a long time to get used to. I wasn’t ready for that, I didn’t think about that … It was tough getting used to everyone having an opinion of you. It took me ages to get comfortable with that. When Dancing was big, we had two million viewers on a weekly basis. So it was always the day after the show, when I was flying home. I was captured or captive, I suppose, in the Qantas Club. That’s when they all wanted to come and have a go at you.
What would they say?
One lady pushed her little 10-year-old kid in front of me and said “tell him what you think”. She said “I watch the show because Nikki [Webster] and because of you she’s not on it any more, I hate you”… I also got spat at in Hobart! [Another time] I went in to the butcher’s to buy some meat for the barbie and a little old man just went “Give Pauline Hanson a fair go, mate” and hurled his bag of sausages at me! And I was like, Jesus Christ; it’s a ballroom dancing competition … For years people hated my guts!
What a Life! is on July 7-9 at Glen Street Theatre, Belrose ($69); for other Sydney dates, see toddmckenney.com.
WE WENT TO Moorish Blue
WE ATE Beetroot, goats curd, walnuts, rocket and crispy pear salad; Moorish Fried chicken wings; Wok Fried Chicken Wings; Wok-fried calamari, pearl couscous, okra, Tunisian paste; Grilled barramundi, Smoked vegetable salad
I WORE Scanlan Theordore.