Mat Fraser needs no fucking introduction. And if you don’t know he’s on the new season of American Horror Story, you might want to leave your Burlesque Community union card at the office.
What with all the hubbub about Mat getting attention for something other than his anatomy—you’ve all seen him swing that thing while singing “Unforgettable”—I tracked him down and we chopped it up for New York magazine’s Bedford + Bowery.
Since its inception, Bedford + Bowery has proven to be a champion of the off-beat and an avid chronicler of grayscale venues, mainstream venue openings and closings, and, yes, where to catch the latest burlesque offering on their beat. We like them a lot, and encourage you to jump over there and read the first half of my interview with Mat: What Mat Fraser Is About to Do On American Horror Story ‘Has Never Been Done’ Before
Then jump back here for the second half, as Mat discusses returning to burlesque after TV, what mainstream entertainment such as FX’s AHS and Broadway’s Sideshow revival are not doing for the freak show scene, and the “burlesque curse.”
JDX: Half of New York’s burlesque scene is in New Orleans right now. Apart from being away from Julie, are you liking it?
MF: Absolutely. The feeling of calm here is quite remarkable, and I say that as somebody whose working a lot, but nonetheless it’s just calm here. Calm and relaxed and chill and warm.
JDX: You don’t feel like you’re getting beat up in the same kind of way.
MF: Yeah, and you don’t feel like you need your coat of armor on all the time like you do in New York.
JDX: Any downsides about your involvement in American Horror Story?
MF: One of the things I’m disappointed about is – and I suspect it’s because Boardwalk Empire have so much burlesque in there, that kind of rag-times burlesque. There was a rumor there was gonna be a burlesque troupe, or some hoochy-coochie girls or something where they segue between sideshow and striptease at the carnival. There was a rumor there was gonna be some sort of story that has to do with that, but it hasn’t manifested. We’ve still got [episodes] 10, 11, 12, and 13 to do. We’re doing 8 and 9 right now, and so there’s a possibility for it, but I was like, Aw, it would have been so good to have a 1950s burlesque subplot of some sort. Then obviously I would have tried to get my friends cast. I just love the idea–some old burlesque show might turn up at the freakshow. Pitch their tent next door or something. You know those pictures of fairground people with their show clothes on the washing line along the caravan at the back of the tent. That kind of thing.
JDX: Holli-Mae had mentioned that in her interview with you and Julie, that you might be past the point of trying to convey a message.
MF: Well I am past the point of trying to communicate a specific message about it. For the reason that I think just being in something is the message. Going on about, “it’s wrong that this happens and that happens,” yeah, we know its fucking wrong, but listen, my granddad when I was a really little boy stood up out of his chair when a black man kissed a white woman on British TV, and I remember thinking as a 7 year old, “no grandpa, you’re a racist!” And he was just a product of his time. So banging on about how we need disability this, that, or the other, no, what we need is to get a lot of us on screen until it seems like normality to everybody, and then we’ll all get the fuck over it.
That’s all we need. We don’t need to talk about it. We just need to be in it.
JDX: You and I got married around same time. Since then, you’re seeing a nice uptick in your career. Do you think marriage has anything to do with it? Having better focus or stability?
MF: I do. Listen, marrying Julie, getting with Julie was the best thing I’ve ever done, in terms of my personal development and growth. Having a woman that agrees with me about career and what needs to be seen on the stage… now that we’re with somebody that doesn’t go, “Oh I think that’s a little bit too much, you probably shouldn’t do that.” We don’t have that person in our lives who goes, “Yeah! Do more!” And I think that obviously has had an effect on me and my confidence and a feeling of stability as you say. To know I’ve got power behind the throne, knowing that Julie is behind me and agrees with me, has given me a confidence that cannot but help to have been part of this ascendance. Because yes, it’s crazy, the last two years I’ve gone from fucking drumming with Coldplay at the Paralympics to doing Beauty and the Beast to being in American Horror Story. It’s crazy. I’m pinching myself sometimes. Because that shit never happens on an ascendant. At some point, something’s gonna crash me down, because you have to – that’s what life brings you right? I’m looking around, I’m like, oh my god don’t have a car accident or whatever you know.
But of course being with Julie has exponentially opened me up to new things. I was in danger of becoming a ‘no, but’ person, where people would give me ideas that I hadn’t generated, or were new to me, or were threatening to me, I’d say, ‘no, but I can’t do that,’ and she’s like, ‘be a yes and person’ not a ‘no but’ person. Yes and I think I could do that. Open up to more suggestions, and in doing that, this has happened to my career.
So a big YES to that question. I mean, how do you feel about the stability of marriage and your work?
JDX: Since I got married, I’ve published a book, I’ve starting actually getting paid for a fairly mainstream journalist output, and I shot a film this summer. So, yeah, I’ve been pretty focused.
MF: Wow. Congratulations!
JDX: About your manifesto for One Of Us, “We are outsiders.” Now that everything new or unusual is immediately co-opted by the establishment, how can you remain an outsider?
MF: Like you say, everything is adopted, appropriated, and absorbed by the mainstream, but you know there has to be a level of compromise before you get on Letterman.
Maybe those last bastions for compromise are things that we’re just not prepared to do. No, I’ve said that all wrong. What I mean is, as an outsider artist, yeah, suddenly you’re welcomed inside, but you know the outsider experience is born of life. I mean strippers, freaks, performance artists – they’re outsiders. They’re not the banker on the upper West side. They’re not somebody working in a store, we are outsiders. When you’re invited inside to sit in the nice warm and comfy chair, but all you have to do is move a couple of your friends outside, the really nasty ones who are really angry, most people go “Yeah, alright,” and they’d literally shut the door behind them and shut their friends outside. I’m not sure if I could do that – I’m not talking about friends, I’m talking about ideas. For example, you know how nude I am and how nude I have been in the last five years. I’m very fucking nude, a lot. Right? At some point that’s going to come up against all these new 14 year-old AHS fans I’ve got, right? At some point someone’s gonna go, “Have you seen what this guy from TV used to do or has done?” And at that point I’ll be back on the outside I’ll bet you. I don’t know.
JDX: Once this TV gig is over, how will you go back to hosting tiny burlesque shows on dinky little stages?
MF: I don’t know. I want to still host at the Slipper Room and I want to give some energy back to Coney Island. But ultimately will I still work doing a 50 bucks show? I know what you’re saying, there are some gigs that I may now not take because I might have more work on TV. But then if you sell your soul as an artist, you’re fucked. I’ve learned this before. And I don’t believe I’ll ever sell my soul, but if I suddenly had an opportunity to start generating films and TV ideas that would not have been possible before, of course I’m gonna take that and move into that as a new career. Because, damn it, that’s an opportunity that you can’t turn down. However, I like saying to a lot of people who are like, “This is it, Mat you’re on the big one now! Hollywood here we come!” I’m like, yeah, more likely give it a year and I’ll be back on the same stages naked and covered in fake blood.
And I know one thing. I know I’m happy naked covered in blood with my friends. I know I’m fulfilling something I need to do. Otherwise I wouldn’t do it. After we did Beauty and the Beast in New York I was the happiest bloke I’d ever been in my life as an artist. Ever. It was a culmination of everything I’ve worked towards. This job is a culmination of the portrayal of freakshows that I’ve been indulging in for 15 years.
JDX: I ask a lot of people this because I’m always wondering what the weird curse is on burlesque. This revival’s been rolling for 20 years. My friend Skye Ferrante was saying how Julie and Dirty, people with a history in performance art, took the vocabulary of burlesque and co-opted it. Now it’s become an entire phenomenon of primarily classic burlesque and old-school pinup. There’s a festival in fucking Iowa. But it’s still not mainstream, it’s still fifty-dollar jobs. Harder than ever to make a living now.
MF: I think there’s a puritanical vein running through society, and I think it’s a victim of that a bit. It is still outsider, and its really tough for the artists to make a living off it, and I don’t know why. Maybe it’s just that the history of women, because it’s still predominantly women, although boylesque is a wonderful new wing to that – it’s still predominantly women taking their clothes off onstage to overtly sexualize themselves and the viewer, getting some politics and some entertainment along the way for sure, but it’s still about the taboos subject of sex. And the celebration of women. And when women own the celebration of women people are double troubled. People get annoyed.
My lamentation is that I look at Dirty and Julie and that first wave of new burlesquers – I look at them as punks, like punk rock. But punk rock happened, and then very quickly punk was just like looking like a punk and sounding like a punk. And then after that you were just in a rock bank that had the punk style, but it didn’t mean it was a social revolution like when punk started. So I see a lot of the newer acts in burlesque – and there’s some great newbies out there – but to me, they’re mostly just in a rock band now, it’s usually not punk rock anymore.
JDX: Sideshow is having a revival on Broadway, and now American Horror Story: Freakshow. What do you think about this TV show? Might it translate to more widespread sideshow, circus, freakshows, burlesque…?
MF: I think its more basic genre entertainment, because what we’re not seeing [on the show] is prolonged acts. We’re not seeing any of the sideshow acts. So its like Sons of Anarchy, which I don’t watch, but I understand it’s about bikers having the same concerns as everybody else, like kids, enemies, jobs, family, shit. And I think that’s what we’re seeing the freaks doing. Yes, its hyper-reality, super-stylized, Ryan-Murphy–land, but we’re not seeing somebody explaining how you have to lose your gag response and then putting the sword into their throat. And that’s not inspiring a million 11 year-olds to go and get the coat hanger and start practicing. We’re not seeing the actual acts, and I think because were not seeing them – if we did see them – I think it would fire a lot of people up to think, “I wonder if I can do that.” Which would in itself lead to a whole load of new people in the scene. And a flourishing to the scene maybe. I don’t think its gonna be the great savior of sideshow that I think some people in the sideshow community might have hoped it would be. But then you have to understand the beast, the monstrous beast that is television. It will use any subject for its own gain.
I tried for my first couple of days to tell people what real sideshow was like, and then I realized, we’re making a TV program that’s a horror story – we’re not intending to portray reality.
In the American Horror Story preview you said you hoped this role would lead to playing just a human. What kind of stuff would you like to play?
I’d love to do some guy with an office job. I would love to play a role that’s not traditionally given to a disabled actor for many reasons. But of course the Bond villain, archetypal, dramatic-type people – I’m very keen on playing too, but in terms of portrayal of what we as a fucking society need to see on TV, you need to make me an office job guy. Make it completely normal. My disability, my impairment will always inform the character that I play. But it doesn’t always need to be what my character is about.
*A previous version attributed Fraser using the word, “lamestream,” a misunderstanding. We apologize for putting this word into Mat’s mouth. He didn’t say it and never would, as he considers it to be derogatory towards disabled people. His lame friends are for the most part incredibly successful, strong, resilient people that most sturdy standers would struggle to come up to the standard of.