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Glitter Gangster: An Interview with Elena Gabrielle

Rachel Mia

We spoke to international cabaret star and two-time Guinness World Record holder Elena Gabrielle about her Brighton Fringe debut and her new show Glitter Gangster – which follows her experience of emigrating to Europe from Australia and retracing her grandmother’s own footsteps as a refugee 60 years earlier.

Culture Calling: Your new show is confessional when compared to your MC and burlesque work. How do find switching between the forms?

Elena Gabrielle: It’s a really interesting creative process because you naturally go towards what you know – which for me is dressing up, becoming a character, singing funny songs – that sort of burlesque stuff. This time I’ve had to go deep, and do more soul-searching, in terms of the storytelling. It’s a different part of the brain that you’re working with. I’ve been very lucky to work with a great director – Sameena Zehra – who has been an incredible help and guidance to me when writing the show.

CC: What’s it like working on something so close to home?

EG: It’s been quite an emotional show to write. I’ve been reading my great-uncle’s WW2 diary and now that I’m living here in Europe I’ve been travelling back and visiting cousins I’ve never met before. I’ve tried to experience this culture and understand what made them decide to move to Australia all those years ago; how hard it must have been. It’s been quite emotional but also an amazing experience.

Image Credit: Rachel Mia

CC: You talk about your refugee grandmother’s journey from Australia to Germany 60 years ago – has that had any impact on how you view the current refugee situation?

EG: Yes, it definitely has – especially in Berlin. It’s been amazing meeting Syrian refugees and hearing their stories whilst at the same time talking to my great-aunt and my grandmother about theirs. There’s really nothing different – they have the exact same feelings. Flash forward 60 years and people still don’t really want to leave their home unless they have to. They’re facing all the same things that my family faced when they came to Australia as refugees – hate, uncertainty, fear – and all that still surrounds us. It’s so interesting to see how nothing really changes.

CC: How have you found Berlin since moving there? It’s got a big cabaret history, has that been inspiring?

EG: Absolutely – I’ve been doing a lot of research on the Weimar era. It’s an amazing place to live, so many artists come here, and it’s a very transient city as well; people come and go quite often. It feels a bit like you’re Alice in Wonderland, falling down the rabbit hole, looking at all these incredible parties and people. It’s a fun city.

CC: What’s it like being a Guinness World Record Holder?

EG: You know what? I think it sounds way more impressive than it feels! I did put a lot of work into those Guinness World Records and it came off in the end. It’s a nice feeling to have something to put beside your name. I hope it’s something my grandchildren will be impressed with!

CC: You studied at Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art – was it there that you became interested in cabaret? What first drew you to the form?

EG: I graduated from NIDA in 2008 and at the end of the course we were given the opportunity to enter a cabaret competition. I’d tried writing my own things in school, so I thought I’d give it a go. I ended up winning my semi-final and getting through to the grand final. It went really well, everyone loved my set, and I thought this was probably for me because I got to get up on stage and say what I wanted to say and talk to the audience. I got to hear their stories, and it changed from being a show that people watch to a show that people are involved in. I then thought I could make a living out of it – which is what everyone really wants to do, isn’t it? Make a living out of your passion. So far, it’s working!

Elena visiting her family's hometown in Pola

CC: Do you know what to expect from Brighton Fringe?

EG: Not at all – I’ve done Edinburgh for about four years running, so I know what to expect there, but I’ve no idea about Brighton. I know it’s got a beach, an amazing coast and the pier so I think it’s going to be really nice – and the weather should be good, right?

CC: Finally, what are your personal cultural highlights at the moment?

EG: At the moment I’ve been really into watching lots of drag shows here in Berlin, as well as drag king shows – women dressing as men. Apparently there are a lot of drag kings in Brighton too so I’m looking forward to catching some performances when I’m there.

Glitter Gangster runs from May 28-30 at the Blue Man as part of Brighton Fringe. Tickets are £6.

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