Ursula Martinez has made a career out of exposing herself, both literally and emotionally. As a founding member of La Soirée, she performs frank and funny songs about her mother, but it’s her striptease acts that have brought her much – sometimes unwelcome – attention.
In one act, dubbed Hanky Panky, she makes a handkerchief disappear, long after she has any sleeves up which to hide it. In another, she uses a cigarette to set fire to her bikini.
Raised as a nudist, the half-British, half-Spanish performer says she is comfortable being naked, but was far less comfortable when an unofficial video of Hanky Panky made her an internet star. “It was extremely confronting,” Martinez says. “I’d chosen to never put the act online, and then when someone else did, it went viral and I got lots of emails from strangers all over the world. Many of them very nice and innocuous, and many of them weird and inappropriate.”
The video was surreptitiously recorded by an audience member and uploaded to YouTube. From there, it quickly made its way to pornographic sites. What had seemed, to Martinez, a playful and cheeky performance was made to appear sleazy and sexual.
“You can never impose how an audience member is going to interpret what you do,” she says. “But my intention is not to be sexual – it’s a much more open nudity. There’s no mystery. What happened when that act went online was I lost control of it and the context in which it’s seen. The act started to be viewed through a porn context, which changed everything.”
Martinez has always declined invitations to perform at strip clubs or men-only events, as the focus is very much on fun rather than sauciness. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t a few shocked faces in the audience at the act’s final reveal.
“I’ve performed in village halls in rural Britain, at a private party in a Muslim country, in gay pubs in south London, for the king and queen of Sweden, and I’ve struggled to seriously shock anybody,” Martinez says.
Is that a bit disappointing? “Not all all,” she says. “For me, it’s a mark of the cheeky, playful, fun quality that piece has.”
Martinez says it took her a couple of years to recover from her unwanted internet fame. Ultimately, she transformed the experience into a highly successful show, My Stories, Your Emails, which enjoyed an extended run at the Malthouse Theatre earlier this year.
It wasn’t the first time Martinez had made a great song and dance out of deeply personal matters.
Her debut show, first performed in 1998, was closely based on her family life. Her parents joined her on stage, sitting beside her on a sofa for an hour of humorous bickering.
It was revealing on a number of levels. The poster advertising the show’s premiere featured her standing between her parents, all three of them stark naked.
“I’ve struggled to seriously shock anybody.”
Have her parents been happy with the public exposure she’s given them? “Very much so. They’re both fairly arty, slightly bohemian. I think my mother’s flattered that I get up on stage and sing an affectionately mocking song about her Spanish accent and her misuse of the English language.”
For the past month, Martinez has been back in Melbourne with circus cabaret ensemble La Soirée. She has been touring with the show for the past eight years, but there’s no sign of her enthusiasm waning. “It always kicks arse and rocks the house. To be part of that as a performer, to step into a show that you know is going to rock, is always a delight.”
Martinez ascribes much of the show’s success to a careful casting process that takes account of how well a performer will fit in backstage. “It sounds like a cliché, but we’re a merry little troupe,” she says. “In some hippie, intangible way, that shows on stage. We’re all individual acts, but there’s a real sense that we have fun together.”
For Martinez, this sense of fun is what keeps her act fresh.Hanky Panky was first performed 10 years ago but continues to thrive in the giddy atmosphere La Soirée provides.
“The audience are having a great time and they’re whipped into a frenzy of excitement and glee. When I come on, they’re already excited and I’m excited and we just feed off each other in a kind of playful complicity. There’s a chemistry that happens and it works for me. I can find the joy every time.”
La Soirée is at the Forum Theatre until November 29.