Cats famously hate water. But Meow Meow, a cabaret artist who’s so committed to her feline persona that she’s vetoed all mention of her real name or country of origin, has plunged into the watery theme of her new show with unlikely enthusiasm. The space is decked with goggle-eyed balloon fish seaweed and enough mirror balls to bamboozle any chasing sharks. This kitsch extravaganza is all inspired by The Little Mermaid – not Disney’s wide-eyed romance but the Hans Christian Andersen version, a story that’s guaranteed to give small kids nightmares.
Meow Meow agrees: “It’s totally disturbing, and that’s probably part of why I’m attracted to the story, because part of me wants to take her, to rescue her from the choices she has.” She might just be the feminist hero that daydreaming, long-suffering Ariel needs. Her work has attracted a legion of high-profile fans and collaborators—from theatre director Emma Rice to the London Philharmonic to Barry Humphries—with its resolutely, seductively adult approach, mixing unapologetic sexuality with a fearless self-confidence in her ability to whip up a sea of audience members into a storm.
Her version of The Little Mermaid is a cabaret show that draws on a typically eclectic range of influences including the work of novelist and feminist mythographer Marina Warner. “I’m a huge fan," says Meow Meow. "She writes so fantastically about the fairytale from a feminist perspective in From the Beast to the Blonde.”
It's far from a straightforward retelling, exploring how we create romanticised myths in the era of Instagram and reality TV. “Some of the reviews are insisting it’s a huge diversion from the story. Actually, it looks different but it’s very close. You’ve just got to think in an open way about the imagery.”
Meow Meow’s take on Ariel is a single woman so desperate to be loved that she’ll perve on technicians; drag reluctant male audience members on stage; and even agree to go to a karaoke bar – the ultimate humiliation for a full-throated diva who barely needs a mic. “It’s about desire and what lengths we will go to to pursue an idea of love, and about self-mutilation," she explains. "That’s something I wanted to plunge into and plunge out of whole.”
Ultimately, it’s also a firm stand against the myth of the desperate woman who will sacrifice anyone to find ‘the one’ who completes her. Unlike Hans Christian Andersen’s heroine, Meow Meow never cuts out her tongue: which is lucky, because her songs are the beating heart of the show. Here, she’s drawn on an army of female collaborators, with new compositions by songwriters including Amanda Palmer, Kate Miller-Heidke, and Megan Washington. Their invisible presence becomes a kind of reflection of the show’s non-monogamous, decidedly un-Christian moral.
“When I’m on stage I feel like I’m surrounded by all these women. It’s an alternative version of love which is where you’ve got people around you to feed your soul, not necessarily putting everything on one person.”
Her non-monogamous mermaid is Meow Meow's third appearance at the Edinburgh Festival, following last year’s similarly subversive Weimar Cabaret with another friend, Barry Humphries. That was a chance to resurrect a banned, deviant musical culture and bring it to new audiences: “They feel like prayers for humanity. These songs are horribly important; what a privilege to make a space for them.”
I can hear Meow Meow glowing down the phone as she talks about cabaret’s unique qualities, its “multiplicity of interpretations and angles. Each song is its own world, which is very exciting because when you put them together you’ve got this sort of jam-packed thing, it’s just layers and layers of meaning and emotion and love that you can pack in.” It’s a space that can zoom from 1920s cabaret bar to 2000s concept album, as she covers “fucking genius poet” Thom Yorke. “You want to be speeding through the ages and ideas and sensibilities," she explains. "You want to wake people up as well as calm them.”
Meow Meow might have a deliberately kittenish persona, but as I talk to her it’s clear that she takes the power of what she does very, very seriously. But corset-wearing cabaret artists are easily dismissed: I’ve read reviews of her work that drip with the invisible saliva of a drooling male critic. She admits that she’s “disillusioned on a general level” with overly superficial readings of her work. “One of my most fascinating experiences, quite early on in my career, was coming off stage and having one guy saying, ‘Ooh, she’s a real dominatrix isn’t she’, and then another person who said, ‘You’re like a big mummy, making us all jam'.”
As well as being a Madonna-whore complex made flesh, these reactions made her realise early on that “you can’t control what people will hear”. And maybe they explain the tight hold Meow Meow keeps over her own biography. At a time where social media makes anonymity not just difficult, but suspect, she’s uncharacteristically reluctant to talk about the persona she’s created for herself. “It’s not a persona, it’s just me!”
I press her further. “It’s about living in a heightened way, I think. That’s the most truthful I can be.” She distances herself from her more conventional birth name, claiming that it belongs to “my stalker." She doesn't like to mention her, she says: "There’s always litigation pending when that happens.”
Maybe this steely self-control is part of what gives Meow Meow her lustre. But it doesn't mean she's remote. She's famous, in fact, for her wobbly stage dives into an unready audience. In The Little Mermaid, for example, she yells, “Don’t look at my bottom!” as she flashes it to the entire crowd in her mock-struggle to get into a stretchy mermaid’s tail.
What makes Meow Meow’s work so satisfying is the sense that, vampire-like, she feeds off an audience. “I always want to touch them in both a physical and metaphysical way. When I’m feeling difficulty doing things in my everyday life I pretend there’s an audience there. That’s the thing that makes me get out of bed and make an effort!”
This month, Edinburgh is one big, very damp stage, ready for her to make a splash.