Despite Donald Trump being in the Oval Office and right-wing extremism being on the march, it has not been a good year for Milo Yiannopoulos. Once the darling of the ‘alt-right’, Yiannopoulos’ comments supporting paedophilia and his associations with neo-Nazis and white nationalists, exposed by BuzzFeed, saw him lose a book deal, his editorial position at alt-right portal Breitbart, his weekly Daily Caller column and the backing of right-wing billionaire Robert Mercer. His planned “Free Speech Week” at the University of California, Berkeley, fell apart, and being banned from Twitter has undeniably hurt him more than he’d admit.
But perhaps the most vivid illustration of Yiannopoulos’ year from hell is his Australian tour, Troll Academy, which has just wrapped up.
Watching Milo vamp his way around Australia’s largest cities, you could almost imagine he was on the way back to his glory days, when he captivated the American political and media establishments and rode the same wave that dumped Trump in the White House. Domestically, at least, he's stirred up a similar level of hubbub that used to swirl around him in the US. Media outlets have gifted him airtime, column inches and softball interviews, letting him perform his schtick while leaving his most recent controversies unmentioned and uninterrogated. His events have provoked the ugliness he delights in, with left-wing and far-right protesters violently kept apart by police.
But there’s a difference between his Australian jaunt and his heyday that’s impossible to miss: that of scale. Troll Academy is his past tours in miniature, delivered to smaller crowds, in a smaller country, over smaller stakes. It doesn’t help that Milo shares his name with a beloved Australian powdered chocolate milk, but his efforts to recapture the old magic Down Under just haven’t quite come off.
There’s an Australianism that captures the feeling: “daggy”. An old shearing term originally referring to the dried lumps of poo that cluster around an unshorn sheep’s rear end, “daggy” describes anything lame, uncool or out-of-date. Far from a comeback tour, the overwhelming vibe of Yiannopoulos’ strange attempted Australian renaissance is one of dagginess.
Dagginess has dogged Milo since the minute he stepped off the airplane. The first “controversy” Milo whipped up after arriving on Australian soil was calling the Sydney Opera House “ugly”, complete with posed photos of him giving the building a thumbs-down. Le Montage, the venue of Troll Academy’s Sydney leg, is a suburban function centre best known by residents of Sydney’s inner west for hosting an endless succession of Italian weddings, parent trivia nights and high school dances. Sky News, the pay-TV channel with a roster of right-wing talking heads that fawn over Milo at any opportunity, boasts a regular weeknight audience of roughly 30,000 people, most of them 55 or older.
Not helping matters is Yiannopoulos’ local cheer squad, an assortment of political has-beens and cultural never-weres even stranger and sadder than his American admirers. In Sydney, Milo sent the Daily Mail into conniptions by posing for kisses with Mark Latham, a former leader of the centre-left Labor Party who moved to the extreme right after retiring from politics. In 2015, Latham was exposed by BuzzFeed Australia as the person behind an anonymous Twitter account that regularly hurled misogynistic and transphobic abuse at prominent Australian political and media personalities. That even Sky News kicked Latham off one of their programs should give an idea of where he rests in the Australian political landscape.
Milo spoke at Australia’s Parliament House at the invitation of David Leyonhjelm, a self-described libertarian Senator who was originally elected by accident; people thought they were voting for the main centre-right Liberal Party, and mistakenly cast votes for Leyonhjelm’s miniscule Liberal Democrats party after misreading the tablecloth-sized ballot paper. Milo shared a kiss onstage at his Adelaide show with Tziporah Malkah, a ‘90s-era model best known now for her appearance on the Australian version of reality TV show I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!, as well as recent drink-driving offences.
Besides the $250,000 speakers’ fee he can’t charge anywhere else, promoters claim Troll Academy made around $1 million. But Australia gave Milo something more precious, to him, than money: a bygone taste of the outsize attention he craves and is now regularly denied.
Not to speak ill of my beloved homeland, but when someone from the outside world comes to town, Australia goes a little bit mad, showering C-grade celebrities with the adulation they can’t get from the rest of the world anymore. As a result, Australia – especially Australian television – has become something of a global orphanage for wayward and unwanted personalities whose star has long faded everywhere else. In heading here when his career got shaky, Milo followed in the footsteps of plenty of celebs who, rather than fade into obscurity, decided to be big fish in a small pond. Not because of who they are or what they do, but because they happen to be from somewhere else.
If you’ve ever wondered what Joel and Benji Madden, of early-00s pop punk outfit Good Charlotte, have been up to lately – and I have to assume you haven’t – their surreal, crushingly awkward acoustic set in the middle of a Sydney cricket match in 2013 should give you a good idea. Over the last five years, the Madden brothers have carved out a bizarre niche on Australian primetime television as guest judges on singing reality show The Voice Australia.
The Voice Australia and its various spinoffs have also provided refuge for singer Seal, UK performer Boy George, the Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am and Boyzone’s Ronan Keating. LMFAO’s Redfoo, who guested as a judge on the rival X Factor Australia, was infamously “glassed” in a Sydney pub in 2014. (“Glassing”, for the uninitiated, is another Australianism describing the art of smashing a beer glass into someone’s face or head.) Chris Isaak and the Spice Girls’ Mel B also found temporary homes on The X Factor. I have a terrifying vision of Milo sitting in one of those swivelling judges’ chairs in ten years time, provoking rehearsed gasps as he dismisses a contestant for being too fat.
None of this is to say that Milo, or the cover he provides for bigotry, isn’t dangerous. Like the US, Australia is grappling with the global upswing in far-right movements, political parties and policies. That is a far more complex phenomenon than the career status of one of its public faces, and it won’t go away just because Milo does.
But there is something delicious in watching him act out the same tired routine to ever-diminishing interest. One of Australia’s running nationwide in-jokes is “the RSL circuit”; the succession of dingy, regional-town Returned Services League venues ‘80s hair-rock acts hit when they need to scrape some money together for child support payments. With Troll Academy, Milo is well and truly on the global RSL circuit.