Holly Gauthier Frankel is a performance powerhouse in Montreal and behind every powerful lady is often a rather complicated story. She came roaring onto the burlesque scene about 12 years ago with her Fringe festival character, the boozy, femme fatale Miss Sugarpuss. Actress, voice-actress, jazz singer, and all around creative since the age of 7, Gauthier-Frankel was supporting herself through many areas in the performing arts, but, Miss Sugarpuss refused to take a supporting role. To many, the character birthed (or revitalized or accessible-ized) the local burlesque scene and everyone wanted her on the bill. In fact, Miss Sugarpuss even seemed to take over Gauthier-Frankel’s life to the point that she had to get out of the scene. In a very revealing, if not shocking interview about the burlesque industry with the Mirror, Gauthier-Frankel talked about the schizophrenic problems in what appeared (at least externally) to be an empowering and accepting art form. With some distance, Gauthier-Frankel slowly let Miss Sugarpuss return as a host for some events and the occasional burlesque performance. Now, in Love and Pasties Miss S., Miss Sugarpuss will get her proper farewell as Gauthier-Frankel schemes to put her days of burlesque performance to bed.
Love and Pasties Miss S. is the third show that Gauthier-Frankel created with Miss Sugarpuss. The first one, in 2005, was “a whimsical exploration. It was a vaudeville review with all my musical theatre friends from McGill. It was artsy. It was theatre. It was pastiche,” Gauthier-Frankel explains. “It was the first time I took my clothes off in public, which was horrifyingly scary, but not as scary as all that,” she says. The Fringe show set things in motion. “I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Fringe for pulling my name out of the hat,” she says. “I said I’ll write a Fringe show and didn’t know it was a lottery, but was lucky enough to get picked. I only charged $6. I didn’t charge the full amount. I didn’t have confidence to charge the full amount.” Further, she confesses “It was expensive to do. I almost went bankrupt after the first show.”
The experience opened doors for her. She began to study “old school people” and went on road trips to meet former dancers because the Internet didn’t provide access. Miss Sugarpuss had grown into something greater. “The global village opened up to me,” says Gauthier-Frankel. She had performed in Japan twice and was “deep in the throes of it.” This included what Guathier-Frankel describes as “a lot of nasty behaviors — drinking, that it was okay to be drunk and doing burlesque. A lot of demons about my past.”
To address this, Gauthier-Frankel wrote a new show for the Fringe about Miss Sugarpuss: Miss Sugarpuss Must Die. “The idea was that I made this alter-ego to protect myself and she’s trying to kill me.” With the help of Paul Van Dyck, she created a very film-noir style show in which Miss Sugarpuss was “murdered”. “It was very psychological and very theatrical thanks to Paul Van Dyck,” she says. The show won the best English theatre award and was performed multiple times at the Centaur and the Segal.
“I was exhausted and still not making a lot of money from it,” Gauthier-Frankel says. Many other factors contributed, including her other artistic pursuits in music and film, as well as her personal life. It affected how she saw burlesque as well, thoughts that continue into the present day. “I was not happy doing burlesque anymore. I was watching my friends work for free or cheap. Also, just watching the cattiness of trying to be the most beautiful sparkly thing. I think there still are a lot of women who do burlesque for that reason. It’s a narcissistic art form, although art might be narcissistic. But I now feel that I have a duty as an artist to service a larger swath of the population if I’m doing art. I think I must.”
Which of course brings us to the third and final installment of Miss Sugarpuss. We’re six years after Miss Sugarpuss faced her murder attempt. Gauthier-Frankel explains the show, “It’s Miss Sugarpuss in the days before her death. She’s gone into hiding in “Paris” or what she thinks is Paris. She’s trying to make it in the artistic underground of Paris and encounters some people who shake her whole reality and make her realize she’s going to die.”
One of the most interesting aspects of the show is how Gauthier-Frankel relates to this alter-ego character and how that relationship has changed. “I think Miss Sugarpuss has been a filter to say whatever the fuck I want without getting in trouble or without consequences,” she says. “She’s me, in certain aspects, but with an exaggeration towards the negative of what a woman of appetites is like, with all her foibles magnified. Everything good and bad is magnified. I wrote her to be my nemesis and my mirror.”
Miss Sugarpuss was also created to challenge expectations. “She is a good foil to be able to explore aspects of my character that I don’t enjoy or society wouldn’t enjoy. At my beginning of my career I was heavier, and performing as her was a way for me to say I’m a chubby girl but do you still like her now that she’s drunken and taking her clothes off? People would say I was “brave”; it was the word of choice people used. Why? Because my body is undesirable? Miss Sugarpuss is a challenging, polarizing figure.”
For the third show, Love and Pasties, Miss S., Gauthier-Frankel says it is “semi-autobiographical with fictionalized elements. It explores men, art, money, perceptions of success and what it means to be a successful artist.”
Gauthier-Frankel has a very unique take on what it means to be a successful artist and the contradictions inherent in doing burlesque. For one thing, she notes that though she deeply respects the many women and men who perform burlesque and can only speak for herself, it was not a viable way to support herself. There was a financial toll, and once it stopped being a statement for her, an emotional toll as well.
“‘It’s good exposure,’ people tell you. We’re literally exposed,” she says. “There is an unreality that we were dealing with. I want people to walk away from the show having though about it much more than about what it means to see a woman disrobing for you. The irony is that I’m thinner now, my body has changed shape, and I’m working out. I’m happy in my skin. My body is potentially more desirable now and I want to show it so little. I want it back. It’s mine now. Now that it’s a more socially acceptable, non-political body I don’t want to show it. I don’t have anything to say with it anymore.”
She also considers some of the other things that made her question her choices to do burlesque, such as whether it was still a feminist act or ecologically responsible. “If I’m going to be a responsible feminist, I can’t be poisoning my body with hairspray, make up, talcum powder. I have asthma, allergies. We call it glitter lung,” she says. “A little bag of 100 Swarovski crystals — where do they come from? Who makes them? Are we participating in the ecological demise of the planet by adorning ourselves as goddesses? Are we contributing to patriarchy by participating in the acceptable norms of what femininity is supposed to look like?”
On that note, Gauthier-Frankel says, “I’m killing this character, and people have eight more chances to see the whole shebang. I’ll be giving away costumes in an auction at the end, ensuring that I never perform these numbers again. People can have them. I’ve hired talented women to help me make them, but I’m done. Other people can pick up the mantle, but I hope they think about what they’re doing.”
Of course, Miss Sugarpuss already “died,” so why her bring her back? “I’m less concerned with making a good piece of theatre, though that is ideal, but more with giving her the right kind of funeral. There are some pretty odd eulogies. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there will be tits and other cool people to watch do some fun acting. I really want to give my lovely fiancé and fellow actor Amir Sám Nakhjavani a chance to shine. When I think about it, all my friends who were in my first show went on to do cabaret, theatre, and burlesque shows. I feel like I contributed and helped in some way. It inspired people. The one woman show was for me but I’m ready to hand the torch off to someone else and hopefully provide opportunities for them.” She takes pride in paying her whole cast and crew too. She especially mentions her director, Tamara Brown. “She’s an incredible director and actress, who has been working in this city for such a long time, she deserves to be noticed. I hope she’s proud of this work.”
Who is this fiancé? “He’s cute. He’s brave. He’s in his 30s. He gave up being a lawyer to be an actor. He went to FACE a long time ago and never followed his dream until now. It inspired me so much that he did this, and partially why we got together and why we do this. I love people who say, “Fuck this, I’m burning it down and doing my thing.” It’s a testament to his character and why I love him and why I want to include him. I’ve never made art with a partner before. It’s something I’ve always dreamed about. Another dream comes true, a creative and a life partnership.”
Love and Pasties Miss Sugarpuss is playing at the Theatre St Catherine (264 ST Catherine E) as part of the Montreal St. Ambroise Fringe Festival. You can catch the show at the following dates and times for $12: June 9 @ 17h30, June 10 @ 21h00, June 11 @ 19h15, June 12 @ 12h00, June 14 @ 22h30, June 15 @ 19h15, June 16 @ 21h00, June 18 @ 20h45. Tickets HERE.