Bringing her world-beating show Sex Clown Saves the World to the Festival of Dangerous Ideas this November, Betty Grumble is equal parts saviour and savant, able to diagnose what is wrong with the world, while also suggesting a helpful remedy. Speaking with her in the courtyard of Redfern’s The Bearded Tit, we saw how this creature of the Sydney queer underground is on her way to global superstardom.
BYO: There's a lot that we need saving from right now - what in particular is Betty Grumble here to save us from?
Betty: This is a good question. How a sex clown might be inclined to save the world would be through the liberation of their own body. Betty in her grumbling wants to shake up the notion that there is one way of being and also dismantle the idea that bodies can be controlled. The corruption that we're seeing by this conglomerate of tyrants is connected globally and is about these men greeding beyond the needs of the community. It is about not becoming overwhelmed by that task but realising that there are worlds in ourselves to save. Human liberation, animal liberation, environmental liberation.
BYO: You’ve used the term ‘ecosexual’, I wonder whether you could unpack it a bit for us and describe what that means from your perspective as well?
Betty: I was introduced to ecosexuality through my mentor Annie Sprinkle who is a really amazing, legendary performance artist, and so ecosexuality to me, to use Annie and her partner Beth Stephens's terminology, is about reframing the idea of earth from mother to lover. So instead of having this dominant, top-down idea that the natural world is ours to pillage and take from, we've got to learn that we are the ecosystem and we have to return to a harmonious ecology. We are essentially killing ourselves by the way that we are not living kindly.
BYO: For the evolution of this show and Betty herself, how has the reception changed and how has the performance changed in these different settings?
Betty: Betty Grumble was birthed and incubated very kindly in queer underground nightlife environments, and that allowed me to do a lot of experimentation quite quickly and then I developed this show called Sex Clown Saves The World, toured it, and then came back here. I've been doing this other show called Love and Anger and now I'm going back to this first show so I've got this kind of experience going on in my body where I feel like I've evolved. A lot of people really loved it, a lot of people were really disturbed by it, and that's good. It's a chaotic offering.
BYO: How has moving from the queer underground to something like the Festival of Dangerous Ideas extended the project as well?
Betty: My approach to performance is philosophical as well, but instead of it being a lecture I'm doing a stupid dance. I'm really excited and humbled to be a part of it and I think that this kind of punky, rock and roll, nude, fleshy performance is an exciting way to make how we approach very difficult things more fun. Especially in the face of such darkness.
BYO: Is there anyone else on the line-up that you'd like to come and see the show?
Betty: I would love if Germaine Greer came, for lots of different reasons. I have a lot of respect for Germaine Greer, I think she's a very interesting figure within the feminist landscape because of all of the controversy around her, but also because of all of that she has done. It's actually the first time my parents will come to see anything I've done, anything Betty Grumble, which is very terrifying to me because I work so bodily but very exciting.
BYO: Has your family been an inspiration for the performance?
Betty: My shows have been very autobiographical; I speak from my own lived experience as a woman and I think you can't escape your own history; it's all wrapped up in everything you offer.
BYO: How have you positioned yourself as a woman within the drag sphere?
Betty: I've always considered myself a drag queen, purely because I have played with hyper femininity in the way that I have literally dressed up and become a gender bender. I think when you become a gender expressionist, you're in the drag world. I feel an allegiance with gay men who dress up like women, who are drag queens because it's a political act, a way to use humour as a weapon, and I'm doing similar things. I don't have the same stories but I feel like we're from the same tribe.
BYO: In Sydney there's a strong history of women in drag and that often gets written out of history. Have you been going back to some of those earlier performers?
Betty: I'm very lucky to be good friends and mentored by people like Glitter Supernova who ran a club called Girlesque which was an all-women club where wild things went down. Cindy Pastel, who Priscilla Queen of the Desert is about, and that kind of spirit from the 70s and 80s and 90s have been really influential to me. Sydney and Australia has a really potent drag history. I think it's to do with our sense of rebellion and the way that we deal with authority, and the way the party becomes such a sacred site and drag queens become custodians or the hosts.
BYO: More recently we've seen RuPaul's Drag Race bringing drag into the mainstream, how have you responded to that as someone who draws on these histories? Has that changed the audience or impacted your performance?
Betty: Two things are happening. It's incredibly empowering, it's contagious, so people who never would've been bold enough to start playing with drag stuff start playing with it, especially little kids. At at the same time, there's the cattiness of that kind of drag, that's just not my style, not that that is what they're all about. I think RuPaul is an amazing person. Everything that he's done and to infiltrate the mainstream like that is quite an incredible thing. We're in this space of to-ing and fro-ing with empowerment but I think it's ok for these two things to be existing.
BYO: Where can we see Betty Grumble going to next, are there any new projects you're working on?
Betty: Sex Clown Saves the World was part one and then Love and Anger which I've been touring around, that's part two, and we're at The Bearded Tit having a chat, beloved queer house, club house, [and] I have been doing an installation party called the Unshame Machine: Betty Grumble's Pussy Printing Party. That's a training montage to get ready for another show I'm working on which will be about how I actually do direct action, and questioning what art does and can do to save the world.
Sex Clown Saves the World comes to the Festival of Dangerous Ideas on November 4. Find out more here: https://festivalofdangerousideas.com/ideas/sex-clown-saves-the-world