A photographer has shed some light on Kalgoorlie-Boulder’s famously skimpy barmaids in a new exhibition, 18 months in the making as she documented nightlife in pubs in the historic gold mining town.
Known as Mellen, a pseudonym of her real name, the Sydney-born photographer shares her anonymity with skimpies who typically work under an alias.
The scantily clad barmaids arrived on the Kalgoorlie-Boulder pub scene in the 1970s and have since become part of the hard-working, hard-drinking culture of Western Australia’s mining towns.
While a pub in Kalgoorlie briefly flirted with the concept of male skimpies, or so-called himpies, in 2018, the job was predominately the domain of young women working on a fly-in-fly-out basis.
Most wear lingerie or bikinis and sometimes go topless, but all the skimpies pull beer and chat with customers to get the amber liquid flowing.
As Mellen explains, the idea for her skinny exhibition was born when she was hired as a house photographer for Kalgoorlie’s aptly named Gold Bar nightclub, where she befriended many of the skinny bar girls.
“It just gave me a license to photograph the working girls…with their permission, of course,” she says.
“Then I started going to some of the other locations as I got to know the girls, followed them and took their pictures… I hadn’t seen many pictures of them around.
“It’s behind closed doors and yet so well known about Kalgoorlie that I thought why not meet some girls and see if they’d be interested in having their portrait done?”
More than the money
Her photography work has earned her hundreds of followers on Instagram, where her handle @nophotosofthegirls mirrors the signs typically hung behind the bar of any pub with skinny people on duty.
More than a dozen skimpies gave permission to be included in the photo exhibition, underscoring the trust Mellen had built over more than a year.
Each image in the exhibit has a QR code that links to interviews she recorded with the skimpies describing some of their personal experiences at work.
“There are many different stories about how the women got into this profession,” Mellen says.
“The common themes were the camaraderie between the women and of course the money, but there are a lot of jobs where you can earn a lot of money, so it has to be more than that, especially these days.
“Maybe in the 1970s, when women weren’t allowed to work in the mines, but today there are so many other elements — confidence was another common trait.”
Authentic rendering of skimpies
The exhibition is a mix of documentary photography and portrait.
Mellen says she wants to portray the industry not as glamorous, but as authentically as possible.
“I try to find a balance between what’s real, not too glam, but also a nice portrait,” she says.
“I love the one-on-one interaction of shooting a formal portrait, but being able to capture what’s going on is also a pretty amazing privilege.”
The project has also sparked Mellen’s interest in the history of skimpies in a town that was home to Australia’s biggest gold rush in 1893.
“I looked at the history while I was doing the project, just to try and get a little more depth of my understanding so I could portray it in a well-rounded way,” she says.
“I’m from Sydney and we don’t have skinny bar girls there so it was just something that stood out as a little unusual for so many venues to have skinny bar girls here.
“I lived here for a year before I stepped into a pub… we have rough pubs in Sydney but I haven’t found it [skimpies] not shocking at all.”
The exhibition at Kalgoorlie’s Black Crow Studios is on view until August 14.