Catherine Bennett is a Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model
The new show from performance artist Bryony Kimmings attempts to create an alternative popstar
This article is from 2013.
Bryony Kimmings has previously explored sex and alcohol in Fringe shows. The performance artist tells David Pollock how she created a new kind of pop idol, with the aid of her nine-year-old niece
Catherine Bennett is a young pop star with a purpose. ‘CB’ doesn’t wear skimpy clothes and lots of make-up or sing about boys and sex and dancing in nightclubs, or anything else you might hear being bandied around in the charts. Instead, she works in a museum during the day and keeps her famous endeavours separate as a hobby for evenings and weekends, while her songs are all about interesting things like animals, the future, imagination and politics. CB also sounds like Lily Allen singing songs by The B-52s as produced by Gorillaz.
In a pop arena dominated largely by lascivious boy bands and young women who conform to a bland and objectified identikit stereotype, Catherine Bennett sounds just too good to be true. And sadly she is. CB has been dreamed up by performance artist Bryony Kimmings, whose short but critically acclaimed repertoire of Edinburgh Fringe successes includes Sex Idiot, about the quest to contact her past sexual partners and tell them she had an STI, and 7 Day Drunk, in which she imbibed solidly over the course of a week and had her intensive creative output during this period later evaluated by audiences.
For the purposes of this very real exercise to shape a different type of pop star (the Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model of the show’s title) Kimmings is Catherine Bennett, although she’s not the person solely responsible for this creation. That job also fell to Kimmings’ nine-year-old niece Taylor, her creative partner throughout the project and who will appear onstage for the Edinburgh run.
‘We were just chatting one day and she was showing me all the videos that she liked on YouTube,’ recalls Kimmings. ‘We started having this long conversation about who was the best role model, and she said she quite liked Katy Perry. I felt a bit disillusioned, really. So I met up with Taylor every week and chatted to her about what she felt would make a super role model, with the idea that I’d maybe save her from this objectified version of women. I’d make something that a nine-year-old would like rather than people in big offices with big budgets and big brands deciding for them.’
The character’s creation and an explanation of Kimmings and Taylor’s ‘journey’ – in best X Factor tradition – is only part of the story. Kimmings will also attempt to make CB actually famous, which, she says with a nervous laugh, ‘seems like a really crazy idea now’. Working from Taylor’s ideas, Kimmings has engaged Girls Aloud’s make-up artist, stylists from i-D magazine, producers who have worked with Sugababes and PR company DawBell, whose clients include The BRIT Awards and Take That.
‘They’re doing it for next to nothing,’ says Kimmings. ‘I think they’re just interested in the ethics of it; a lot of people are disillusioned by where the pop industry has got to, especially in terms of the narrow representation of females. I guess if you’ve spent your time working with Sugababes you might feel exactly the same; so, when we told them we had this different idea, they said, “we want in”.’
With a summer offensive of school visits and YouTube videos planned, Kimmings says the idea isn’t to tear down the existing pop institution, but merely to offer an alternative. In fact, she reckons the current pop landscape offers a few positive examples.
‘What kids want is an image of a best friend,’ she says, remembering those initial conversations with Taylor. ‘Some pop stars definitely have that: Little Mix do it nicely, although I’m not sure whether putting on shitloads of make-up has the same message as their music. Jessie J does it really well: she’s got attitude, she’s covered up, she sings about getting through hardships. Adele, too.’
Kimmings believes that her niece really wanted songs that weren’t about sex, because that’s what everything seems to be about. ‘She wants something with more of a fun vibe to it. They all love Psy, because he does a weird pony dance and the music’s something they haven’t heard before. I think that some of the images Taylor sees on YouTube frighten her, and in turn these are creating her version of what the world is like, particularly in terms of healthy sexual relationships.’
All this research has told Kimmings that kids are really after something a little bit more celebratory and more friendly, seeking out music and images that capture their imagination more. ‘But of course, they buy Katy Perry and everything else as well, because they’re swamped with imagery which tells them to.’
There are deeper issues here, and Kimmings touches upon some darker areas attributable to unhealthy media representations: the rise of anorexia in teenage girls, narcissistic personality disorders, violent behaviour in young people and the Macho Paradox.
‘That basically makes boys lose it in their teenage years when they see women having power, because they’ve already been bombarded with images of submissive women.’ She’ll discuss all this in the show with Taylor putting on a blindfold and earmuffs.
But this is primarily a show about pop, and pop is meant to be fun. ‘Taylor and I have agreed that our intention is to get famous,’ says Kimmings. ‘We just don’t know if it’s going to happen. We’ve written an album, of which we’re only releasing three tracks as part of this project. But we’ve always said that if it goes really well, then we should make that album and then end the project, finish the theatre show and the documentary that’s being made.
Perhaps all this will give Kimmings a taste for genuine pop stardom? ‘I don’t think I’d want to be Catherine Bennett forever. The intention of the project isn’t a long-term pop career for me; it’s that the culture of pop might change. We want to offer an alternative, for a few pop stars to represent smart, covered-up girls out there.’
Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, Pleasance Dome, Bristo Square, 0131 556 6550, 3–25 Aug (not 5, 12, 19), 5.45pm, £10–£13 (£8.50–£11.50). Previews 1 & 2 Aug, £7.