Among the glitter and glam of the neo-burlesque scene, there is one rising star with a stronger lust for the macabre than any other. With her witty blend of sex, death, and humor – the great social levelers – she’s stunning crowds across the nation. Audiences here in Chicago have developed a Pavlovian response to her tagline, “The Lon Chaney of Burlesque,” chanting her name as she takes the stage. “Red Rum!”
Dirge Magazine: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, darling!
Red Rum: Anytime, Dearest!
After five years in burlesque, you have an absolutely killer repertoire. Which do you consider your signature acts at this point in your career?
“Another One Bites the Dust” will always be my top signature act – it was hilarious fun to take it as far as America’s Got Talent, this year. Coming in at a close second is my new Charles Manson act called “Charlie’s Angels.” It’s a group act with Dahlia Fatale, Slightly Spitfire, and Lilly Rascal. I am proud of how far it is able to push narrative in a burlesque act; it tells the full story of Manson’s seduction and manipulation of Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins and Leslie Van Houten. The best part is I don’t even strip – I have the girls to do it for me!
In the beginning, was striptease something you immediately felt comfortable with, or did the sensual aspects take time to develop?
I wasn’t immediately comfortable with it, but I suppose that was part of the appeal and the challenge. It is also where the skeleton face came into play: to obliterate the everyday me, and immerse myself in another creature, gave me a particular kind of courage and power. The other challenge was that four months into performing, I found out I was pregnant, so that posed an additional obstacle to how comfortable I felt in my skin. I was so determined to perform at the time I just powered through it and experimented as much as possible. I look back now and have no idea how I got through it.
Can you describe the genesis of your skully face, and how it has evolved over time?
The first time I painted my face with the signature skully was for a celebration for Marilyn Houlberg, one of my professors and a key point of inspiration for my character. She was a Mambo, and leading expert on the arts and culture of Haitian Vodou. Marilyn always wore mirrored sunglasses and when she entered a room – you felt slightly spooked, because you never could tell where she was looking. I was fascinated!
So much about her was a mystery, as if she were a spirit crossed-over. From her I learned about Guédé: they embody the powers of death and fertility, they keep the crossroads, they guide souls, and they have a wonderfully crass and raunchy sense of humor. People commented that the skeleton makeup was scary but somehow sexy at the same time. It was a real “Ah-ha!” moment when it came to developing Red Rum, and Guédé was to be my unifying inspiration and my guide.
Horror-themed burlesque was already a thing when I started, but one thing I noticed is even though performers were doing grotesque things like ripping their “skin” off, there was still a concern with keeping the face pretty. I wondered what could come from obliterating your traditional features. I have many variations on the skully face now, and an ever-expanding cast of characters. The most important thing for me is to always keep up the challenge to be something quite opposite of my everyday self.
Your costumes are so intricately crafted, and music choices diverse – while always spot on. In terms of your creative process, where do you look to for new act concepts?
The majority of my inspiration comes from pop culture, films, any number of society’s perversions, newspaper headlines, tragedy… anything where death and transformation come into play. Sometimes the character comes before the music, or sometimes the music inspires the character. Either way, I carefully consider the music as a key element for telling the story. I also like to twist the sentiment of the song. I’ve wanted, seemingly forever, to do a piece to Shirley Bassey’s “Diamonds Are Forever” making the act about diamond mines in Sierra Leone. Strip off a sparkly glove to reveal an amputated limb. I enjoy tricking an audience, giving them something pretty and then perverting it.
What are some of your most rewarding experiences on stage to date?
That is always a tough one to narrow down. I’ve been so honored to have many opportunities to travel in the past few years. You learn so much when traveling; there is incredible burlesque talent all over this country. You can often get too comfortable only performing in your “hometown.” Your friends will always cheer – because they’re awesome and supportive – but when you are able to win over an audience that has never seen you before, or has never heard of you, that is the greatest reward.
Has there ever been a specific audience reaction that’s stuck with you?
One time, at Untitled, I was told an audience member stood up during my performance, made the sign of the cross, and walked out! Funny enough, I found it to be the best compliment ever!
You’ve represented Gozer the Gozerian at numerous events with the Windy City Ghostbusters. How did you get involved with their organization?
I had the Gozer act for just a few weeks, and someone mentioned to me that a burlesque producer named Chris Biddle was into the Ghostbusters thing and even made a fancy proton pack. It was around C2E2 time, so I found Chris on Facebook and asked if I could hang out with him and his GB friends at the convention. Yep, I’m a nerd like that! The Windy City Ghostbusters quickly grew out of our core of cosplayers. Chris organized us into an official group and rallied us for charity events and parades of all kinds. I’ve always admired Chris’s ability to bring people together with enthusiasm to make big things happen. I haven’t had as much time in the past 6 months to be as involved in WCGB events, but I jump in whenever I can.
Your relationship with Sanjula Vamana rivals that of Morticia and Gomez Addams. Tell us a little bit about your life together, on stage and off?
I always like to think of us as the Addams Family in the flesh, a passionate and committed family, generous, enthusiastic, and blissfully unaware of how the rest of the world finds our morbid way of life disturbing. Within our performance community we’re pretty normal, but when I step out of our circle people are totally baffled by us. “Three coffins in your dining room, for the love of God, why!?”
We share the same passion for the grotesque and unusual, but Sanjula loves to make his art with real dead things (taxidermy) and I love the fake dead stuff (movie props). Our apartment is so full to the brim with morbid artifacts, that when our little boy Dexter was about a year old, he would opt to cuddle toy skeletons over any baby doll. He would even point to a skull and call it mama; that was his comfort. Funny enough, the only thing he is afraid of is the radiator in his room, which makes a dinging noise when the heat is on.
Sanjula and I work incredibly hard. Outside of playing with Dexter or taking him to the park, we have zero leisure time. Between performing, producing shows, the day job, costuming, making props, commissions, hosting performers, cleaning, and maintaining the collection, there is no time left in the day to just sit and be people. Our vacations are even working vacations. Because of this, everything that we do offstage is naturally an extension of our onstage art.
Let’s hear about your After Midnight series at the Uptown Underground! Do you find your dual roles as a performer and producer advantageous?
Uptown After Midnight was a five-month stretch of weekly shows that united, under one umbrella, some of the producers that I got my start with (Festival of Flesh, 1901 In the Dark, and Please-O-Matic). Starting in July, we are rebranding into something more truly collaborative, presenting monthly themes played out every Saturday at midnight on the Uptown main stage. I never would have started producing if not for the opportunity provided by Uptown Underground. Firstly, Chris Biddle and Jenn Kincaid offered an affordable opportunity to rent a beautiful theater space. Secondly, is it walk-able from where I live.
It is easier for me to make the time commitment and keep in good communication with the management. It is a tremendous amount of work with infinite highs and lows, but once again, I can’t resist the challenge and the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues on another level.
The shows you’re producing are highly theatrical and heavily themed (“Last Kiss: A Tribute to Songs of Teen Tragedy,” “Exxxposed: A Tribute to American Tabloids,” “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark & Urban Legends,” “Twilight Zone”). What subject matters do we have to look forward to?
With the new format in July, we are kicking off with “Public Enemy #1.” Throughout the month you will find acts inspired by everything from John Dillinger, to HH Holmes, to the UniBomber, and Bernie Madoff! Down the road we are planning a theme inspired by the World of Sports. This will include characters from professional wrestling, like Macho Man Randy Savage, to sports-related tragedies, like the rugby team that crashed in the Andes and resorted to cannibalism. In the fall, we will present a Director’s Chair theme where each week a different director is highlighted – one Saturday will be dedicated to George Romero, one to Alfred Hitchcock, one to Clive Barker, etc. We are incredibly excited to test out the new collaboration and some of the under-explored themes.
At which stage of the build-up to a show does the adrenaline really hit you?
For most shows it’s the night before, really… but I don’t get amped up, I just get nervous as hell! Day of a show I am always patching costume parts up, slowly packing, and asking myself, “Why, oh, why did I commit to do this?” Then I have to take a deep breath before putting the makeup on, and haul my crazy face, with my crazy props, on the crazy train. The process is exhausting, but I keep going for some reason. I suppose it is like any relationship I’ve had, when things are too easy I get bored.
What are your ambitions for the future, both short-range and long-term?
If there is one constant in my life it is art, and I live for the way that projects grow into each other. Who knows what will be next! I am a very process-orientated artist; the best part is coming up with the idea and making the character – the stage performance is almost secondary. My love for the process is why I keep pieces open to evolve over time. I could never spend forever refining a costume and rehearsing until I felt it was just perfect and ready to reveal to the world. I am more comfortable improvising, working fast and furious.
As Dexter gets older, it will be exciting to involve him in some makeup and costuming projects. He is learning to help Sanjula out on stage as well. To be a performing family unit would be ideal. Sanjula and I also host many traveling performers, and a long-term ambition is to open a bed and breakfast, themed along with our budding collection of morbid artifacts.
Is there any artistic advice you would impart to aspiring neo or horror ecdysiasts?
No excuses, make work! Early on, when I was working on my own low budget horror film projects, I read Lloyd Kaufmann’s book, “Make Your Own Damn Movie.” I fell in love with Troma’s no excuse approach to making film: Can’t afford to cast a head out of fancy rubber for a gory stunt? Put a wig on a watermelon, and run it over with the car. The beauty is in the improvisation with materials. By transforming unlikely materials into something new, you can be more innovative with less.
Uptown After Midnight – Tickets and Event Calendar