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Jes­sica Walker un­cov­ers a for­got­ton icon and her sexy songs

Jes­sica Walker makes mu­si­cal the­atre about for­got­ten women of the past. Her lat­est show, All I Want Is One Night, cen­tres around sul­try songstress and artist’s muse Suzy Solidor. Although you might never have heard of her, Suzy was a megas­tar in the 1930s. She was also won­der­fully out­ra­geous, even by to­day’s stan­dards. She sang ex­plicit dit­ties about les­bian sex, had mul­ti­ple fe­male lovers at the same time and reg­u­larly posed in the nuddy. I couldn’t wait to find out more about this ec­cen­tric star of yes­ter­year and Jes­sica’s ex­cit­ing new play.

DIVA: I love all those fab­u­lous per­form­ers from the old days, even more so when they’re queer! Why did you de­cide to make a show about Suzy Solidor?

JES­SICA WALKER: She was an ex­tra­or­di­nary woman who was not only in­cred­i­bly bold and mod­ern with her open- ended sex­u­al­ity, but was also a muse for the great artists of her time. There were 225 por­traits of her and she sang sur­rounded by the por­traits.

I’ve read that she had lots of re­la­tion­ships with women. Was she bi­sex­ual or les­bian?

Well… she had op­por­tunis­tic re­la­tion­ships with men who gave her lots of money but all of her long-term re­la­tion­ships were with women. Gen­er­ally, she had sev­eral of those on the go at the same time. She had one stead­fast com­pan­ion, Daisy, who she treated rather badly. They’re buried to­gether in a ceme­tery in the South of France. I went to see it and some­body still puts fresh roses on the grave.

I’m a fan of the artist Ta­mara de Lem­picka and I know Suzy posed for her. Did they have an af­fair?

They did. Ta­mara de Lem­picka tended to sleep with all of the peo­ple who sat for her, but Ta­mara was re­ally af­fected by Suzy and re­ally fell for her. Late in life, she came to see her be­fore they both died. That af­fair is in my play.

Are her songs in the show as well?

Yes. The songs are ex­tra­or­di­nary be­cause they were writ­ten for her and they are les­bian erotic songs. That’s what she was fa­mous for and they were ac­tu­ally quite rude. I’ve writ­ten English ver­sions. What’s amaz­ing is that she was an en­tirely main­stream artist in the 30s and 40s. When you think of that in the con­text of to­day – I know that Lady Gaga has re­leased songs that are a bit gay – but I can’t think of any­one who’s done what [Suzy’s] done.

What’s her raunchi­est song?

There’s one called Ou­vre, which means Open, and it’s all about how she’s go­ing to have sex with a woman, in­clud­ing how she’s go­ing to gently open her legs and put her tongue some­where. That just would not be ac­cept­able to­day. She was very fear­less. She did what she wanted. She en­joyed flirt­ing with her gen­der iden­tity. She called her­self Ad­mi­ral and Un­cle when she was older. She never la­belled her­self, which is in­ter­est­ing if you look at our mod­ern fix­a­tion with putting our­selves into boxes. There’s a lot to be learned from her sense of free­dom.

How did she get away with be­ing so ex­plicit?

I think she was unusual, even in Paris in the 30s. She was a busi­ness woman, the first woman to have her own club, a thor­oughly mod­ern woman. Most of the peo­ple who got away with be­ing very overt came from very monied back­grounds. Suzy Solidor was self-made. She was ac­cepted by Paris so­ci­ety. She toured Amer­ica.

What hap­pened to Suzy as she grew older?

She was a rather grumpy and un­pleas­ant old lady who drank far too much whisky and dressed as an ad­mi­ral. She spent her later years largely cross- dressed. She felt she looked bet­ter in a uni­form than as an over­weight old girl. When she was younger she used to wear stun­ning evening gowns. She was very sculpted be­cause her first lover in Paris, a fe­male an­ti­quar­ian, tried to mould her into phys­i­cal per­fec­tion. She had lots of per­sonal train­ing and peo­ple work­ing on her body. She used to model swimwear on the beach so she was very proud of her body. Man Ray pho­tographed her quite a lot. There’s no nu­dity in my show, I has­ten to add!

What’s it like play­ing such a colour­ful char­ac­ter?

It’s re­ally nice to be a per­son who was full of de­sire and not ashamed of that. And I get to say some quite rude lines and sing these very se­duc­tive songs, which in my real life I wouldn’t dream of say­ing to any­body. It’s a rather free­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

Who else have you made shows about?

I tend to take peo­ple who I feel have been un­justly marginalised. Sex­u­al­ity is a big part of it for me. It feels re­ally im­por­tant to ex­pose peo­ple to les­bian and bi­sex­ual his­tory. I love go­ing to the the­atre and I never see my­self rep­re­sented. The only fa­mous les­bian play I can think of is The Killing Of Sis­ter Ge­orge and that’s in­cred­i­bly de­press­ing. It’s wrong. It feels like a real omis­sion. This play is a cel­e­bra­tion of some­body who was re­ally ex­tra­or­di­nary and ab­so­lutely thrilled with who she was.


As well as be­ing a per­former, we hear you’re also a doc­tor?

I am a doc­tor of per­for­mance. I did prac­tice-led re­search about my projects at Leeds Uni­ver­sity. Singers tend to be viewed as pas­sive and not cre­ative. I’m on a mis­sion to dis­pel that myth and en­cour­age singers and per­form­ers to be more cre­ative and take con­trol of their work. We live in very dif­fi­cult times and you can’t just sit there wait­ing to be em­ployed. It’s very hard to make a liv­ing as a free­lance cre­ative artist. Nev­er­the­less, there’s a big dis­con­nect between the way con­ser­va­toires for act­ing and singing are pre­par­ing peo­ple for the pro­fes­sion and what that pro­fes­sion ac­tu­ally is.

Were you clas­si­cally trained?

I was, and mis­er­ably so. I went to the Guild­hall and I just spent five years there be­ing told why every­thing about me was wrong. It was such a nar­row path. I was an opera singer for some years, re­ally only be­cause I was bul­lied into it. Then I woke up one day and thought, “I don’t even like this, why am I do­ing it?”. So that’s when I made a big change.

Well, it seems like it paid off and now you’re mak­ing the­atre you’re truly pas­sion­ate about. How much are you en­joy­ing work­ing on this Suzy Solidor show?

It’s a re­ally great piece to be in­volved in. It’s an all-gay cast. The de­sign team, the light­ing de­sign, ev­ery­one’s gay in this pro­ject and all cho­sen be­cause they were the best peo­ple. It’s good. We need to re­dress the bal­ance. A lot is writ­ten about how there are many more men than women rep­re­sented in the­atre, but it’s much worse than that for les­bians and bi women. Be­ing in an all-gay cast feels em­pow­er­ing.

All I Want Is One Night is on at Wil­ton’s Mu­sic Hall in Lon­don, 27 June–1 July, and the Hope Mill The­atre in Manch­ester, 2–9 July. Jes­sica also per­forms cabaret con­certs all over the UK.

“As Suzy I get to say some quite rude lines, which in my real life I wouldn’t dream of say­ing to any­body”

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