By Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com/Jan. 2006)
Opening your life up to the public sets one up for at least two lives. There is the public person, that side that the public sees and then expands with their own imaginations, creating personal relationships, albeit one-sided ones, with public entities. Then there is the public personality's private life, that only those in closest proximity to the public person know about. Sometimes there is a third level that only the public person her/himself knows about. These levels of reality are more marked than in normal daily separation of environments, it seems, as the fame aspect follows you through all realms in a way that one's roles at normal work environments would not.
Wavy Gravy is an example of this. When many people see him and say hi, they call him Wavy Gravy, not his "real" name, Hugh Romney. He lovingly accepts these greetings under his stage name. But it is more than a stage name, I would argue. "Mr. Gravy," as some reporters refer to him, is another part of Hugh Romney. I know several performers who perform as characters, such as "Reverend Chumleigh" and "Baby Gramps." But their mothers and lovers call them something else.
Different levels of separation from your public character can exist as well. Reverend Chumleigh publicly refers to himself as "Michael" once he is transformed out of the Chumleigh stage character. Yet people still come up to him and call him "Chumleigh" while he is being "Michael." Baby Gramps, on the other hand, is always in character when in public, it seems. I know he has a name his wife and family call him, but no one I know knows his real name after 25+ years of personal and professional associations with him. He never oscillates between himself and his act in public, like Chumleigh and Michael do.
I also performed for years in character, as the radical nun, "Mother Zosima." I was a solo woman performer, trying to do feminist/anarchist comedy set to music on the streets, and the lyrical content always left a trail of trouble everywhere I went throughout the 80's, 90's and into the 2000's! On the street, I was in a sea of nearly all male street performers, and almost all male cops. My male peers would be singing about getting drunk and balling all night, but if I so much as mentioned sex in any context other than wanting to ball men all night, then I was breaking the obscenity laws, according to the Santa Cruz Police Department. While Artis the Spoonman was screaming "Give Me Back My Foreskin" at the top of his lungs in performance art a block away from me in Santa Cruz, Ca., I was getting tickets for words like "bitch" and "fart!" I got a ticket for singing "Girls have got to act a certain way, or else, they ain't a-okay. Always be willing, never get mad, or they call us "bitch," they tell us we're bad." I also got a ticket for singing "girls don't fart, they only fluff." The ACLU successfully defended me from the 8 tickets for obscenity in Santa Cruz, and from then on, I have worn a nun's habit to pit my costume against the cop costume, to confuse the public's allegiance. It has worked beautifully. I have not gotten any obscenity tickets in the nun's habit and can say things twice as racy now.
So I used the nun's habit as a shield from police and it appears to have worked. I also hid my identity with the habit, robe, and sunglasses so I could be more radical. But as I began to wear a nun's habit on stage in front of thousands at festivals for years on end, people not only began to relate to me as a real nun, as a clergy of the church they could confide in and go to for personal guidance, but I began to be lovingly referred to as "Mother" everywhere. Fans and friends give me religious things, so I have an insane collection of things like nun finger puppets, Saint Lucy statues and medallions with her eyeballs on the platter, holy water containers with gold script, Immaculate Conception condoms, Testamints, a punching nun puppet, and nun postcards galore, with nuns doing everything from scuba diving to hula hooping to running in a nun's black bloc. When people see religious kitsch, my act often comes to mind apparently! (I think maybe the ball and chain I wore with the nun's habit, that I denied was there, may have added to this problem.) Before I knew it, I was doing it myself! I began making and selling my own Papalballs, which were pictures of the Pope on a paddleball for the ball to hit. We took a Virgin Mary picture, added a Mother Zosima head, and glued it to red 7 day prayer candles, and sold me, as Virgin Mary, on church candles. I started relating to being a nun. I began to want things like a nice brass collection plate, or one of those collection baskets on a long handle, to collect my street tips in. I coveted elaborate habits and whimpers on nuns of old.
Reverend Chumleigh and I were often paired in alternative performance arenas, one after another, or one introducing the other, due to our feigned, at least in my case, clergy positions. We both took on a larger than life persona on stage, doing outrageous things I am not sure either of us would have done if not for a spotlight, an ego, a gullible audience, and a spark of artistic wonder. I began to realize that perhaps people were paying me to do things they were too embarrassed to do. I also realized that if something I was considering performing was so intense as to make me uncomfortable, it would probably make for a good show. And I also did not totally associate with Mother Zosima. She could do things that I, Kirsten, would probably not do. She also offered me a freedom to do things I would not normally do. As someone other than me. As a mythic character that I just played. As someone I could speak about in third person, even though it was me.
One year I decided to read a poem called "Fat Girls Are Dangerous," while naked except for a nun's habit and army boots, while over 200 pounds, in front of 5,000 people, around midnight in a field outside of Eugene, Or. After I read the poem, I sledgehammered a bathroom scale to pieces. I was scared before I went on. I kept thinking all my friends, lovers, performing peers, etc. were in the audience and would see me naked and know I was fat. "Kirsten," I would tell myself, "they already know that you are fat." I thought either no one would ever date me or be my friend again, and would treat my performance like some fat sour grapes, or they would "get it" and see it as the liberating art I meant it as.
The audience "got it" and I got more positive feedback for that risky performance than from almost anything I have ever performed. (Chumleigh said I should have had someone run on stage with a human-sized powder puff and hit me when I came out naked in the beginning!) I had many persons, young, old, male, female, fat, thin, come up to me with tears in their eyes the day after that performance, thanking me. Thin women told me they began watching the performance and were laughing and then as I sledgehammered the scale, they found themselves crying, deeply. They told me they thought they were "over that shit" but that my performances moved them profoundly and personally. Certainly I feel a personal connection with these people who "get" my performances, but do I remember all their names? Unfortunately, I have to admit the answer is no. Do they remember my name? Much more often than I do all of theirs, yes. *That* is one of the weird parts of being a public persona. It feels like people know you, but you do not know them. The audience experiences your performance with one person as the focus. But for me, the solo performer, my focus is on a large mass, not one person.
Once I ran for the board of directors at the Oregon Country Fair (OCF) as Mother Zosima. I campaigned from stage. I wondered, if I won, if I would have to go to the meetings dressed in costume, and in character, as Mother Z. The votes would be for Mother Z, not Kirsten. They were voting for a character on a stage, not a real person. It was a weird dilemma, and I was glad I did not win, so I did not have to figure that out further. Many a time a mom has run up to me at a fair, with their 10 year old daughter, to introduce me to one of my "biggest younger fans." Many teens tell me they grew up enjoying my work as younger girls, many feminist and anarchist adult women now tell me they looked up to me as a role model or mentor when they were growing up. It scares me to have that type of social responsibility honestly, and I am thankful I was not aware of my influence on stage in people's lives after performances until years, if not decades, later. I look at that same "responsibility" now in writing and shudder at its weight.
Once I was performing in the aisles at the OCF as Mother Zosima and this couple enthusiastically sat through my whole 40 minute set, listening intently to me. I then packed up, moved to another location, began the set, and there they were again, listening intently, for 40 more minutes. I then went to camp, got rid of my performing gear and costume and went back to the fair. I ran into the couple who had just watched my last two shows. I said hi to them. And they looked at me as if they had no idea who I was. It stunned me that these two people stood about 6 feet from me for 2 hours, listening to me intently, and then an hour later I see them, without the habit, sunglasses and robe, and they have no idea who I am. I was 2 people to them. And that is one of the weird parts of being a performing character.
I know a guy who runs one of the most trafficked sexual education websites in the world yet complains about how lonely he is and how he cannot find sexual or emotional intimacy. Everyone knows his public persona as a sex expert. Many people, myself included, thank him for better sex lives due to his education. Many people thank him for his sexuality activism. Yet he is still lonely and it hurts. Talking to him recently, I realized that maybe it is the difference between the applause of our public personas, and the loneliness of home, that contrast, that amplifies loneliness for public entities. You look at huge stars such as Judy Garland, Janis Joplin, or Billie Holiday. And you see people who were lauded with unbelievable public adoration. Yet these women all complained about unbearable loneliness in the dressing room after the applause faded. All of them died in loneliness and depression, amidst fame and accolades.
How do public personas who are so adored, die with such internal loneliness? I think it may be because they were clear that the person on stage being adored was a myth, a creation of art, but not a person. Performance is illusion. And I think public praise, when contrasted with aloneness that is not desired, confuses artists and public persons. It confuses me. At first, you question the authenticity of the applause. But then you realize that is not what applause is for. Artists do not live by applause alone.
It seems people who survive a public persona with health and happiness clearly separate public and private lives. Madonna when she is a rock star, is certainly a different person than Madonna at home putting the kids to bed. But where is the line between one's persona and self? Where does Wavy Gravy end and Hugh Romney begin? I, too, feel split in many directions. Mother Z is not Kirsten Anderberg the writer, who is not the me that I cook for and clean up after and talk through trials and tribulations alone. Within 2 hours time, I can be applauded by thousands of fans, be hugged by performer peers, and then all of a sudden be alone. This quiet is a stark contrast. Sometimes it is a welcome quiet, sometimes it is not. I can go through five emails thanking me for articles I wrote that touched people's lives, and then be lonely in real life a half hour later. It is weird.
I guess the point of this article, if there is one, is to remember that public personas are just that. And to also remember that even though you see someone wildly applauded on stage, they might be very lonely in real life. There is some stupid shame in admitting loneliness so people hide it. Especially performers who fear they would lose popularity if they did not keep up an air of popularity off stage, as well as on. I thought it best to keep up illusions of popularity when I was lonely as a performer in the past. And I know quite a few famous organizers, writers, and performers who are desperately lonely in their personal lives now, but few are privy to such information about these folks. I think the lesson for fans and performers, or the public and the public persona, in their dances together, is that artists cannot live on applause alone. Organizers cannot live on actions alone. Writers cannot live on fan mail alone. And that public adoration will never substitute for personal intimacy. These are two separate beings.
Kirsten Anderberg. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint/publish, please contact Kirsten at firstname.lastname@example.org.