A photographer has shed some light on Kalgoorlie-Boulder’s famous skimpy barmaids in a new exhibition, which was 18 months in the making as she documented the nightlife in pubs in the historic gold mining city.
Known as Mellen, a pseudonym of her real name, the photographer originally from Sydney shares her anonymity in common with skimpies who typically work under an alias.
The scantily clad barmaids arrived on Kalgoorlie-Boulder’s pub scene in the 1970s and have since become part of the hard-working, hard-drinking culture of mining towns across Western Australia.
While one Kalgoorlie pub briefly flirted with the concept of male skimpies, or so-called himpies in 2018, the job has predominantly been the domain of young women working on a fly-in fly-out basis.
Most wear lingerie or bikinis and sometimes go topless, but all of the skimpies pull beers and chat to patrons to keep the amber fluid flowing.
As Mellen explains, the idea for her skimpy exhibition was born when she was hired as the house photographer for Kalgoorlie’s aptly named Gold Bar nightclub where she befriended many of the skimpy barmaids.
“It just gave me a license to photograph the girls working… with their consent of course,” she says.
“Then I started going to some of the other venues once I started to get to know the girls, follow them around and take their photos… I hadn’t seen many pictures of them around.
“It’s behind closed doors 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 portraits taken?”
More than the money
Her photography work has garnered her hundreds of followers on Instagram, where her handle @nophotosofthegirls reflects the signs that typically hang behind the bar of every pub with skimpies on duty.
More than a dozen skimpies gave their permission to be included in the photographic exhibition, underlining the trust Mellen built over more than a year.
Each image in the exhibit has a QR code linking to interviews she recorded with the skimpies that detail some of their personal experiences on the job.
“There’s a lot of different stories to how the women have gotten into this profession,” Mellen says.
“The common themes were the camaraderie between the women, and of course the money, but there’s a lot of jobs where you can make a lot of money, so it’s got to be more than that, especially these days.
“Maybe back in the 70s when women weren’t allowed to work in the mines, but these days there are so many other elements — the self-confidence was another common trait.”
Authentic portrayal of skimpies
The exhibition is a mixture of documentary photography and portraiture.
Mellen says she did not want to portray the industry as glamorous, but as authentically as possible.
“I try and get a balance of what is real, not too glam, but also a nice portrait,” she says.
“I love the one-on-one interaction of taking a formal portrait, but to be able to capture what’s going on is also a pretty amazing privilege.”
The project has also sparked Mellen’s interest in the history surrounding skimpies in a city that was home to Australia’s biggest gold rush in 1893.
“I have been looking at the history while doing the project, just to try and get a bit more depth of my understanding so I could represent it in a well-rounded way,” she says.
“I am from Sydney and we don’t have skimpies over there, so it was just something that stuck out as a bit unusual for so many venues to have skimpy barmaids here.
“I had been living here a year before I stepped foot in a pub … we have rough and tumble pubs in Sydney, but I didn’t find it [skimpies] jarring at all.”
The exhibition at Kalgoorlie’s Black Crow Studios is open until August 14.