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Bryony Kimmings: Meet your Fringe role models…

By | Published on Tuesday 6 August 2013


Performance artist Bryony Kimmings is no stranger to quirky life-projects to inform her theatre, though her latest venture is the most ambitious yet. After a mortifying “what do you want to be when you grow up” chat with some primary school kids, Kimmings recruited her own nine-year old niece Taylor to help combat a ream of wrongs she felt the worlds of music, media and marketing were committing against childhood in the modern world. Her Fringe show this year is their story, and as precursor, here Kimmings shares the beginnings.

Hi, my name is Bryony Kimmings. Performance artist, sex idiot, humanoid and general citizen of the world. I make a living conducting social experiments and making shows about them. Previous work has seen me retracing the receipt of an STI back a decade and teaming up with scientists to drink for a week, to see if alcohol has any genuine effect on creativity. But I am currently undergoing a rather large and boisterous project with my nine year old niece Taylor, gawd bless her, and I want to let you know about it. I hope some of you might find it a little bit interesting.

It is called ‘Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model’ and it is a social campaign, theatre show and education project, and will be a neat documentary in 2014. The entire project seeks to offer an alternative pop star for tweens – a non-commodified, non-sexualised one – invented and managed by my nine-year-old niece and played by me. Thus far we have been on the BBC’s ‘Woman’s Hour’, invited to Parliament and become friends with Yoko Ono. Pretty cool stuff.

But why am I doing it? Well, about a year ago I chatted to some nine year olds in the playground of a school. I was asked to be there, I wasn’t trespassing. Teaching people of tweeny age had become a fascination of mine, and I had been asked to make a show for kids at ‘Key Stage 2’ (some arts administrator’s bright idea that probably started as a joke in a meeting somewhere). I leapt at the chance. Why not? I thought… I like money… and I think kids are funny. Though then I realised that I hadn’t actually seen a child for about two years, despite having five nieces and nephews. Bad aunty.

So I started going to schools to do sessions with them on performance art (yes this exists!), and I couldn’t quite believe how ridiculous and amazing they were. I couldn’t fathom how I had once been that age, how I had lost such serious touch with the unruly scattergun brains, constant perpetual movement and high and mighty opinions they possessed. These nine year olds were chatting about what they wanted to be when they were older. One of them simply stated that she wanted to be in… wait for it… ‘The Only Way Is Essex’, when she was older. BOOM.

Now, I was in Sarf London at the time. So not only was this girl showing me that her aspirations were as dark as the underside of a toad, she was also revealing that she was probably going to fail geography later in life. My heart nearly stopped. I was speechless, and that’s unusual for a woman who chats shit for a living. All the little girls around me nodded and agreed, and one pretended she had a WAG bag on her arm and did a ‘sexy’ little walk with an imaginary dog on a lead. I vommed into my mouth. Then I went home, ordered every book in the world on the sexualisation of childhood that had been published in the past 20 years and raged, ploughed and cried my way through them all. Thank you Jean Kilbourne, Jennifer Seibel Newsom, Jackson Katz and Peggy Orenstein, among many.

I wrote lists upon lists of things that I didn’t find fair about the way childhood had changed over the past two decades. The 40,000 Disney princess products now on the market, the new types of narcissistic personality disorders found in young people, the correlation between violent video games and peer-to-peer violent crime, young people’s relationship to sex and love and porn. For example, did you know that when The Pussycat Dolls pop franchise was launched, the target age group was 10-11 year olds. And WHACK I was hooked on the subject. When something gets under my skin I get consumed, I get mad, I get even. I conduct social experiments for a living like Dave Gorman, but bluer and with more dancing. So I knew an experiment was on its way.

I wanted to somehow make a show about these horrible things, but I didn’t want to run around bonking people on the nut with my newfound feminist rage, even if I did have plenty of facts and figures. I wanted to make something that somehow challenged what the capitalist world has become for children by offering an alternative to kids. Not to slag off Rihanna or Katy Perry, but to make something very different, to see if kids would actually go for it. Something less sexualised and commodified. I decided that my brain was too messed up, ranty and importantly OLD to do this, so I asked my nine-year-old niece Taylor to work with me for a year, to create a role model that she and her friends would like to see in popular media. A creation for nine year olds by a nine year old, bypassing the boardrooms, money grabbers and messed-up marketers completely.

She came up trumps… creating a museum working, dinosaur loving, tuna pasta eating, bike-riding lady called Catherine Bennett. Alright, she is a pop star, but she sings songs about animals, friendship and why kids don’t like to get out bed sometimes. She has curly blonde hair, glasses and likes a polo neck.

I promised my niece Taylor that I would get Catherine Bennett more famous than Jessie J, to prove that anything is possible, and that David CAN win over Goliath. Idiot. I roped in the help of some pretty major pop people to help me do this, by tugging on their ethical heartstrings. Girls Alouds’ make up artist, an ‘X Factor’ wig expert, ID magazine stylists and the PR Company that publicise Leona Lewis and Take That. I now spend half my waking life as CB – I go to school assemblies nearly every day, peddling my Catherine Bennett’s wares, singing her funny (but extremely catchy and incredibly pop-py) songs, talking to kids about politics, ethics, role models and about having fun.

CB unlocks something in kids; a silliness and childishness that I hadn’t seen in ages. She gives them permission to be kids; instead of demanding they grow up and jump on the consumer train. I don’t know how it happens, that is something only nine year olds know, I am merely the conduit for my niece’s imagination, fears and dreams. All I know is that she seems to make them feel safe and good about themselves. And that makes me happy.

The other day a little girl came up to me in the playground of that Sarf London school I had worked in, she was the same age as the girls who wanted to be on ‘TOWIE’ when they grew up, and I asked her what she wanted to be when she was older. She said she wanted to work in a museum with dinosaurs like Catherine Bennett; my heart nearly broke! Then we pretended to be t-rex’s for a good five minutes. If I only affect a handful of kids with this project I feel like my job has been done, the alternative has to be offered and out there, hopefully at some point, the rest of the corporate world will follow suit and make childhood a little fairer and a little less sexualised. But who knows… for that to happen we all have to challenge what we are fed by them, and that is a tough call.

Taylor is up at the Fringe with me and we are doing our show together; a silly, wily and creative response to the journey we have been on together. It has knights, princesses and a tiny bit of CB, and it’s dark sometimes, but above all hopeful. It’s not for kids I should add, though CB is doing some live dates in Edinburgh this summer (keep an eye on www.catherinebennett.so for those). Check out CB and spread her message if you can. Vive La Fringe, hope to see you around!

‘Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel’ was performed at Pleasance Courtyard at Edinburgh Festival 2013.

Photo: Rich Dyson