Empress Stah: interview

Time Out meets a live performer who can't be pinned down – unless she does it to herself with strawberries…

  • ‘I’m too colourful for the fetish scene, too pornographic for circus, too entertaining for live art, and too avant-garde for burlesque,’ admits Empress Stah, a performance artist for whom such a tag is grossly inadequate. ‘I tell people that I’m a trapeze artist, a neo-burlesque starlet and a twisted cabaret performer, but not fitting neatly into any of those can make it difficult to market my work.’

    Since arriving in London eight years ago, the 33-year old Australian has created a genre of performance all her own. Her signature piece is Swinging From The Chandelier, during which she hangs from an enormous, opulent chandelier and performs an aerial dance, while Diamond Pussy sees her produce a string of diamonds from her vagina and Strawberries And Cream has Stah pierce her torso with needles, pin strawberries on her body and then offer herself, with freshly whipped cream, to the audience. The Queen of the Night and The Phantomess of the Opera are, well, a touch more extreme, variously incorporating rose eating, blood drinking, fire eating and simulated sex. A Gold Star, meanwhile, is an exploration of ego and high camp.

    Growing up in deepest Woop-Woop (known to the locals as Mittagong, New South Wales, population 6,000), Stah high-tailed it to Sydney where she started to perform at gay clubs as a female drag queen in 1996. She incorporated newly-acquired skills such as body-piercing and the trapeze as she mastered them. Her sights, however, were always fixed on London. ‘When people asked what I was going to do when I grew up, I always said, “I’m going to move to London”. I thought that’s what everyone wanted to do.’

    Stah made her name in fetish clubs such as Torture Garden. ‘I felt people on that scene have been around the block a few times in order to be there in the first place, and have seen pretty much everything,’ she says. ‘But I would think: Have you seen it in pink and done to ABBA?’
    Stah’s production values are, quite simply, jaw-dropping, and she confesses to spending 90 per cent of her income on her performances.

    Inspiration for the performance pieces comes from music, and, when pressed, she admits that they come from her own character. ‘That’s a scary thing to say. After a show, I sometimes think: Oh really, Stah. Indeed. Is that how it is then, sweetheart?!’

    Cabaret and burlesque are built on homage, pastiche and references: this song done with slightly altered lyrics, or that performance done
    backwards, say. So to be utterly unique is, well, a unique thing to be. Where trailblazers go, the inspired and influenced are sure follow.

    ‘When it first started happening, I was offended. I thought: How dare they rip off my work! I think that it stemmed from insecurity and as I’ve become more aware of my own position in the scene, I am comfortable with the fact that I’ve inspired performers. Now, if someone emails me asking advice about pulling something out of their pussy, I’ll reply in the role of a mentor instead of being precious and threatened.’

    Her three-date show at the Soho Revue Bar will be the first she has produced on her own, but isn’t signalling a move into event promotion.
    ‘It will be a showcase of the very best of my work,’ she says. ‘I’ve outgrown doing performances in nightclubs and at festivals where you rock up to a venue and have a choice of two different lighting gels and have to get changed in a broom closet. I want to move into theatres such as the Roundhouse – big, large-scale productions. I want to art-direct a cast. I want backing dancers!’

    While Ryan Styles and Dusty Limits are also on the bill, backing dancers they’re not. Handpicked because their own highly original styles complement her work, Stah also admits that, truth be told, ‘I like to be flanked by two gay men at all times!’

    The Very Best of Empress Stah is at the Soho Revue Bar, May 11 & 25, and June 8.

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