Public Eye: Cabaret star Amber Martin

The downtown performer talks growing up as a pageant contestant, getting into character, and why making ugly faces is cool

Cabaret singer Amber Martin

Cabaret singer Amber Martin Photograph: Rayon Richards

How did your life in showbiz begin?
I grew up in the swamps of Louisiana with a very musical heritage. My great-grandfather was a champion fiddle player, and he taught all his kids to play music. I never learned an instrument, but I sang.

You also have a history as a teen model and pageant contestant.
When I was 18, I worked my way up to the Miss Dance Drill Team International [competition] in Japan and got first runner-up. After that, I got a dance degree and moved to Portland [Oregon]. I was living with these awesome kids, and we created a performance group called House of Cunt. We had the greatest time of our lives.

Is that when you came up with the characters for your one-woman shows?
Yeah, I've had some of them for more than 15 years. The oldest character I do is Dottie Write, who is a mix between my mom if she had dropped acid—which she did not—and Joni Mitchell after 70 years of smoking. She’s an experimental jazz scatter [who] creates her own instruments out of driftwood.

Some of your getups are pretty outrageous. The first time I saw a publicity photo of you in character, I honestly couldn't tell whether or not you were a drag queen.
That's funny, because my mom would always say to me, “Why can’t you just do something where you are pretty? You always make those ugly faces!” And I’m like, “Mom. It’s okay.” I am hugely inspired by Carol Burnett. Carol Burnett and Don Knotts are probably my two top comedians of all time.

You don’t seem shy about changing in front of the audience.
I love the idea of transitioning onstage. I don’t see a damn thing wrong with just bein’ in my birthday suit. I don’t do it in a sexual way. It’s more of a carefree thing—and it’s funny. I don’t know if it breaks the fourth wall, exactly, but it breaks something! It probably breaks some hearts.

Does being a downtown performer pay the bills?
Performing has definitely picked up over the last few years, and I have put a limit on how many free shows I will do. It is a life choice, not a hobby. Otherwise, I could spend my whole life doing benefits. I need a fucking benefit. What about my benefit, bitch? [Laughs]

What do you do on the side?
I bartend, which I do enjoy doing—but not for much longer. I am a witch. I make homemade, twice-milled, vegan soap. And I DJ. I am a big vinyl collector; I have about 2,000 records in my house.

Amber Martin begins a residency at Joe's Pub at the Public Theater in June.

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Editor: Marley Lynch (@marleyasinbob)

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