The West

Skimpy barmaid Mercedes has been working in Kalgoorlie for 12 years. Picture: Lincoln Baker

The swing doors out the front of Kalgoorlie's Wild West Saloon suggest a frontier reputation which is more legend than fact.

The famous skimpies have long been forced to cover up and no one can recall cleaning blood off the floor of the legendary watering hole for some time.

"It would be empty if she wasn't in there," says the bouncer out front, referring to the force of nature inside known as Mercedes, the Goldfields' longest-serving skimpy who is masterfully holding court and flashing her breasts to a mixed group of punters, whether they have asked her to or not.

If each flash attracted the $400 fine it is supposed to under the Goldfields' tough nudity crackdown brought in a few years ago, she would already be well into six figures.

But she has only been fined once in 12 years - when she bared her breasts to some police officers - and the money she earns makes up for the risk.

There are two other skimpies working the bar tonight but it is Mercedes - whose return visit to Kalgoorlie is promoted like a touring rock star- that the people have come to see.

By the time she has finished her shift, she has made between $1200 and $1400, mostly in tips, which is between six and seven times what any of the other lingerie-clad barmaids collected.

"I'm in a league of my own. I don't wake up unless I'm going to make at least $1200 a day, or $1500 a day," she says.

"The big money is in the tips. You entertain, you perform, you make them laugh, you serve their drinks, you remember what they drink, you remember their names, you remember their family, you make them feel special.

"That's the secret of the trade. You don't have to be a genius."

All breasts and bravado, the 44-year-old harkens back to a time when skimpies ruled the Goldfields bars and is one of the only ones who can still attract a mid-week crowd based on name alone.

But she is an endangered species in a city undergoing a seismic moral shift. In the historic council building just up the road, long-serving mayor, Ron Yuryevich, is taking credit for the slow clean-up of a frontier town founded on girls, gold, gambling and grog.

In its 129 years, Kalgoorlie-Boulder has never seen anything like it. The city's iconic Langtrees brothel - an international tourist attraction for decades - closed last month and will be converted into a hotel.

The main street that once proudly laid claim to the biggest number of bars per square kilometre in the world now has only a fraction of those.

And - perhaps most ominously - the skimpies that made Kalgoorlie-Boulder famous, or what's left of them, have been forced to cover up and tone down their acts. No more see-through shirts. No more stickers on the nipples as a lewdity loophole.

The battle for the moral heart of one of the roughest, toughest towns in the country is in its last round and what was unthinkable barely 10 years ago is becoming a reality: the wild west appears to have been tamed.

Since Paddy Hannan kicked off the gold rush more than a century ago and brought cancan girls from Perth to the newly established town of Kalgoorlie, skimpies (the mining industry's other fly-in, fly-out workers) and brothels have been part of the Goldfields' DNA.

But no more. The character - and the characters - are slowly disappearing.

Even Leigh Varis-Beswick, the long-time madam at Langtrees who would proudly show busloads of tourists through the brothel's themed rooms like a larger-than-life Dolly Parton in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, has hit the road.

"I don't know if I'll be back, darling," she says down the phone from Canberra, where she has stopped off indefinitely with her partner. "But who knows."

And when Mercedes, the Queen of the Skimpies, finishes her criminal law degree in three years time, she will also be gone.

"I'm very happy," Mr Yuryevich says, claiming the changes are long overdue.

Last October, the conservative Christian was re-elected in the tightest mayoral race in the city in a decade, edging out his closest rival by just 387 votes on a platform rooted in his strong opposition to the city's famous vices.

"The days of Kalgoorlie-Boulder being a rough, tough, mining and men-only town are well and truly gone," he says.

"I'm not a wowser by any means. I was born and bred here. But pretty well everyone recognises that for a community to continue to exist and grow, you need families."

At the sex shop just off Hannan Street, Josie, who books and manages the skimpies, says it's too early to write off an industry which has been part of the Goldfields for decades.

"Don't knock my girls," she warns.

"Yeah, Ron Yuryevich is trying to set it all back to a family-oriented town but what he doesn't realise is that this is the wild west and it always will be."

Every three to four weeks, she still flies in girls from the Gold Coast, Sydney and Melbourne - nearly all the Goldfields' skimpies come from over east.

They work the town's bars for about a month, then they are flown back and the next load of girls are brought in.

"See that?" she says, pointing to a two-storey building just up the road from the Wild West Saloon and across from the Palace Hotel.

"That's what I call Skimpyville. It's like a frat house where my skimpies live when they're here. Don't even think of going in there."

But Mr Yuryevich says there are fewer girls being brought over these days. Skimpyville, by all accounts, is not as full as it used to be.

"You can't change cultures overnight," he says.

"It's been small steps but we are very happy with the progress."

A campaigning mayor is not the only reason the Goldfields lifestyle is turning around.

The very culture of the place is shifting. Fewer people are drinking in the front bars on which Kalgoorlie-Boulder's reputation was built.

Earlier closing hours and the mining industry's tougher drug and alcohol testing and zero-tolerance approach mean mining workers aren't socialising like they used to.

An average of one pub is closing every two years and no new ones are opening.

At the Recreation Hotel in Boulder, manager Laurie Ayres has seen an almost 180-degree change in bar sales.

"Fifteen years ago, maybe more, a lot more alcohol was being sold within the hotel," he says.

"In the past 30-35 years it has gone from about 80 per cent sales on the premises, to 80 per cent off-licence premises. So the biggest change to happen in this industry by far - and you can look at skimpies, you can look at management, you can look at drink-driving and all that - is the change of people going from drinking on premises in pretty much a regulated area to alcohol being consumed off premises.

"That is one thing that has happened and it has happened in such a quick time. Over one generation.

"When I got there our front bar was 98 per cent of our turnover. Now it is probably battling to be 25 per cent."

Back at the Wild West Saloon, Mercedes concedes things are different but this also has its benefits.

"A lot of things have changed. Back in the day you were allowed to jump the bar, you were allowed to be crazy and be wild," she says.

"I think things have slowed down but, financially, I still come and I still make exactly the same money today that I made 12 years ago when I started.

"Everyone is just pulling their heads in. I feel safer today than at any other time in the 12 years. I don't see it as a threat.

"It used to be way violent. You could not have one night here in the pub without someone getting a chair over their head. It was out of control. I've cleaned a lot of blood in my time.

"But I'm not going to stop doing what I'm doing because that's why the guys come to see me. That's why Kalgoorlie brings me back every year."

Picture: Lincoln Baker
The West Australian

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