Le Gateau Chocolat | Performer of the week

Le Gateau Chocolat

Le Gateau Chocolat Photograph: Russ Bell

With his blend of operatic vocals, avant-garde fashion, and effervescent personality, Le Gateau Chocolat is wowing crowds in La Soirée, the stunning cabaret-burlesque-circus hybrid playing at the Riverfront Theater. Born in London to Pentecostal parents and raised in Nigeria, Le Gateau received a law degree from Sussex University before beginning his genderfuck cabaret act. Various odd jobs led to his rise in the London club scene, eventually earning him a spot with La Soirée, a show that has taken him from Edinburgh to Australia to Chicago. Le Gateau speaks to us about travelling the world with his makeshift family of performers, how he balances engaging and alienating the audience, and the importance of showing his vulnerable side in the midst of all the spectacle.

How did you get involved with drag and La Soirée?

I didn’t kind of wake up and go, “Yes, I’m going to dress up in sequins and sing opera and do some drag.” That was never part of the plan, so really plotting who I am and where I come from, West Africa to here, is really not possible. I don’t think there’s any kind of reasonable roadmap…The big change that got me onto this scene, the circus scene, was going to Adelaide [Fringe Festival], 2008, with a performer called Empress Stah, and that’s where I met La Clique, which is now called La Soirée. I actually didn’t meet Brett [Haylock], the creator and producer, until 2009 at a show, and the rest is history. That’s how I ended up here two, three years later.

Did you have any vocal training growing up?

No, I didn’t. So I when I moved to England at 18, I had a couple of singing lessons in my school, but all my vocal training has been informal. I now have tuition with a gentleman only because now that I’m certain it’s going to be my career and now that I’m singing more Wagner and Verdi  and Puccini, I need to really understand the technique. Before I was just kind of coasting along, making the sounds because I can.

What has it been like traveling around the world with all these different performers?

Incredible. I have been able to craft my one–man show which I’m going back to in London. So for instance, they carry on, go on a seven-month tour in Australia and I’m going back to London to do my solo show at the Menier Chocolate Factory and then at the Sydney Opera House. I was able to craft this show on the road with them and after two years of working with them, know precisely what it was I wanted to say. Because they’ve been doing it now for ten years and I’ve learned a lot more about theater and the theatricality of performance by working with them. They have such an eye for perfection, and “OK” will never do and neither will it now for me, because that’s how I cut my teeth. Seeing how understanding that everything in the theater, in the theatrical space, is another opportunity for you to embellish your story-telling, from the lighting, the sounds, the costuming—all of that, I learned from them. Because we tour around the world we are forced—thankfully it’s not so much being forced anymore—to create a real sense of family and we thrive really well. Because backstage is where we try things for each other, we learn, that’s how new acts get onstage, so touring with them has been incredible.

Not only do I get to craft my show that I’m leaving the company to do, but we also get to jump into Lake Michigan at midnight. [We did that] last Thursday, which was incredible. We’d finished the show and Brett was leaving and he was like, “Should we go swimming?” At midnight we all went to Lake Michigan and jumped in. That was one of the moments where everything fades away and you stop and remember how incredible it is. I was born to very, very intensely Pentecostal parents. I grew up born again, I grew up in Nigeria, I studied law. This was never my path, it was a mistake, but one that I embrace in its entirety. And here I am, 30 years old, wearing a Pucci vintage blazer in Lake Michigan at midnight with the cast of La Soirée. That is what makes this job incredible.

I noticed that everyone is very good at interacting with the audience, and I loved how at the beginning of Act II, you try to walk people through what’s happening at the same time you’re sitting on everyone’s lap. It’s kind of a mix of alienating and engaging at the same time. How do you work to make sure you have that balance on stage?

I think the interesting thing about La Soirée being in the round is that it’s not so much just about enjoying the performance as it is enjoying other people watch them. So you see people engaged, you see people smiling, you see people who are affronted, people who disapprove, and that’s all part of the enjoyment of the show, because I think that really adds to it. So for me, my job is to be myself really and sometimes, like on Sunday afternoon, which was so unexpected, the gentleman’s lap who I sat on got really cuddly and then the man in front of me turned round and we had this kind of hug fest. So I think a lot of people don’t realize sometimes that you get out of it what you put in. So the balance is basically, it changes from night to night. It depends on what the audience gives me. What their stimuli is. So if someone is affronted or, you know, the guy’s lap I sat on last weekend, his wife pushed me off saying, “It’s not funny, he’s mine, get off.” I was like, “Um, okay, I know he’s yours, you can have him back in a minute. You’ll be talking about this at dinner parties ‘til you die and when I get off him, just so you know, you can’t catch it.” And the audience kind of laughed at her but laughed in kind of shock as well at what she did and what I said in response.

It’s funny, it’s jocular, but I also hope it makes people think that this is fun and it’s harmless and as I said to her, you can’t catch it. Her husband said, “Oh, he smells really good.” She didn’t like that. The only thing you can catch from this is a real sense of fun and escapism. It’s not like a craving. You’re not going to wake up tomorrow morning going, “Yes, I need to go into the theater and I need to do it in skin-tight lycra.” That’s not gonna happen. Plus, you’re not gonna get a refund. So I’d say it’s a win-win situation when you smile and let yourself become a part of our world. I think what’s really interesting about La Soirée is when I first joined the company, what I noticed is it’s not so much going to a zoo and watching animals in a cage. It’s all of us really reclaiming the elements that make us freaks and inviting you into our world. So whatever happens, we are going to carry on doing what we do and we just hope that for the two hours, you want to join in as well.
You singing Radiohead’s “Creep” in the second act really emphasizes that sense of community and reclaiming those freaky elements. That’s when you really strip away the artifice and become more emotional and introspective. Do you think that it’s important to show audiences that bare, vulnerable side of yourself as well?

Absolutely. For me, that is actually the core of my act. I think regardless of how we dress up in the rest of the show, the meringue surrounding everything, you need to see what the actor’s about. And mine is not only singing, it’s communicating to the audience who I am and what I am and what my role is in this company and how I feel as a human being and I’m very passionate about that being the core of my act. Yes, I can do it in skin-tight lycra and yes, I can hump you ‘til you feel uncomfortable, but the truth behind what I can do, not just vocally, is speak to you about the humanity of what makes us the same. So you look at me as a Rubenesque bearded drag queen singing operatically who’s from Nigeria, who you think you have no—there’s nothing that connects you with it or nothing from this that you would understand. But the truth about me, my act, is that I hope I get to showcase in that song that there are many moments when you go beyond what we look like that make us exactly the same. I think that’s what “Creep” does for me and that’s what I try to communicate in my one-man show. It’s not essentially about fighting for gay rights and equal marriage, though all of those things are inherent, it’s just making people realize that yes, I walk into a bar and instead of looking at women I look at men, but so what, we’re exactly the same. We’re all human beings and I think when I’m able to showcase that in this show, it has a lot of bang for its buck.

How have Chicago audiences reacted compared to UK and Australian audiences?

Chicago audiences have been incredibly conservative. And more affronted or offended than London or indeed Australia. I think that good art should question and push people out of their comfort zone, and it’s only unfortunate when it’s you doing the pushing or the questioning because it just gets a little bit difficult parting the wood from the trees. But I think that it’s very important and I think that the show—I’ve seen that side here, I’ve also gotten some incredible messages from people on Facebook and comments, so I see the love, but I also see the disapproving and the apathy. But I think that’s a key part of what makes me the Gateau Chocolat and what makes me deliver the act the way that I do. Otherwise, you could get an opera singer who’s trained and put them in costume and push them onstage and you’d probably get the same bang for your buck. But I think what makes me four-dimensional is that I’m able to see and respond to the stimuli that I get from the audience.

So here it’s been interesting, I’ve had them all mixed. And to begin with, we get to preview and try different running orders. So the original running order has me closing the show after David [O’Mer]. And we did that for three shows, “Smile,” Charlie Chaplin’s song, and then I said to Brett after walking out in that audience, I went, “It’s imperative that we change it to ‘Creep' here, because not only does that showcase who I am and what I do, but that is also an immediate commentary on what I’m experiencing in that audience, and I think it would be powerful and it wouldn’t be right not to do it here.” So we previewed it the night before the press night on Saturday and it’s really interesting the stillness that falls on the room, and people actually listen. And those people who may have been disapproving just get the opportunity and think about why they were disapproving in the first place. And if not, they’ve heard some good music, so it’s kind of win-win really. And all the stuff that I would experience here has all just aided my growth and my understanding of where I want this to go, which is still unknown to me. I don’t know where I’m going to end up, but I’m very excited about where it’s going.

La Soirée runs through August 5 at Riverfront Theater (650 W Chicago Ave, 888-556-9484). Read our review of La Soirée.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)