Back-to-school sentiment is fading now, but it was a strong presence for several weeks – new emails scattering inboxes like dried leaves, notebooks and ink pens idolised, pupils shrugging on uniforms once more. When I left secondary school just over two years ago it was a day of elated relief. The cutting up of my hated school jumper into ribbons was gleeful. And yet I found myself thinking about it all over again this summer, particularly remembering the transition from primary to secondary school. That ‘between’ age where you’re half-aware, half-innocent. Memories of that time were spurred by going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August, where, among many performances, I saw the astonishing show Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel.
More of an extended series of monologues with set pieces peppering the talk, it charts performance artist Bryony Kimmings’ relationship with her nine year old niece Taylor. Funny and troubling, it takes a frank look at the kind of world Taylor is growing up in; one where tweens’ role models suggest that fame and frothy lifestyles are the be all and end all of aspiration. As the two discuss their own lives, Taylor gives a list of questions ranging from playground concerns to wanting to know why Chris Brown attacked Rihanna. The small-scale social and massive-scale societal collide.
Much of the show is concerned with Bryony’s horror at seeing things afresh through Taylor’s eyes. She wishes she could protect her niece from the sights she might stumble across on the internet, where porn and violence are only a click or two away. They dance in tandem to Jessie J, the provocative routine ever more uncomfortable as we see girl and woman act it out side by side.
It’s full of allusions – fairytale settings transitioning into shining armour for battle. But what are they fighting? A set of values suggesting that money and fame are the key to happiness; that the appearance of a woman in the public eye is fair game for comment and criticism; that looking good is more important than working hard to achieve something; that pink dresses and princesses are the height of femininity. Though Bryony can’t just swish a sword and safeguard Taylor. She has to let her niece navigate her own course.
But, as aunts go, Bryony is pretty damn cool. Alongside the statistics and points made, there’s something else. A concept. Or rather, a character. Catherine Bennett – pop star and paleontologist. Through donning a blond wig and dusting on blue eyeshadow, Bryony Kimmings steps into the (flat and rather practical) shoes of Bennett. She provides younger girls with an alternative role model whose interests err towards dinosaurs, cycling, tuna pasta and books. Bennett loves parties and 80s music. Her boyfriend is a proofreader and best friend a midwife. When she’s not dusting off skeletons, she sings. All these details have been decided by Taylor, who is Catherine Bennett’s manager.
On a purely sartorial level, Catherine Bennett’s swing skirts, crisp shirts and glittery jumpers are brilliant, while the dinosaur bone necklace has more than a hint of Tatty Devine about it. She’d definitely get street-style-snapped at London Fashion Week.
Pop music was chosen as the medium for the message because it’s accessible. Nine year olds are already listening to Katy Perry, so why not Catherine Bennett? Her songs are about friendship, what the future will look like, how difficult it is to get motivated and being “alive and well in the Animal Kingdom”. Each one is accompanied by a surreal music video.
Kimmings wants Bennett to be a superstar. Not for the recognition or money (they’re all charity tracks), but because it would be bloody wonderful to have a role model out there showing girls that they can be smart, driven and individual, all the while wearing a polo-neck and working in a museum.
Considering some of the dross that goes viral, it would be great to balance it out with something a little more positive. So idle away some minutes on Youtube, show Kimmings' stuff to others – particularly if they’re the target age – and, if you can get there, go see the show at the Soho Theatre in London this October. It's brilliant. You might cry. At the very least, next time you see a tweet involving either the words Miley or Twerking, why not turn to Catherine Bennett instead?
Image from the Soho Theatre website (can't find a photographer credit)
I assembled my 'armour' in homage to Bryony and Taylor, who appear resplendent in chain mail and silver boots during the show. However, mine would do little to protect me in any real skirmish, unless I was planning to dazzle the opponent's eyes with my sparkly leggings (50p from a charity shop several years ago). The shirt, tank top and gloves are vintage, while the belt and boots were my mum's (also bought second hand). The faux-gauntlets were rescued from our dressing up box. It was such fun striding and jumping around the country lanes dressed like this.