Next Tuesday and Wednesday, Juliette Burton is performing her 2013 Edinburgh Fringe show When I Grow Up show at the Leicester Square Theatre in London and then she is immediately going off to tour Australia with it.
This morning she told me: “I just found out yesterday that I’m getting funding from the Arts Council towards the cost of research and development on my next show Look at Me.”
“Because?” I asked.
“Because it’s all about body diversity, body confidence and the celebration of difference. It questions whether who we appear to be is who we are and whether we can change who we are on the inside by changing who we seem to be on the outside.”
“For When I Grow Up,” I said, “you pre-shot lots of video inserts and interviews with various people.”
“Yes,” said Juliette. “And that’s what the funding is going towards on the new show this year: things like prosthetics.”
“So this year, for Look at Me…?” I asked.
“I will be dressing more and more provocatively,” explained Juliette, “to see – if a woman does dress provocatively – if she is going to get unwanted attention from men.”
“I think some interesting points were made,” Juliette said carefully.
“Some people,” I said, “thought Copstick said women were ‘asking for it’ if they dress provocatively…”
“That’s what I’m finding out,” said Juliette. “But, to counteract that – to see if there is any substance to that – for another part of the show, I’m going to be wearing the hijab.
“I’ve been working with the Muslim Women’s Association of Edinburgh to make sure I do that in a sensitive and informed way, rather than in an Islamophobic way.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked. “Just wander around the streets?”
“With all of these appearances,” said Juliette, “I’m going to be spending some time in context – somewhere you might expect to see someone dressing in that way – and then somewhere it might appear to be a bit strange. So you might find it strange to see a woman wearing a hijab in an Ann Summers shop.”
“But why is that strange?” Juliette shot back. “Women wearing the hijab have every right to be in an Ann Summers shop.”
“My eternally-un-named friend has a burka,” I said, trying to be helpful.
“I’ve already got one,” replied Juliette.
“But, as well as the hijab in your show…” I prompted.
“There are prosthetics,” said Juliette. “I will become a man. Not only dress as a man. The prosthetics will turn me into a man with facial hair and, I hope, a big ‘package’.”
“A big package???” I asked.
“Well,” said Juliette, “I don’t quite know how, but I’ve got a very talented prosthetics make-up artist called Sarah Jane.
“I would like to find out what it’s like to be a man and whether men really are more empowered or maybe actually it’s really scary being a man. I have no idea. I need a mentor, John. You can teach me how to be a man.”
“More like a grandfather,” I said ruefully.
“That’s the next thing in the show,” said Juliette. “Age. I’m going to age into a much older version of myself using prosthetics. A lot of women of 60+ who I’ve spoken to in interviews for the show have told me they felt when they hit 40 they suddenly became invisible and that only increased as they got older. I’m a bit scared I might end up looking like my mum but, then, why would I be scared by that? My mum’s gorgeous. It’s just that thing of you never expect to turn into your mother.”
“It would be more frightening if I turned into my mother,” I suggested.
“Then, after the ageing process,” continued Juliette, “I will be revisiting my obese self. All the rest are interesting and fun and different, but I am quite nervous about this one. When I became obese, it was because of Compulsive Overeating Disorder – having been anorexic and then also experiencing bulimia. I was a size 4 from anorexia and then a size 20 from compulsive overeating.”
“Maybe it will be cathartic and give you closure,” I suggested.
“Maybe,” said Juliette. “I would love to be able to find some comfort in it. I will have an obese costume to wear. The whole point of the show is If I’m changing my appearance this dramatically, can I really still remain myself?
“And then, finally, I will be going nude in two different ways, because I’m not sure which one will make it into the show. I’ve had a couple of meetings with the organiser of the London Naked Bike Ride…”
“Was he naked?” I asked.
“Interestingly,” said Juliette, “he wasn’t. He wore a bowler hat, a waistcoat, shirt, tie, jacket, trousers and overcoat. He was very very clothed.”
“It sounds,” I said, “like you may have dropped through a rip in the fabric of time into 1958.”
“And then,” said Juliette, ignoring me, “the other way I’ll be having a nude experience to see whether it makes a difference will be working with Mat Fraser. He has said I can perform at his Sleaze club night and he’s suggested I try to put together a performance routine where it’s maybe something about stripping away layers: a burlesque performance that’s less about sex and more about body confidence.”
“You could use prosthetics and take your face off, like in Mission Impossible,” I suggested.
“I’m thinking of maybe using the obese costume,” explained Juliette, “but, instead of stripping it away, I will maybe put it on and be sexy within it. Or maybe changing from a man into a woman by taking off the prosthetics. I’m hoping to get a couple of burlesque tutors and Mat says he’ll teach me ‘nudity comfort’.
“Everyone I’ve talked to for the show has these incredibly beautiful stories and experiences within them that you just cannot tell from first appearances.
“There’s a guy called Adam Pearson who has neurofibromatosis, a condition where his nerve-endings continue to grow, so he is facially – for want of a better word – deformed. But he is an incredible guy. He is passionate, very funny. He’s actually starring in a film with Scarlett Johansson soon. Everyone is incredible.
“I interviewed Leo Gormley, who has horrific burns he received when he was 14 and in an awful petrol fire. But he escaped and it’s amazing his body recovered from that. We need to honour our bodies more for what they CAN do and not for their imperfections.
“I’ve also interviewed people who look completely ‘regulation’ – I don’t like the word ‘normal’ any more – but they may have a hidden illness.
“So I’ve spoken to two men currently battling cancer. To look at them, you can’t tell at all. One has a body which, because of the treatment, is being overwhelmed with oestrogen hormones which is changing his body in ways he never expected. Another girl looks beautiful, gorgeous, healthy and well but she has cystic fibrosis and is terminally ill and coughs up blood.
“She and I both, for different reasons, hate it when people say Oh, you look well. It’s hard when people project something onto you – not vomit but an idea – an idea of something they want you to be. Oh, you look like you’re having fun!… Well, don’t assume anything about anybody. Maybe ask them how they are feeling, rather than project onto them – again, not vomit. Unless you’re very drunk.”
“And all this filming, highly-edited,” I said, “will be in the show.”
“And I’ll be posting videos on YouTube in the run-up to the Edinburgh Fringe.”
“And,” I said, “like last year there will be a song and a music video?”
“Yes,” said Juliette. “We’ve written the song already, It’s very catchy.”
“I don’t doubt it,” I said.