Heather Holliday Interview

Heather Holliday in LIMBO

There are so many feathers scattered across the floor, I can only imagine an angel must have fallen to earth last night, shed their wings and became human right here. Perhaps they fell for a particular sword swallower, a vision in fifties chiffon and hair piled high in rollers, with eyes of a doe and lashes like freshly unfurled ferns.

Given that I’m inside the London Wonderland cabaret venue on the Southbank to interview one of the leading lights from LIMBO, my rambling daydreams are perhaps brief prophetic glimpses into the new show from the creative minds behind last year’s smash cabaret success Cantina.

So I’m here to interview, Heather Holliday, a delectable young woman with an undercurrent of ferocity. She’s been called as sweet as your grandmother’s pecan pie since she got her start as a sword swallower, and at 19 she was the youngest of her kind I might add, and I certainly know what they mean.

Soundbite Culture: So I hear you’re a fellow New Yorker – are you liking it here in London?

Heather Holliday: Sure, it’s very similar, surprisingly similar, it funny to listen to everyone talk or bitch about stuff here, and I am just eye roiling. Like crowded subways or something like that. It’s worse in New York, but yeah I like it. It’s my first time here, in London.

SC: Well, welcome to London. So you got your start as a performer whilst you were an intern at the Coney island circus sideshow in New York back in 2004.

HH: Yeah I’m still in shock when I tell this story. I did not know I was going to be performing the day I walked in there. And then I did not realize how lucky I was that they out me on stage until I had been there a few years, and watched the interns come and go, and they just got to make photocopies, and organize events, and stuff like that, and I just happened to be there on the day that the snake charmer quit to go to welding school, and there was a cast shortage, and they needed a girl to go into the blade box, they just needed a girl, so they told me to do it. But I had no idea just how lucky I was.

SC: and that was sort of your debut in the world of cabaret? Had you always wanted to work in the circus?

Heather: Kind of. I wanted to intern because I thought the show was super cool, but I had no experience as a stage performer you know, I was in high school, but I wanted to get my foot in the door somehow, and I just did not realize I was going to tumble into it. And I was in combat boots and a hoodie on my first day. Which is ridiculous. I had no idea what I was in for.

SC: So you’re glad you showed up the day the snake charmer quit?

HH: Yeah! But I did not realize how lucky I was and they told me what to do, and that next week I should wear a dress. And I was like ok, and I was just causal, and easy going, just going with the flow, and then I watched the other interns, and I was like ohhh that could have been me. Like I send interns on coffee runs now.

SC: And now instead of getting coffee you breathe fire for a living…

HH: Yeah. It’s just weird how it turned out.

SC: So from intern girl in a box, (which sounds like a hauntingly literal version of most internships to me) you ended up learning how to sword swallow.

HH: Yeah. Honestly, they groomed me on Coney island, I learned everything there, and I was learning things there when I was just a skin girl, (a skin girl is a pretty stage assistant) and there were already people there doing stuff, like there was already the sword swallower, and a fire eater, all the roles were taken, even when you learnt stuff you have to wait for someone to leave before you can step into that spot, there is no way you can over throw someone who has been there for ever, you have to wait for some for someone to leave. Say you have just learned something, a simple trick, and you are like “let me do it! I want to do it in the show…” No, you have to wait for someone to leave.

And then, at the end of my first season the sword swallower left to do some show in Texas, and my boss who knew I had been practicing on all these other things, was like, “Do you think you can have this ready by next season?” So I hustled and my act was not very good, but I made my name doing it, it was just because the swords swallower left, like if the fire eater had left, I would have been a fire eater. But since I have been swallowing swords in the show since I was 19 that sort of became my forte, it was not like “I want be a sword swallower!!!”, it’s just by default that became my thing. And then because I was a young girl on the scene I just got booked more than older gentlemen, because even though they were a million times better, and I was a beginner, it did not matter, people wanted to see me, prancing around in silly little tutus., swallowing swords.

SC: personally I’m fascinated that you use to be a glass eater as well.

HH: Oh yeah I did.

SC: What was that like?

HH: It’s really scary, especially when you hear it’s a way people use to kill people in medieval time. Like I was watching an episode of OZ, and they were grinding up glass in the kitchen, to kill one of the inmates and I was whoa, this is what I do for a living, and there is a special diet and regiment you have to have in order to help pass the glass through you without hurting you, but it’s just scary… the worst thing about it is the teeth.

SC: Did your dentist ever tell you between the sword swallowing; fire breathing and glass eating you might need dentures at a young age?

HH: (laughter) um it’s something I knew, but your young and you’re like “I don’t care, this is totally awesome.”

SC: So what makes a good cabaret show?

HH: It’s showmanship and presentation. Even with the skill, it’s nothing without presentation. It’s like bloc head is an easy party trick, to slide a nail in and out of your face, but I hate when people do that, because I want to stick to the girly pretty stuff, and I don’t want to make a UHHH face. Like an UGHHHH face. (Heather makes a hilarious face, where ever bit seems to move on its own accord in variant directions.) You’re not going to remember that face are you?

SC: Oh it’s locked in my memory (it is)

HH: (laughter) So my partner would do Bloc face, because he’s a guy and he can make dumb faces. I mean I make dumb faces, but their cutesy girly faces.

SC: Ok. And can I just say I love your 50’s inspired look. Plus it reads so well on stage.

HH: thank you. But there is a down side to it. Everybody thinks my routine is fake. Like when I put two swords in my mouth, hold it in my mouth, and do this control release drop, where you catch it in your throat and then you drop it the rest of the way, and I drop it in a curtsey and I have watched it on video it does not look real, I mean it does not look real. And you see these sword swallowers, who are not as good, who are choking to get it down.

SC: Are they playing it up?

HH: No. They are just not a graceful sword swallower and you know they just need to practice more, because it’s obviously something you have to keep your body familiar with, otherwise your will be watering on stage and you will be making horrible gag noises. When that guy goes on stage, then they think it’s real, because he is doing that. But if I go up there and prance around all dainty and bat my eye lashes, and then gulp the sword down real fast, they think it’s fake, But I have worked really hard to make it graceful because I don’t want to be scary. I don’t want to be GAHHHH. I mean I think a lot of people see me and they say that girl can’t do that, I mean most people think that, they just look at me and there are like, “That girl can’t do that… She can’t do that.”

SC: (for the record she totally can) So what’s it like being in this amazing world of cabaret?

HH: Its amazing, especially when you are in a festival, it’s amazing, because, like I have never been to London before, but because of the scene and because it is small, you know people around the world before you have ever met them they know you, and you go and say hello to someone and they hug you, because even though you have not met them, they have heard of you. It’s really magically, it’s not like any other field. It’s really nice. It’s a great world and everyone is amazed at what everyone else does.

Limbo at London Wonderground

But when we are amazed at what they do, they are just like “Ehhh, that’s what I just do with my life.” Like the contortionist is not amazed at what he does, like that’s just his life, he’s not as impressed with himself as we all are. But he’s like “I can’t believe you swallow swords!” and I’m like “Ehh, that’s just my life.” But especially in this show everyone wants to learn from each other. Like the drummer bought tap shoes the other day, and he wants me to teach him tap, and we all want to learn from each other, and it’s just a very, very inspiring show.

SC: what’s it like after the show then. What do you do when it’s late and you’re on the night bus heading home and no one is breathing fire?

HH: Well sometimes, I like to take off my glitter lips, because I have ideas about myself, and or what people may assume, and when I leave in a leopard print coat with giant eye lashes on. I like to call it jokingly, whore face, or business face, but really its whore face, because I look like I could be a streetwalker I mean no one knows what I do. I mean why am I wearing this big leopard fur jacket with ridiculous huge hair and eyes and smeared off red lipstick, like who is this, and I am sure no one is assuming I am in some show, so I can only imagine what people think about me.

SC: so what can we expect from you in this show then?

HH: It’s best not to.

SC: So we should have no expectations?

HH: really It’s best not to. Like I have told my boyfriend a bit about it, like the things that are new for me and that I am not as confident in doing, because there are new challenges in a show I have never done before, but I won’t even let him watch the trailer and he does not want to, he wants to come and be amazed. I really don’t like telling people exactly what’s going to be in it, because I don’t want people to have expectations. I hate the hype, like when we came to Adelaide, there was all this hype about the show, and I would rather not have to go against the hype, and just have people come to the show. But here, it’s more comfortable, and when I am not being Heather Holliday, I’m just more, I don’t know…

SC: wait who are you when you are not Heather Holliday?

HH: I mean it comes and goes, it’s obviously a part of me but when I am not in makeup or costume, I don’t even walk the same, I slouch, and heather Holliday is more graceful.

SC: So last question every time you come on stage the M.C. says you are sweater then your grandma’s pecan pie, do you like Pecan pie?

HH: (laughter) pecan pie is delicious, personally I am not a fan of pecans, but I like to take them off and eat under them, eat this yum mush. I mean I’m not a fan of pecans but I will eat the rest of the pie. I mean everyone says this, because when I started the show I was young, and really timid and in awe of these performers before, all the performers who were in the show that came before me. And now I am working with these people I use to watch, and everyone just thought I was adorable and cute and shy. And that’s just what they said in my intro, and people like it so they say it, sweetheart of the sideshow, cutesy young stuff. I don’t know today is my birthday.

SC: What! Well happy birthday Heather!

HH: Thanks.

From here, the conversation trailed off into the benefits of using your birthday to get everything from free train tickets to a nice cup of coffee, whilst the feathers on stage blew about slightly in the wind. The Cabaret is certainly a magical place, yet amongst all that glitz and glamour Heather Holiday truly shines.

Interview by Shelton Lindsay, photography by David Solm

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Dates ‘n stuff

May 2013