"Victoria Melody is a British artist with a background in fine art. She makes one-woman theatrical shows, performance interventions and films mainly about England’s pastimes, passions and tribes. Fascinated by anthropology, she immerses herself into communities and becomes an active participant in their rituals as research for her work. Aside from her work as a beauty queen and championship dog handler, she has also been become a pigeon racer and northern soul dancer. She is currently tracing her human hair extensions back to the humans who grew them." (Major Tom PR)
'Major Tom' is a one woman (plus hound), multi-media performance about the year you became a Beauty Queen and Major Tom - your Bassett Hound - became a champion show dog. Sounds very interesting! Why did you decide to do this, have these experiences and create this performance?
In Major Tom I immersed myself into the worlds of championship dog show handling and beauty pageantry. I became an active participant and a physical embodiment of the people I was hanging around with in order to take part in their rituals as research for my work. Rather than recording, documenting and commenting on Britain’s clubs and tribes, I actively participate by becoming a member and metamorphasising myself in the process.
The idea for Major Tom originally started when I got a dog and was instantly given membership to an exclusive members only club of basset hound owners. Dog owners especially the obsessive ones that participate in dog shows were a tribe that fascinated me and I wanted to make work about them. During fieldwork for Major Tom I was driving back from a dog show after Major Tom (my basset hound) had just come last and the judge told me I should buy a new dog. I was annoyed because Major’s personality wasn’t taken into consideration; it was purely about him measuring up to a breed standard, anything unique about him was seen as a flaw, an imperfection that lost him points. It didn’t count that he is so absurd and loving that he has earned the name “walking Prozac” from my friends because he makes everybody happy. It was on that journey home from the dog show that I came up with the idea to enter beauty pageants. That was the moment when the whole project made sense. The show manifesto wrote itself - it had gone from a show about in-group behavior and Little England to a show more about the beauty myth and its oppressive function.
Did you enjoy becoming a Beauty Queen?
The competitive beauty world is not a scene I have ever had the desire to be involved in, I certainly never envisioned that one day I would actively compete in an attempt to become Mrs UK. In my youth I was a Goth and did everything to avoid the gaze. I would have laughed in your face if you told me that in my mid-thirties I would wear a swimsuit on stage in front of a panel of judges.
Obviously I enjoyed having a team of specialists fussing around me with the sole purpose of making me look good. But I started to lose my identity, I didn’t look like me anymore and a strict diet/exercise/beauty regime meant that I rarely socialized. One particular time sticks out - when I had spent 4 x hours getting ready for Brighton’s gay pride parade. I was participating in the parade as Mrs Brighton (my beauty queen title). Mitch (husband) was waiting for me, after his patience had waned – he looked at me with my big fake tanned, made up face and huge bleached blonde hair and shouted, “This isn’t you!” But that was the point.
Is the pageant/Beauty Queen 'world' as superficial and cutthroat as the media generally portrays it, do you think?
I created Major Tom to be purposely ambiguous. The audience is left to do their own thinking. The only criticism is of myself in other people’s worlds. Of course I have opinions, I have strong ones or else I wouldn’t be making the work that I do. But I would rather let the work speak for itself.
Would you do it again; the pageants and Beauty Queen appearances?
I would say no, but I am not ruling out revisiting all my immersions for a future show. I like the visual I get of a 70 year old beauty queen running round the Crufts show-ring after being up all night on speed at a northern soul all-nighter celebrating after coming second place in a pigeon race.
What have you learnt about yourself and your craft through the experiences faced, becoming a Beauty Queen?
I was probably naïve to think that competing in a beauty pageant wouldn’t change me, be it temporarily. But I was wrong I became competitive, vain and a worse person. I am not saying that beauty pageants have that affect on all its competitors it just didn’t suit me. I had no previous experience of being competitive before the pageant. I was never a contender when it came to sports and in pub quizzes I am more concerned with chatting to friends then questions on general knowledge.
Before I competed in the pageant and Crufts I had the majority of my show made. The idea was to just add the competition results on to the end of what I had already created. Cue Family Fortunes TV show “wrong” sound effect. My shows are based on honesty and the competitions had such a profound effect on me that I had to deconstruct all the material I had and re-make the show from scratch. The stressful part being I had only 2 x weeks to do it before the show went out on tour. The profound effect I am referencing is that somewhere in-between that weird place where art and life intersects I had become competitive. I had put my feminist, political and personal principles (and the fact that this was meant to be research) to one side. I forgot about my reasons for making the show – I just wanted to win.
Do you think there is equality in the workplace? If not, why?
A couple of weeks ago I was at the in-laws house. My father-in-law had the telly on and was watching QI, next up was a comedy panel show. I said something along the lines of women not being fairly represented. He said it’s because women aren’t funny. I said No, it’s because women aren’t given a platform. Then last week the BBC announced that from now on there will be at least one woman on comedy panel shows. It’s not a huge victory because they are not saying that there will be at least three women on comedy panel shows. But nether the less it’s a small platform.
Some of my projects would make good documentaries and I have been in conversations with various TV bods. A TV producer came to see Major Tom and he suggested that I would be great at hosting a factual, entertainment show. He asked my age – I was 35, he paused and said it is OK I look younger.
I haven’t felt inequality in the performance art industry, that’s not to say that won’t start to happen, as I get older. Contemporary dancer Liz Aggiss just made a piece about her aging body and has spoken about there not being a place in our industry for mature women.
Who inspires you?
Jeremy Deller, Jordan Baseman, Martin Parr, William Wegman, Bas Jan Ader, a list of men! Sophie Calle, Tracy Emin’s confessional style. Fluxus – George Maciunas, The Mass Observation Archive. I love documentaries, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Dark Days.
What's been the most challenging part of bringing 'Major Tom' to the stage? How did you overcome the challenge[s]?
Major Tom took me three years to make from concept to completion. The finished show is probably about 5% of the material amassed over that time period. There is this horrible phrase “killing off your babies” which means letting good ideas and material go for the sake of the narrative or simply because there is not enough time to include everything. It is important not to be too precious about material but to also know when to make a case for material that you believe needs to be included
Finally... What's next in the creative pipeline?
My next project is called Hair Peace I am attempting to trace the real human hair extensions on my head back to the humans who grew them. A well-meaning hairdresser applied the extensions when I was competing as a beauty queen. It’s a show about global trade, traceability and the search for the story behind my (well - someone else’s) long flowing locks.
(C) Victoria Melody, 2014.
National Tour 10th March to 20th June 2014
Starting with Battersea Arts Centre
10th - 15th March,
Suitable for ages 14+