“What exactly do we call you?” It’s an awkward question but we have to ask. It’s not every day, after all, that we encounter characters quite like the ones in The Heard.
The answer, when it comes, is obvious. “Disproportionate Head Boy,” explains the man behind the mask. “And it’s not Fat Head, Big Head or Big Head Man, even though it’s been everything on Facebook and Twitter.”
That settled, we move on to discovering more about the Australian group who’ve captivated fans, players and media at Australian Open 2013. Two nights ago, it was Disproportionate Head Boy’s frolicking through the crowds in Bernard Tomic’s first round encounter with Leonardo Mayer that provided as much entertainment at the actual tennis.
There was also a ‘Where’s Wally’ act as Jarmila Gajdosova played a tough first-round match against Yanina Wickmayer and, on Thursday, an impromptu courtside match of their own that helped ease the tension of Tomic’s four-set progression against Daniel Brands.
There’s also the singing – “Can't hit my, can't hit my, no you can't hit my service ace” sung to the tune of Lady Gaga’s ‘Poker Face’ is a favourite – and guest appearances from a range of other characters, including Ketut, The Hulk and Thunderbird.
Surely the “off-court” careers of The Heard – which started as a group of four some 18 years ago and have peaked at almost 400 before they started scaling back to more manageable proportions again – must revolve around acting or similar entertainment-based roles?
Not exactly. “I’m actually a Minister and work mainly in school-based programs,” explains long-time member Diggers Randle. “That’s actually the context of how a lot of us know each other. A lot of us are youth leaders and some of the younger guys in our youth group were coming along and a couple of us studied at Bible College together. That’s sort of how it all started, through youth groups and the like.”
Beneath the hot and awkward but unmistakably striking mask of Disproportionate Head Boy is another minister, Matt Cutler. “I’ve been an ordained minister for about nine years,” he explains, before adding with a laugh. “I don’t wear this when I preach, I can tell you!”
Still, a naturally-extroverted nature clearly lends itself well to both Cutler’s unique life as a tennis spectator and his regular career too – and the same can be said for practically every member of The Heard. Having to work up the courage to perform – some aspects have been fine-tuned over years while others, such as the ‘Where’s Wally’ act that proved such a hit on Tuesday night, are thought up and choreographed only hours earlier - doesn’t enter into their thinking .
“Nah, not at all!” Randle laughs. “Most of us are fairly massive extroverts so we’re more than happy to get up, and even if nobody laughs we’re just happy to make fools of ourselves.”
That’s especially true when members of The Heard realise the enjoyment they provide, even for the players competing for such high stakes. Something of a media hit at the Australian Open, The Heard have also caught the attention of many top Australian names.
“A few years ago we were watching Andrew Ilie and he just loved us. He was always turning around and getting involved,” Randle says. “Most of the time the players try to stay focused because a lot of the stuff that we’re doing is funny chants and gags, but Tomic mentioned us in his press conference and obviously enjoys the support.”
Despite the somewhat bewildered expression you might glimpse on the faces of some security staff at times, The Heard are cheerfully tolerated, even appreciated, by officialdom too.
“We’re generally pretty well received by security,” Randle explains. “Because we’re not drunk, we’re not rowdy, we’re not doing any abusive chats or anything like that. Probably the worst that we’ve got is when Disproportionate Head Boy is trying to run around the outside and they’re like ‘guys, you’ve got to sit down’.”
Disproportionate Head Boy, or at least the man behind him, just laughs. He’s developed a thick skin over a lot of years, especially considering the many personalities he’s adopted.
“I’ve been many characters over the journey, from a fireman to a Wally and a Hulk and Harry Potter, even Susan Boyle one year. It’s culturally dependent what I rock up in, but I’ve settled down and I’m becoming more focused just on Disproportionate Head Boy, even attached to him,” he says.
So on to the last big question. Will we see The Heard when Tomic, the last Australian singles player remaining at Australian Open 2013, takes to the court again?
There are no guarantees, various members of The Heard cheerfully explain, noting that tickets are generally sourced for months in advance. But Randle adds that “we’re lucky that we have the flexibility that we’re able to come to the tennis at fairly short notice”, and as they leave Melbourne Park, with heads, hats and assorted props tucked under their arms, you can’t help feeling they’re already thinking about an encore performance.