Q&A: Amy Saunders of 'Miss Behave Gameshow'
Amy Saunders brought her Miss Behave “personage” front and center stage after several years of being the backbone of globe-trotting neo-cabaret shows. The Londoner brought her raucous, anarchic Miss Behave Gameshow to Las Vegas in July and has been winning over audiences with her participation-based, phone-friendly competition ever since. Saunders spoke with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen about her beyond-the-fringe entertainment offering.
You have your own Wikipedia page. There aren’t many Vegas entertainers with their own Wikipedia page.
It needs a hell of an update. I think it was put together by someone who liked me during my street performing days. It’s lovely to have one. It’s one of the areas I’m still quite confused about, how one gets it up to speed, but yes it’s nice to have one. (Laughs)
It says you’re “mostly known as a sword swallower.” I never looked at Miss Behave that way.
I was known for that between 2004 and 2011. I was part of the putting together of, and then performing with, a variety show named La Clique. It sort of started in Edinburgh (Fringe Festival), was run by Australians and turned into Le Soirée down the line, and actually was Absinthe’s first incarnation in New York. I was traveling around the world with a group of brilliant performers, playing lots of fabulous places. I did swallowing there, but not sword swallowing. I actually swallowed a table. Not the whole table obviously, that would be silly. Just the leg. I think I became known more as a scary clown, strange clown. Not too fun exactly, but I was sort of the red line (Saunders wore a red latex outfit) that held everything together. In my own work, I was producing variety shows. … I still say sword swallowing is my bread and butter, but having said that, I haven’t swallowed a sword for a year.
The entry states that you swallowed seven swords on Sept. 11, 2004, setting a world record. Does that still hold?
No, actually. A lovely lady in New York called Natasha Varuschka broke that record with 13 swords. I have a little thing with Guinness though. They actually got in touch with me in 2000 to ask if I wanted to set the world record for the most swords swallowed by a woman. I responded, “Well, Edith Clifford, the most famous female sword swallower in the 1800s, actually set that record with 18 swords.” It may even have been 17. So I said, “I can’t do that, because she did that.” And they said, “Oh we got rid of some of the records.” So I said, “Alright, well, I’ll do five then.” My goal, and it’s kind of fallen by the wayside, is to break Edith Clifford’s record if possible. I just need a very good props maker. … To either be a very good props maker or to have access to a very good props maker will enhance your set massively. It took me two years to find somebody to make me a table that I could swallow.
So when we saw you on The Tonight Show you brought your own table.
I did, yes. I did. (Laughs) … What was more interesting to me was the reason I’m front of the audience is because I’m going to swallow the sword. The time before that, that’s mine. That was the bit I always enjoyed more. Love the fact that I can swallow a sword. Love the fact that that’s my reason to be up on stage but I really enjoy the connection with the audience, which is why I think the game show resonates with me and my brain more in some ways.
What was your introduction to performing?
The beginning of the evolution was genuinely I did not have a strong desire to be a performer, but I had to pay my rent and I had this party trick. I literally went into pubs and bars. There was about four or five that let me do it on the weekend. I would go it, stand on the bar, they would turn the music down for about five minutes, I would literally shout at the audience, the people drinking in there, swallow a couple of things, and then pass around a pint glass.
How does the Edinburgh Fringe Festival factor into your career?
I was working in nightclubs and fetish clubs and what have you, and then I went to the Edinburgh Festival with the Kamikaze Freak Show, and we were kind of a sleeper hit that year. All of the influencers came and loved it, and the exchange was I saw street performing in a new light. I saw a couple of styles of street performing that I didn’t know existed, where they were far more gruff, sarcastic … one could say almost rude. Funny, and not what I’d always thought, which was this was family entertainment, kids entertainment. I thought there was many levels you could play. So I fell in love with street performing and ended up going to New Zealand to try my luck.
What was the origin of Miss Behave Gameshow? Was it a spontaneous idea or something you had been thinking about for a while?
It was literally me the day before my birthday having a beer with a friend, sitting there going, “Right. I’ve booked a load of these little shows. I don’t know what to do. What should I do?”
So you booked them first and then you had to come up with an idea.
Yes, but that’s sort of a street performer mentality.
And some people work best with a deadline.
Absolutely. And essentially, I went in on that first day knowing I was going to do a game show, knowing that I was going to divide them based on their cell phones, and knowing that I wanted do dance while they threw rubbish at me. I also knew that I wanted this cardboard aesthetic (for the set design). It was very clear to me, and that came from it being the absolute antithesis of a red curtain. … I wanted to create something that absolutely encouraging people to smash shit up. Everything’s crap, let’s go with that. Get your phone out. The surprise I found in the first show was how competitive people are when you divide them. I was unaware of that. People got quite aggro, as they say in Australia.
What lessons did you learn from your initial attempts at running your own variety shows?
What I have found is it takes a lot of organization to make chaos. That’s the medium I enjoy the most. There’s an anarchy and chaotic nature to my game show, but the reason that’s possible is because it’s organized.
Where does Amy Saunders end and the persona of Miss Behave begin?
It’s a persona, but it’s more personage. There’s a lot of me in it, so it’s definitely, for want of a better word, my clown, but I’m not a performer that needs to be “on” 24/7. When I’m finished, I don’t then need to be the loudest person in the room. I quite like being in the role of the observers. I like hats that cover my face. There’s definitely a switch-off point. I don’t need to be a massive personality wherever I go, but when I’m on stage I am a massive personality.
I’ve read a description of you from your early days as reminiscent of “Betty Boop and Marlene Dietrich.” How did you adapt the “1970s disco-style gold-sequined knickerbockers and turban,” for your Miss Behave look?
I was really sort of obsessive about Betty Boop, and I used to have black hair. My costume was skin-tight red rubber, and I was the clown of the show so I would walk around spilling people’s drinks, being sort of overtly playful with them. That’s sort of where the Betty Boop bit came from. The Marlene Dietrich joke came from lots of friends because my voice is quite deep, and also because there is a certain jaded boredom to her. They sort of just smooshed that together. What I find in terms of where I’ve evolved, in terms of Miss Behave evolving, is … you’re not going to stay in your 20s forever. I know that sex sells, and I know that my character, when I was wearing the red rubber, was very sexy, but I’m a tomboy at heart. After 10 years of wearing red rubber the idea of wearing something comfortable was brilliant, so it’s kind of a natural evolution of me becoming less sexy and more “I am who I am.” I think it’s a transition quite a few women go through, particularly in show business.
There’s something androgynous about Miss Behave.
There’s always been something ambiguous about whether I’m male or female, even when I was wearing skin-tight rubber. I have evolved into the pure androgyny onstage, where it doesn’t really matter where I’m a man or a woman.
Did anyone in show business influence you as a host?
My absolute role models, weirdly, are Jack Benny and Dean Martin, because I absolutely love straight men, I love the holding of the chaos. Everything else can go crazy around you but you actually know what you’re doing. And you know, if it just tipped into chaos it would be boring and horrible for everybody.
How did you develop the flamboyant foil character of Harriet/Tiffany?
I came back from Australia, having found this little sideshow tent, and I had one big show. I decided I’d like a glamorous assistant, and at that point I thought, “I’m going to do the variety show, but I’m going to put the game show at the top of it.” … I broke my foot, so I couldn’t do Edinburgh but by the time my foot had heeled I had some shows lined up in London. Now I genuinely needed some help. I’d known Harry (Clayton-Wright) for a long time, so I got Harry to come in and just be my functional assistant. It grew pretty organically from that. I always enjoyed playing with other people onstage, and it sort of felt like a natural thing to have an incredibly lovable foil. … Harriet went and joined a show that was very good for him to do, and Brett Pfister, who is Tiffany in the show now, is one of the best aerialists I’ve ever seen. He’s a beautifully trained circus performer. I’ve worked with him in Le Soirée around the world. I’ve put him in variety shows. We were talking and he said “I’d really like to do comedy,” and I know how funny he is onstage so I said, “Let’s do it.”
Marawa the Amazing brings a vivacious energy to the production. Her hula hoop act is not integral to the game but it seems integral to the show.
You have to put on an act that works within the context. Marawa works perfectly because she’s funny. She’s doing skill, but it’s not just about the skill, it’s about the personality and how she presents it. … (The acts) serve as a break for the audience, because the audience does work pretty hard in the show. They get to sit back and watch and enjoy, and then it’s my job to make sure the acts that come in will fit well in that show.
It’s hard to explain the show to people in an elevator pitch, but when they go they seem to get it. The first travel site I looked up had 63 Miss Behave Gameshow reviews and every one rated it “excellent.” How do you approach winning over audiences?
People will do what they want, and they will do so much more if they understand that they can do what they want. What happened as a result of doing these smaller crowds in a big room is it became far more conversational. The audience becomes far more funny, more logical, coming up with ideas and thinking outside the box.
Did you initially have a sit-down brainstorm session for creating the games? The quizzes and things like the audience being able to decide if someone gets points or has them taken away seem simple, but they’re actually kind of complex.
It’s psychologically complex but actually, if one breaks it down a lot of it is about anybody being able to do the game so you don’t feel … I hate audience participation. I really find it hard work, and if there is any sniff of audience participation in the show I am watching, I would make myself so safe that I would never get pulled onstage. I think there are people that handle audience participation very well, and I take my hat off to them, but I would rather die than have to do it. So how do you have a game show that’s interactive, but without people feeling like they have to do anything? Part of that is shouting out. I’ve always felt comfortable shouting out, but I hate participation. So I felt like, if you don’t have to do anything, that’s safe. If you want to do something, that’s great. What happens is because people don’t have to do anything, they wind up doing everything.