In August last year, Matt Gilbertson was lying at rock bottom beneath a stage with a crushed foot and five fractured vertebrae. But he’s back from hell and his next stop is Disco Spektakular.
Matt Gilbertson is on a cruise ship, of all places, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea belting out a jazzed-up version of the classic Titanic hit My Heart Will Go On.
It’s August 2022 and he’s in the middle of a performance as his alter ego Hans, sparkling in his mermaid-themed costume, lapping up the vibes of the crowd as he makes his way through the audience, headed back onto the stage.
Then, it happens. His life changes with his next step. Unbeknown to him there is a hole in the stage, which he steps into, suddenly falling four metres to the ground.
That hole had been left by a hydraulic lift that should have been at stage level, but was sitting at ground level.
“It happened very slowly in my mind,” Matt says, recalling the accident. “It felt like it took 10 minutes to hit the ground. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is about to happen’ and then hitting the ground my first reaction was just to try to crawl back on stage.
“When I hit the deck, I was thinking more about the show. I couldn’t believe it was happening in front of a crowd.
“My initial thought was embarrassment and then, ‘How can I quickly go around, do my costume change and get back on again?’.”
But Matt quickly realised he wasn’t going anywhere and a strange calm came over him – a bit out of character for the man who says he’s normally a touch dramatic.
The band kept on playing and then Matt heard “Alpha Alpha Alpha” – the words used on a cruise ship to alert staff of a medical emergency.
He was whisked to the ship’s medical centre and, initially thinking he’d simply broken his foot, Matt realised it was a little more serious when the ship turned around and went back to the port at Bodrum, Turkey.
Aside from the serious injury to his foot, he had also fractured five vertebrae in his spine, as well as his coccyx.
It had all happened so quickly: he had only boarded the cruise ship in Mykonos the day before where he’d spent a couple of very expensive days on the Greek island with a friend.
“I was feeling buyer’s guilt because we’d spent so much money. Now we joke that it was fine because at least we had two fun days with how the rest of the time was about to pan out.”
Fortuitously, Adam – the friend Matt was travelling with – is a professor of nursing whose knowledge was invaluable during this time, navigating the early stages of his accident, liaising with medical specialists about next steps and the prognosis.
It wasn’t easy.
“I can’t recommend the Turkish health care system. It’s not an experience I want to repeat, I’ll put it that way. And this was a coastal town, not Istanbul,” says Matt.
“I was just going along with everything, but Adam was picking up on all of the things; there were a lot of things in that hospital that aren’t what we’d expect when we go to a hospital here in Australia.
“Adam was doing a very good job of keeping me calm and then going out of the room and working the phone, talking to colleagues back in Adelaide and working out what to do.
“It was like when you try to run in a dream but you’re being stuck in treacle. I didn’t know who to trust or what was going on.”
During the week-long stay in the Turkish hospital, Matt didn’t know if he’d ever be able to walk again, with scans showing he’d shattered the bones in his right foot.
After an operation to temporarily put the bones back in roughly the right places to reduce swelling, Matt was flown to London, where a doctor told him the truth: it was as if a bomb had exploded on his foot.
However, if London brought him anything, it was positivity. This was the first time since the fall he was reassured that he was going to be able to dance again. But it was going to take time and work to make it happen.
It was now early September and Matt was in the London Bridge Hospital when Queen Elizabeth died. Hence, some of Australia’s biggest media personalities were in London reporting on the historic event, and they all turned up to Matt’s hospital side to visit.
“Kochie was there and Angela Bishop. It was funny because one of the physios in the hospital was an Australian guy and he was like, ‘What’s happening, why are all these people here?’.”
Another recognisable face among his visitors was former Prime Minister, and fellow South Australian, Julia Gillard. The two are friends and when they are in Adelaide together, Matt and Julia play cards – along with Anne “Willsy” Wills – and Matt says she was great company during those weeks.
“She came to the hospital and brought me magazines and we watched the Queen’s funeral together in the hotel. She’s very funny with a dry sense of humour, but when Willsy’s around nobody else can get a word in.”
Matt had another operation in the London hospital and then faced six weeks in a hotel before he could fly home again.
But even in intense moments, he found he could still crack jokes: “I woke up in the recovery ward and said to the nurse, ‘Oh God, I had a horrible dream that Liz Truss was prime minister and the Queen had died’.”
In February this year, Matt had a third operation here in Adelaide to remove four plates and 20 screws in his foot and since then he’s been recovering and doing his physio work to the letter.
“I’m at the point now that I can’t quite do everything, but it’s getting much better and I’ve worked out ways of doing the show around it.”
So, after months of recovery, Matt’s finally been given the green light to perform again and he couldn’t be more ready.
Last year’s accident happened just a month after he’d quit his long-term journalism job at The Advertiser, having realised that entertaining had swung from his side hustle to full-time work and he was getting gigs all over the world. That all came to a halt on that night on the ship.
The 2023 Fringe season was one to spectate rather than participate and life was all about learning to walk properly.
After needing to be cut out of that mermaid green jumpsuit in August last year, Matt is back in his over-the-top Hans costumes. And as he chats about his Disco Spektakular tour, which is seeing him perform more than 30 shows across four states, he’s resplendent in a pink feathery number and well and truly back in the groove.
“I spent the best part of nine months sitting around … now, it’s like a switch has been turned on and it’s gone from zero to 100 very fast,” he muses, adding that he’s also recently started appearing in a new podcast, Hot Topics, by The Post SA.
“Obviously I’ve gone through something traumatic, but I think the whole world is very tense at the moment. Part of this is doing a show for myself because it’s fun and light, but I think it’s what we all need at the moment.
“It has everything you would expect at a Hans show – feathers, glitter and an accordion. There will be lots of laughs and a little bit of audience participation.”
Through the trauma of the week following the fall and the hard work of the past months, Matt says people’s kindness has been the most heartening thing.
“I feel like I heard from every single person I’d ever met and that was very overwhelming and sweet,” the 38-year-old says.
“Peter Goers wrote something for the Sunday Mail and it was almost like I was reading my eulogy. Scary, but also heart-warming.”
This article first appeared in the June 2023 issue of SALIFE magazine.
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