Interview: Cabaret performers Lili La Scala and Ali McGregor

From Fringe babies to comedian husbands and operatic roots, variety stars Lili La Scala and Ali McGregor find they have much in common

WOW FACTOR: Lili La Scala (left) and Ali McGregor. Photograph: David Monteith-Hodge

ALI: I first met Lili when I saw The Boy With Tape On His Face [aka Sam Wills, La Scala’s husband] in 2008. He’d never been to Australia before and he became a bit of a star. The first time I saw Lili perform was when we did a charity show – you sang as a puppet.

LILI: The doll song.

ALI: Yes! With your husband on stilts. And moving you around like a puppet. I’m sure you pull the strings now.

LILI: It’s not the first time we were in the same place though; I only found out when we were in Adelaide a couple of years ago, you went to the Royal Northern College of Music. You did Bohème I remember?

ALI: Yeah.

LILI: A friend of mine was also in Bohème, so I saw you play Musetta. It’s interesting; we both trained as opera singers and then I went into street performing and you went into cabaret/opera – jazz now – and then we both married comedians.

ALI: I was offered a job at Opera Australia. Before I left there, I did two operas at Wilton’s Music Hall in the east end of London. I did a piece, The Beggar’s Opera, with Jonathan Miller. He told me a story of these opera singers, chorus girls from Covent Garden who used to do their opera, then take off their outer clothes, keep their corsets and drawers, hop in a carriage, go to Wilton’s Music Hall, sing those same arias for the vaudeville public and have money thrown at them, and probably make more money than they did at Covent Garden. I was transfixed by this idea. Then one night I went to the Famous Spiegeltent, right next to the Art Center in Melbourne where we performed with Opera Australia. I happened to drop a necklace down a grill. Two gentlemen helped me, one of which happened to be David Bates who owned the Spiegeltent, and I ended up buying them a bottle of wine to thank them, got chatting, and told him this story. He said, “Why don’t you do that here, after you finish the opera?” I got the props department to help me make this big shell out of a kid’s pool and I sort of appeared like The Birth Of Venus singing an aria with chorus girls fanning me. Opera Burlesque was born out of that.

LILI: I trained at Guildhall; it became apparent I was never going to be an opera star.

ALI: It’s difficult when you’re a young singer and all you want to be is the star at Covent Garden, and you can’t. Sometimes you can’t see that there’s anything else. Opera singers quite often spend their twenties trying to be 35.

LILI: Trying to sound like Callas. So, they do miss out on a lot of life experiences as a result. And then my sister and formed this sort of duo, The Two Sopranos, doing street performances in corsets and tutus, and heels and fishnets. After that I performed on my own and that bug really bit me. Suddenly I was in this amazing community of people who did weird stuff I’d never seen – jugglers and fire eaters, and contortionists and hula-hoopers. Then one of my friends said to me, “Have you thought about mixing opera and burlesque?” I did Madame Butterfly and took off the kimono and the audience was half stunned and half wowed.

ALI: And then… somewhere along the line we both married performers [McGregor is married to comedian Adam Hills].

LILI: It has its pros and cons. Sometimes you sort of think, “Oh, it would be good if just one of us was performing and the other could just be there” but, then, I couldn’t be that other person you know?

ALI: Neither could I! I came to Edinburgh first with La Clique, but I kept coming back because Adam was here and I thought, “Well, I might as well do a show if we’re both going to be there”, and then that brought into comedy clubs, and it’s taught me huge amounts about performing and given me sort of release to create my own persona amongst that.

LILI: Whenever I watch my husband perform, it’s a huge sense of pride because what he’s doing has been groundbreaking over the last few years.

ALI: And we obviously both take a lot of credit for that.

LILI: I hope he’ll instil his work ethic in our son, because if he gets it from me he’s lost!

ALI: I know quite a few performers who’ve got kids who’ve now reached school age and they still drag them around.

LILI: It’s great for kids to travel because the performer children see so much of the world.

ALI: I was talking in an interview recently about body image, and was asked about bringing up a daughter within this cabaret environment and am I worried about certain language. I said, “Actually, I think it’s the best environment to bring her up in.” Last year, the Vulva Sisters did a show called Naked As The Day They Were Born. My daughter went a couple of times to what she calls the “nudie ladies”. She was two. I got a few weird looks from people in the audience, but she absolutely loved it. The nudity that’s involved with burlesque is “I don’t care what you think. I’m doing this because I love my body, and I want to embrace it.” That sort of confidence is something I long for my daughter to have.

LILI: I like the idea of my son growing up around all of these incredibly empowered women – who make their money with their bodies, but not in the way that pop culture does. Women who are running their careers, producing shows.

ALI: Having a Fringe baby is an incredible experience. It’s our third time here having a baby – the first time my daughter was three months old and it was a real eye-opener for me because everyone was saying “Aren’t you exhausted?” No, it was much more tiring when I was going out and drinking. And it does put everything into perspective – you don’t think about yourself all day until you have that moment to get prepared for your show.

LILI: It’s my first baby Fringe. It’s completely different from the way it used to be. We take him to our shows and he sits backstage and he enjoys listening to me sing which is good because there’s a lot of that to come.


Ali McGregor’s Late-Nite Variety-Nite Night, Assembly Checkpoint, Thursdays to Sundays, 10.40pm, until 25 August; Ali McGregor’s Jazzmatazz, Famous Spiegeltent, today, 17-18, 24-25 August, 4pm. Lili LaScala: Another F***ing Variety Show, Pleasance Dome, 11pm, until 24 August

Originally published in Scotland on Sunday