Empress Stah: ‘Every show I’ve done has probably been illegal’

Are you ready for explicit circus? We meet the gravity-defying act whose suggestive way with lasers is changing life under the big top

“I’m a 90s kid,” begins Empress Stah, which I incorrectly assume will lead to a discussion about Sonic The Hedgehog and Dawson’s Creek. “So I was involved with the modern primitives movement, piercings and body art.” I shouldn’t have assumed: Stah is a cabaret performer and aerialist with a penchant for a provocative stunt. Previous routines have seen her syringing her own blood to pour in a cocktail, pulling glitterballs from her vagina, and creating the world’s first laser buttplug. “Every show I’ve done has probably been illegal,” she laughs.

It’s difficult to pin down the Australian’s oeuvre because she moves through genres quickly. She started out as a female drag queen in Sydney clubs and soon began incorporating suspension and circus skills into her shows. Many of her routines originated in fetish clubs, where she would perform naked, with a shaved head and sci-fi makeup. When she moved to London, she immersed herself in the early 2000s neo-burlesque scene but, perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who writhes on the ground under a sign proclaiming “God was the first cop”, she quickly tired of its retro nostalgia and cheesecake twee.

Stah’s performances are about far more than glitz and spectacle. These days, she sees herself as more of an artist, and believes that traditional cabaret has little to offer her. “That world is about entertainment; I explore bigger ideas. My shows are about gender fluidity, evolution, the universe, inequality, religion.”

How can circus explore gender fluidity? Stah describes the visual puns in Queen Of The Night, a piece that climaxes with her furiously dildo-ing a sex doll. “The idea came from Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute. I’m in a strap-on because I’m a queen, and the Queen. I eat fire to symbolise darkness consuming light. The doll is a sailor I’ve summoned to the underworld, on whom to unleash all my fetishistic desires; am I a man, a woman? My cock breaks off in his ass but I’m interrupted by Is That All There Is by Peggy Lee. Because all these ‘big’ questions about sexuality and identity: is that all there is? You don’t have to make a choice or have a label. If that’s all there is to sex, let’s keep dancing. Do whatever you want – anything’s possible. Plus it’s a double entendre about the size of the doll’s genitals. Ha ha ha!”

Sitting in her costume box of a south London flat surrounded by bird-skull headpieces, I’m surprised by how witty Stah is. “When you’re working at [long-running London gay and fetish club] Fist, surrounded by men who aren’t interested in you, you have to be funny.” A question about her shaved head conjures a gleefully droll, devil-may-care response. “Oh, I was a little lesbian wannabe back then. I was desperate to be gay. I ended up with a transsexual. I thought: ‘Well there’s bits here, bits there – I can make this work.’”

Her appearance, which in the past has included fangs, whited-out irises and futuristic masks, has always challenged easy notions of femininity. “I remember sitting in an accountancy lecture, with shaved head, gold velour cape and 20-hole Doc Martens, realising I didn’t fit in,” she mentions.

Hold on, you were going to be an accountant?

“Yes. I still like numbers.”

Empress Stah
Photograph: Francois Boutemy Photograph: Francois Boutemy

It’s probably for the best she dropped out, and made her way to London with a one-way ticket. To make money, she’d walk around the West End charging tourists who wanted to take her photograph. She also worked in a peep booth, and claims nudity feels natural. “I’m about freedom, self-expression, having people question their thinking. I’m not interested in shocking people.” She also resists all labels, including feminist. “I’m into total equality, perfect chaos; I identify as human, though I may not be,” she says with utmost seriousness. What about the infamous laser, shining rainbow beams from between her spread legs? Designed in collaboration with Peaches (who shot Stah for her video, Light In Places). That must be about female empowerment and stuff? “The laser is the light within us all,” she explains patiently. “It’s about not seeking an external God.”

The woman whose passport reads Empress Stah Power is nothing if not committed. To start the year and to mark her 20th anniversary of performing, she archived all her props, drawing a line under her past work, adding: “I’m learning new skills.” She also confounds the notion of outsiders lacking ambition, or business sense: she wants to perform on the space station, and once crowdfunded an anti-gravity flight in the US. Her next target is, unbelievably, the family market. The day we meet, she has just been commissioned by the Southbank Centre to create an “electric western with neon cowboys”. “It’ll be about east versus west, and white privilege,” is all she says, which suggests it won’t be Captain America on horses.

Stah talks about stripping and transvestism moving above ground, her spiky confidence almost tinged with regret. With burlesque as an art form now firmly mainstream, and her biggest show to date opening at the heart of the cultural establishment, does she still feel like an outsider? “Yes, definitely. But now the centre’s shifted – and this is it. The world has caught up with me.”


Rhik Samadder

The GuardianTramp

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