Nakkiah Lui & Miranda Tapsell’s New Podcast Is On Aboriginal Deb Balls & “Stupid Traditions”

In 1968, a year after Australia voted yes to Aboriginal rights, the Sydney-based Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs held a glittering debutante ball in the centre of town. Twenty-five Indigenous women made their debut in front of hundreds of people, including Prime Minister John Gorton.

“That ball was used as a demonstration of protest,” writer and actor Nakkiah Lui tells P.TV. “There was something quite marvellous to me about this idea – it’s the year after the huge referendum, it’s the height of the civil rights movement in Australia – and the way in which blackfellas protested was by having a party.

“They were having this ball as a way to protest limitations on Aboriginal people gathering in public.”

Debutante: Race, Resistance & Girl Power is a new documentary podcast by Lui and actor Miranda Tapsell. It’s the latest work from the friends and collaborators who previously teamed up for Pretty for an Aboriginal podcast and that golden episode of Get Krack!n. 

“We thought the ball was a really good prism to explore race and gender – the things we live with – because the tradition of the ball is so steeped in racism and sexism,” Tapsell says. “Essentially, the debutante ball was a meat market. It didn’t include black women and in Australia, it took a debutante ball at Town Hall – the most colonial building in Sydney – to force Australians to open up the space and give Aboriginal people the right to go to more public spaces they weren’t allowed in before.”

Debutante is a deep dive into the history and evolution of the ball and how First Nations women around the world have made the tradition their own.

“Ultimately, we just wanted to share how powerful it is to change something and reclaim it and make it better,” Tapsell says.

In Sydney’s Mount Druitt, Lui’s mum runs the Butucarbin Aboriginal Debutante Ball. At first, Lui’s dad didn’t quite understand why. He thought the debutante ball was for rich white girls. He didn’t think it belonged in their community.

“We took this beacon of colonisation – this beacon of white, sexist, patriarchal supremacy – and gave it to people who were excluded from that,” Lui says. “So we’re going to have a party and we’re going to celebrate our youth, which is also saying: you didn’t kill us. Your colonisation wasn’t successful, we’re still here, and we’re thriving. We’re not just going to survive, we’re going to thrive.

“I think in a way it’s hijacking the tradition and kind of ruining it.”

The first debutante ball was held by King George III in 1780 to celebrate the birthday of his wife Queen Charlotte, and to raise money for a maternity hospital. The event was centred on debutantes: young, affluent women making their first official appearance in British upper-class society. After being presented to the monarch, these young women were officially “out” in society and eligible for marriage.

Today, the Queen Charlotte’s Ball lives on. But it doesn’t focus on finding potential partners anymore. Instead, it centres on philanthropy, networking, and etiquette. It also costs a lot of money – thousands and thousands of dollars for a single seat

Lui travelled to London to meet the debutantes of today, going as far as to take an etiquette class from Philip Sykes, founder and principal of The British School of Etiquette. She learnt how to eat, how to carry herself in public, and that discussions of race, politics, and sex – “basically what this entire podcast is about” – are off limits.

She also learnt that instead of bowing to royalty, the debutantes of the Queen Charlotte’s ball now curtsy to a very tall birthday cake. The aspirational values of this ball, the wealth, the class, the curtsying to the cake all felt very foreign to Lui.

“At the Mount Druitt Debutante ball, they get presented to an elder and a politician, and I think that’s much more significant than cake,” she says. “So if anything, we’re making these stupid traditions better.”

Back in Mount Druitt, Tapsell spent some time speaking to Aboriginal youth about their deb.

“When they presented themselves to their community, their tribes were mentioned and their mobs were mentioned – it was so beautiful to watch these young people tell you about their experience and just see them glow.”

This sense of pride from something that is seen as light and airy is no small thing, Tapsell says. “It’s managed to give power to so many people.”

Aboriginal debutante balls aren’t exclusively for young people either.

“It’s also been a way we can celebrate our older mob,” Lui says. “Aunties, who never thought they could feel beautiful, got to finally feel like stars.”

Debutante: Race, Resistance & Girl Power is an Audible Original podcast and is available from the 16th of June. You can listen to it, right HERE.