An interview with...
A creation from the mind of Jessica McKerlie a Melbourne based cabaret and drag artist.
What kick-started your passion for performing and what art forms did you begin dabbling in?
I started doing pantomimes, fire shows and circus classes at my local theatre, The Lieder Theatre in my hometown, Goulburn. The director, Chrisjohn always treated us kids like adults, giving a pretty good insight into what the industry would be like. After failing to get cast as "the girl next door" after graduating from drama school I moved to London where I continued circus training and discovered Drag and Cabaret. The time constraint of a visa that had a finite expiry date really pushed me to go for opportunities and find my performance style, which I brought back to Melbourne just in time for the Drag King revival of the past few years..
Who was Jezza in their past life and who do you think they’ll be reincarnated as in this next life?
In a past life I was definitely one of those artists who lived in a hotel like the Chelsea in New York, experimenting with drugs and documenting my experience through the medium of painting, poetry and performance art.
I'd like to be reincarnated as a dog. Oh to live the simple life, running around getting pats from strangers, only concerned with treats and belly rubs.
Your work has had a strong focus on the exploration of sexuality and gender, how important has this been for you and your audiences?
My first show Gender Spanner was just me writing about my experiences, what I was going through exploring my own gender and sexuality, and it does blow my mind how many varied types of people find something to really connect with in there. For me, I just wanted to start putting my own work on stage and it was the only material I had. For my audience, I guess, me being a pretty outspoken person, I never realised how valuable it is to see someone saying something out loud that you have been thinking personally, but were afraid to vocalise for fear of being rejected, abandoned, killed even. I never realised just how important representation in media is until I had those conversations with people after my shows. But it's great! I love doing it so if it helps people, all the better!.
If Jezza Bellend was invited to perform at a summit in-front of all the world leaders what kind of crazy show would you give them?
I've been developing an act about periods, about how every body bleeds, and access to menstrual products is a human rights issue, not just a feminist issue. Once I figure out the best way to shoot a tampon out of a Nerf gun, it's all over for you guys.
You’ve been to nearly every big arts festival in the world! What have you learned, what’s your insight and which was your favourite?
Ha, only Aus and the UK, plenty more festivals out there! I've learned that even once you get to the "big budget" type productions you'll still be hot glueing costumes together at 3am, or re-choreographing to avoid part of the stage because the paint is drying. Friends are the people you make time to have a coffee with, not to be confused with colleagues, who are the people you drink with in the artist bar after the show. Don't use the same social media profile to both sell tickets AND complain about how low ticket sales are bumming you out. The best marketing is having a show that's actually good. Trust your gut, especially once you get other people involved in selling your work. Make sure you know exactly what you want to achieve from doing the festival, the aim won't always be to make money. You can hemorrhage money like I did the first year I went to Edinburgh Fringe, but I achieved every other goal I set myself so it was actually a raging success.
Which festival was my favourite? Too hard. Like I said, the goals for different festivals are always different. I actually kind of only used performing in the UK as a way of getting back there to visit friends to begin with. So obviously overseas festivals are great because they let you travel the world and see people you wouldn't otherwise, but they come with the ball ache of sourcing accommodation, marketing your show etc. And on the flipside, festivals in Melbourne are great because you already live there! But the market is so much smaller or whatever it is that's going to be tricky, there's always something.
I will say, though, going to a festival where you don't know anyone is the absolute best. You make tonnes of friends because no one can believe you're on your own and everyone wants to help and look after you. Even just as a punter, if you haven't been to a festival on your own, put it on your bucket list.
What conspiracy theory should be spread to the world about Jezza Bellend?
That I can fit a King Size Violet Crumble up my butt and retrieve it, unbroken.
Working in the arts industry can have it’s ups and down - What advice would you give to a younger Jess to prepare for this?
Oh my god LEARN HOW TO BUDGET AND ORGANISE YOUR FINANCES! I literally have a degree in performance, and not once in those 3 years did we cover how to run an independent theatre company, how to be self employed, how to prioritise your mental health but still get the work done. The reality of the arts industry is that you will be making your own work or helping a friend make their own work, pretty much all the time. Which can be super exciting but if you're an unorganised artist with too much unhealed trauma, mining your emotional past for material, that's a recipe for burnout. Haha, but that said, I would probably tell younger me to JUST DO IT ALREADY! You're going to look back at your early work and cringe no matter how good you think it is at the time so you might as well get that embarrassing "early career" part over with and start making some real work. It doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to be DONE.
If Jezza was to be the face of a company for their marketing and TV commercials, who would be the lucky company?
Something like a building supplies company, and all my jewellery is made of nuts and bolts, tools on a chain around my neck, steel cap heels and High Vis Couture. Because we're all having more fun when we're having safe fun.
What’s been the highlight of your performance journey?
Being on on the bill with another artist that I idolise. My younger self really loved listening to Mikelangelo and Amanda Palmer's music, and I've done shows with both of them now. Kind of the realisation that you don't need to fan-girl over anyone in order to meet them, you just need to work hard at your art and you'll meet them through work one day, as equals. That's way cooler.
Where do you picture Jezza in 40 years?
Oh boy. Maybe tucked away in a bungalow, draped in faux furs and 17 cats. Still popping out to go clubbing topless and bumming cigarettes. Hopefully still creating work and managing some sort of artistic outlet that pays the bills. You know what, why not dream big - A Home Owner! How's that for a pipe dream aha...
Why is art important?
Art is important because it's one of the quickest ways to influence someone's opinion. Images can cut through the bullshit in a way that words can't. An outfit can be gross and so beautiful and a big "fuck you" to everything that is oppressing you in your life, and you don't need to say a thing. Films and tv can make you laugh while delivering a moral message, and the best way to turn someone from a bigot into someone a bit more understanding is with humour. Looking at someone else's art can give you a bit of perspective into what their life is like, without you having to live it, and the more you can understand someone else's experience, the more likely you are to accept the way they live, even if it differs drastically from your own. Without art, there would be no tv, films, decoration. Even someone who "doesn't understand art" or considers themselves as someone who desn't like art is consuming art almost 24/7, through their playlists, books they read, shows they watch, adverts they see on public transport, buildings they live in. It's all art.
Check out Jezza Bellend online!
1. Sarah Walker
2. Leigh Hamilton
3. Sarah Walker
4. Martin Cedes
5. Khat Hackett
6. Nikki Spunde
7. Rachel Mia