I WANT YOUR JOB: CLARA CUPCAKES, BURLESQUE PERFORMER
By Kate Iselin @kateiselin
Clara Cupcakes is a comedian, clown, and self-professed 'sparkly hoop-slinging idiot'. We spoke to her about everything one needs to become a successful burlesque performer, from versatility to great artist friends and even a little Dutch courage.
Hi Clara! Tell me about your job.
I always struggle answering this because I'm such a human hodge-podge but I'll give it a go. I'm a burlesque/cabaret/vaudeville/circus performer but also a musician, comedian, and clown. I perform under the moniker Clara Cupcakes. I'm self-producing which means I do almost everything myself, from admin to costuming to marketing. I outsource for the things I can't do, which is mostly super fancy costuming and graphic design. If I can't find someone to do it, I learn how. That’s my inner control freak rearing it’s tightly wound head. I'm a contained performance unit with my fingers in a lot of arty pies.
How did you get started in the performance industry?
I wish this was a more exciting story but to be honest, it happened when I was drunk at a party back in my home town of Perth. My friend was starting a burlesque troupe and I was too shy to ask to join when I was sober. So on night at a housewarming I tipsily declared I was going to learn how to hula hoop and join. Once I'd sobered up the next day I marched down to Toys R Us, bought a hoop and taught myself to circus hoop from YouTube. Turns out I had a natural knack for it. I cobbled together costumes using Supre singlets, press studs and sequin trim from Spotlight. The troupe started putting on shows with a new theme every month. That was really challenging and somewhat unusual but I think it was a good way to start because it meant I got used to constantly coming up with fresh idea that hopefully weren’t terrible. It was a really great way for me to cut my teeth in performing arts.
When you first got in to the industry, did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to do?
Oh hell no! All wanted was to be a sparkly, hoop-slinging idiot on stage occasionally. It wasn't until I started seeing a lot of other performers doing different stuff a couple of years after I started that I realised I could actually make something of this glitter-clad obsession. Fringe World in Perth was a huge catalyst for me to start taking things seriously. I was blown away by all the interstate and international acts that were so polished and unique. Seeing these incredible men and women who were laying it all out on stage, vomiting the weird contents of their brains into the world to entertain the masses was truly inspiring. My blood boiled with the need to do what they do. So I packed my bags, strapped up my hoops, and took off around the world. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. Moving to Melbourne has been great as well because it exposed me to a wider community of artists who are all so creative and supportive. It’s really opened me up to the career I knew I wanted but didn’t know how to go about getting it.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
That's such a tough question because there's no clear career path to follow with performing, particularly with what I do. I mean with stand up obviously you want to be selling out huge shows, maybe be on TV. With circus you might want to join a big company that has the budget to let you do spectacular things you could only dream about. But I’m such a jack of all trades, master of none and vaudeville isn’t exactly popular. Ideally I'd like to have three shows that are tour-ready to traipse around the world with. Be invited to perform at festivals as opposed to having to apply. Maybe have a really rad producer who can do all the admin and (cough)boring(cough) - I mean, important – stuff for me. Maybe an agent? I don't know. I guess I'd like to be able to survive on money from performing alone and not have to work a day job for chunks of the year. That would be sublime.
How do you make yourself stand out in your industry?
I like to think I'm reasonably innovative. I have a pretty distinctive and interesting look and I try to back that up by making my performances dynamic and memorable. I’ve got a little 1920s vaudevillian niche which no-one else in Australia has going on, at least not as a character performer. I’m also spread across a few disciplines which isn’t unusual but it does make people remember you when you can dance, sing, play an instrument, hula hoop etc. Being versatile is the key to staying in the game when people’s tastes shift, which is something that’s happening with burlesque at the moment.
What's the best thing about your job?
The people I meet on tour. Hands down. I've met some of my best friends at 4am on the dance floor in artist bars during festival time. They are so incredible, wonderful and supportive. They've become my family, my heart pieces. The glue that holds the squishy catastrophic flesh mess that is me together. If I need someone to cry with about a bad show or to celebrate a 'kick it in the dick 'gig, my showbo family is always there to pick me up and tell me it'll be okay or cheers to victory with a glass the cheapest booze (we artist can rarely afford the fancy stuff). Every time I start to lose my mind with stress while writing a new act, I think about them and it pushes me to keep working, my knights in glittery armour with razor-sharp wits and killer dance moves. I couldn't do it without them. I don’t think I’d want to.
What's the worst thing about your job?
Not being able get anyone to cover for you when you are to sick or don't want to work. Unlike a regular job where you can take sick leave, if you don't do the gig you don't get paid. That gig might be your rent for the next month or the fee for a festival. You just have to suck it up. The show must go on and all that jazz. Performing also means I mostly work weekends so I have to turn down a lot of social stuff. Occasionally I'll say fuck it, and take a weekend off if I've had a good run of gigs, but it's hard to do when you know it might make things difficult the month after. Being a performer is pretty expensive.
What advice would you give to people wanting to take the same career path as you?
Be kind and genuine. Don't push your way into the community, plant your flag, and claim the land as your own. Just like in the real life, friendships take time to grow. Let people get to know you at a normal pace. A huge part of being a successful performer is other performers liking you. Of course you have to have a bit of talent but being a nice person is crucial. Arseholes are pretty quickly identified and avoided. Don’t be that guy. And don't steal someone else's schtick. Do you, whatever that may be. Audiences can tell when you've put a lot of yourself into a performance. It's more fun for everyone if you add in a generous pinch of what makes you tick to the mix. Oh, and see as much art and performance as you can. Drink it in. Let it fuel you. Bring the fire!
What advice would you give to yourself, five years ago?
God! Five years ago I was a mess! It was awful. I was super unhappy and depressed living a life I thought I wanted but deep down really, really didn’t. There are so many things I could say to myself from back then. Move to Melbourne NOW! Dump him! Travel! No one hates you so shut the hell up about it! Black hair is not a good look for you! But you know what? I wouldn’t change that for one second. I needed to go through the worst to become the person I am. But if I had to say one thing to my sopping wet puddle of a past self, it would be your friends are your strength. They believe in you and they’ve got your back. So do that strength justice and believe in yourself, you idiot.