Carlotta joins Number 96
Carlotta: the legend of Les Girls
After Arnold Feather arrived in Number 96 in 1972 the recurring theme of many of his storylines would become apparent. As a mild-mannered and well-behaved young man with a rather puny physique, it was inevitable that, in point of actual fact, young Arnold would be beset by a constant stream of glamorous young women falling at his feet.
One early romance was with Dorrie Evans' voluptuous niece Georgina Carter (Sussannah Piggott). Then he had an assignation with his sophisticated catering-school teacher Marion Carlton (Lorrae Desmond). This second assignation ended with a hasty getaway when Marion's husband called from the airport to say he was on his way home so Marion helpfully calls a taxi.
ARNOLD: "Do you think it will come quickly?"
MARION: "Well if the rest of the evening has been anything to go by it should be here before you've got your tie on!"
No sooner was this drama in hand when Arnold embarked on a new romance with lovely blond showgirl Miss Robin Ross, played by a glamorous newcomer named Carolle Lea. After a rather serious albeit brief romance Arnold was surprised to learn Robin had been born male and was a transsexual. In a daring and provocative move, the makers of Number 96 had secretly cast Carlotta, the long running star of all-male revue Les Girls, in the role.
Performed entirely by males impersonating elaborately costumed showgirls, Les Girls was by then a veritable King's Cross institution with its big production numbers and impossibly gorgeous performers in glittery (and brief) costumes. Launched in 1963 the show was initially popular with the arty-crowd and attracted such visiting celebrities as Shirley Bassey, Vincent Price, Peter Allen and Liza Minnelli. Les Girls - along with its transgendered star Carlotta - quickly became legend.
Carlotta had appeared in the very first Les Girls performance. The leggy brunette started out as a chorus girl but eventually emerged as the show's star. Armed with a talent for improvising and a portable microphone, she also became the show's witty compere, often from within the audience.
She returned from an engagement in Hong Kong with silicone enhanced breasts and later went blond. On her return to Sydney after her Hong Kong sojourn Australian newspapers erroneously reported that she had had a complete "sex change"  operation there, when in fact she had only had breast implants. Carlotta would later undergo complete gender affirming surgery in Sydney.
Carlotta was in fact one of the three initial people to have gender affirming surgery performed in Australia. It was performed by a British surgeon at the Prince of Wales Hospital in the Sydney suburb of Randwick. Carlotta was the only celebrity of the three initial patients and her story made headlines. She paid just $5 for the procedure - the figure was to cover the costs of the legal documents that Carlotta signed, waiving any right of recompense from the hospital should the operation go wrong. Carlotta happily went under the knife, the operation was a success, and she never regretted it.
Carlotta cannot recall the exact date of the surgery, believing it occurred either in 1973 or 1974. She continued with Les Girls after the operation, ultimately chalking up a whopping twenty-six total years service with the revue. By the time she left for the final time in 1992 the show had long been a standard for suburban mums and dads and a regular stop for giggly hen's party groups. Carlotta was by that stage famous for strolling through the audience between the big production numbers and ruthlessly sending-up anyone who made the fatal mistake of laughing too loud, dressing badly, or foolishly trying to heckle the great star.
Carlotta appeared in just six episodes of Number 96, which aired February-March 1973. In the autobiographical 1994 book He Did It Her Way: Carlotta, Legend of Les Girls, the celebrated showgirl recounts her experiences in the then top-rated soap:
"I worked with Abigail on Number 96 when I was cast as Arnold Feather's new girlfriend, Robin Ross. The joke was that Arnold fell in love with me without realising I was a man. He thought I was a genuine showgirl. I remember Abigail used to turn up to work in these baby doll nighties. She was always getting into trouble for being late, but she was so pretty, the tiniest little face and that mass of thick hair. I don't think the camera did her justice.
"Number 96 was my first real acting job and I was petrified. What made it worse was they kept me locked up on set because my true identity was supposed to be a secret. Pat McDonald, who played Dorrie Evans, was wonderful. She would pick me up in the mornings and tell me to just be myself. The funniest scene from Number 96 was when they had me in the dressing room and my flatmate walked in and caught me shooting up with this hypodermic needle that must have been fourteen inches long. And she asked me if I was a drug addict and I said 'No, I'm just injecting some hormones'. Which I thought was hysterical because the only hormones I ever took came in pill form.
"Eventually Arnold Feather asked Robin to get married so it was essential to the plot that I revealed that I was a tranny. The way they did it was for Arnold to put his hand up my dress and say 'Miss Ross, I mean, Mister Ross'. It was quite scandalous for its time. As soon as that episode finished the phones didn't stop ringing with people complaining.
"The original ending would have shocked them even more. It was planned that I would be in the bathtub when Arnold walked in so I stood up in surprise. They were going to film me from behind so you'd see Arnold having a look and then fainting. It would have been a better ending but you might have had half the viewers fainting as well. Fred Nile would have had a coronary.
"Because my identity had to be kept a secret they locked me in this very small dressing-room on set. I called it a cupboard, it was so small. When it was time to film one of my scenes they would order everyone out of the studio except the crew and the actors involved. At lunch breaks I would have my meals sent in to my room, while all the others went out to eat. It wasn't exactly fun. I'd have to be there at 7 am, you'd stay there till 6 pm, then I'd have to run off and do my show at Les Girls.
"Abigail once said that she thought I had better tits than she did, but hers were pretty damn good, and they were real. She had trouble relating to me as a man (this was before my sex change) so she always referred to me as a she." [i]
Viewers of the serial had first learned that Robin was transgendered in the aforementioned scene with Terri Sandford (Bernadette Hughson) and the hormone injection. Producer Bill Harmon had always insisted that Carlotta's true identity be absolutely kept secret, to the extent that Carlotta's contract specified she could not reveal her involvement with the show to anyone - not even her closest friends. TV Week reported that the day after the revelation that Robin was transgendered the switchboard at Channel Ten was jammed by amazed viewers wanting confirmation as to whether Robin's portrayer was male or female.
The morning after the bombshell aired Carlotta told TV Week:
"I'm not at all surprised that nobody guessed who I was because we tried so hard to keep it a secret. I had always thought it would be divine to act in Number 96 so I went and saw my friend Gordon Chater who knows absolutely everyone in show business. He spoke to Bill Harmon and suggested that I could be written in to the show. Mr Harmon wasn't too enthusiastic at first, but he asked if I could appear on the show on the condition I didn't tell a soul. I was really thrilled." [ii]
Carlotta says she was pleased that the script was not in poor taste and did not ridicule "female impersonators".
"I was delighted when I saw how beautifully the writers handled it. Various ways of revealing my true identity were discussed. But the final outcome was that I would confess to Arnold - an ending I much prefer. Although I only appeared in six episodes I wasn't 'killed off' so there is always a chance that I might be used again. If the audience response was good they might even use me a lot. I'm keeping my fingers crossed." [iii]
Sadly even Number 96 was not ready for a transgendered character full time, and Robin made no returns to the story.
Carlotta nevertheless enjoyed her stint and found the other cast members friendly and helpful.
"They all knew I hadn't acted on television before and they were really wonderful to me. Pat McDonald was so nice. She helped me learn all my lines. I was a little nervous that the kissing scenes with Arnold might be embarrassing, but he behaved like a true professional. I was so concerned about the clause in the contract that says I could be asked to strip - but they didn't ask me. I wouldn't mind doing a nude scene but I would like it to be done tastefully." [iv]
After her brief stint went to air Carlotta found strangers in the street were approaching her asking if she was Robin Ross, and a group of eager school children stopped her for her autograph.
"Although I love stage work I would really love to be given a chance as a serious actress. People like me are seldom given an opportunity to prove themselves on television and I think Number 96 has been a real breakthrough. I'm hoping now that other doors will open for me. I wouldn't mind playing a female impersonator, but naturally I would prefer to play a straight female role." [v]
Originally uploaded June 2000
Last updated 9 February 2013
 Contemporary reports, and Carlotta herself, used the term "sex change" operation.
[i] Carlotta and Cockington, James. He Did It Her Way: Carlotta, Legend of Les Girls. Ironbark: Sydney, 1994.
[ii] Moody, Mary. "Les Girls Star in No. 96 Love Scenes!" TV Week. 17 March 1973, page 5.
[iii] Moody, Mary. "Les Girls Star in No. 96 Love Scenes!" TV Week. 17 March 1973, page 5.
[iv] Moody, Mary. "Les Girls Star in No. 96 Love Scenes!" TV Week. 17 March 1973, page 5.
[v] Moody, Mary. "Les Girls Star in No. 96 Love Scenes!" TV Week. 17 March 1973, page 5.