Over the past year or so I’ve really grown tired of the expression ‘living my best life.’ It’s one of those sound bites that, although marvellous in its intent, doesn’t always really say anything at all, and it’s become quite omnipresent on reality TV shows and online media. It’s become the kind of thing toothy American teenagers say on their Youtube channel while spouting some dodgy life advice often from the point of preposterous privilege. Yet, last month when I sat in the crowd at the memorial held for Candy Royalle that very expression went through my head. Candy without doubt, with great effort and focus, had absolutely lived her best, albeit brief life.
In the months since Candy’s passing there have been many words written, spoken and sobbed and it is justified to say that she leaves behind both an impressive legacy and ongoing inspiration from her life and work. Although still successful in describing the public persona of someone I was lucky enough to call a good friend, I feel few of these many eulogies really summarized Candy in a way I would recognise.
Candy and I always had a strange, hard to define friendship, where I often struggled to know if she ever deep-down really liked me or just tolerated me as being apart of her tight, fabulous, queer and creative social group. We would often have arguments, I remember a particularly glorious one a few years ago during a concert in Sydney on a scorching hot Australia Day. A group of us were seeing a then unknown band called Florence and The Machine, and Candy and I spent a lot of that concert angrily shouting over the music about whether the flags of all nations should be abolished! I believed no, Candy believed yes. Years later, I still have my belief, but I understand her points more. The first time I sketched her it was for an exhibition of nudes and she was massively offended that when she offered to remove her bra and I turned her down; I only wanted an upper shoulder portrait. We discussed that quite comical disappointment she felt, much later, when she accused me of being afraid of women’s bodies. I have thought about this many times since. Yes, she wasn’t wrong, women’s bodies and sexuality do unnerve me a little and she definitely picked it (I’ve worked on that a lot in the many years since).
I have a small faded piece of paper carrying a handwritten poem from Candy on my fridge, she gave it in a thank you card to my partner and I after we dropped off food while she was going through her first round of chemo a few years ago. Out of the few dishes we dropped off she liked my curry pasties best (the trick is to add a hand full of chopped dates when cooking the curry, you’re welcome). She would joke it was all just a ploy to entice her into veganism, again, she wasn’t wrong.
I’ve sketched her a few times, I sketched her once on stage, it was an absolute failure, but a good lesson on how sometimes it’s better to capture someone’s energy or essence rather than to go for an accurate depiction. I really wanted to sketch her again before she died, but regretfully I never found the chance, or the right words to approach that topic. Lesson learnt there.
At her memorial, she was described as many incredible things such as a warrior or a visionary, she was also described by a few of the speakers as fearless. While I want to remember my friend warmly and with the comfort of disregarding my disagreements with her, I unfortunately have one last argument; Candy was never fearless, I have seen her enough times before going on stage, she definitely felt fear. Before her Queerstories talk earlier this year I gave her a hug and I felt her body shaking with nerves. I say this not to draw attention to any weakness, but to emphasise that her naturalness, her strength, her determination and power were only a small element of her and I think we do her a disservice by only partially portraying her now she is gone. Yes, Candy Royalle on stage was a visionary and yes, she was an absolute warrior, fuck, she was a powerhouse of passion, but she was also human and fallible and authentic and flawed and she worked really hard at keeping herself real.
I lose my friend twice if first I lose her first to cancer and then also to a misrepresentation.
To me, she will always have my respect and love, because I know, as someone with a public platform, we have to make difficult choices constantly about who we present and choose to be whilst visible on those platforms. When we have a voice that will be heard in public, we have to be very vigilant about what we chose to say.
There is an incredible bravery to feeling fear and still speaking up regardless, and in that I think Candy’s true strength lay; she wasn’t fearless, she was incredibly brave. Lets leave the empty sound bites to the toothy teenagers. I saw Candy over many years transform into someone who was driven by passion and authenticity, by realness and genuineness, and I know how hard it is to do that, certainly to have done it publicly is beautifully commendable.
I was lucky to see firsthand the hard and sometimes probably terrifying work that went into Candy living her best life, yet relentlessly she chose to do it and to stick to her path right up till the very end, which to me is the genuine definition of living our best life.
Guy James Whitworth is a Sydney-based artist.
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