London-based performer Kiki Kaboom is a trained actress, singer and burlesque dancer. Whilst she’s been on the burlesque circuit for only a couple of years, she’s worked that circuit with gusto, acquiring impressive CV achievements on her way. She’s the winner of ‘Best London Performer 2009’ at the London Burlesque Festival 2009 with her Geek to Freak act, she’s performed for Britannia Music as part of the Brit Awards 2010 event, she appears in Immodesty Blaize’s recent film, Burlesque Undressed, and you voted her into your TOP 50 Performers of 2009.
Her acts tend toward comic character pieces, with contemporary references and a sassy striptease element. Her most well-known acts are the aforementioned Geek to Freak in which Kiki transforms from an awkward nerdy college student into a black corset-clad sex kitten; Judy, Judy, Judy! the story of Judy Garland’s life told with sensitivity, charm and a touch of humour – not to mention the live singing, eerily similar to Judy’s voice; and Chav-a-reiia, Kiki’s very playful exploration of the British cultural icon, the ‘chav’.
Stylistically she’s known for her warm charisma, down-to-Earth sense of humour, playful facial expressions and charming singing voice. As described in her copy, ‘Hearts, minds, drinks – she’ll swipe them in an instant’, I can vouch for that, it’s no word of a lie!
BVB: Thank-you for inviting me to Bethnal Green – lovely to be in your garden on this lovely, if a little over-cast, sunny day. You’ve been on the circuit for about two years and we all know you as quite a riotous burlesque performer. Could you tell me a little bit about your favourite career moments to date?
K: Starting chronologically from my first performance as a burlesquer ever, ever…
The Tournament of Tease at The Working Men’s Club (Bethnal Green, London) run by The Whoopee Club was a highlight – it was the first time I performed burlesque and I’d never expected it to be such a rush [giggles]. I just remember the experience of a wall of sound! You don’t realise until you’ve done your first burlesque performance that you get so much back from the audience, so actually hearing the cheers and baying crowds was incredible, although, I’ll be honest, it was a lot of my mates. You know, you never forget your first time, do you?
London Burlesque Festival/Week (LBW), both years [2009 and 2010]. Last year’s show, when I won the Best Newcomer 2009 award, was at the Scala. It was like a gladi- gladiatoral? How do you say that word? Gladiatorial?
Ooh I don’t know…
It was like being a gladiator! [laughs] Because the stage was huge; there were about 900 people there (it was at maximum capacity) all in tiers, like in a coliseum. And again, with such a volume of people in the room, what you get back from the audience is very powerful. I was the penultimate performer. There’d been about forty new-comers on stage before me.
[Giggles] This is when I really got to know Honey Wilde actually, ‘cos we were shut in a toilet together, waiting to go on. For about an hour. There were about nine burlesque performers all sitting there in the toilet, can’t go on, can’t see anything, just stuck in a loo. So glamorous!
And then winning the award afterwards was a lovely experience. It felt very special…
This year’s LBW is memorable because it kind of felt like err – (this is going to sound so clichéd), but it felt like, ‘this is how far I’ve come in a year’. Chaz [Royal, the organiser of LBW] had given me a really nice spot to go on; it was literally just before Catherine D’Lish who was headlining the event. So before my performance I’d already seen Siren Stiletto, Dinah Might, Banbury Cross and all these other people go out there and really bring it – especially people like Siren, I really like Siren. I don’t see her very much, but she’s a very good performer – and I was like, ‘Blimey, I’ve really gotta bring it’.
I was doing my Judy [Garland act], which I love doing and afterwards Sean [Mooney – Beyond the Cabaret] said to me ‘Actually, that’s the best you’ve ever done it.’ Because I was around people providing a such a high calibre of performance, because LBW is such an occasion, because I was giving out the award to the next London Newcomer (quite a big deal for me) and because I was doing the duet with Armitage [Shanks], I felt like, ‘this is the night where I’ve got something to prove, to show how far I’ve come’. I was really pleased with how it went and it was, again, an incredible atmosphere.
So was the backstage atmosphere at the LBF just as supportive and wonderful as the front end?
Yes, it is. I’m now in a position where some performers know who I am, so people are like, ‘Hi Kiki’, even though I’ve never met them. It’s nice for them to be warm and stuff, but I’m also very conscious of the people that maybe aren’t known by so many people. I’ve always been like this because I was a little geek as a child, and I knew what it was like for people not to talk to you. So I always try and make sure that everyone else feels as welcome as I do, because, sometimes (I guess when I was first starting out), when people don’t know you they might not necessarily say hello, not because they’re being bitchy, or they don’t like you, but just because they don’t know you yet. I think it’s important to create an atmosphere where it doesn’t matter whether you’re Catherine D’Lish or someone that’s only performed a few times; you’re all there on the same bill and you all want to share the experience together.
It was a great atmosphere, but I was in a more privileged position this year because I knew most of the performers already.
Bestival last year (2009) was a real highlight, just because it was the perfect combination of working with great people, doing great shows and partying, a lot! It was the first time I did my Space Pill-Popper act [giggles] and the first time I did Judy. I think that’s when I first leaped in Des O’Connor’s estimation actually, ‘cos not only did I do a great Judy, but I also managed to stay out later than him one night. [Laughs] He still out-partied me, but I was close-run second.
Hosting at the Amsterdam Burlesque Festival was my first big, big hosting gig. That was great ‘cos I was so terrified that I would not translate. But I managed to, I think! [Laughs] I just made a lot of crap jokes. And smiled.
Did the audience laugh?
Yeah, but probably out of pity!
Aww, I’m sure that’s not true.
[Laughs] My boyfriend is always talking about the dorky side of me and sometimes when I’m hosting the dorky side comes out. I’ll be all like [breathes] ‘Welcome! Ladies and Gentlemen! Lulala…’ and I’ll trip over my shoes and then [laughs], and then stumble back. And then pull a face, and then everyone laughs, and I’m like, it’s alright.
So it sounds like your hosting persona is quite fluid…
..and will adapt to any given situation?
Yeah. And also… [pauses] I naturally don’t go to a high status (a position where the host or MC ‘governs’ the audience, for want of a better description). Like, when I walk out, I am, you know, I’m the host, and I’m in control, but I prefer the audience to be with me. I’m much more a carrot dangler than a stick waver, so to speak! I don’t want it to feel like the audience is there [gestures low with hand] and I’m here [gestures high with hand], which some hosts do brilliantly, people like Dusty [Limits], for example, is often very ‘high status’.
For example, when I was hosting the NewComers [Battle Royale Show] this year for London Burlesque Week (O2 Academy), at the end of the night people were saying ‘What about you, Kiki? You do something!’ and I was like, and I was literally like, ‘I haven’t got the right knickers on! And I’m wearing Mum tights!’ [Laughs] ‘Cos I was! I had Mum-tights pulled right up here [gestures to the bottom of her rib cage]. That’s why it’s so nice to host; ‘cos you’re like, ‘Doesn’t matter, I can wear Mum-tights up to my waist and no-one will see’. I’ve got to learn to like, keep the poise, don’t over share.
Hosting is a lot of fun, it’s very nice to be yourself and be entertaining. Which hopefully, I am.
So which do you tend to favour – burlesque performance, in terms of a three minute (or so) act, or hosting? Or do you like a bit of both?
What I’m really enjoying at the moment is having the versatility and the opportunity to do both. I think… [pauses], sometimes when I’m hosting, it’s much harder work than single routines. I’m now acknowledging the people that are good hosts because it can be a little bit of a thankless task. When you’re hosting, you want to create your own niche, create your own persona and put your stamp on the night, but you also need to serve the other performers, because you’re there to introduce them and create them the right atmosphere for them to come in to. It’s about finding the balance between serving yourself as an entertaining entity in your own right, and being generous enough to the other performers. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but something I think I’m learning to do successfully.
“For me burlesque is, whatever I do actually, it’s nothing if the audience aren’t with me, or understand me, or enjoy me, or are entertained, or challenged, or provoked, or tantalised or whatever you want to do to them … whilst an act may look very beautiful in your room, and you may think ‘yes, I know exactly what I’m doing’, do the audience?”
In terms of which I prefer, I don’t think I could say I prefer either one. It’s lovely, it’s a joy sometimes just to go on as your burlesque (non-hosting) persona, whatever act you’re doing; to just do that, and leave that single, defining impression. But when you’re hosting and it goes well, and the night is fanastic you feel very proud, it’s more your night because you’ve had more of a hand in creating it.
I really enjoy both and I hope I continue to do both so people don’t see me just as a host or a singer or a burlesque performer, I want to do all of it. I want to… [laughs]. Basically that’s how you’d sum me up: I want to do it all. [Giggles] I want to do all of it.
I’ve heard you say that you like to be supportive towards the performers in order to look out for them and nurture their growth. Are there any figures that have have nurtured and supported you in this way?
Definitely. In terms of people I owe a lot to, the performers, I would say, are people like Anna Fur Laxis and Diva Hollywood. I owe a lot to them in terms of getting my first out-of-London gigs because they went back to Leeds, or Liverpool, or Belfast or wherever and said ‘Aaah Kiki Kaboom – you should book her’, and it all came good. I owe a lot to other people’s recommendations.
Very soon after winning Best Newcomer (at LBW 2009) everything really started to happen.
I also owe a lot Jo King who trained me and has given me numerous opportunities, and to Sean Mooney who saw me drunkenly host a bingo at Madame Jojos at one of Jo’s fiftieth birthday events.
She had three nights at Madame Jojo’s to celebrate her thirty years in the business; one in June, one in September, one in December. At the December event I was on first – she put the performers on in order of how long they had been with her, and as I had only just started I was on first. Perfomers like Crimson Skye and Polly Rae were towards the end of the bill. So I did my performance, it was the Welcome To The Jungle aka my Fat Bum routine and I was like, ‘whoooouullllluuuuullleeeeeh’ and skidded off and then sat with my friend at the back and drank all the way through the rest of it [giggles]. And then Jo came on and I’d forgotten that Jo had asked, ‘will you introduce me at the end?’ And, so, I was like, ‘Yeeeeyeah!’. I came on, ‘blablublublablablabla’ and then after that they needed someone to host the bingo and so… Not bingo! Not the bingo! The raffle! I was quite drunk [laughs]. And so I had to do the raffle. Some game! Basically, I was speaking so it was the best bit! [Laughs].
Spencer Maybe was on stage with me and I was, I think I was dissing him, or something, I had the mic, and I was pretty drunk, and my best friend, who was in the audience, was watching me, going like, ‘Oh Kiki, shut up, shut up’ [giggles].
But Sean saw it and he saw something; that I could do something with a microphone whilst speaking on stage. So he booked me for my first hosting gig last June for Beyond the Cabaret – I started off hosting as my Chav character – and he’s the one that then, almost a year later, gave me the break of doing a UK theatre tour of a burlesque and variety show, which has been such a fantastic experience. Depending on what night I’m doing, now I feel confident to host either in character, say as my Geek or my Chav or my Spanish character, or just as myself, just to sing, and chat and make stupid jokes, and tell the audience I’m wearing big tights [giggles].
And Des [O’Connor]! Des has booked me loads and Chaz [Royal], as well. I owe quite a lot to Chaz because he is such a promoter and because we both work in tandem; I promote myself as ‘Winner of LBF 2009 Best NewComer’ and that, in turn, promotes his event. It kind-of works, you promote each other. Chaz has always been great and started to book me to host as well.
I owe a lot to a lot of people, actually.
With your plethora of character-based acts, how do you bring them into existence? Where’s your starting point and what processes do you go through when creating an act?
I can’t really do much until I’ve found the music. I might have a genesis for a character or an idea or something I wanna explore on stage, but the music is paramount. I also think… [pauses] that there’s got to be a through line – it doesn’t have to be a story as such, but something that will unite the beginning, middle and end. I think it’s very important to give structure to an act. And I think for me, my through line’s always been a bit of character base. I’m starting to think for my next act I might want to explore the showgirl side of burlesque, but inevitably the showgirl will centre around a person or a character.
I guess it comes from having an acting background; that’s always how I approach things.
By this point, I begin to have some idea of costume or how I’m going to, you know, technically perform a striptease. I always include striptease in my acts, but I’m interested by the idea of not always performing in this striptease sequence because I don’t think an act always has to use it. Some wonderful burlesque acts start off pretty much naked.
If anyone wanted to create a character-based act, where the focus is on the story of the character or the story of their emotional experience, what advice would you give them?
I would say always go as far as you can with a character and then pull it back afterwards. You forget sometimes that even though you know what you’re doing and what you’re trying to say, you’ve gotta make it absolutely clear for everyone else. I think it’s easier to pull something back than it is to push a character further. Do you see what I mean?
And how do you work out where the line between taking a character too far and not taking a character far enough is?
I think it comes with experience and instinct, I think [pauses], the more you perform, the better tools you have. For example, if I wanted to pick up a lighter [gestures]…
If I just picked up a lighter like this now [casually picks up a lighter], that’s fair enough, but someone sitting over there [gestures to an awkward angle] might miss it. So you have to signal it, to some extent; to present and to make clear what you are doing, not so it’s like [gestures with wild facial expression of shock and curiosity].
Over-blown cheesecake; gorgonzola cheesecake!
[Laughs] Exactly! I don’t mean, as in, make it so crass – but just make sure that you tone down a large gesture using subtlety and finesse. But of course ensure that it remains clear.
For me burlesque is, whatever I do actually, it’s nothing if the audience aren’t with me, or understand me, or enjoy me, or are entertained, or challenged, or provoked, or tantalised or whatever you want to do to them. It can’t exist in a bubble. So whilst an act may look very beautiful in your room, and you may think ‘yes, I know exactly what I’m doing’, do the audience?
So when you’re developing a character, go really extreme with it and maybe signal your actions loads – you will then, sort of, have it in your body and be able to make it a little more finessed and you can then add the subtleties to it. Like I said, it’s easier to bring it back than it is to think, ‘ that didn’t work, I’ve got to go even further’.
So it sounds a bit like drawing a really crude sketch of an act first, and then going over it in a pen to finalise the outline?
Yeah. And you might find that what you start with might be very different to what you end up with, but I just think you just need to be clear where you want to go. Decide what you want to explore, be brave with your choices, be strong with your choices, and if you then want to change them, at least your ideas are defined.
You mention using instinct when performing and developing an act. What’s the boldest or bravest decision you’ve had to make based on instinct? Maybe something that you’ve cut, or something that you’ve worked in, or an act that you’ve shelved?
I don’t know if this is going to sound silly, but I don’t know if I want to say what I still haven’t worked out yet in case someone nicks it! [Giggles].
So, when you use instinct you tend to use it more during the development process rather than later, revisiting old things and altering or changing them drastically?
Yeah. I suppose. For example, something I learned instinctually by performing is that it’s ok to not try and be sexy the whole time (characters like the Geek to Freak or my Chav, for example). [Laughs] I think I manage that quite frequently.
Sometimes you don’t need to work at it in order to, to still be something sexy. I mean, I don’t know if you’d ever call, for example, the Chav, sexy, but there’s something very sexual and authoritative about her. I suppose my Chav has grown a little bit more ‘in-yer-face’, because that’s where it has to go. Whereas the act might have all been on this level [gestures] (and it was good, I really loved doing the act from the very first time I did it), now I can sometimes go really up here [gestures] and then contrast it by bringing it right back down here [gestures] something quieter and more nonchalant.
So a high point in your act would be a lot of connection with the audience and a lot of being in their face, the low points being more subtle?
Yeah, I guess. I think it’s important and interesting to have peaks and troughs. All my acts, I hope, have moments of change so it’s not all high octane stuff.
Who do you enjoy watching as an entertainer in any field of entertainment?
Oh. Wow. Errm… In any field?
Let’s maybe limit it to five off the top of your head, not necessarily your top five.
Errm [pauses]… Okay. Shingai from The Noisettes. She made a massive impression on me; her stagecraft, the way she holds the audience, plus she looks amazing, plus she can sing, she’s crazy and chaotic, but still, she knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s very much in control of her limbs, her voice, her presence… She had brilliant presence, brilliant stagecraft. I remember seeing her at Koko last year – amazing.
For similar reasons, Camille O’Sullivan, in that her presence and stagecraft and voice are fantastic. She can be wild, but then she can really draw you in with something so heart-breakingly subtle and mournful and… She’s brilliant.
La Clique, generally – anyone that I’ve seen [in La Clique]. I’ve seen La Clique three times. First time was in Edinburgh in 2005 when I was doing a play up there and they made a massive impression on me then. Then when they were in London at The Hippodrome – I went twice and saw different acts each time. But it’s their level of skill – it’s incredible – their skill and their professionalism and the fact they make it look so effortless.
I should probably think of something on film, who do I like watching on film? [Pauses]. I suppose I’ve gotta say Judy. She is one of my favourites. I just think she’s amazing, and obviously I watched quite a lot of her stuff researching my Judy Garland act… The woman is unbelievable. Her appearance changed a lot throughout her life and towards the end when you see her, she’s so little. When she’s doing these ‘Audiences with Judy Garland’, or these concerts, she’s quite tiny and looks so fragile, but the voice inside her is huge. And she’s such a pro, such an entertainer. In her films she can be so charming and wide-eyed or simply heartbreaking. And she just had a real natural comic flair. I love Judy.
So last one… I should probably pick a man…
It’s gotta be Prince, actually. I was obsessed with Prince (when I was a teenager). I went to see him a couple of years ago when he was at the O2, London. It was everything I wanted it to be and a million times more. Again, the man, the talent, it’s just… I love seeing people and thinking, ‘shit’, like… Another level of ‘Wow, wow, wow’. And when I see people in the burlesque and cabaret worlds, for example, or actresses and actors that really move and impress and enthral and entertain me, it’s a good sign if I’m thinking, ‘wow, I can’t do that’. I want to feel like I need to raise my game because otherwise you don’t really grow and develop.
Fabulous. So let’s finish on you and what you’re doing over coming months; where people can see you?
I have my own show with Gracie (from Gracie and the G-Spots). It’s called Gentlemen Prefer Showgirls and it’s amazing! A burlesque and cabaret extravaganza! It’s based on musicals you see, from the MGM heyday to things like Cabaret and Rocky Horror. And even a teeny bit of Grease, ‘cos I bloody love Grease.
Gracie and I are very confident on the mic, hosting and singing, and also very good at being silly, so we’ve worked in a couple of double acts – one glamorous and one sophisticated, the other one basically trying to out-Fame each other. Legwarmers and green leotards! Nice. And there’s burlesque from me, Ginger Blush, a great guy called Hooray Henry. We’ve had a successful run of sold out shows in August, September and October and you can catch the show in November on the 16th and 25th.
I’m also about to star in a show I’ve produced with the pocket rocket that is Amber Topaz – we’ve called it WTF Knockout Kabaret and it’s going to be AWESOME. It’s a wrestling themed show at The Brickhouse throughout November and it is going to kick ass! We’ve programmed some amazing aerial and circus acts, and I love collaborating with Amber, she’s so creative.
And then there’s the UK theatre tour of An Evening of Burlesque that I’m hosting through Sean Mooney for Entertainers. It’s fantastic because it’s so lovely to be back in theatres, big theatres, which is where I started out. And to perform to audiences of 500, 600 people, and give them a damn good night out, well, it’s a privilege isn’t it? AND it has been so successful that they are extending and revamping the show to tour all next year as well, including dates at the Indigo O2! I feel very lucky right now. Very lucky indeed…
Kiki Kaboom interviewed by Beatrix von Bourbon.