Interview: Miss Behave

Teaching yourself to sword swallow has to be a risky business but when Miss Behave, cabaret sensation and one of the world’s last living female sword swallowers, means business, don’t just expect risky, expect risqu.

Miss Behave, aka Amy Saunders, has been variously described as a living cartoon, and a cross between Betty Boop and Marlene Dietrich.

Disarmingly witty and slightly intimidating, she holds a Guinness World Record for her sword swallowing feats and cuts a Jessica Rabbit like figure in her bright body hugging rubber suits.
“I design them but they are made by House of Harlot, they make them up and then we tweak them,” she says.

Larger than life, Miss Behave has been at the vanguard of the revival of the ribald spectacle that is cabaret which just like its most saucy component burlesque, has seen a renaissance over the last decade due its varied billing which caters for every cultural peccadillo you could imagine, from extreme circus skills, to fire eaters, mime artists, Ariel acrobats, contortionists and magicians. But how exactly does one become a sword swallower?

“I have always been a gobby cow and so a friend bought me Memoirs of a Sword Swallower, and suggested I learn as it might shut me up and because I am so obstinate, that’s exactly what I did,’ she explains.

“I taught myself, so the first time I saw someone swallowing a sword, it was me, if that makes sense. I took advice, but so much comes down to internal mechanics and differences, that’s all you can do, and then I just practiced.”

But Miss Behave does not just swallow swords, oh no, she makes audience gasp and flinch- as she fire eats and engages in eye watering tongue piercing skits as if they were nothing more daring than knocking back an espresso. The idiosyncratic acts that make cabaret so appealing mean that the majority are in the main self taught, with performers painstakingly practicising their unique skills and honing their individual art for the delectation of late night audiences.

This August Miss Behave will be bringing some of the world’s finest cabaret stars to feature alongside her at her eponymous Variety Nighty which will see Chalk Farm’s Roundhouse transformed into a live cabinet – or cabaret – of curiosities, all sourced from Amy’s globe trotting exploits.

“I have always had an interest in the history of side show, street theatre, comedy, and freak shows and I have been very fortunate to have spent the last several years touring the world, with La Clique,’ she says, referencing the smash hit cabaret show that premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 2004 and has received rave reviews ever since. ‘ So this is my wish list, but it is really just an example, a sample, of the very best performers that London, Montreal, New Zealand and Berlin have to offer, because there truly are such a lot of great acts out there.”

The bill is set to rotate frequently, so some of the underground icons taking up their north London residency next month include: Lucifire: A pyrotechnics and fireworks aficionado and freak show artist, Spymonkey: an international troupe of physical-comedy phenomenons, not to mention the scabrous wit and glorious singing voice of the peerless Dusty Limits, the Quebecois contortionist and aerial artist, Marjo and last but not least the diabolically good, taste free zone and Sinatra parody, that is Frank Sanazi. To create a space befitting of this unconventional crme de la crme the Round House has even been shrunk from 2,000 bums on seats per night, to create space for just 450 complete with tables and chairs to give it an authentic, intimate, cabaret bar feel.

“I have always been a gobby cow and so a friend bought me Memoirs of a Sword Swallower, and suggested I learn as it might shut me up” – Miss Behave.

Miss Behave, who usually splits her time between London and Berlin, will be Mistress of Ceremonies each night, with two shows on Friday and Saturday evenings. She is still reeling from the opportunity to curate this epic show but a near death experience at the start of her career could have robbed Londoners of this cultural trailblazer.

“I was performing as part of the Royal Opera Company at Sadler’s Wells in 2001, and after one performance I went to bed feeling rather tired, woke up in the night, vomited what I thought was red wine and then went back to bed. I woke up still feeling tired, and knew something was wrong I went off to A&E where I was told I had massive internal bleeding. Luckily it stopped and I was young and fit so I recovered quickly.”

But while her act may be death defying, her compering skills also defy the boundaries of taste and decency, and she will make you chuckle, if not bray- a little guiltily, with her acerbic humour and double entendres. She cites Tommy Cooper, American vaudeville star Jack Benny, Morcambe and Wise as people who have inspired her over the years and is a natural comedienne who enjoys wise cracks just as much as old fashioned physical comedy and slap stick. “I admire all sorts of different performers from people who can entertain late night crowds and also those who can entertain families. But it’s Bill Hicks, that really got me, he was a comedian who had a message,” she enthuses, and anyone who has seen Miss Behave extinguish a cigar on her tongue, could see it as a nodding homage to Hicks’ familiar cigarette. “The first time I heard him I was 15, and it was the first time I had heard anyone speaking my kind of truth as well as making me cry with laughter.”

So this August, step into the off kilter, bizarre world of cabaret and let Miss Behave and her hand picked selection of the world’s most eccentric performers dazzle you. Prepare to leave astounded and possibly slightly disturbed and remember folks: do not try this at home.

Miss Behave’s Variety Night will be at the Roundhouse from 31 July – 24 August 2008

Read the musicOMH review of Miss Behave’s Variety Night here.

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