Above is a picture of dad and I at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 in New Orleans. We received an Artists' International Development Fund to meet with benevolent societies, jazz bands and Mardi Gras Indian’s. This was research for our new show Ugly Chief - a part theatre show; part musical about the British relationship with death.
We only got back last week so I am still decompressing. I haven’t spent that much time with dad since I left home at 16. We are still talking just taking a break until we continue to work together to develop the show in July.
Hair Peace is on tour and so far I have accidently swallowed a hair on stage and choked. I also had the most academic heckler of my life who just shouted simply “DNA!” I have no idea if it was in praise of DNA or what?
Rosie Powell has made an amazing new trailer that really reflects this new version of the show. Watch Trailer
And as friends of mine I have a discount code VICTORIA for £10 tickets for my London run at Battersea Art Centre 13th – 25th June. This will be the last chance to see Hair Peace in the UK so get in there.
Whilst at Battersea Arts Centre I’ll be taking up residence in the bedrooms, so do come and say “Hi” after the show in the bar.
Speaking of bedrooms (nice link) Mike Melody (dad) and I were commissioned to design 3 bedrooms for artists to stay in at Battersea Art Centre. We completely fitted them out in luxurious antiques for less than we would have paid for generic, mass produced Ikea showroom furniture. The point being that antiques have lost their value because people just want to consume. In addition to choosing objects and interiors from mum and dad’s pre-existing collection (including items from my old bedroom) we searched out items that excited us. The objects were selected because of their provenance.
On Saturday I had the pleasure of talking about my projects with Sara Cox. We got on like a house on fire and I was even allowed to say herpes on the radio.
Listen to me Sara Cox, Clive Anderson, Eddie Izzard, Tanya Franks and Andrew Maxwell for an eclectic mix of conversation, music and comedy. With music from Badly Drawn Boy and YolanDa Brown and Mica Paris on iPlayer http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b073rh48
It’s going to be a vintage year, I can feel it in my bones. I’m embarking on the making of a new show called ‘Ugly Chief.’
It's about death, relationships and the funeral process. In 2013 my TV antique dealer celebrity dad was diagnosed with a terminal illness and given a short time to live. After a year of thinking he was going to die the doctors told him that they had made a mistake.
When we found out that dad was OK I asked him if he would collaborate with me on a new theatre show – he said yes. We decided that the show would take the form of dad’s funeral.
In my signature ethnographic approach to creating work I am going to train to become a funeral director to demystify the British funeral system. An aim of the show is to destroy the taboo around talking about death.
But don’t worry it will still be funny. Dad’s first words to me in the rehearsal studio were “imagine me as a sponge with no face.” I have no idea what that means.
Hair Peace will be embarking on a national tour. I have been back in the studio with this baby and it’s looking good. In retrospect the show wasn’t ready in time for Edinburgh last year. Unlike my cooler colleagues who succeed brilliantly in premiering shows at the fringe and tweaking them along the way, the idea of presenting something incomplete freaked the hell out of me. I have learnt many lessons. I can’t wait to share the new version with you.
The performance artist talks bassett hounds, grave humour, and her Fringe show Hair Peace.
Victoria Melody’s hard to pin down. She’s a live artist who specialises in metamorphosis, slotting seamlessly into British subcultures that have rituals and social codes of their own. Her past performances have turned her into an angry office worker, a police officer turning audience members into photofits, a tassle-twirling showgirl, a gameshow hostess, and even a wannabe pigeon fancier. Some personas last for just a night, some take years of research.
Her victory in the 2012 Mrs Brighton contest fell into the latter category, and she documents the monumental effort of putting herself through the beauty circuit as she showed her morose basset hound in competitions in her touching, hilarious performance Major Tom.
The hound was a gentle presence, unbiddable and huge ears unflapped by the pressures of a frighteningly superficial world: Melody explains that “the beauty pageant people were a lot bloody nicer than the dog show people.” But although the Crufts crowd tore her dog’s physique to bits — “I feel so angry that his personality was never taken into account!” — there was a more insidious kind of criticism at play in her time on the beauty pageant circuit. She took advice from fellow competitors, encountering a whole industry of waxing, slimming, and “constantly being sold other people’s ideal perfect me. And you know what’s wrong with me?”
What was surprising about Major Tom was its gentleness, as well as its power as a metaphor for the way that women and dogs are both judged on physique not temperament. Melody was composed, never quite revealing how it felt to be turned into a doll for the beauty industry to play out its wildest fantasies on. But since her heady days on stage, and the aftermath of being a minor Brighton celebrity – “although Major Tom got recognised way more than me!” – a degree of frustration has set in. She explains that “I almost metamorphosed. I went down to a size 8, I had fake tan, I had massive eyelashes, I had blonde hair. My friends and husband are delighted that I’m me again because it did make me a worse person, and I did get away with a lot of stuff. I did a secret experiment where I had an out-of-date railcard for two years, and for the whole time I had long blonde hair they were like it’s alright don’t worry, then as soon as I had normal hair I got fined! Now people don’t help me with bags as much, if it’s a guy on the bar I won’t get served as quickly, people don’t open doors for me as much…”
Victoria Melody as Mrs Brighton
So her newest performance, Hair Peace, “is the antidote for Major Tom. It’s me getting angry and asking questions about the beauty myth and people’s perceptions of identity and consumption.” To get closer to these questions, she’s working with her niece Beverly, who still wears and loves hair extensions while Melody’s hair-swishing days are gone. Well, not quite: Melody’s hung on to three ponytails of real human hair left over from her pageant days, and made a performance based around her DNA-scrutinising, plane-hopping journey to find the real human heads they came from.
Beverley’s involvement, both through advice and through pre-recorded footage, is crucial to the success of the piece. Melody explains that “when I asked her if she wanted to be involved, I was very honest with her. I said some people are going to think you’re very superficial. but you know what, that’s because they’re judgemental because they’ve never met anyone like you, because they’re posh. And I think she speaks really articulately [about her decision to wear human hair extensions] and her argument is valid. She’s a single mum and has brought up an amazing son on her own, and lives with the stigma day to day of being a young mum. She wants to look a certain way, and she’s a strong woman.”
Beverley is open about the pitfalls of wearing hair extensions, as well as the pleasure they bring her. She talks sleepless nights from the lumps of glue that attach them, of hours in the hairdressers and of an expense she now hates going without. But Melody is clear not her performance isn’t an exposé, either of the British beauty industry or of the hidden supply chain that stretches from Essex, to Russia, to India. “I’m very careful not to exploit people, and I come under fire because of that. People say I’m not taking enough of a stance. But the thing is that I’m an artist, I’m not there to preach, I’m there to present stories for you to make up your own mind.”
Her approach in Hair Peace focuses on questions, as much as answers. Her journey took her to India and Russia to investigate how human hair is harvested and sold. She recalls that “when I set out on this project I expected just to find absolute exploitation, and for it to be a really evil, horrible business. But in a way I didn’t find that, although the inequality is there of course. What came across was that we’ve got these Western preconceptions.”
Indian hair is donated as part of a religious ceremony, which Melody plays footage of in her performance: “I spent a lot of time talking to the Indian Embassy, because they will not people film in or near temples. So I did my best to persuade them, and I entered a really interesting discourse about Western preconceptions. Foreign film crews will go to India and film a documentary about surrogacy, and talk about how some poor woman is being paid a pittance. But for the Indian woman, she might be able to buy a house for her whole family, and it’s a life-changing, positive thing for her and her family. So some of it was about ‘Don’t come over here and judge me because our worlds are pretty fucking different, don’t be so naive’. In the end, I got permission and the people at the Embassy told me “Victoria Melody, you are a very big character.”
She is. She’s warm and genuinely enthusiastic about people, which lets her get under the skin of these worlds without seeming voyeuristic or exploitative. But Hair Peace isn’t really about her — it’s emotional heart comes from the Skype meeting between Beverley and an Indian woman called Neeharika, who Melody accompanies on a pilgrimage to sacrifice her hair. Chris Rock’s brilliant documentary Good Hair explored the ritual of donating temple hair, too, but there was something dehumanising about the way that the Indian women who were going through an intensely personal religious experience were seen being herded through a system, like sheep.
By focusing in on Neeharika’s experience, Melody’s able to fill in the emotional landscape, as well as the economic landscape, of hair donation. “She was so thankful that she’d managed to become independent of her parents and to lead the kind of life she wanted to lead. The relationships I make are very genuine and very real – we’re still in touch, and she’s doing so well and working so hard.” Neeharika is almost disconcertingly pragmatic about the economics of the process: “She was absolutely fine with the fact that Beverley might be wearing her hair, and Beverley liked finding out who it was from. It was insane, seeing supply and demand right in front of me in the form of these two humans.”
Melody’s view of the hair extensions industry is far from rose-tinted. She points to the lice she discovered on ponytails in Russia, suggesting they’d been forcibly cut from prisoners, and to her doubts that 70% of £22 billion pounds Indian temples make from selling hair actually goes to charity, as promised. “I’m always suspicious of organised religion — is the ceremony just a manufactured way to get loads of money out of people who can’t afford to give money in any other way? But then you can’t knock the emotion of witnessing how people felt after having their heads shaved. The reason that this is a performance, not a documentary on the television, is because I can tell it the exact way it was, from the heart.”
There’s a similar mix of emotion and economics, all tumbled together, in her new performance Ugly Chief. It’s a performance about funerals made after her dad, television antiques expert Mike Melody, was wrongly given five years to live by doctors. Melody junior will be interning in two separate funeral parlours, and looking forward to an audience inhabited by his daytime TV fans. “He’s never conformed, he’s a very funny and complex character. There’s no one else like me and him in our family, and I don’t understand why we’re this pair of weird show-offs. I thought it was sad that he was going to die and we were never going to collaborate: he never finished his studies so he’s got a real frustrated artist in him. So when we found out he wasn’t going to die, I asked if he wanted to make a show with me and he said yeah.”
The performance isn’t quite as weird, or morbid, as it sounds: “I’ve always had quite a good relationship with death. Dad made me memorise his funeral details when I was seven years old because he was very overweight, drank a lot, smoked a lot, and ate terribly, so he wanted to prepare me.” But it’s still a dazzling weird journey, from tracking dead hair to embalming dead bodies. Melody’s even planning to become a part-time funeral celebrant if it works out. It’s another role that makes a funny kind of sense, with compassion, commercialism and deep-buried oddness all wrapped up together in one, charismatic whole.
It started when I began entering my basset hound into championship dog shows. He’d won everything on the amateur circuit, but when we progressed to the championships he kept coming last. Out of guilt, protest and necessity, I decided to put myself under the same level of scrutiny and became a beauty queen.
All of this was for my theatre show, Major Tom, which follows my own journey and my dog’s as we get to Crufts and the Mrs Galaxy UK finals. It was a study of in-group behaviour, objectification and the beauty myth.
During my reign as Mrs Brighton, I underwent total metamorphosis. I became other people’s idea of the perfect me. Hairdressers told me that my own hair was dry, fine and, basically, crap. To obtain that beauty queen look I needed hair extensions. They then proceeded to glue human hair into my human hair. “Where is this hair from?” I asked. The hairdresser told me she didn’t know, but it was OK, it was just like wearing another woman’s knickers that have been washed. I said: “No, it’s not. It’s more like wearing another woman’s real fingernails.” She screamed.
I couldn’t stop wondering whose hair I was wearing. I decided to set off on a quest to find out – and my journey became my new show, Hair Peace.
While I was a beauty queen I was given three sets of extensions. One set was from India, another from Russia. The final mystery set, labelled only “Remy”, turned out to be the most exciting. King’s College London forensics department tested it for me and it turned out to be from DNA that has never been seen before.
First off, I had to persuade the Indian embassy that I wouldn’t misrepresent their hair trade. I agreed to leave my western preconceptions behind and approach this with an open mind. In Mumbai I met Neeharika, a 25-year-old scriptwriter. She had heard about my project and invited me to join her on her pilgrimage to Tirumala Venkateswara temple in the hill town of Tirumala in southern India. The temple is one of the world’s richest and most visited. Thousands of pilgrims go there to shave their heads – a procedure known as tonsuring. It is part of a Hindu ritual where devotees lay their egos at Lord Venkateswara’s feet by donating their hair. It was Neeharika’s third attempt to get to Tirumala. She was making this trip because she wanted to thank the Lord for answering her prayers.
Neeharika didn’t care that the hair she was donating would be worn on the head of some infinitely richer westerner. Her attitude was that she had no need for it, so it was better that it went to enhance somebody’s confidence. I challenge you not to fall in love with her during my show.
I followed the supply chain from the auctions at the temple, to the factories that processed the hair, to the exporters and then the suppliers in the UK and India. The next stop was Russia, where what I saw wasn’t about donating hair in a devotion ceremony but about selling hair for cold, hard cash – sometimes out of necessity. I met hair dealers and drove around with them in their cars. We visited sites where they pinned up posters advertising “We buy hair”. I visited Russia’s only hair factory in Mosalsk, met a hair scientist and visited hair harvest events where all day people came and sold their hair. Of the characters I met, those that I was most drawn to were a lady in her 60s who was selling her hair for the fourth time and a young woman selling her hair to pay for driving lessons, after growing it for 19 years.
In India, I witnessed a forced factory tonsure and in Russia, the hair scientist told me tales of exploitation. Both Russia and India demonstrated that this is a business supplied by women, driven by women and run by men.
Back in the UK I spent time in hairdressers, hair extension shops and schools. I asked people what their hair means to them, and if they wear hair extensions, do they know where they come from, do they even care? I asked them if they would prefer it if, like with coffee packaging, there was a picture of the person who grew the hair.
As with all my work, I’m not here to provide answers but to provoke more questions. It’s easy to say that only superficial people wear hair extensions, but it’s more complex than that. Venkateswara temple would otherwise be burning most of the hair instead of raising money for charity (70% of the money raised is invested into charitable projects, and the rest goes to the temple).
The human hair business creates thousands of jobs from what is essentially a waste product. Why shouldn’t people use this hair in wigs and hair extensions – as long as working conditions are good and workers receive a fair living wage? Though what of the underside of exploitation and forced tonsures? The UK is the third biggest importer of human hair in the world. It’s an emerging market and an unregulated business. The hair enters the UK not as a body part, but a beauty accessory like a hair clip, as I discovered through my work with academics from the politics and international studies department at Warwick university. They said it would be very difficult to implement a fair trade system for human hair. But it’s not impossible, and a change in the current system could happen if driven by consumers.
So will I wear hair extensions again? Not unless I become a beauty queen for a performance art show again … never say never.
Hair Peace is at the Pleasance Below, Edinburgh, until 31 August. Box office: 0131-556 6550.