Time Out Melbourne

Danielle Cormack and Chelsie Preston Crayford play Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine in the new series of Underbelly.


“Hearty, fearless, formidable, ruthless, menacing, loving – Kate Leigh was all this and more,” says Danielle Cormack, the New Zealand actress bringing Leigh to life in Underbelly: Razor.

“For an actress she’s an incredible gift – so layered, so complex, so driven. Kate was the deadliest woman in Australia, yet despite the terror she instilled, there are also tales of her kindness that make you think twice about who she really was and how she became this legend.”

Best known to Australian audiences from the ABC’s Rake, Cormack began her research with a pilgrimage to Botany Cemetery where the ‘Snow Queen’ has rested since 1964. “It was a private moment,” she explains, “a chance to pay my respects before I walked in her shoes and put myself in the situations she faced in her life. The weird thing is Tilly Devine is buried in the same cemetery – on the opposite side to Kate, of course!”

Handily, Cormack also lives in the area formerly known as ‘Razorhurst’ and walking the former mean streets of Sydney gave her crucial ammunition “to unleash a daring side of my own personality to interpret Kate truthfully.”

Helping that authenticity of performance and the vivid re-imagining of Sydney circa 1927–36 was the fact Razor shot on location in Redfern’s notorious (now vacant) ‘Block’, the grittiest of all inner-Sydney precincts. “What the Underbelly series does so well is create these worlds,” confirms Cormack. “Arriving on the set in Redfern to work on real streets already so rich in history really helped infuse us into Razor-era Sydney.”

Ultimately, the real key to unlocking Kate was, reckons Cormack, distance from her subject. “I won’t judge Kate, but ethically I can’t condone the methods she used to create such fear for so many years. By the same token, I believe we’re all a product of our environment and Kate’s early life was very, very hard. Those formative experiences drove Kate Leigh for the rest of her life – to get to the top, to let no man beat her down, to never play the fool... to be the queen.”


NAME: Kathleen Mary Josephine Leigh
ALIASES: ‘Mum’, ‘Snow Queen’
APPEARANCE: “Good sort”, 152cm; dark wavy hair, brown eyes, fond of silver fox furs and floppy hats trailing ostrich feathers
ORIGINS: Born 10/3/81 in Dubbo; eighth child of bootmaker father; sent to Girls’ Home at 12; mother at 19; owner of “an empire of brothels, gambling joints, flophouses, sly-groggeries and gin mills,” 1919–54
WHEREABOUTS: 2 Lansdowne St, Surry Hills
SPOUSE: Divorced twice by 24
FORM: 107 convictions, 13 gaol terms for perjury, stealing, assault, illegal liquor sale, manslaughter
SUMMATION: “Most evil woman in Sydney – her kingdom is a noisome slum crammed with ancient hovels, the rottenness of crime, the roughness of jungle justice.”


“Tilly was a girl of the London slums,” says Chelsie Preston Crayford, the razor- tongued belle who plays her in Underbelly: Razor. “Her major motivation in life was class – she started on the bottom rung in abject poverty and didn’t rest until she was at the very top and sitting pretty.”

For Tilly Devine that meant selling the only thing worth a damn – herself – until she had the funds to exploit a loophole in the Police Offences Act of 1908 that ordained it illegal for men (but not women) to profiteer from ‘immoral earnings’.

“That alone makes her extraordinary. Tilly’s cunning sidestepping of that little law established her as Sydney’s richest and most prolific madam.” Those same street smarts also saw Tilly pour gasoline over a bent cop in a public toilet and set him ablaze. “It’s true she did terrible things,” acknowledges Preston Crayford. “But my job as actress isn’t to judge, it’s to empathise with her so I can bring Tilly to life as vividly as possible.”

That Preston Crayford does. She and Danielle Cormack (Kate Leigh) are old pals from New Zealand and the two ac- tresses actually auditioned for Underbelly: Razor together. “It was a complete dream that we both get the leads,” she laughs. “But it’s made every scene together a treat, particularly the fi ght scenes – my ankle still gives me grief and Danielle says I’ve put her neck out for life!”

Devine ruled as Queen Bee in Sydney’s humming hive of vice for nigh on 50 years, winking out her last red light in 1968. Yet only recently, with a namesake bar (Love Tilly Devine in Darlinghurst), a play (this year’s Mum’s In: Stories from Razorhurst) and now Underbelly: Razor in her honour, is Tilly becoming the star she always wanted to be. “She’s harsh and complex... a true villain but her tenacity to achieve power and wealth was incred- ible,” Preston Crayford says in awe. “The writers knew it too – if Tilly didn’t really exist you couldn’t dream her up.”


NAME: Matilda Mary Devine (nee Twiss)
ALIASES: ‘Pretty Tilly’, ‘Queen Bee’
APPEARANCE: “Deep husky, fascinating voice”, “complexion of milk and roses”, foul mouth, penchant for furs and jewellery
ORIGINS: Born 8/9/00; bricklayer father, housewife mother; prostitute at 16; arrived in Sydney at 17; madam at 26; owner of 30+ brothels all over ‘Razorhurst’ 1927–68
WHEREABOUTS: 191 Palmer St, Darlinghurst (headquarters); Torrington Rd, Maroubra (home)
SPOUSE: ‘Big’ Jim Devine, ex-ANZAC sapper turned pimp
FORM: Arrested 204 times for soliciting, razor slashing, drug trafficking, biting off fingers of enemy, setting fire to a cop, manslaughter
SUMMATION: “Vicious, grasping, high-priestess of savagery, obscenity and whoredom... the most frighten- ing creature spewed up by the razor gangs, a wretched woman”

Underbelly: Razor screens on Nine from Sun 21 Aug at 8.30pm

Updated on 15 Aug 2011.

Underbelly: Razor video

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