Interview: Betty Grumble, love & anger

betty grumble beach blood

Oliver Heath talks to Emma Maye, better known as Australian “obscene beauty queen and surreal showgirl” and all-round provocateur, Betty Grumble. Just in time for the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras celebration that takes over Sydney this weekend.

I am… a woman body.

Australia is… a burnt, beautiful, troubled potential paradise.

My performances focus on… the woman body as a site for cathartic storytelling, metamorphosis and joy.

I procrastinate by… swimming swimming swimming.

In the future… I will do more.

Art is… a way forward.


Thanks for your time Emma, and thanks for the shows, your Grumble Boogie videos make happy in a way that I usually reserve for Dr Frankfurter’s first entrance in Rocky Horror. — HONOURED. What was the genesis for Betty Grumble?

Betty Grumble was born out of love and anger.

Betty Grumble is an obscene beauty queen and surreal showgirl. She is a monster mirror and feminist clown. She is dedicated to beauty and furiously shakes her fleshy form to try to simultaneously celebrate and challenge what a body can be.

Her namesakes are my father’s parents, my grandparents, who I spent many afternoons with at their home in Bexley when growing up. My grandma was a totally kooky but unfortunately a bit of a racist avid gardener with many cats: Betty. My grandfather was a man I saw sometimes emerge from the garage and who we only referred to as ‘Grumble’ because he was actually quite unpleasant. These dualisms within my relatives’ characters and their strange ‘Asstraylin’ politics inspired me to name my alter-ego after them. They are both dead now planted under a tree in the botanical gardens.

Betty Grumble has traversed a performance history that started predominately in the ‘burlesque’ world in Sydney but has since morphed and evolved into both alternative and mainstream spaces and forms.

Do you have a muse?
Powerful women that have gone before me and started the undoing of oppression and celebrated their fleshy forms… I really adore Annie Sprinkle, Diamanda Galas, Patti Smith, Nina Hagen and all those anarchic feminist punk goddesses…I get a lot of inspiration from peer artmakers like Glitta Supernova and Aaron Manhattan. My influences are constantly shifting as I discover more depth to my politics and more complex ways of communicating.

Are there particular audiences you’re seeking to address or disrupt?
I don’t think about disrupting or addressing individuals (although it happens anyway). I think about the work criticising institutions and systems of restrictive and corrupt ways of being. I’m seeking to disrupt the hetro-matrix and hierarchies that privilege one way of being over another.

Have you had any notable negative reactions from audiences or other performers?
Negative because it’s a shame people can be so homophobic/sexist/small-minded. It’s a natural part of creating subversive work, people are going to react to it with violence or aggression because it is inherently challenging their carefully constructed world. Also, some people can’t take a joke. If you are going to present as a freak faggot queen you have to be made of tough stuff. We know that by merely existing as our expressive unapologetic selves we agitate the status quo.

How about surprisingly positive reactions?
Yes. Bigtime. I’ve had some very tender and intimate stories shared with me post performance from women that identify with my storytelling and are excited about the work. I am very humbled and honoured that people take the time to come have a conversation, because that’s what I want the work to be… a dialogue.

Do you ever have moments on stage when you think WTF am I doing?
No. The stage is a sacred site and I would never get on it without a really good reason to do so.

Betty grumble emma facesBetty is such a strong character. Do you have moments when you feel like Betty and Emma are conversing? Do they argue?
I am in constant conversation with Betty. Her ideology has really shifted and evolved since I first made her. I have done a lot of letting go of my initial reactive anger and revenge energy. This is still a huge part of Betty but it does not rule her… Through my own deepening of my feminism I have come to incorporate a side to Betty which allows Emma Maye to shine through more. The mask can be taken on and off and I can break rules that I had created for Grumble. She can be more than just the ‘former child pageant star come burlesque heroine’ …She can be a goddess, a superheroine, a witch… It’s exciting!

(even if it’s imagined) What would that conversation sound like?
Emma Maye: Betty what do you want to do today?
Betty Grumble: Beauty.
Emma Maye: BEAUTY. Let’s dance till our bodies become other than what they are.
Betty Grumble: Let’s wear mum’s old g-string leotard bikini.
Emma Maye: Let’s dance to Patti Smith.
Betty Grumble: Let’s lose control.
Emma Maye: Then get it back.

You describe yourself as a feminist performance artist, how do you define feminism?
The acknowledgement of the hetro-matrix, the need to celebrate difference, the despair that women are the second-sex, the desire to heal the Earth.

When did you start describing yourself as a feminist?
Early 2008, I realised the power in the world and got real enraged and eager about all the amazing people who had gone before me in Feminism and Resistance.

Have you intentionally avoided the word ‘burlesque’ in descriptions of your work?
I think it pops up every now and again… What I do in my short works IS burlesque. I am playing with the form but I don’t identify with the current trend of burlesque as it exists as a fashion movement (except in an ironic way). Burlesque is the ancient art of women shaking their bodies when/how they were not meant to. Flesh meant something different in the ‘Golden Age’… I’m not interested in being an ornament.

I noticed you perform at the well-known drag venue The Imperial Hotel. Do you move between drag and burlesque worlds freely (or queer, cis audiences I guess?), or do you find yourself in one more often?
I’m all over the place. I really like traversing different spaces and am thankful I have been welcomed by such a myriad of cultures/subcultures. I think it’s good not to be nameable. Don’t call me drag or burlesque… call me Betty Grumble… cause I’m the only one doing that.

The other week I deleted about half the people I had followed back on instagram when I had the realisation that amongst all the #fitfam #boxgap #datass #selfie hashtags, I was essentially looking at a user-generated Zoo Magazine. It left me wondering if somewhere in the fight to be sexpositive, and against slut shaming, we have had a pro-objectification detour. (Sorry that’s more like the starting point of a debate than a question, but I’m not sure what I think yet) What’s your opinion of this?
I think it’s an energetic and an intention thing… We don’t quite have the language for it yet. Women can do what they want with their bodies. YES. We can strip, fuck, walk around nude, shake our bodies. YES. But we are conscious of the world we do that within.

I think when an unconscious body participates in the male gaze in a way that leaves her powerless it doesn’t help women’s liberation. We need to have complete autonomy… THEN we can rage on without this muck we keep getting stuck in… And, it’s not just the sex industry, every industry needs to be completely destroyed and rebuilt. This society is simply not working, we are being told how to be in a really limiting destructive, consumerist way so we don’t realise our real power and empathy and live independently from the big ‘machine’….Machine men with machine hearts, grinding us into dust.

betty grumble interview

How would you like to see the current feminist discourse evolve?
I’d like the slut-shaming to end. It’s really BORING. I want to see people thinking about the woman body like the Earth. I am thinking a lot about my eco-feminism.. where the woman body is being mined, raped, annihilated as we are annihilating the Earth. I believe the key to moving forward is in our return to nature.

Have you alienated old friends or family through your performance?
Initially, yes. As my politics have grown stronger I think old friends have naturally chosen different paths. My family has grappled with some of the content and danger involved with my work but are slowly coming to understand my trip and are there when I need them.

Who are your biggest supporters?
All the freaks around me living the same twisted, carnie life. I am so lucky that the alternative/queer scene in Sydney/Australia is so diverse and full of fellow activists and artmakers ready to support my work. I also have a family that hasn’t kicked me out for being a ratbag and lets me keep all my costumes and props in the house. My little brother is in a wheelchair and I live at home to aid caretaking with him so there is a real sense of team effort when it comes to everyone’s dreams being realised. It wasn’t always easy but I am supported now.

If there is a focused politic that motivates your work, do you ever get worried that you’ll get lost in the hedonism of the stage?
I am always coming back to my ethos and my meaning. I like to think that it will always shine through… I am very dedicated to examining every bit of dramaturgy that ends up on stage. I spend most of my life dreaming about the next piece and a lot of time and energy goes into creating layered work.

You’ve got your dance class, regular shows, the Tokyo Sing Song night, what else is on the radar?
I am going to present a full-length work titled GRUMBLE in June 2014. GRUMBLE will be the story of Betty Grumble’s invention and why Emma Maye made her – It will unfold as an autobiographical beauty pageant. Betty Grumble will be travelling and performing a lot in 2014 as she loves to meet new people and show her wares, some sites she will travel to are: Perth Fringe, Adelaide Fringe, MONA, Edinburgh Fringe, London and wherever I can get!

Is your theme song “Grumble Boogie” to the tune of “Jungle Boogie”?
Ha! No! That is just a happy coincidence but I am definitely going to be making a version of that track for a promo viddy!

Keep up to date with Betty Grumble on Facebook.

oliver heath


Interview by Oliver Heath.