London-based neo-burlesque performance artist, Empress Stah, is heading to New Zealand for next year’s Splore festival offering up a stage extravaganza that you’re unlikely to have seen anything like before. Collaborating with rock band Peaches she created the world’s only laser-ass show, Stargasm Laser Ass Aerial, which she has performed live to their song ‘Light in Places’. Combining elements of circus, cabaret, burlesque and aerial art, she is sure to impress and intrigue kiwi audiences with her outrageous ‘Laser Butt-Plug’ act. In this interview with Empress Stah she reveals the multiple elements in her life that have combined to build a personality that lives both on and off the stage.
At what point did you start expressing yourself artistically and what did this look like?
I attended ballet classes in Bowral NSW from the age of 4 and I can distinctly remember the tea pot dance, ‘I’m a little tea pot short and stout, here is my handle - put hand on hip, here is my spout - other arm bent in an upward position’, we had annual concerts in the local town hall, with beautiful costumes and full makeup on our childish faces. Fast forward 20 years and you find me in London performing at the Torture Garden, naked except for a UV body paint design and ballet point shoes, sticking surgical needles through the skin on my torso and clipping UV elastics onto them, thereby installing myself into the stage. I would dance on point, stretching the elastics until the clips pinged off the needles, and I was free.
"I assume a worldliness and intelligence of my audience, my performances are not designed to shock, they are intended to be entertaining and thought provoking."
Is there anything you’d like New Zealand audiences to know about you before you get here?
I assume a worldliness and intelligence of my audience, my performances are not designed to shock, they are intended to be entertaining and thought provoking.
Where does the inspiration for your work come from?
The inspiration for my work comes from my thinking and my life experiences. The body piercing elements, which are now mostly archived, came from the modern primitive scene of the 90’s, a time when I wore 50 body piercings every day, the nudity came from having worked as a nude artists model, the sex element was introduced after a brief stint working in a peep show. I was always on the monkey bars as a child, so once I got on a trapeze I never got off, and my whole project to make a performance on the International Space Station comes from the desire to be floating in air, the need to engage my brain with science and to reach for the stars.
How did you develop your persona as a neo-burlesque performance artist?
I was already performing my own unique style of cabaret when the burlesque scene exploded into life in the early 00’s. I adopted the term neo-burlesque to describe my more extreme style of acts, to make a clear distinction between what I do and vintage strip tease. My name is actually Empress Stah Power, I officially changed it in the mid 90’s, so again this more about real life than a stage persona.
“As an artist you need to believe in yourself and your material with every fibre of your being.”
What challenges have you overcome to become a professional artist?
As an artist you need to believe in yourself and your material with every fibre of your being. I have been performing circus and cabaret for 20 years now, as my sole source of income, and it is still a constant struggle for survival. You make a new show or act, you tour it for a bit, then you have to come up with another idea for the next one. You have to fund raise to create the work, find people with availability to work on the project, make the show, market it to programmers and audiences, while also maintaining a website and at least three social media platforms, which is a job in itself. The actual performance, which is the bit I get paid for, I don’t count as work. Oh and Circus, circus every damn day to maintain the fitness of an elite athlete, or you can’t do the act.
“Keep going when it looks the bleakest, search for the door that is ajar or a crack in the wall, because this is where you find gold.”
What is most exciting for you about participating and performing at Splore?
I love New Zealand and the people, the fresh air and the friendly, up for it, attitude. As a central London dweller I am really looking forward to getting away from here, to bringing my work to a new, appreciative audience, and spending the days enjoying the festival.
Name three people (alive or dead) you’d invite to your ultimate dinner party and why?
David Bowie because my husband would be having words if I didn’t, Jim Henson to revive the Muppet Show so I could do a cameo and Richard Branson so we can make a plan to send me to space. We could all have a sing-a-long to Space Oddity with desert.
What advice would give someone wanting to pursue a similar career?
Believe in yourself. Keep going when it looks the bleakest, search for the door that is ajar or a crack in the wall, because this is where you find gold. Know that you’ll never retire, not only because you love what you do, but also because you won’t have pension.
Splore will be held 23-25 Febuary 2018 - check out the line up here: http://www.splore.net/line-up/