Photography by Christoffer Edling
Nadja Karlsson is old enough to remember the night, in 1974, when the whole of Sweden watched Abba win the Eurovision Song Contest. This was a pre-globalized world, and the idea that a Swedish band could have international success seemed fantastical. For Nadja, then an 8-year-old boy called Stefan, Abba was more than an emblem of national pride. They were an invitation to imagine an alternate reality, one in which -- like the song says -- he, too, could be a dancing queen.
“If you listen to the lyrics it’s really about the plain people,” she says, before pointing out the song’s significance in movies, like Muriel’s Wedding and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, in which misfits and outsiders find their place in the world. Dancing to Abba with his brother, young Stefan found himself by channeling Agnetha Fältskog, with her long blond tresses, knee-high boots, and revealing skirts.
It has been seven years since Stefan became Nadja, inspired not by Abba but another musical legend: Dolly Parton. Karlsson was in Chile at the time, entering her forties, when by chance she caught Larry King on CNN interviewing Parton about “Travelin’ Thru,” her contribution to the movie Transamerica. “He was asking her, ‘How can you, as a country singer and Christian, make music for this kind of movie?’ and she said, ‘Well, we’re all children of God.’ ” She laughs. “I owe her. I used to throw a Dolly Parton party every year -- she’s a bit like an angel for me.”
Back in Stockholm, Karlsson decided to accept a request to speak at a cultural institute that wanted a transgender person for a series on tolerance. For the invitation she sent out photographs of herself as a woman. “It was quite a shock to many people,” she recalls. “At the time, maybe five of my friends were aware I was transgender.”
Karlsson has come a long way since her Dolly Parton moment and now works at Stockholm’s popular new Spritmuseum as the Tasting Room manager. She says her visible position reflects her country’s journey as much as it does her own. “It’s amazing for me to have such an incredibly interesting job and be able to be myself -- sometimes I think I’m dreaming.”
Her eclectic range of classes includes one that explores the relationship between spirits and gender, and another in which she pairs her love of wine with her love of Abba. It’s a combination that Karlsson (who leads Abba tours of Stockholm) considers a no-brainer: Abba’s rise in Australia in the late ’70s coincided with the rise of Australian wine in Sweden -- for a while Australia’s biggest export market. “At the time, only the rich drank wine in Sweden, and most people felt excluded from French wine culture,” says Karlsson. “Then came the Australians with their big signs for Shiraz, and that was accessible -- we could understand that.”
Like Abba, Australia’s dominance eventually waned, but Karlsson’s class is a snapshot of a time when the songs were as big, bold, and brassy as the wines -- and a young boy was just beginning to figure out his place in the world.