Reuben Kaye on showbusiness, family and religion
Reuben Kaye and I meet in a café at Heathrow Airport. It’s a lucky overlap. I arrived from Australia the previous night; he is about to leave Britain for an Australian tour of two cabaret shows – one total drag razzamatazz, one smaller and more intimate, where he spends most of the show among the audience – taking in Sydney Pride, Adelaide Fringe, Melbourne International Comedy Festival and a string of other gigs.
I spot him checking in at the Premium Economy counter of Emirates, where the luggage allowance – 47 kilos, he tells me later – just about accommodates his six bags, including two suitcases of make-up in case one gets lost. “I’m often overweight and so I’ll say ‘ooh, I didn’t know high heels and eyelashes weighed so much!” he says, his drag fabulousness seemingly turning up to full beam just at the mention of eyelashes. “And the check-in person says ‘why, what do you mean?’” At which point he whips out a picture of himself in full regalia, all glitter and make-up. Nod, wink. That is his open-sesame to get waved through. “See, there are some benefits to being a pariah,” he says, sounding rather more queenly than a pariah should.
To tell the truth, we’re both excited by being such jet-setters that we have to meet on the fly in Departures. Kaye has lived in Britain since 2010, first playing an Argentinian aristocrat in Evita – in which he felt like a fraud – before sliding into the London cabaret scene, which was wilder and less grounded in music theatre than the Australian equivalent. “And that’s how the monster was born,” he says. “I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the fact that anything could happen on any night.”
He worked at the Savoy; he had a residency at the Café de Paris; he toured. “I’ve loved the last three years, of living and constantly travelling,” he sighs. “There is an adrenaline to it. There is a show business aspect to it too. I mean, I’m now doing a press interview in an airport before I get on a 24-hour flight. All that showbiz stuff! I’m trying to say it’s an inconvenient perk, which kind of gets it. It’s fab!”
Kaye is 36. Of course, he loves the idea of show business – its tatty glamour and people who, as the song says, smile when they are low; its commitment to going on with the show. People tell him he’s doing something new; he says he is essentially an “old-school song and dance man”. But Kaye is also a stirrer. His politics are firmly on the left, his sexual identity on lurid display, his love of a show tune equalled by his love of filth. He is inspired, he says, by “rage, unrest and dissatisfaction” and is not bothered if people find that rage uncongenial. Which, of course, plenty of “neo-conservative haters” do. “People say: ‘this isn’t comedy’,” he told Australian magazine The Modern Gay’s Guide. “And it’s like, well, you know what? If people are laughing, then I’m sorry, mate, that’s comedy.”
Last week, he caused no end of trouble on The Project with a risque crack about the crucifixion, which drew the ire of bishops and a subsequent on-air apology from host Waleed Aly. Kaye hasn’t responded, but there is little point; poking at pieties is his stock-in-trade. Cabaret is lawless; being queer is, in his view, “a f— you to any kind of expectation”, meaning that the life itself is a form of rebellion. “And as much as we have hatred and judgment and religion coming for us, we were here before them and we will outlast them all,” he told Time Out. “Including the idea of God.” Anger can be a force for change, he says. And there is so much to be angry about – and so much that is funny.
There was never a time when Kaye wasn’t a performer. His family were all artistically inclined – his mother was a former dancer and film-maker – and loved opera, which meant that his earliest shows were renditions of great operatic deaths. “My brother had to stand there with a breadknife and a bag of Ribena while I was playing Carmen in a bedsheet flamenco dress,” he says. “Or I’d be doing Ophelia’s mad scene and they would have to watch me stick my head in the sink. Or throw myself off the back of the couch doing Tosca.”
This was when he was at kindergarten. “I was always a camp child! I used to try to change my name in primary school so I wouldn’t get bullied, thinking that my name, Reuben, was the reason. Meanwhile, I’m seven years old and singing the entire score of West Side Story down the halls at full volume.”
Somewhere along the line he was diagnosed with ADHD, but his parents baulked at a child being given drugs, so that was that. “All the teachers would say the same thing: oh, we love having Reuben in the class, he’s so charming and so funny, to the extent that they didn’t realise I wasn’t handing in any work.”
High school in Balwyn was worse. “I got thrown in front of cars, that kind of thing.” At his 10-year school reunion – which he attended, he now thinks, “out of morbid curiosity to see what these terrorists had become” – a string of grown men came up to him to apologise. “Which I was not expecting. It gave me a glimmer of hope that people who have done shitty things know, that they are holding on to it in some way – although it didn’t help that one guy who apologised then tried to get me to be a brand ambassador for his tequila brand. That took the joy out of it, somehow. There was another guy I had to fake remembering. And one guy came up to me and really started getting quite emotional, started crying on my shoulder, which was in turn touching and then tedious. Because there is a moment when you realise the apology is not really about you. Because I’ve moved on from this. In fact, I’ve made it tax-deductible.”
How much does anyone move on, though, when it comes to it? Kaye is endlessly interested in families, especially families with gay children. The moment he came out to his father is the subject of both a TED talk he gave recently and the bigger of the two shows he is bringing to Melbourne, Live and Intimidating. “I know that’s what the world needs, another coming-out story,” he says, with a wotcha-gonna-do grin. “But specifically, this is designed to let people know that if the coming out isn’t smooth, it doesn’t mean the parental relationship has to be sacrificed. Sometimes parents speak from their own place of trauma or confusion and just say the wrong thing. Although my parents were very supportive, my dad fumbled the coming-out response because he said, ‘I’m just sad you’ll never be a father because that means I’ve failed’.” Kaye was devastated. “My take on that, after talking to him – and this went on for years – was that I felt so unseen,” he says. “And that I was a failure.”
It wasn’t what he was expecting. His parents were progressive. Kaye was, he says, obviously gay. I wonder that he felt he had to come out at all, what with the school beatings and his penchant for making jewelled costumes. “Coming out is so big,” he counters. “The aim ultimately is not to have to come out at all, but at the moment it’s still a wonderful statement of being, of your own identity. When a kid says ‘I’m gay’ to a parent, what they’re really asking is: ‘Am I OK? Do you still love me?’ I have such amazing leftie, artistic parents and I had no reason to think they would reject me, but it was still a really scary thing to do because the world was feeding me narratives, especially in the ’80s and ‘90s, like ‘you’re gay and deserve to die of AIDS’; ‘you will be rejected’. On television, gay characters were victims or psychotic villains. Even in Disney, the villains are queer-coded.” Ka the snake, Captain Hook, Ursula the Octopus: all caustic, evil and camp as Christmas.
Well, you know what? If people are laughing, then I’m sorry, mate, that’s comedy.
Reuben Kaye, comedian
By that time, his parents were divorced. “I was already a very angry kid. It took a while before I really got to know my dad and realised we’re post-Holocaust Jews. We’re built with the mindset of the faceless 6 million. And Dad was raised in this Russian family unit – a unit in the military sense, almost. I had to understand that.”
Fortunately, they had many reconciled years. “I think a lot of kids don’t think of their parents, when they’re that young, as fully rounded humans with backstories,” Kaye says. “So the show is designed around that.” Young gay people bring their parents. Parents bring their gay children. “It’s a way of bridging gaps – and that’s beautiful.” It also has, he hastens to add, 25 songs, ranging from country queen Bobbie Gentry to Stormzy, mashed into four big musical numbers by Kaye and his musical director, Shanon Whitelock. It’s still cabaret. As is the smaller show, The Kaye Hole, which is improvised chat and songs played on a grand piano. “It’s relaxing, you know. An intimate candle-lit supper, as Hyacinth Bucket would say, as opposed to a Bacchanalian extravaganza.”
TAKE 7: THE ANSWERS ACCORDING TO REUBEN KAYE
- Worst habit? Overthinking things to the point I never start them.
- Greatest fear? Stopping.
- The line that stayed with you? After several sinus surgeries I can safely say no line has stayed with me. But I think the last line of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot is the cherry on top of a wonderful Sundae. “It’s no good Osgood. I’m a man!” “Nobody’s perfect.”
- Biggest regret? Not working harder as a dancer when I was a kid. I would’ve loved to go into acrobatics and circus.
- Favourite room? Cafe de Paris in London. It’s where Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Noel Coward, The Rat Pack, The Stones, Prince and everyone in between gigged and drank and I was lucky enough to work there as host and MC for almost 5 years. It was the best room in London.
- The artwork/song you wish was yours? Oooh! I could go monetary and wish that I owned a Banksy…or perhaps to have written something like Timewatching by Divine Comedy. I think I’d rather have written something that I would still love to perform until I die, that still hits hard. The Stones – Gimme Shelter.
- If you could solve one thing? That no child should go unfed, unhoused and without books or that every aeroplane seat should be designed for people over 6ft. My back is killing me.
While reflecting on his own story, the tricky negotiation between parents and children has become his special subject. “It’s very rich. It’s very complex, It’s a relationship that can be incredibly close with people who are similar to you, and yet you still want to divorce yourself from them or find your own identity. Look how many times children say: ‘oh they are so similar to me’ and yet they fight like cats and dogs. In what other position do you get such a brutal peer review?” He has been making a podcast called Come to Daddy, in which his guests – most, but not all, comedians – talk about their parents. “Because every comedian has a bit about parents, for good or bad and with their approval or not,” he says. “So what’s that relationship like? And do comedians who make jokes about their parents suffer the fate of becoming their parents, given they’ve been doing material about them for years?” He doesn’t have an answer to that one – not yet, anyway.
You can cover a lot of ground in a conversation over coffee. It certainly wasn’t all about queer identity and rhinestones. A full 10 minutes was spent on pug dogs and the cruelty of their breeding. Donald Trump came up, inevitably, but with an extra spin about rumoured incontinence. There were tales from the cabaret demi-monde, such as the time a tall woman behind him told him how great his show was, he turned around and it was Elle Macpherson. He tells me he is thinking of having his ADHD assessed again because a fellow comedian told him the medication gave her more focus. I wonder if that would put a lid on all this ricocheting repartee. That would be a shame.
But I don’t get to ask more about that because he has to head for the security gates and passport control. I picture those six suitcases, stuffed with lurex suits and size 11 stilettos, winging off to Australia as I return to the modest single case waiting for me in an airport hotel. The fabulous bit of the day is over.
Reuben Kaye performs in Live and Intimidating, Arts Centre Melbourne March 30-April 23 and The Kaye Hole, Forum Downstairs, April 15 & 22. www.comedyfestival.com.au
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