The man behind the Hans brand

Adelaide’s own Matt Gilbertson (AKA Hans) rose to international fame last week, as the first Australian act to make it through to the second round of the America’s Got Talent Auditions.

As fellow Adelaideans, we watched on with pride as the boy from South-Oz showed the world what we already knew the guy behind Hans International Super Star, Home Wrecker, Madonna Fan, is a truly brilliant, determined, and damn hard-working man who knows more than a thing or two about how to cultivate a brand.

I first met Matt when we performed together in The Weimar Room’s infamous Berlin Cabaret on Adelaide’s Hindley Street. We were both 19-year-old music students, fresh-faced, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and couldn’t believe our luck in finding a little part of our little city that accepted us for our quirks. Unlike our contemporaries, we were Sound of Music and Spice Girls-obsessed children of the 90s who actually wanted to be living in sleazy 1920s Germany.

The Berlin Cabaret allowed us to be ourselves and create outrageous alter-egos behind the guise of our characters’ ridiculous make-up and fish-net-stockings.

Matt had just been “discovered” by Catherine Campbell who played the stunning Greta in the Berlin Cabaret. He was busking in Rundle Mall, performing pop songs on his accordion, and she asked him if he could play traditional German tunes.

He said “yes”, pulled on a pair of lederhosen, called himself Hans, and the rest is history.

Even at 19, Matt’s quick wit and incredible ability to play just about any song requested on his accordion to a room full of drunken middle-aged men and women was astonishing. His understanding of pop culture and politics was a revelation. His ability to recite the dialogue from every single reality TV show and recreate the dance moves to every 90s girl group anthem was awe-inspiring.

But his is not just a story of talent and pop-culture-passion. It’s also a story of tenacity, and immaculately orchestrated branding.

When the Weimar Room closed its doors in 2005 we all walked out of those dingy dressing rooms – which stank of leaking toilets, rotting celery, sweat and a whole lot of fun – as ourselves.

All of us except Matt.

He had fallen in love with Hans at the Berlin Cabaret and Matt wasn’t about to give him up.

A residency at BoHo turned into a radio spot at Nova, corporate gigs and hundreds of sold out Fringe shows in Adelaide and (for the very first time last year) Edinburgh. More than a decade later he’s still the same Hans but his wit is sharper, the accordion is tighter, his voice is bolder and his band and “bitches” better than ever.

He’s cultivated his brand by staying true to Hans – The Boy Wonder from Berlin – through it all.

A flashy brand logo, his own bobble head dolls, Lucky Bitch caps, and manufactured quotes from Madonna and Beyoncé all helped to tell the story. Matt wanted Hans to be an “International Super Star”, so he told the world he was.

The quality of the Hans product, his unflinching character and superb performances backed up his claims.

It’s a lesson for all of us in authenticity, in persistence, and in taking calculated risks. In not being distracted by the latest, shiny (sequins excluded), popular trend, or swaying from our truth because of small town mentalities or criticism. It’s an example of staying true to your original idea, the core of your brand and your story. It’s a reminder to be brave, to go BIG or go home.

In his America’s Got Talent debut last week, Howie D said “I can’t stop smiling, I can’t stop laughing,” Mel B followed with “it made my heart feel warm”. It’s something many of us here in Adelaide have known for a long time, and now finally the world gets to experience it too.

Matt Gilbertson and his alter-ego Hans radiates a special joy to audiences that like all good brands seems to transcend age and gender – and his performances are as infectious as an STD (that one’s for you Hans honeeeey).

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