Amelia Zirin-Brown on her cult diva Lady Rizo
lady rizo

Cult cabaret superstar Amelia Zirin-Brown is a high priestess in the Church of Glitter, taking disciples on a sensational journey through love, marriage, infidelity and divorce, finds Claire Smith

lady rizo
[Amelia Zirin-Brown’s character was born out of New York’s underground burlesque scene. Photograph: Ian Rutherford]

She arrives wearing a shimmering midnight blue gown, silver heels and full show make-up with red lips, fluttering eyelashes and sculpted platinum curls. Lady Rizo looks every inch the diva and she has a Grammy-award winning voice to match.

But as she explains in her show, she had to reinvent herself after the breakdown of the marriage that helped shape her act. “In a way, Lady Rizo has been my saviour,” she says.

She first arrived in Edinburgh two years ago with a show which turned her into an international cabaret phenomenon. Earlier she had success as a recording artist under her real name Amelia Zirin-Brown, singing lead on a couple of tracks by Moby and duets with classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

The character Lady Rizo was born out of the New York underground burlesque scene. But she became a star in Edinburgh, winning the inaugural Toast cabaret award.

This year’s show takes her to another level. Built around a cycle of songs, it takes the audience through the emotional journey she has travelled, of whirlwind romance, marriage, love, infidelity and divorce. Lady Rizo reveals the woman behind the character. And it is sensational.

“This show is a lot more personal than ever before,” she says. “I’m still trying to figure it all out. One of the things I am trying to do on stage is present the character and then slowly dissolve it through this very personal story – because there is no way I can tell this story of divorce as someone else. It is heartbreaking and I’m still dealing with it.

“I went through my mother, my father and my sister being divorced and I realise now I did not have the right amount of compassion for what they were going through. I thought, ‘Oh, there was a part of the marriage that wasn’t working. It’s time for the next thing’. But it is second only to losing a parent, because it is very much like a death. A whole part of your identity becomes merged with another person. People say co-dependency is a negative thing, but it is about creating an identity with someone else that is beyond you alone.”

The other person in this case was her husband, musical collaborator and manager Nestor Andres Rizo.

“The songs weave in and out of the narrative. On stage I was going through the most horrendous hurt because I was no longer with Lord Rizo. I still have his name – this nom de stage. When people know you as something, you really don’t want to change it.

“Lady Rizo is me. People call me that on the street. Even though I reinvented myself, it was a struggle. It was such a hard thing to do.”

I ask her why the marriage didn’t work. There is a lot of sadness in her reply, but no anger. “A lot of it is about non-monogamy. We were married when we were in our twenties but three years into our marriage we decided to have an open marriage. I didn’t want it to be critical of non-monogamy – because actually it was very successful. It was about being a very young age and trying to figure out a way of living. We looked to the example of my gay male friends.”

As a child she grew up in a nonconformist environment. She jokes on stage about falling in love with vintage clothes and glamour as a rebellion against her Birkenstock-wearing hippy parents.

“I was brought up in an intentional artists colony in Oregon. They were a bunch of people who left urban metropolitan areas so they could make art.

“What they did was sometimes very highbrow. They would do Shakespeare, they would do Brecht. I remember there was a wedding of a couple of people in the company. They wanted a black wedding cake and they wanted it to explode. My father made it for them.”

The whole family loved to sing, young Amelia learned about classical theatre and clowning from her Scottish American father. And she trained in contemporary dance from a young age.

“I produced my own choreography at aged nine. But I would use dance as a way to practise my comedy. I knew I wasn’t going to be a professional dancer. I would make them all laugh. Dancers are a great audience for comedy – they are very open and ready to laugh.”

She studied playwriting and theatre at university but her heart was always in live performance. “Maybe it is because America is so connected with movies and recorded music. Sometimes it feels like live performance in America is the thing you do before you get to make a movie or put out an album. I was kind of biased against it for years, even though I have put out an album myself.”

The production is a stripped back affair. Rizo shares the stage with one musician: cellist and guitarist Yair Evnine. He also works with electronics, creating a tracking loop as the show progresses. She has also gone for a more low maintenance look, ditching the elaborate up do which required an assistant and embracing the sculpted curls.

Face to face, Lady Rizo is tactile, stroking my arm as we talk. At one point, when she leans to whisper something, she puts her head on my shoulder and I think she’s about to curl up on my lap. She tells me she is happy again in her personal life and shows me a picture of a bright-faced young man. She’s not ready to talk about him in public or on stage but he is an important part of her life.

We discuss how it often takes a couple of years for performers to bring their personal experience to the stage. “I was thinking about Robin Williams today. He is a great example of a sacred clown. He creates that kind of joyous humour that can bring it down to something that is so healing – and the other side of that sort of clowning is tragedy. That is the only way we can see the full ball of wax. The clown is pulling open the depths of his experience.”

It is part of Lady Rizo’s charm that she is not afraid to play the clown on stage, although everything she does is underpinned by great technical skill. “Lady Rizo is very much like Amelia, except she lacks any humility – and through that she is able to be quite powerful and larger than life. I see it as my job to take the sophistication and technique that you find in New York and work very hard to combine it with the radical and very present love-based identity I was raised with.”

It has been a bumpy ride but in the tradition of the great divas Lady Rizo has transformed her suffering into art. Her performance ends with a declaration of love – to the audience, and to the art of cabaret.

“It has the potential to feel completely magical, intimate, together with the audience,” she says. “I call it the Church of Glitter.”

Lady Rizo, Assembly Checkpoint, 10.15pm, until 24 August, more info

Originally published in Scotland on Sunday

Review: Lady Rizo

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