As they kick off a UK tour of their hit show Beauty and the Beast, and feature in a new burlesque documentary by Beth B, EXPOSED, I continue my Partnerships Series by interviewing trailblazing, hilarious and heavy hitting power couple Julie Atlas Muz and Mat Fraser.
For the benefit of those who are new to their genius and achievements, Julie Atlas Muz is celebrated and positively worshipped by burlesque peers and fans across the world, was crowned Miss Exotic World in 2006, and “sucker punches the boundaries between dance, theatre and fine art with heartfelt risk-taking shows that have secured her a place in the underworld of nightlife and the bastions of the art world”. Mat Fraser has worked in modern sideshow for over ten years, in cabaret for twenty years, and in neo burlesque since 2003. He is arguably the UK’s best-known disabled performer, and regularly hosts and performs at such famous US venues as The Slipper Room, Burlesque on the Beach in Coney Island, and The Box. They married on the 6th of May 2012, six years and one day after they first met performing in a burlesque show at Sideshow by The Seashore.
You met in 2006 on Coney Island and were immediately drawn to each other’s work. What was it you particularly admired about what you saw in each other?
Julie: There were two things – well, to be honest, three things – that first attracted me to Mat. First of all, he’s a very, very handsome macho man and he smells GREAT! Secondly, within thirty minutes of meeting him, Mat taught me how to do a rear naked choke hold which, if done correctly, restricts blood to the carotid arteries and can knock someone out in seconds and kill in minutes. I mean, how hot is that? I mean really!
And one final thing. Mat gave me an awesome introduction, but not one that was too kiss-assy. His introduction built up the audience’s energy without embarrassing me or building up expectation. He built up their sense of fun and made me look and feel good as I stepped onto stage.
Did I mention he’s good looking? And smells good?
And was there an initial spark of attraction at that time, or did that develop later on? Did you fall in love gradually once you began to work and create as a duo?
Mat: The spark was there from the first moment, a mutual attraction that we both felt. It developed into love over the next two years, and yes, it was initiated by our working on Beauty and the Beast together.
Julie: I fell in love with Mat straight away. It was love at first sight for me, but both of us were married to other people at the time. I fought for my first marriage to the fabulous designer and artist Leonel Valle, and for multiple reasons our marriage ended but our friendship lives on.
After I met Mat in Coney Island I dreamt about him immediately, and they were very erotic dreams. I always tell people when I dream about them, so I emailed Mat and really it was a flirty email. And then we wrote to each other for several years. When Mat came to New York, I produced a series of shows called Sealboy and the Blondes which starred myself, Dirty Martini, Bambi the Mermaid, Bunny Love, Tigger!, sometimes Little Brooklyn and sometimes GoGoat Boy, and hosted by Mat. Mat wasn’t really known as a burlesque host in 2006, but I saw his potential. Any excuse to be near him was good enough for me, though. Oh, and every Sealboy and the Blondes ended in a nude pie fight. I mean, come on, slippery and nude? How much fun is that?
Soon after, Mat asked me if we should make a theatrical production and I suggested Beauty and the Beast. It seemed like a no-brainer and it seemed like it would be fun. That was in 2008 I think, or 2007, but here we are so many years later, doing a real full blown version of that show.
Was it exciting and stimulating to explore erotic and sensual concepts together, which a number of your acts involve, and create shows that focus on the romantic relationship between you? It seems to me that discovering a deep, personal passion for each other opened up these new possibilities and directions…
Julie: I have a hard time separating art and life, I always have. I see art as life and life as art. Maybe that’s why I never took a stage name and just used my own name. Point being, there is no better reason to make art than to fall in love, and there is no better pay-off for making art than falling in love. Once you are making art with someone that you love, wow, that’s intense. It can be the best of the best, or so awful you want to stab your eyes out. It’s usually excellent.
If you are married to someone who is as much of an exhibitionist as you are, a whole world opens up to you onstage and off. You have a safe partner who you love onstage and off, and ‘going there’ takes on a whole new meaning when you have physical intimacy.
Can you describe your first ‘full length’ showcase or production together and the feedback and experience you took away from it? What was your main creative focus and objective at that time – the ‘message’ if you will – and has that significantly changed?
Mat: It was produced by Julie to let the NYC burlesque scene know about me and my work, and Julie called it Sealboy and the Blondes, with me hosting, and Julie, Bunny Love, Bambi the Mermaid, Tigger! and Dirty Martini all performing. We did a group number to open both acts, choreographed by Julie, and it was a joyous, loving, scandalous start to the work we’ve continued to do since.
It was a massive success, selling out, bringing the first big crossover of burlesque and disability arts audiences together, and spawning two more shows, becoming legendary and with people still talking about those shows. For me, it was a momentous entry into that world, like marrying into the NYC burlesque cream, and it allowed me to develop my persona from a perhaps over-politicised British disability artist, to a consummate professional of all shows, able to host anyone and anything into a baying audience’s collective bosom and soul. When I just hosted the Slipper Room Friday night show and had to handle six different bachelorette parties, still have the audience and make them feel like they were all happy, it was a good show and where I got my start in NYC.
Julie: We’ve made several shows together, but the thrust of all of our shows is self acceptance. Our new company ONEOFUS states what we are about succinctly. I think this mission statement really is the through line of all of our shows; it really is our message and happens to be the mission of our new company:
“We are outsiders, with inclusivity at the heart of what we do. Traversing the world as radical artists looking for alternative ways to be inside, the main thrust of our work is to highlight, question and poke fun at the absurdity of normality, using a loving cup of artistic agitation. We accept you, one of us.”
Our first cabaret show (our first show was actually a scratch of Beauty and the Beast in Zagreb) that was just the two of us, Ma and Pa style, was The Freak and the Showgirl. Here are some lyrics from out opening song:
The Freak and the Showgirl, we’ll give you a blow, to your solar plexus with comedy-oh, and threaten the nature of your libido, conjoining strip tease, vaudeville and sideshow.
Something I really want to hear more about is your upcoming tour of Beauty and the Beast; can you describe what’s in store for us? I imagine you don’t need to work too hard to make a biographical tale of your romance fantastical and entertaining!
Julie: Oh boy, two puppeteers, a real beautiful set, five weeks of rehearsing with Phelim McDermott – fabulous director, costumes like I’ve never had (but then again, I’ve never been a costume queen); it’s proper theatre. I mean, Mat is an actor actor in the UK, not just a nightlife freak like he is in New York. He was born into a family of actors and this really is the culmination of our theatrical desires. I think it will be the perfect combination of burlesque, live art and theatre. We’re going nude, which oddly is racy for theatrical audiences these days. There are beautiful costumes and the story is stunning, really stunning. Expect some arm magic! WOW!
How have previous shows, such as Apocastrip Wow and The Freak and the Showgirl, and previous versions of Beauty and the Beast, shaped and prepared you for this upcoming run? I imagine there have been many lessons learned and things that did and didn’t work…
Julie: Well, working with Phelim and the team at Improbable is wild. So much improvisation. The trust that we have built in the room is stunning. Our two wonderful puppeteers, Jess Mabel Jones and Jonny Dixon, are astounding, and Phelim really pushes us, but not in an obvious way. It’s very organic. In preparation for the run, we have instituted ‘Naked Wednesdays’ afternoon to get everyone used to nudity! Ha ha! Can you believe it – Naked Wednesday Afternoon. It’s normal for Mat and I to be nude in public, like so normal it’s our jobs!
I’ve spoken to a number of couples and duos in this Partnerships Series about their creative process and dynamic. How do you conceive, plan, rehearse and execute your acts and productions? Is there a recurring formula? Is it generally a smooth, harmonious process? Do you require considerable discipline and focus to create controlled chaos on stage, or is a lot of what we see fearless improvisation with a flexible, basic structure?
Julie: Well, I live in New York and Mat lives in London, but we try to spend as much time together as possible. We improvise a lot of the time. If there is any pattern then it’s just this: Mat is much more social then I am and he uses Facebook a lot, so he is our promotion machine. Me? I MUCH prefer handling the technical aspects of the production and the backstage elements. That’s fine with mat. He talks to the PR person and I talk to the technical director. That’s the only real pattern that seems to have surfaced. A marriage and partnership is really a business and a legal arrangement. We don’t lie to each other; we are honest about our feelings, good and bad. I think that’s key. Being stressed out and worried won’t make you behave like an asshole, but trying to hide the fact that you are stressed out and worried really makes you act like a dickhole.
Keeping a sense of humour is paramount and sometimes almost impossible. Beauty and the Beast has been hard because we are always together, breathing down each other’s necks. Regular sex helps and getting away from each other for a few hours helps too.
Perhaps the most significant and deeply personal production to date was your incredible zombie-infested sideshow wedding! Did you always imagine something of that scale and spectacle; did you ever consider giving yourselves a break and going for something simpler and easier to coordinate? Of course, it was an extremely supported community effort, too… Can you describe that incredible day from your perspective, beyond what the photos and footage relay?
Julie: Ha ha! Yes, our wedding. Well, it kinda took on a life of its own. Both Mat and I were previously married. Both of our first weddings were small affairs, at respective city halls, no real hoop-la.
For our second marriage we definitely wanted it to be public and big and we wanted to have FUN. And we wanted it to be onstage, our most sacred space. And as we didn’t know who to invite we decided to have it be a word of mouth wedding. I couldn’t decide who to invite to be a bridesmaid (except my maid of honour, Dirty Martini) so I put out our zombie schoolgirl bridesmaid email with specific instructions and where to meet, and whoever was there were the perfect people to be there. It was pretty low key organisation-wise. I mean, we do shows all the time, so a wedding was kinda easy.
Writing the vows though, that was kinda tough. Getting my mom to agree to the whole thing was also a chore, but she had a BLAST at the wedding and my nephews LOVED it too!
What is your philosophy on and approach to marriage, and how has it added to your lives, personally and professionally?
Julie: If you get married, get a cleaning lady, immediately. Don’t wait. About 70% of home arguments will end, immediately. It will be the best money you spend all month. Just twice a month, get a cleaning lady, a strong, honest cleaning lady. It’s soooo worth it. My first marriage must have lasted two years more because of our cleaning lady, Nellie. I mean everything becomes her fault. Can’t find something? The Cleaning lady moved it. And whose gonna mop the floor? Clean the fridge? The cleaning lady. I mean, WOW, it’s worth it. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to clean – you still do – but you can organise instead of just scrubbing.
That’s my biggest piece of advice in regards to marriage. I don’t really want to believe in marriage, but I am the marrying kind of girl. It’s tough being married. The first year is always the hardest. It’s almost as if you are suffering from buyers regret. All the cute things become annoying as if you realised that you committed the REST OF YOUR LIFE to that person. Once the honeymoon wears off, it really wears off. But you gotta hold on and then you get a real deep sense of family and trust. And it’s even hotter. It’s great. Mat’s got my back and I have his. He’s my man. You are a grown up when you have to file joint tax returns and fill out immigration forms. It’s for real and it feels real great, eventually!
I imagine you inevitably attract attention as a couple. Have you encountered significant criticism, prejudice, narrow-mindedness and even abuse as you go about your lives in public?
Mat: Funnily enough, and thankfully for sure, no, not really. Some people are jealous of success, but I think we’re both so weird for most people, together a conjoined artistic oddity, that at worst people are bemused by us. I’m a black belt, confrontational male, and Julie’s from Detroit and lives in New York; people don’t tend to fuck with us using abuse.
Julie: Ha ha, not really. Sometimes, though, when we get into an argument in public, I always look like a villain. Ha ha! Look at the blonde woman yelling at that poor disabled man! As IF! Hah! No, we don’t get overt narrow-mindedness. Sometimes we get what I like to refer to as ‘Do Gooder-ness’ when people think that we need help or say we are brave or some such nonsense. We do get attention, but I’ve noticed that most people only notice what’s going on in their heads, and now on their smart phones.
Do you deliberately play on that ignorance and/or common reactions in your performances? Is your aim to enlighten people, or to challenge and present alternative interpretations, or are you past the point of trying to communicate a message about disability and diversity and more interested in creating theatre that incorporates and makes use of the collective appearance and physicality you happen to have (if that makes sense)?
Mat: Well a bit of both, all of what you said really. I used to overtly challenge more in my work, and now I tend to just do the work and the rest seems to take care of itself. Together we enjoy our collective stance on the outsider, our bodies, what we’re supposed to be and behave like, etc., and fuck with all of it whenever we can. The mission statement for our new production company, ONEOFUS, says, “We are outsiders. With inclusivity at the heart of what we do, we traverse the world as radical artists looking for alternative ways to be inside. The main thrust of our work is to highlight, question and poke fun at the absurdity of normality using a loving cup of artistic agitation. We accept you, one of us!”, and I think that says where we’re at now
Julie: Oh Holli-Mae, your questions are so good. I don’t think that self-acceptance and overcoming prejudice will ever get old as a message. I mean, it’s classic. But that’s not all we’re about. I mean, I am still a sexy lady all about sex and death and humour, and Mat’s got things that he is working on. But feminism and disability activism do seem to go together like bread and butter, especially when a naked lady marries a born freak – know what I mean?
Are there times when your professional union has seen you through challenging personal moments, or vice versa?
Julie: Has there been a show that has saved our love? Well, Beauty and the Beast really developed because of our love, so that has seen us through. And The Freak and the Showgirl 1, Apocastrip WOW (which is The Freak and the Showgirl’s 2nd show) and The Freak and the Showgirl Greatest Tits (totally inclusive theatre) has saved us, because as two touring artists it’s one of the only ways we can be together.
Has our love saved one of our shows? Maybe our love has made the shows better!
As I’ve asked other couples, how would you advise people embarking on a professional partnership who also enjoy a personal relationship? What is the key to maintaining productivity and harmony (however you choose to define harmony)?
Julie: Go slow. Don’t rush things. You know that really, really good idea you have? Well, take it slow. Focus on your artwork and be good and kind to each other. Give your partner enough room to breathe and give yourself a break sometimes. Explain things very clearly. If you are in a heterosexual relationship, know this: Men and women DO NOT understand each other, not at all. You have to make things very, very clear and then you have to explain what you want again in a different way, in a way that they understand.
I have recently watched EXPOSED, a fascinating documentary from Beth B starring you and a number of your peers (with a New York premiere on Friday 15th November). I know you have both been on film before and have experience of the process, but can you describe your experience working on this particular film?
Julie: Well the process of ‘working’ on this film with Beth B was more like a process of surrender. Beth B is a tenacious film maker. At first she was documenting our performance lives, and then she just became a part of my life. At first I was very reluctant to share certain things with her, but by the end I just sat Beth and one of her assistants down at my computer and I said, ‘Have at it! Take whatever you want.’ Working on a documentary is very different from working on an intentionally fictional feature length. In a documentary you are often asked to do something again but do it one more time to camera. Working on a fictitious feature, you have to wait ALL the time.
What did you hope to portray and communicate through your depiction in this film? Did your vision and Beth’s vision generally align, or were you happy to be led by her and await the final edit with a certain degree of trust and optimism?
Julie: I think that Beth B’s and my vision do align. Was Beth led by us or did Beth lead us? That’s an interesting question in terms of filming and documentation. I think Beth and I were often working alongside each other, both of us passionate about our fields with our own outcome as our priority. For example, I tried very hard to have LIVE audience be my priority during the shooting. For Beth, her main concern was the film and the footage we could offer her. So there was a bit of a conflict of interest there, but both parties, myself and Beth, wanted to rock it, and rock it hard.
It’s an interesting issue, the documentary film maker and the photographer of such a visual art form like burlesque. Most times the photographer gets all the kudos for capturing a fabulous creature. The fabulous creature then slips into obscurity and often poverty. Think Diane Arbus. But in terms of Beth B, she became part of our community, which is the style of NYC underground performance.
Awaiting ANY final edit is nerve wracking. I tell you this: if you await a final edit with trust and optimism then you will be let down because nothing can live up to your dreams. If you await a final edit with fear and low expectation then you are much more likely to be happy with the result. Low expectations aid in personal happiness. Ha ha!
What do you enjoy doing together offstage? Are you a joined-at-the-hip couple in general, or do you make space for separate social activities and solitary down time?
Julie: When we are not onstage we are working on putting show on. Both Mat and myself are Oxes, in terms of Chinese astrology, which means we will plough the field all the time. And speaking of ploughing the field, having sex cuts down arguments. Ha ha! But really I love to swim and walk and read. I read a lot, like, A LOT.
We are often attached at the hip, but I need my girl time. And I need my gay dance party time. I need distance and I need to be alone. Mat is a martial artist. He needs to hit things sometimes. I need to put on blue lipstick and dance. It’s sometimes difficult to go out separately, but I LOVE girls night out, and I need it!
Do you find it difficult to cope with time apart from each other when you are away and working separately?
Julie: Well it’s tough being apart. The week before we split is always full of tension. We tend to argue a lot then because of the stress level. SKYPE is paramount to our relationship. Without the internet we wouldn’t have been able to fall in love or maintain our commitment to each other. But I try to make the best of it. When we are not together we get soooo much more work done. And as Mat doesn’t eat meat, I have a steak when we are not together; a guilty pleasure.
How has your wide network of fellow performers and friends influenced and enriched your life together, personally and professionally?
Mat: Hugely. It’s probably given us maybe up to 20% of the work we do, from recommendations, people becoming producers after having worked together on previous work, and other network based opportunities that arise from having the friends and contacts we have. And it’s all international now, so that has increased as well.
Other than Beauty and the Beast, what future and upcoming projects and appearances can you talk about at this time?
Mat: Well, I’m doing a new solo show, commissioned by a group of museums, about disability’s portrayal in museums over the years called Cabinet of Curiosities: How Disability was Kept in a Box, which will play various museums in January and February 2014 in the UK, then hopefully the Smithsonian in DC for 2015 (to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the ADA).
Beauty and the Beast: NATIONAL TOUR 1 November – 21 December 2013
19 – 22 November Bris
25 – 27 November Warw
4 – 21 December Y
This show contains full male and female nudity.
Recommended for ages 16+
Follow Julie Atlas Muz and Mat Fraser on Twitter.
Burlesque Hall of Fame / Miss Exotic World Judge, 2011 Holli Mae Johnson is the founder and editor of 21st Century Burlesque Magazine, a pioneering publication created twelve years ago to unite, document and celebrate the global burlesque community. Holli is actively involved in the burlesque community on a day to day basis and is privately consulted by performers and producers at every level for promotion, critique, recommendations and encouragement. As a documenter and critic, she has seen countless burlesque and variety performances from across the world and provides an intimate perspective and insight into the lives and careers of burlesque’s greatest pioneers, performers and personalities.