You arrive at a show. You sit in darkened comfort and watch as a beautiful woman strolls onto the stage. She welcomes you to relax and enjoy the show. She’s wearing a gorgeous dress, high heels, perhaps a bit of sparkle. With an engaging smile, she sings a wonderful collection of songs, with virtuosic control of her instrument, transporting you to another place. But how did she get there? What preparation went on, physically, before the show started, to get her on stage and shining? What happened behind the curtain?
Whilst watching a BBC documentary on the big band era recently, I was intrigued to hear the names of a number of famous singers mentioned, who, whilst touring, had had to change into their evening gowns, set their hair, do makeup, warm up their voices/instruments etc. on a moving bus, with no loos - and often as the only female in the bunch. They were then expected to get straight on stage, looking glamorous, and sing their hearts out. This scenario seemed remarkably familiar, and I was curious to find out about modern-day female performer’s experiences - and if things had changed much on that front since the ‘50s!
Having personally survived all kinds of bizarre situations whilst attempting to get dressed and made up for a show, I was very curious to find out if any other ladies had experienced similar hilarity. It is amazing how we gals manage to somehow look glorious on stage when we’ve had to get prepped in cupboards - and I reckon our ability to overcome obstacles (and laugh about them) is something to be celebrated! I think it takes a certain amount of hutzpah to grin, bear it, step over the undesirable substances and look glamorous in spite of the odds!
I have asked female performing friends all over the globe for their anecdotes - and here are the first answers that have come in. Incidentally, I realise that many male performers will have had similar challenges when it comes to dressing areas, backstage mishaps and more - but with the exception of drag queens and transsexuals, who are highly versed in the art of glamming up in a feminine manner - the heels, makeup, polished nails, highly-styled locks and evening gowns are generally the woman’s domain, and take a lot more effort than throwing on a suit - sorry boys, but it’s true!
Today’s question deals with what my girlfriends considered to be the most unglamourous places they’ve had to get ready for a performance. Now - putting aside the title of this article, I don’t think any of these ladies could be called ‘divas’ if they are a) still in the profession after dealing with this kind of thing on a regular basis b) happy to still be in the profession!!
There were a lot of stories about ‘fragrant’ toilets as changing areas - and unfortunate non-self-inflicted dress-stainage as a result... Barb Jungr put her make up on and changed in the RVT dressing room, in the old Vortex, which everyone will recall had communal toilets… Hollywood author Shelley Goldstein recalled that putting on make-up in the loo of a moving train is a particular ring of hell - which I can also attest to!
Personally, I had one occasion where I changed in a loo and realised my bag with all of my street clothes had turned yellow... I ended up in a charity shop buying a blouse to stay warm and cover up my evening gown for the tube journey home! Dancer Trixie Sparkle flew all the way to Milan for a show, only to be asked to change in a disabled toilet with two other performers… Sophie Shaw recalled the “so-called Green Room at the 100 Club, before it was done up, was not only the least glamorous changing room I've ever used (bear in mind I change in the loos more often than not!), it was possibly the most disturbing. The bare stone floor ran with a liquid that I couldn't identify, and didn't want to!”
Some of the more unusual changing and preparation areas include cupboards, crawl spaces, and tents in muddy fields. Dancer & comedienne Caroline Amer recalls that the weirdest place she had to put her costume on was a crawl-space with a 3ft door to enter, and she had to get dressed bent over in two with no lighting except from a flashlight - tres chique! Soprano Joanna Skillet had a particularly cold experience of a freezing storage cupboard in a chapel with no heating at all, where she was sharing with another singer - “We weren't even given any portable heaters as we weren't the "stars" on the tour. Least to say, I was the colour of my blue dress when I finally got to the stage...but I did make a best friend out of that Igloo experience and we had a great laugh!” Which just goes to show that with the right attitude, you can not only get through the challenge but form lasting friendships too!
The adventurous Barb Jungr mentioned getting changed in a moving jeep in Africa (and said “Don’t ask!”). Singer Cathie Rae once glammed up in her evening gown in a disused cowshed that still stank of cow &*% and had no mirror. Super glam… Broadway star Christine Pedi changed in a carpentry shed amidst paint cans, hacksaws and gaffer tape...where the saw dust was sticking to her eyelash glue!
Often times, an other-wise well-meaning client doesn’t really think any further than the actual performance - and it’s up to us, as performers, to make the best of it! Kitty La Roar had to change once ”in a dark, cold and empty tent in the rain with no tables and chairs. The gig was a wedding in the adjacent marquee. It was earmarked for us as we were to be a surprise... Nobody was to see us! Set up 2hrs before and stand in the tent? Sod that,” she says, “we went to the pub! Folks are strange.”
Of course, practicality in London can also dictate how much preparation gets done ahead of the game… Abigail Collins (hula hoop artist) says that “currently, my backstage is often the Tube, applying my make up with bemused commuters looking on!”
I have found, over the last 15 years of being a professional musician, that there is a certain type of resilience necessary to be a great (freelance) entertainer that no one can teach you at college. You’ve simply got to learn on your feet. Personally, I have changed into my evening gowns (petticoats and all) in moving cars, vans, smelly loos, corridors and cupboards. You just have to get on with it!
It has been very refreshing, somehow, to hear these shared experiences, which, whilst humorous, often aren’t particularly amusing at the time that you’re having to go through them. Every one of the female performers I asked to take part in this article are busy, working singers, musicians and stage entertainers - and all of us have had to change in a loo at one point or another: there’s no business like show-business. And we wouldn’t have it any other way… (well, a plush backstage area with kittens, a chocolate fountain and a massage therapist wouldn’t go amiss - at least some of the time! Ha!). Stayed tuned for more… these stories are endless! Oh dear!
Author’s Note: As this article is for International Women’s Day, I’ve kept my research to other ladies for now, but would love to hear from the men too - certainly for question two and three - for a future publication. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you very much to my first contributors, including Barb Jungr, Christine Pedi, Shelly Goldstein, Abigail Collins, Sarah Moule, Joanna Skillett, Trixie Sparkle, Caroline Amer, Julie Miranda, Kitty La Roar, Sophie Shaw, Cathie Rae, Mina Dutton and those who wish to remain anonymous. X