Kalgoorlie’s skimpy bartenders featured in new photography exhibition

A photographer has shed light on the famous skinny barmaids of Kalgoorlie-Boulder in a new exhibition, which ran for 18 months as she documented nightlife in pubs in the historic gold mining town.

Known as Mellen, an alias of her real name, the Sydney-born photographer shares her anonymity in common with skimpies who typically work under a pseudonym.

Scantily clad bartenders arrived on the Kalgoorlie-Boulder pub scene in the 1970s and have been part of the hard-working, drinking culture of Western Australian mining towns ever since.

While a Kalgoorlie pub briefly flirted with the concept of male skimpies, or so-called himpies in 2018, the work has mainly been the domain of young women working by plane.

Most wear lingerie or bikinis and occasionally go topless, but all the skimpies pull beers and chat with customers to get the amber fluid flowing.

As Mellen explains, the idea for her skimpy show originated when she was hired as the house photographer for the aptly named Gold Bar nightclub in Kalgoorlie, where she befriended many skimpy bartenders.

“It just gave me a license to photograph the working girls…with their consent of course,” she says.

“Then I started going to other places once I started getting to know the girls, following them and taking their pictures… I hadn’t seen many pictures of them.

“It’s behind closed doors and yet such a widely known thing about Kalgoorlie that I thought, why not meet some of the girls and see if they’d be interested in having their picture taken?”

Photographer Mellen set out to tell the stories of some of Kalgoorlie-Boulder’s skimpy bartenders.(Provided: Mellen)

more than money

Her photography work has earned her hundreds of followers on Instagram, where her handle @nophotosofthegirls mirrors the signs that typically hang behind every pub’s bar with skimpies on duty.

More than a dozen skimpies gave their permission to be included in the photo exhibit, underscoring the trust Mellen has built over more than a year.

Each image in the exhibit features a QR code linking to interviews she recorded with the skimpies that detail some of their personal experiences at work.

“There are a lot of different stories about how women got into this profession,” Mellen says.

“The common themes were camaraderie between women, and of course money, but there are a lot of jobs where you can make a lot of money, so it has to be more than that, especially these days.

“Maybe in the 70s when women weren’t allowed to work in the mines, but these days there are so many other things – self-confidence was another common trait.”

Authentic depiction of skimpies

The exhibition is a mixture of documentary and portrait photography.

Mellen says she didn’t want to portray the industry as glamorous, but as authentic as possible.

“I try to achieve a balance between what is real, not too glamorous, but also a pretty portrait,” she says.

A woman in cut off denim shorts holding a dog against with a white background.
Photographer Mellen says she has strived to tell the women’s stories as authentically as possible.(Provided: Mellen)

“I love the one-on-one interaction of taking a formal portrait, but being able to capture what’s happening is also a pretty incredible privilege.”

The project also sparked Mellen’s interest in the history of skimpies in a town that hosted Australia’s biggest gold rush in 1893.

“I looked at the story while doing the project, just to try to deepen my understanding a little bit so I could portray it in a complete way,” she says.

“I’m from Sydney and we don’t have skinny bartenders there, so it was just something a bit unusual for so many places to have skinny bartenders here.

“I had been living here for a year before I set foot in a pub…we have hectic pubs in Sydney but I couldn’t find it [skimpies] shocking at all.”

The exhibition at Black Crow Studios in Kalgoorlie is open until August 14.

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