Charlotte Graf admits arriving in Queenstown in 1995 as “a naive 21-year-old harbouring a secret passion for the stage”.
Nineteen years later, the local stage is her oyster.
Best-known for winning the 2000 Starry Eyed show as a Janis Joplin look-alike singing Piece Of My Heart, she’s also been a member of the dazzling but now-defunct Sequin Sisters harmony group.
She pops up regularly in Margaret O’Hanlon’s home-grown rock musicals and in bands like her recently-formed Red Trio.
The Rotorua-raised Arrowtown mother-of-two – who also co-owns a face and body-painting company – says she always knew art and drama were her calling.
But those pursuits took backstage when she first arrived in town.
Arriving from Sydney, where she’d lived for four years, Graf took on bartending at the former Eichardt’s Tavern just before Winter Festival – “it was crazy times”.
“I had about three jobs making ends meet ’cos the rent was still really high back then – $300 a week, unfurnished.
“I ate out of spaghetti cans, I remember I didn’t even have a can opener.”
Working at then-McNeills bar she met the co-owner, Paul Graf, whom she married in 1999.
Before she had a family she had seven years selling advertising for locally-owned radio station Q92FM, interspersed with two years at the Otago Daily Times.
Her first artistic outlet, apart from Eichardt’s promotions, was with the former Queenstown Shakespeare company, playing roles like Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew and the “very risque” part of Maria in Twelfth Night.
“We believed we could make it all the way to the top, to none other than the Globe Theatre in London.
“The idea nearly took flight – nearly.”
Graf says her oyster moment came when she sold her first two pieces of art to overseas visitors in one weekend, from Celia Kennedy’s former gallery in Beach Street.
“That opened a very surreal door whereby I sold a number of oil paintings through local galleries to a host of global buyers.”
She continued her stages roles with Caroline van Asch’s productions like the ambitious Into The Woods.
Van Asch persuaded Graf and friends Nikki Bodle and Tania Pimm to set up glamorous Beatgirls-inspired The Sequin Sisters, who performed regular corporate gigs for four years till breaking up last November.
“Most of our earnings would go back into costumes – we had about 25,” Graf says.
She credits local singing teacher and producer Margaret O’Hanlon for fostering her performance career: “I can’t think of any person that’s crossed my path in my whole life that has been so inspirational.”
A highlight was performing in O’Hanlon’s original singer-songwriting show, Songstars: “I thought I’d never be able to enter that because I didn’t think I’d be clever enough to write a song because I don’t have a musical instrument.”
Graf, O’Hanlon and Fee Stephenson work together as the ‘singing actresses’ for corporate dinners “that don’t necessarily want a big noisy band”.
“If those two aren’t available I’ll just draw on the other many, many talented actors that I know through those shows.”
Graf’s now set up an entertainment solutions company, Red Entertainment, arranging gigs for events like birthdays and awards nights.
Why red? “Pink was taken.”
Graf suggests Queenstown has more talented musicians, dancers and performers, as well as event managers and sound and lighting specialists, per capita, than anywhere in the country.
Of the resort’s proposed council-led convention centre, she says: “The thought of another dedicated, multi-optioned entertainment space being designed to promote more work in this area is music to my ears.”