This article was originally published in Lot’s Wife Edition 5: Identity
AD: Where did Mama Alto come from?
As a child I felt so at a loss in this world because for so many reasons, my identity did not fit into the mainstream – along racial lines, gender lines, sexuality lines… When to me it seems lines don’t need to be drawn in that way. Mama Alto was the nickname given to me in high school choir, because I was like a mother hen (not to mention bossy) and because of my high singing voice (in an alto, or countertenor, range). And eventually that became the name of all of these energies inside of me that had been restricted by society – the feminine energy within a male body, the queer energy within a ‘straight’ society, and the person of colour within a neo-colonial state… Mama Alto was the performative identity I stepped into on stage, as a jazz singer, as a cabaret artiste, and as a countertenor diva. And people have embraced that…
AD: How much of Mama Alto is a character, how much is just a part of Benny?
I would never think of Mama Alto as a character… She’s me. I would say in fact, I’m more Mama Alto than Benny… I feel free and I feel truly myself when I am Mama Alto.
AD: Where was Mama Alto’s first break?
At The Butterfly Club – a fantastic Melbourne institution. It’s a quirky, intriguing and sensual home for cabaret, burlesque, comedy and kitsch. And it’s an incubator for emerging artists and a platform for established ones, and the place and people there are so supportive of all that occurs within art and life.
Looking at some photos on your FB page, you’ve got some pretty heart-warming feedback from some elderly fans, has the response been surprising? I was incredibly surprised… I never expected elderly people to “get” what I was about, but they have embraced my gendered identity more than anyone else. I have had beautiful audience members in their eighties and nineties tell me that my gender identity didn’t matter, when their middle-aged children weren’t interested in discussing that after the show, they were just there for the pretty songs. The most touching experience has been a 90 year old holocaust survivor who told me: “You are beautiful. A beautiful woman or a beautiful man, or neither – I don’t really know, but I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that no one can decide that for you. Never let anyone choose for you. Only you can choose.”
AD:What was the biggest ‘wow’ moment on or off stage?
Every time you make a meaningful connection with an audience member, that is the wow moment.
AD: Do you resist trying to define your gender or your act as ‘drag’ or ‘gender bending’?
I think so. I went make up shopping with a friend the other day, and the shop assistant almost used the word “drag” – I thought my friend was going to slap her! As a genderqueer person – with a gender identity that lies between the two ‘traditional’ binary oppositional gender constructions of male and female – I don’t really see myself as a drag artist – although I have a lot of respect for the subversive and political elements of drag performance. To me, though, it isn’t putting on an act – it’s just releasing what is already inside of me. I’m more of a gender transcender than a bender – because I just can’t see gender as a rigid thing, it’s a fluidity which can be transcended or traversed.
AD: How is it living off of the gender binary – any advice for those coming to grips with gender fluidity?
Let’s be honest, it is difficult. Every trip to a public bathroom is defined by strangers who draw battle lines across your gender identity – too male for the female bathroom, too female for the male bathroom. Just the nerve of people that they think they have a right to comment on, or pass judgement on, your gendered identity and that people waste so much valuable time and energy trying to make others fit into their narrow, restricted world views… My advice would be, find your people. Find people that get you. Find people that are willing to know and love the real you. But that advice holds true to anyone.
AD: Establish your cred, who are your influences?
That’s the infamous question that always gets asked, isn’t it! Jazz queens, soul divas and cabaret chanteuses are my biggest influences – including legends such as Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Lena Horne, Roberta Flack, Cleo Laine, Mary Wilson, Nina Simone, Bridgette Allen, Meow Meow, Yana Alana, Paul Capsis, Le Gateau Chocolat, Moira Finucane… The list goes on forever.
AD: Who are you listening to currently?
At this very moment, I’m listening to some Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston, another two idols of mine…
If you could appear in any ABC TV show from your childhood, which one would it be in and why? Although it only screened on the ABC and wasn’t produced by them, I loved the retro episodes of Sesame Street – they had guest stars like Lena Horne, Ray Charles, and Patti LaBelle who would come in and sing duets with the Muppets. That is the TV show I would appear in.
AD: Any plans on taking Mama Alto abroad?
One day! One day. I would love to do Edinburgh Fringe… But you know, I always like to think big.
What’s coming up in the near future – where can our readers go to see you? My next big project is only as a director, not a performer – a cabaret interpretation of The Velveteen Rabbit at Monash Uni Student Theatre, on campus August 22-30. And my next performances are at The Butterfly Club, September 24 – 28, with Sassy: Mama Alto sings Sarah Vaughan.