16 April 2014

Report: Hamburger Queen 2014

Holly Revell took this photograph
I am ashamed to admit that I was cynical when I first heard about Hamburger Queen. It had been a while since I'd been excited about the idea of a détourned queer beauty contest for fat people. It's not like they're ten a penny, more like I felt that I'd got whatever I was ever going to get out of the concept from other iterations.

I showed up to the second show of the first run in 2011 and it was one of the most excellent things I'd ever witnessed, for reasons I'll explain below. I was hooked immediately and have been at every episode since then. I participated in 2012, acted as the in-house therapist in 2013, and have been on the peripheries this year too. It's become one of the joys of my fat queer life.

2014 marks the end of Hamburger Queen. It's too expensive and there are other things to be getting on with. There's one more heat and then the grand final.

It's not over yet, but I'm going to offer a few reflections on the thing anyway. Yeah, this is gushy but so be it. I hope that Fat Studies people are looking at this stuff closely, I sincerely believe it is the future of fat.

Hamburger Queen is immersive popular theatre masquerading as a strange kind of contest. There is a big cast of people who perform and do duties like take tickets at the door, or sell raffle tickets (I won the meat raffle two weeks ago!) and t-shirts. You can eat special Hamburger Queen burgers. You feel as though you have entered a different universe, one where fat people are as much a part of things as anyone else. There are a lot of sequins and glitter slash. The music is themed along with the look of the place. Amidst this are performances, videos, chit-chat with the audience. It's a total environment!

I'm writing this as though it all just happens by magic. It looks that way because the person behind it knows how to put on a show. It's been amazing to see Scottee develop Hamburger Queen over the last four years, a privilege to see the work come about as a product of his astounding imagination, aesthetics, intellect, ambition and sheer graft. He has so much to offer.

That this is Scottee's show is not in doubt, but he's managed to create a platform where many people can shine, not least his co-presenters Amy Lamé and Felicity Hayward. Other performers have come through too: Ginger Johnson has been bringing the house down this year with her love letters to chubby celebrities, Jayde Adams and Miss Annabel Sings have also made their mark, along with internet sensation Jude Bean.

The contest is the thing on which it all hangs. The contestants are a funny bunch and there's a reason for that. Hamburger Queen is a high pressure experience so you'd better be up to it if you're going to apply. It involves wearing something incredible, and doing so fearlessly; performing to a mixed and capricious crowd; and serving up a tasty treat to some very picky people. You do this twice if you get through to the final.

Hamburger Queen makes space for all kinds of people, and one of the things I love is that it does not exalt assimilation. Sometimes a contestant wears a nice outfit, or presents something that is very much a part of mainstream fat cultural values. These people are supported, but they're somewhat marginal to the main event, which is about eye-popping, draggy, fleshy, unapologetic embodied weirdness. My favourite contestants: the skinny hippy drag queen on drugs who twirled and twirled and twirled around the audience; the guy who played with razor blades, cut himself and bled profusely; Scarlett's Human Pass the Parcel act; Neon's Samba moves; Kayleigh's Venus of Willendorf dance; the woman who did Flashdance with paper plates of horrible cream; Ruby sticking a shoe up her whatsit, and on it goes. Every week there is something electrifying to see.

The judges are eclectic, to say the least. They make a mockery of fairness or justice. Contestants try and psych them out, but there's no rhyme or reason as to who wins. It's all decided in the Taste round, and woe betide the contestant who treats it flippantly. I thought Bea Sweet's Kentucky Fried dinner was sublime in the first season, but they hated it. Same goes for the contestant who produced a block of lard covered in party sprinkles. Yet they loved Ashleigh Owen's chocolate shit, served in nappies. You just can't tell. Sometimes a judge goes rogue. June Brown gave everybody a lecture about health; Nancy Dell'Olio threatened some kind of drama that I've now completely forgotten about; Matthew Kelly gave everyone hugs; Fenella Fielding needed an early night; Lisa Stansfield sang for us. Precious moments indeed.

Photo by Holly Revell
Hamburger Queen has played an important part in a shift in my own fat politics. I've been socialised into fat through a mixture of US-centric cut-throat identity politics that don't always translate so well here, and which sometimes feel like a form of cultural imperialism. Added to this is an academic training that values rigour. Hamburger Queen is a hot mess that sticks up two fingers at political purity as an ideal. This has felt so freeing to me. I still think that thoughtfulness and rigour are valuable, and I also adore the places where lines are unclear; the slapdash; the great confusing mixture of things that Hamburger Queen plonks right in your lap. It is so badly behaved. Cue Timberlina's unrepentant, frantic, sex dance in an inflatable fat suit. My eyes.

Hamburger Queen has brought about another change in the way I think about fat activism. I'm less about a reasoned debate with Important People these days and more about a fat tap-dancing troupe called The Cholesterols in a pub full of people roaring with delight. To me, this is about experiencing possibilities, imagining something gorgeous and making it real, doing so collectively in a broader social context that is generally very shut down and conservative. I find it very beautiful and, to invoke a couple of words that are greatly overused, inspiring and awesome. This is where I want to be.

Hamburger Queen is ending, but Scottee Inc continues. This means that there are more exciting performance things in the pipeline. Full disclosure: I serve on the board. Non-disclosure: I'm not going to tell you about the projects that are on their way just yet, you'll have to wait and see. What I can say is that they continue to develop fat spectacle, popular entertainment, new performance forms, queer thrills and more. It's going to be great! Hold tight.

Hamburger Queen
ScotteeScottee YouTube – view clips from all the Hamburger Queens

If you’d like to find out about ways you can support Scottee Inc please email shaun@scottee.co.uk

03 April 2014

Report: Chins Up - Fat and Performance

On Monday 31 March a bunch of us met and talked about fat and performance at an event called Chins Up. I chaired the talk and asked most of the questions. The event was supported by Arts Council England and The Hospital Club.

The panel came about because of ScotteeInc, a charity developing community-based popular performance around themes including fat, age, feminism, working class and queer identity. Scottee and I are part of ScotteeInc. The organisation has been going for about a year now, its award-winning inaugural production, The Worst of Scottee, has racked up a bunch of rave reviews and there are some exciting projects in development. Another ScotteeInc production, Hamburger Queen, opens in London tonight.

So, with ScotteeInc in mind, the idea behind this panel is to talk for a bit about what it is to do fat performance in a climate around 'obesity' that is very repressive. Amazingly, things are looking pretty great in the UK as far as fat and performance are concerned, lots of people are engaged with it and there are good things happening.

The talk was recorded. You can download for free it via iTunes: ScotteeInc Podcasts.

The night went by in a bit of a whirr. Looking back, there are many things I would have liked to have asked. I suspect, for example, that performing is a means that fat people use to make meaning of our lives and bodies. I wonder what it is to perform for majority fat audiences, if people have had experiences of that. I would have been good to make more concrete plans about how and what we need to develop fat and performance in the UK. Also, we never really defined what we meant by 'performance'. Oh well!

I've been flashing on bits of the talk all week. Mostly thinking about the repeated idea that we seek normality or acceptance. This strikes me as odd because none of the panel court normality in performance, quite the opposite in fact! I interpret this to mean that we want to be able to do what we want to do without the burden of people's limited expectations of what a fat person can do or be.

I wanted more of a social mix of speakers in the panel but quite a few people turned me down or weren't available. In spite of my optimism about fat and performance, I also wonder if this exists within a particular sphere of queer life, and that the idea of fat performance remains contentious elsewhere, something with which people would not want to ally themselves, or something barely worth talking about.

Edited to add: I wrote this post in a bit of a hurry and I now notice that it ended on a bit of a dour note. The talk itself was not at all dour! In fact, I think it a valuable discussion amongst practitioners. This kind of thing is pretty rare, I'd say. Fat people are spoken of, but it remains quite unusual for us to speak for ourselves. The inevitable questions about health creep in, but this was not really a panel about that, and that feels exciting too. I see this work as part of the project of developing fat culture, community and identity, which is to say, or recognising that fat people make valuable contributions to the work of being human and that sometimes we have great things to say.

The speakers

Scottee is a wunderkind performer, director, artist, broadcaster and writer from Kentish Town, North London.

Dr. Vikki Chalklin is a queer fat femme performer, activist and scholar based in London. She is interested in feminism, performance, art, bodies, fat, sex, and all kinds of queer cultural production. Alongside teaching and academic research, her performance practice works to blur the boundaries between her creative and scholarly worlds, giving cabaret-style performances of academic work at conferences, and performance lectures at queer performance and cabaret clubs and she has previously performed at Duckie, Bar Wotever, Bird Club, and The Fattylympics. She is also competing to be crowned 2014’s Hamburger Queen.

Kayleigh O’Keefe is a contemporary artist engaging with themes of fat acceptance, body confidence and alienation through performance and film. She has collaborated with established artists and filmmakers, produced and directed immersive live art events for the Pink Bear Club and distributed her performance art videos to an online audience.

Holestar is an artist, entertainer, DJ, writer and queer activist.

Scottee, Dr Vikki Chalklin (pic by AbsolutQueer),
Kayleigh O'Keefe and Holestar (pic by Lee Roberts)