PONYSTEP Issue 05 - Written by Paul Flynn - 2013
Theo Adams is a creative force unseen since the heydays of Leigh Bowery. Onstage, his performances are at once touching and emotional, but delivered with a ballsy conviction that leaves the audience both bewildered and euphoric. Offstage, Theo maintains a lower profile, though in no way less interesting... Paul Flynn gets under the skin of fashions favourite show off!
Between mid-March and mid-April 2012, The Theo Adams Company decamped to the Long Island pile of cultural philanthropist and Einstein on the Beach director Robert Wilson for a month-long residency. I’d had my ear pricked about this on the East End gossip mill. I first came across Theo as a 15-year-old schoolboy, central to a scintillating brand of gender-dysphoric, mid-2000s London nightclub chaos. In seven short years he had turned his arresting social presence and brilliant performance compulsion into high art.
Back then, you could find him in full horror drag, like a demented grandchild of Fenella Fielding lip-syncing to the eruptive Dreamgirls classic And I am Telling You I’m Not Going while spitting glitter over drunken club kids. He lent the parties at Kash Point, Anti Social and later Boombox youthful dystopian menace. He once dragged the future editor of i-D, mortified, across a dance floor by her hair. His look was blood red, black, diamanté and hair. His aesthetic located the thrilling intersection between high-camp housewife and slasher-fiction corpse. He was a part of a crowd for whom the real-time suburban nightmare/fantasia of Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent would turn out to be their Sex-Pistols-on-Bill-Grundy moment.
At 22, Theo assorted 18 performers from Japan, LA and London to take to Long Island. The intention was to put into development the first work for his (what? Theatre company? Performance Art troupe? Drag revue?) ensemble that had not been subject to commission. Even Theo finds it difficult to express what exactly it is that he does.
In a British political moment of benefits vilification and state austerity, Theo is a part of a third wave of uneducated, punk-descendant London visionaries that relies on the beneficiary of high-fashion brands to facilitate their vision. Prior to Robert Wilson extending his palm, annunciating him with international art significance, Louis Vuitton and MAC cosmetics had both proven generous enablers for his work.
At 23, Theo still lives at home with his father, Adam Adams (“can you believe that?”), in the mostly Jewish North London suburb of Golders Green. His wardrobe is assembled from the offcuts and castoffs of the women of NW11. His physical heritage and primary artistic instinct is Greek. He is a fan of the charity-shop designer favourite, Frank Usher. “He’d dress every Jewish mother for their kid’s Bar Mitzvah, so it was full-on sequins and beading and a lot of appliqué,” he explains. “I have a lot of that. Then I’ll find an Yves Saint Laurent suit for a fiver. Those kinds of women were the women I grew up with. That was my idea of glamour. I don’t believe in trashiness as a concept. One person’s trash is another person’s couture. I think everything is subjective. You like what you like.”
In April 2013 I met Theo at The Hackney Bureau, a café on Mare Street, E8, to talk about his transition from nightclub enfant terrible to art scion. He is voluble, expressive and infectious company, wearing a white bolero blouse, tight women’s jeans and intricate gold hoop earrings at four in the afternoon. Because of the attention gathered around the thrilling nightclub moment he birthed into and helped invigorate, his first performance was at Tate Britain. He sold out two nights at the ICA with no marketing and performed in New York at MoMA PS1. But the new show is clearly bearing a little heavily on his jolly, upbeat disposition. He explains the first scene, of a chorus figure running repeatedly into the curtain of a proscenium arch theatre before being taken toward the heavens as the curtain rises. He specifies lighting and, of course, costume detailing. He is at his most cerebral describing artistic ideas, clearly and succinctly, and his loudest when talking about another great love, reality television.
Theo has never seen divisions between high and low culture. “I’m interested in high drama. You get that from opera and you get it from Big Brother,” he says affirmatively. His favourite Big Brother characters are Nadia Almada, the Portuguese transsexual winner of season 5, and Makosi Musambasi, the reformed hooker that behaved like an African princess in season 6. “The ‘box task’ year,” he says, conclusively. He was four when MTV’s The Real World kick-started the age and parameters of reality TV and 10 when Hear’Say won the first of the big British Saturday night singing show-downs,Popstars. Controversially, he prefers the X Factor-endorsed brand of pop to the 1990s processed variant currently being celebrated on The Big Reunion, because the girls are now cast on it to sing, rather than stroll onto the cover of FHM in a bikini. “I like a girl with lungs.”
The roster of reality TV has allowed for further curiosities onto prime time. We spend a full four minutes discussing the Liverpool boyband that almost made it to the final of an early X Factor season, comprising three rent boy-looking types and a delicate out-of-drag tranny. “Eton Road,” he correctly identifies.
Back in the world of high art, Robert Wilson’s place in Long Island, The Watermill Center, was not what Theo Adams was expecting at all. “It used to be an old laboratory for the Western Union,” he says. “They invented the fax machine there. I could definitely feel the ghosts of a few faxes in the atmosphere.” Wilson took 15 years to rebuild the premises to his specifications. “The builders would build and he would come in and make them change whole walls as they were slightly too close together. He was used to theatre sets rather than concrete so it took a long time. It was like living in a museum. Every corner you turned there would be some kind of amazing, priceless object.” Theo slept next to a vase dating back to 500BC, “just casually there, like it was something from Ikea.”
For its 18 newest collaborative artists in residence, selected by a board that includes some of the most dizzyingly high names of contemporary global art creation and curation (Marina Abramovic, Xavier LeRoy, Taryn Simon, Elisabeth Sussman from the Whitney, Jonathan Safran Foer, Wilson himself, among others), the immaculate polished flooring of the three-wing, quasi-Brutalist building turned out to be a problem. “The whole of The Watermill is incredibly anal,” he says. “One of the rules was no shoes in the majority of the building. Obviously a big signature of our work is the five-inch stilettos that the whole cast wears, which I was not willing to get rid of. The solution was them supplying us with 1,000 yoga mats, which we had to cover the floors of the rehearsal space in.”
As a result, The Theo Adams Company accidentally learnt a new discipline to add to its eclectic portfolio of movement, mime, music, dance and dialogue. “We are now experts at dancing in five-inch stilettos on a foam floor. Which is not an easy skill, I can tell you.”
The representational idea of the significance of the stiletto heel became, perhaps inevitably, central to Theo’s work for the month. “They encourage the residents to use any of The Watermill’s collection in their work. I was terrified of breaking everything so insisted on moving everything out.” One item from Wilson’s archive remained. “A plinth with a pair of satin heels with a bloodstain on the toes. They belonged to Marlene Dietrich and were apparently her favourite shoes. They were worn by her in her last ever performance. We just had them in the corner of our main rehearsal space and they proved to be a huge inspiration to us and the work we created. They represented glamour, pain and resilience, and had a huge darkness and melancholy.”
Theo Adams is better at explaining his work than he thinks. “They really were amazing. I didn’t really realise how much of an honour it is to be part of the residency programme before we went. I knew very little of Robert Wilson’s work, but having taken part in a residency there I feel like I’ve taken part in one of his artworks now. You begin to understand how his brain works after a few weeks there. In the US it’s a very well-known and respected place.” Truly, there is no more thrilling a way of becoming a big deal than not even realising it is happening to you.
In 2010, The Theo Adams Company performed its biggest commission yet: an event across 17 rooms with more than 80 performers for the fashion monolith Louis Vuitton. Theo was 20. “I never found out what the budget was because I never asked. Whatever I asked for, I would get. It was epic. I learnt from doing that project and working with suits from Paris how to get my own way, basically.”
He lit the toilets in red bulbs, piped canned laughter into the gents and applause into the ladies. “They were like: ‘Why? Why would you do this at a Vuitton event?’ It was all about luxury to them. I said: ‘Because that’s the way that it has to be.’”
For the evening’s finale, Theo wanted his great heroine Beyoncé to perform. Vuitton were prepared to match her fee but a lucrative sponsorship deal with the handbag manufacturer Samantha Thavasa stymied the singer’s contribution. Theo spent two hours trying to persuade the suits at LVMH that Whitney Houston would be a sustainable replacement, just prior to her death. “They didn’t want to pay her money because they didn’t think that she’d give it. I said ‘give her five minutes with me’.”
After four months working on the project from a London office, two weeks before show time, they still didn’t have a headline act. “I said ‘Sister Sledge’ and they said ‘Hmm, I think we can get Sister Sledge’. They came on to We Are Family. Five tracks, in a medley. It was a bespoke set in a hotel. The French doors opened at the upper level and they were lit in silhouette – like Dreamgirls, obviously – and started singingWe Are Family, [then] bang, they walked down these stairs.”
Theo was delighted that only one original ‘sister’ of the family Sledge remained. “I love that mix of the real and the fake. It was Kathy, the main one, and her daughter and some random friend. I loved it. It made it even more special for me.”
Was Kathy nice?
Did she understand the canned laughter and applause?
“Well – oh dear. I don’t think they told them what everything else was so when she came in she was a bit…”
What the fuck is this?
“Basically, yes. That’s what always happens with me.”
Sometimes it is the only way to make the high and low work in tandem.
Theo Adams learnt his powers of persuasion young. He won a competition at school for a teacher to design him a costume. He asked for it to be fashioned in the exact image of one worn by Dame Edna, the cross-dressing antipodean talk-show host, comic and anchor of his favourite TV programme at the time, Dame Edna’s Neighbourhood Watch. He was four years old. “My dad wasn’t pleased by this, but my mum let me have it.” It was the last time the family bothered to argue with Theo about his wilful look. They ironed it out early. “Sometimes my dad will still say ‘what have you got on?’, but to be fair I do sometimes look ridiculous.”
Adam Adams soon learnt to acquiesce to his son’s specific modes of presentation. The Dame Edna frock on his infant son was peripatetic schooling in what was to come during Theo’s adolescence. “There was never a moment where I suddenly shocked my family by what I wore. I have never felt the urge to rebel, because I don’t really think I’ve been too conscious of the rules to rebel against in the first place. I don’t feel like an outsider.” He is Instagram-era. Dressing up doesn’t have to be a personal act of solitary defiance anymore. It is shared.
He hated school, obviously. “I just used to think ‘these people are idiots’. I had an argument with the headmaster. I made him write me a letter of apology. Obviously.”
“Not giving me the lead role in the school play. I was quite clever at that. Because I wasn’t attending school enough they wouldn’t give me the lead, even though clearly I should’ve got it and gave the best audition. They told me I couldn’t not attend and come in at the end of the day just to do rehearsals and of course I thought that was completely ridiculous and was like ‘why shouldn’t I?’ I refused to accept the letter of apology and left. Obviously now I understand why.”
He was transferred from his all-boys secondary modern to The Fine Arts Community School in Belsize Park, run by two artists – “Amazing and ridiculous, there’d be chairs flying around the room, people storming out, you called the teachers by their first name and sat round a big table” – but by this time he had already began dipping his toes in the nightlife just a short tube ride away from his home. Because of the precocious age he was picked up on for his performance skill, he didn’t bother with exams. “The first club I came to was Kash Point. I was reading The Face when I was 12 so I was always aware of these things happening. It wasn’t like I was living in a small town, dreaming about the big city I’d read about in magazines. It was all on my doorstep. So I was like: ‘Oh alright, I’ll go to that then.’ And I did.”
His penchant for the local wardrobe tastes of benevolent widows was part theatrical, part practical. “I dressed up because I liked dressing up but also because I was 15 so if you dress up a lot, with that heavy makeup and things over your head, then they can’t tell you’re 15.” His first night-time playmate was his elder sister Andrea, a Cambridge-educated academic who still sometimes performs with his company now. “She is brilliant at dancing like a cheap stripper.”
He was quickly taken under the wing of influential night-time faces, the performance artist Scottee and fine artist and idealogue Matthew Stone. “Scottee came up to me and was having a fake conversation into his stiletto heel, pretending it was a phone and I just went ‘you know thereís no-one on the other line? It’s a shoe, babes.’ And he liked that because I wasn’t pandering to him. He asked me to perform at his club night [Anti Social]. Then Matthew put me on more of the art side of things, in galleries.”
At the time, Theo presumed the only thing people found fascinating about him was “that I was really young and wearing funny clothes”. As with any 15 year old trotting out for a night on the tiles with his big sister, Theo saw no extenuating reason at the time as to why such a fundamentally quizzical, smart bunch of people should be coalescing around one particular area at one particular time. “It was a time when everyone believed they were going to be a pop star. That everything they were doing really mattered. Now it’s fun, but I don’t think that those kids genuinely believe that they are going to change the world. And I genuinely believe that we did think we could change the world.”
He understood clearly the predominant gender dialogue going on underneath it all. “Definitely. It was weird because the idea of a club kid disappeared. ‘Tranny’ seems to be just a new word for a club kid now. I don’t feel like I’m necessarily part of that. I guess my gender identity is important to me.” He thinks about this for a moment. “It’s ingrained. I’m interested in – I mean, today my nails are chipping but I will always have my nails painted on and I will always have my big earrings. I grow my hair. I might be wearing jeans and a shirt today but this was a women’s shirt and these are women’s jeans. At the end of the day it’s not just an idea of dressing up to me.”
That Jewish lady casual look is day realness?
“Exactly. It’s not me attempting to look like a woman, either. I don’t feel like I’m a man. I don’t feel like I’m a woman. I don’t feel like I need to be pigeonholed in any of these kind of ways.”
Theo never tried to genderise or boy-up. It didn’t interest him. “It hasn’t bothered me. It does bother other people, on the street, still. Most of the time because I’ve got my headphones in I don’t know what anyone’s saying but when you forget your headphones you realise the things that people say! It’s kind of odd.”
What Theo always knew was that spitting glitter on patrons at the George and Dragon was never going to be quite enough for him. “Which is great and I still do it and will probably do it for many years to come but that wasn’t all that I wanted to do because there’s only so much they can take from that. It’s not just me. You know, everyone’s drunk in a club and I did have that pull to do something where people would sit down and watch.”
In 2009, the amazing portraitist and fashion photographer David Sims shot The Theo Adams Company for a portfolio for W magazine. The budget looked astronomical to the young Theo. “It was that time when every magazine wanted to do a cool London shoot,” he says. It was not uncommon at the time to see Jonjo next to Kate Moss on a page in American Vogue. “In a way that was the reality of it though. She did come to Boombox. I was in there one night and this woman came up to me and asked about my fur coat. Like ‘Oh my God, where is this from?’ I was like ‘Who’s she, she’s on something.’ I ran up to Matthew [Stone] and said ‘That womanís sort of groping me’ and he was like ‘That’s Kate Moss.’ I had no idea. That’s another story.”
He picks up the tale of the W shoot. “When I work with production companies, they don’t tell any guest they’ve booked much about what’s going to happen. We had Lorna Luft for this W shoot and I wanted her singing in one of the images. She walked in on set and there was this huge production with my name in red sequins. We had Europe’s only red grand piano, which I’d ruined in the previous shot by scratching it with a pair of bejewelled leggings.” He laughs. “So I was lying topless underneath the red grand piano with black food colouring dripping out of my mouth and confetti flying everywhere. I wanted her to sing The Man That Got Away. Because it was Wthey had the budget to indulge me. I like still images to capture a moment in time. Just before she came in someone said to me: ‘OK, Theo, we have to be very careful about this because we don’t know what her reaction is going to be.’ All she knew was it was a shoot for W magazine. She had no idea about the 19-year-old topless boy with black blood coming out of his mouth. She just walked up on stage, took her position and said ‘Kid, you look great’.” It took Theo a moment to compose himself after the shutter stopped. “I was like: she came out of Judy Garland.”
Theo says he has always loved the Dreamgirls standard And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going. “That was always my favourite song, from the first time I heard it.” He prefers the original Jennifer Holliday version to the Oscar-winning Jennifer Hudson reboot. “It’s always the original for me. Her doing it at the Tony Awards. The reason I love her so much is that she’s not afraid to be ugly, which makes her more beautiful. She goes to places that no one else would.” He says he loves it so much “Because it starts somewhere big and goes somewhere…”
He says it is his Greek heritage that infuses his love of high drama. “The biggest Greek diva is an amazing woman called Anna Vissi. Her biggest hits are huge, melodramatic torch songs. If you translated the lyrics into English they would sound ridiculous and over the top. But this is the mainstream in Greece. It’s pop, and it’s in my blood. I’m not afraid to be dramatic. It comes very naturally to me. It’s where I feel most comfortable, actually.”
Theo Adams was born in 1989, the second child and first son of Adam and Jenny Adams. Jenny suffered hard from multiple sclerosis and was instructed specifically by her doctor that childbirth could have a detrimental effect on her health. “I was always aware from a young age that she would not live forever, that death was inevitable,” says Theo. Mortality foreshadowed his life.
The thought warrants some fleshing out. It may have some bearing on his natural proclivity to drama and his fundamental, unshakeable fearlessness. “Having a disabled parent is a different kind of relationship. They look after you and you look after them. There is a genuine need for each other. My mum was everything to me. I was a ‘young carer’ since I could remember, but I wasn’t really conscious of it. It was just normal to me. But it did definitely make me conscious of what a gift being able to move is. I think that’s why I love dance and I do what I do. It’s a celebration and gift because I’ve always been conscious it could be taken away at any moment. My mum loved dance and danced when she was younger. I guess in a way I’m carrying that on for her.”
When I first saw Theo lip-syncing in nightclubs with his wild hair and demonic get-up, I had no idea of his story. Clearly it was born of some other urgency than the simple need to show off. But then so was everyone’s at that time in those clubs.
“Her disabilities got progressively worse as I grew,” he continues, “until she finally passed away in 2010. I came back from a show in Austria on the Sunday and she was admitted to hospital on the Tuesday. Within a few weeks she was gone. It was a strange feeling because I had never had an hour before where I hadn’t thought at one point ‘How is mum?’ or ‘I hope she’s OK’. And then I didn’t need to think like that; I guess I felt lost after. A few months later I was given the Vuitton job. I went pretty fast into the biggest show of my life.”
Since his big sister and little brother have left home to study, it is just Theo and Adam Adams at home now. They have a strong relationship. “I wouldn’t want to leave my dad alone. My mum and us are his life. I couldn’t just leave him.”
In the finale of the first night of the Vuitton show, Theo had a damascene moment. “I could basically see my mum in the spotlight. It was a really amazing feeling and I knew she was still there, keeping her eye on me.”
For some, performance is a gift. For others, it is a need. “Silence scares me,” he says. The new Theo Adams Company performance will be called Entertainment. Don’t let that fool you. It will be so much more than that.”