Feature: Bryony Kimmings and the (not so) crazy world of Catherine Bennett

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Give a nine-year-old girl the freedom to dream up her own superstar, and what do you get? A “sweet but clumsy” palaeontologist pop sensation who likes tuna pasta, dogs and dinosaurs, of course! With two singles, ‘Apathy’ and ‘Animal Kingdom’, already racking up hits on YouTube, Bennett and her creators (nine-year-old Taylor and performance artist auntie Bryony Kimmings) have their sights set on worldwide fame. Endearingly enough, Bennett is far more likely to be found falling off her bike than out of a club, and her songs are refreshing, catchy pop mantras about animals and activism that embrace friendship and intelligence rather than Russian Roulette and wild parties.

Interviewing Bryony Kimmings, I encounter an artist with a passion for creating gutsy work that comments entertainingly and incisively on popular culture. I suggest that Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model seems rather different to her other shows (the acclaimed 7 Day Drunk and Sex Idiot), though, of course, all her work is motivated by a sense of wider social consciousness. Was there a particular moment where she suddenly felt this was the right project to embark upon? She had been looking for a new subject, she explains, but this one crept up on her as a result of a particularly affecting documentary. “I’m a feminist,” she tells me, “but I never really felt I was an activist of any kind.” It was after seeing the “brilliant and very terrifying” Miss Representation by Jennifer Siebel Newsom that she first came across this “theory that little girls simply can’t be what they can’t see in the media”.

bryony 3What followed was an open conversation with her nine-year-old niece Taylor (whose drawings, ideas and ideals have culminated in the wonderful Catherine Bennett), where Kimmings discovered that many of Taylor’s friends career aspirations centred on starring roles in The Only Way is Essex. Kimmings is, quite rightly, concerned: “The most important thing about Catherine Bennett,” Kimmings emphasises, “is that she went to uni, studied to be a doctor, became a palaeontologist and works every day at something that she loves! There’s not enough role models, especially for girls, who can say, ‘Yes, you could be famous… or you could do this instead’.”

Throughout our interview, I get a real sense of Kimming’s personal investment in Credible Likeable… “Out of all the projects I’ve ever done, I thought to myself, I can’t just do nothing about this, I care more about this more anything else! it just motivated me politically, and because I’m used to doing social experiments in other work, I thought, I must use this technique for the greater good.” It’s not just a Fringe show but a worthy cause in its own right, branching out variously into educational projects, visiting lectures, a documentary and even a potential TV show, all aimed at exposing young audiences to a positive and accessible aspirational figure. “You can follow it on two levels,” Kimmings explains, “Catherine exists for children as a real pop star, and for adults as a kind of political and ethical exploration of culture for tweens.”

I can’t help but feel this is a timely investigation of a disturbing trend – I mention the ever-controversial Rihanna’s adamant Twitter claim that she isn’t a role model, and suggest there’s a distinct lack of responsibility for the effects of celebrity behaviour on young people, even as such stars seem to be overtly marketed towards younger audiences. “It’s funny, isn’t it,” Kimmings agrees. “I suppose that Rihanna, in her own opinion, makes music for adults, but actually, in real life, her audience is much younger. There’s just no way to stop children from choosing who they want to look up to, because it’s money and fame that are appealing to young people rather than anything else.” Of course, Kimmings herself is not a complete stranger to controversy. “People often ask me, ‘How can you make shows like 7 Day Drunk and Sex Idiot and be a role model for kids?’ which is a fair question. Of course, I reply that I made Sex Idiot because I’m a feminist and I believe women should be allowed to talk openly about sex and mistakes they may have made. I’d much rather a child asked me to explain Sex Idiot than explain why Chris Brown hits Rihanna but she still goes out with him.”

When I interview her, Kimmings has just returned from a tour of schools up and down the country. How does it feel to be living a sort of double life? Kimmings’s response is enthusiastic. “Yes, I spend a lot of time being Catherine Bennett! A lot of curling of the wig, a lot of makeup – but I love being her. It’s beautiful to see Taylor’s vision and her real belief in that character, the way tweens totally respond to that, and see it as their thing.” It seems the creation was a truly collaborative one that has surprised and delighted Kimmings as much as it has delighted the school children who meet Catherine: “I could never have created Catherine Bennett by myself. I never knew kids would go so nuts over a dinosaur bone necklace! I love the moment that I watch inner city kids, some of those kids are already being groomed for gangs and yet at the end of a half an hour assembly they’re suddenly on their feet pretending to be crabs or dinosaurs, swept up in the crazy world of Catherine Bennett. I’m happy to be her forever actually!”

bryony 2Might she give us a sneak peak on what we might expect from her show? “It’s really exciting, it’s set in a fantasy Game of Thrones-type world, not just an issue-based show but rather the tale of an auntie trying to protect her niece. It is also funny! Very funny!” It’s by far her best show ever, she asserts: “it’s an exploration of feminism, social responsibility and gender roles but we didn’t want to make a show that says ‘sit there and listen to all the terrible things that happen’. We joke around and laugh, but we do also look at that darkness, trying to pull apart what it means to be nine-years-old in this world.”

Might she be a bit of a role model herself, I suggest, bringing a playful yet cynical, fun-loving and reassurringly self-aware feminism to the fore in her acclaimed performance work? She modestly declines to comment. Does she have any advice for aspiring performers? “For ten years I made bits and bobs,” she admits, “but I never had anything to say… I worked a lot of jobs, I had connections with the cabaret scene but actually making a show came quite late. The best advice ever given to me was from Stacy Makishi, my mentor at the beginning of my career. She said, only do it if you have something to say about the world. If you’ve got a story to tell, from your heart, then performance art is the perfect realm for that. There’s a friendly warning in there: you have to be prepared to bare all as a performance artist, you become public property, and I like that, I like making other people feel okay about being a real dirty human being. It’s all about taking the ethos of performance art: raw grit and honesty, and bringing it into a really accessible, enjoyable pop cultural context.” Bryony Kimmings: credible likeable role model? I certainly think so.

Bryony Kimmings’s Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model will be at the Pleasance Dome from 1-25 August as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. For more information and tickets, visit the Pleasance website  or the Catherine Bennett website.