Aerial artist Empress Stah performs the world’s only laser butt plug show, and she brought it to Splore 2018 last weekend. Simon Day spoke to her about how her art challenges audiences to look at the world in a different way.
Empress Stah hung from her trapeze above the stage as hundreds of Splorers waited for the moment. Her muscular body swung, her legs stretched far apart, and then a laser shot out of her anus and across the crowd. The music, produced by Canadian artist Peaches, was dark and intense as she spun on her hexagonal swing, as the laser butt plug changed colours and size from a single tight beam to a thick rainbow haze. It was athletic, hypnotic, multi coloured, and coming straight out of her arse.
Was this crazy stunt a circus performance, cabaret, or art? Empress Stah says it’s all of those things, and designed to make the audience take more out of her show than just mere entertainment. She wants the crowd to be challenged about the way they see things like gender, sexuality, and fetishism. She wants her audience to question their understanding of how a body can and should be used.
The Australian performer who has been based in London for the majority of the last 20 years, began her career in performance by dropping out of economics degree.
“I was floating around, I was on the dole, I thought I wanted to be on stage but didn’t really know how or why or what. So I start doing some drag shows (in Sydney clubs). And I was into a lot of the body piercing stuff in the modern primitive scene. And someone invited me to a trapeze class, I’d always been on the monkey bars as a kid, and so I got on the trapeze and I never got off. That’s twenty years ago.”
Since then she’s appeared with Cirque Du Soleil and Dita von Teese, performed at Splore, and in 2015 collaborated with Peaches, the genesis of her now-famous laser arse show. And while her reputation precedes her on the European scene, there is a lot more allure (and apprehension from certain more conservative institutions) for her first laser butt plug show on this side of the world.
She arrived at our interview on the grassy bank behind the Splore mainstage carrying a solid silver briefcase – inside was the famous laser butt plug. It’s a surprisingly large and elaborate piece of equipment, and requires her husband to control the colour changes during the performance. It’s also top secret and I can’t show you a photograph, or tell you about how it is made.
What is the message the laser shining from her butt is supposed to carry? It’s about the light inside of all us, about finding our own god in who we are. It’s about gender, religion and the universe. And it’s about celebrating who we are.
Have you ever performed in a place like this?
I performed at Splore in 2008. It’s really good to be back here, when I’m in London or the UK the festivals are generally a lot bigger, grimmer, muddier, colder, certainly not like where we are now, looking out over a flotilla of yachts. I’m looking forward to having my performances finished a day off tomorrow to relax by the water.
And there’s a whole bevy of freaks dressed up beautifully walking by. It’s wonderful.
I wanted to talk about the freaks. New Zealand is somewhat famous for its tolerance, but tolerance feels like such a disappointing aspiration. Here the freaks, and the people who are learning about their freakiness, get so much more than tolerance, they get to be who they want to be. How important are places like this for encouraging something that’s greater than tolerance, but an understanding of eachother?
I’ve never thought about tolerance in those terms. Just to be tolerated is quite a negative connotation.
It’s absolutely essential to the well being of a person to be able to freely express themselves, whether that is about their gender, their sexuality, their lifestyle choices. Whatever it is that floats your boat, you should be able to get on with that in life. I have a new personal goal, to add a new stripe to the rainbow flag, which is a holographic stripe and it represents freaks. It’s not based on sexuality or gender, or anything identified with LGBTQI+ flag, it’s about who you are inside and how that comes out.
In light of that I think spaces like this are absolutely vital for coming together of like minded people, and to allow newcomers to explore their freakiness, and to express it.
Thinking of freakiness in a sexual way, sex is always something that we love to talk about, it’s on our minds all the time, yet it is still something that is socially stigmatised and often isn’t something to celebrate. How much is your show and your approach to art about the celebration of our sexuality?
In my work and performances I use my body, often naked, and I wear things inside my body and I deal with issues of gender fluidity and who you are inside, and fetishism, and of course my laser butt plug performance which is starring in the show tonight. For me that isn’t explicitly about the joy of sex, as it is about the freedom to use one’s body in your own way, and that isn’t necessarily construed as being as sexualised.
The importance of talking about and celebrating the joy of sex is undoubtedly super important to the psychology and well being of humans. And the repression of that has caused load of problems throughout society.
That specific angle isn’t really a focus of my work. I come from a place of transcending that from the beginning. Much as the body of my work was created for nightclubs, for gay clubs, and fetish clubs. I really came at from a place of “this is what I want to do with my life”, so I got myself booked then I made my act to fit that place, that style of audience.
The work is always specific to the club. I was invited to make a show for a club called Fist in London when I very first arrived over there in 2000. I was desperate for work, I had to pay the rent and the phone rings, “Hi it’s Suzie Kruger from Fist, can you do a show for us?” Of course!
Then I thought what the fuck am I going to do? Because Fist is a really hardcore gay club, as the name suggests, there’s lots of dark rooms, lots of action going on, mind boggling actually what goes on in there. Everyone is having a great time, they’re all expressing themselves freely.
So I was thinking what am I going to perform? I am a woman for starters. Someone in the audience could have both their fists up the boyfriend’s arse already, so this was a different ball park. So I decided ultimately, they were all gay, so I went for ABBA, and flipped it on its head, and made a show called Little Miss Stah, about me being in a beauty contest as quite a young person.
It was very wrong. It was a montage of music including ABBA and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and I painted a star on a piece of cardboard with a paintbrush in my vagina. And I sat on dildo chair and talked about my special relationship with my uncle. It was really tongue in cheek, it was really funny, and it was really wrong and they loved it.
How does Little Miss Stah become Empress Stah?
It was at first Stah Power Girl, then Interglamactic Empress Stah Power Girl, and now Empress Stah Power. I’ve changed my name by deed poll three times to those three different versions.
A few years back I decided that I was going to archive the majority of my work and move into theatre, and trying to get away a bit from my public image. I feel I am a bit misunderstood, I think I have a lot more to offer than just this. And every time I have attempted to break free I don’t quite manage it, partly because I think I am actually personally interested in the work I am doing.
Whenever I try and straighten up a bit, then the next thing you know the show is just on the wrong side of right, not the right side of wrong, for the mainstream and more commercial audience.
So, I am just on the cusp of creating a new show, called the Slingshot Show. The idea being the slingshot is something you can hit people with force, it’s quite accurate, and you aim to hit them between the eyes – meaning the third eye, meaning to open people’s mind to enlighten people, to awaken people.
I’ve realised that this is really important to me and I am going to continue down this road. It will feature the laser. Commercial shows appeal to a broader audience, but I think that audience is there now. If I curate it cleverly I think it can work.
The other thing associated with that, that I’ve had in my vocabulary for a few years now, and I haven’t known how to present it, is ‘Cabarart’. And the idea behind Cabarart is it’s a new way of describing live art. It’s not burlesque, it’s not drag, and it’s not live art – it’s Cabarart.
It’s performance that’s entertaining, thought provoking and challenging, which are often mutually exclusive. Someone will book a live art show, but it won’t be very entertaining, or you book a burlesque show and it might be sexy but it won’t be very conceptual. My work I feel has always straddled all these genres, and I’ve always struggled with how to describe it, and then this name came to me.
You gave a really interesting critique of entertainments inability to tell a bigger story, than just occupying someone’s time and mind, and of the dilution of cabaret.
There’s a thing that has happened with the resurgence of cabaret over the last 20 years, it’s become really sanitised and commercialised and it’s got to sell out Spiegeltents, it’s gotta have 500 on the South Bank, seven shows a week. That’s all well and good, but right at the beginning it was about the artist putting on their own show, anything went, you could see anything. Then people saw dollar signs, and producers got involved and it’s become like clapping seals.
There’s a point, and that point is now, that audiences who have been frequenting these shows are ready to see something else. An audience broad enough to initiate conversation and potentially change the way they think and look at the world, which is really important.
How do you continue to have cut through when people are much more exposed to what you are doing?
It’s about reaching a much broader audience so you don’t just play to your peers. It’s about finding new venues. Finding new ways to talk about it, finding new ways of marketing it, and finding a way to bring down new people who wouldn’t normally be interested in it. That is key to finding a way to broaden the audience and broaden the conversation.
When there’s a plethora of people who are down with what you do and are going to come to your show no matter what, it’s finding the people who are hesitant.
That’s what I want to do with the Slingshot show. It’s about telling people they are going to be challenged when you come to this show, but it’s going to be in a good way, and it’s going to be fun, and you’re going to have a great night. It’s going to have all the excitement of the other shows that are on the South Bank, or the Spiegeltent at the Adelaide Fringe Festival, but it’s going to push the boat out just a little bit further.
I’m planning on bringing it to Auckland. My husband and I are planning on moving back to Australia. I have quite a large family on the east coast of Australia. There is a big network of people there and I want to see my nieces and nephews. I am not having children myself, so I do feel like I need to be Aunty Stah. I do have that desire.
As my 97 year old grandmother said when I visited last year: “You’re coming to stir things up a bit.”
Does she know what you do?
She would have an idea. But she probably doesn’t know exactly.
The rest of my family do, they know exactly what I do. They have come to some of my shows when I’ve been in town. They think I am great. I am the talking point of the family, they’re really proud of me.
They’re really normal. There’s no reason I’ve ended up the way that I am. I don’t come from an artistic family. I’m the fluro freak of the family, the fluro sheep.
If you move back home, where do you take your show next?
Once we are established in Australia we will have a bigger relationship with you here in New Zealand, bringing shows over to Auckland and Christchurch and Wellington festivals. As well as in Australia and up into Asia.
You’ve got Tokyo, and I have heard there is a good scene in Taiwan, and Korea. And they don’t get a good scene touring from Europe because it’s so far.
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As much as I am still performing now, and enjoying being on stage and having that persona, I am in a position where I am putting more people into the shows and eventually I will be producing and taking more of a back seat.
Have you prepared something bespoke and special for Splore?
I have indeed. You’re getting a performance of Stargasm, which is laser ass aerial performance, which I did in collaboration with a musician called Peaches. I approached her to write the song for the act. The act involves a laser butt plug, colour changing lasers that come out at you that travel across the room in a haze.
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