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Features Published 15 July 2013

Creating a Role Model

Bryony Kimmings is an award-winning performance artist whose past shows have included Sex Idiot and 7 Day Drunk. Her new piece, Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, was created with help from her nine year old niece, Taylor, and will be performed as part of the Almeida Festival.
Rachel Porter

In an act of protest against the increasing sexualisation and commodification of childhood for profit, Bryony Kimmings and her 9 year-old niece Taylor have decided to take on the global tween machine at its own game. Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model is a social experiment, theatre show, education project and documentary that seeks to create a non-conventional role model for young people and make her famous by manipulating and utilising the current celebrity-producing methods available. Flipping both the music industry and global tween markets on their head and tackling the ethics of the media, David and Goliath style.

For those familiar with Kimmings’ work you’ll know her performances for their witty, uncensored, and at times x-rated content, an onstage persona with just the right balance of lunacy and egotism, all strung together with a keytar, some poetry and an extravagant headdress creating a general feeling of organised chaos. She’s also no stranger to unorthodox artistic processes having created her last show, 7 Day Drunk, whilst under the influence of excessive amounts of vodka cranberry. However, CLSRM takes this one step further and arguably with a far more political edge.

Following a conversation with her niece, Kimmings became increasingly frustrated by the profanity and commodification that kids are subjected to as a highly competitive and valuable consumer base today. From increasing gender divides in the toy market, the 100,000 violent acts a year that children now witness through their average of seven hours of media consumption a day, the growing numbers of narcissistic personality disorders and the overt objectification of female celebrities, the current mainstream culture provides young children with a very specific and an extremely limited representation of gender roles, race, self image and sexuality.

In 2012 Bryony asked Taylor to invent a new type of role model as an alternative to what is currently available to her via mainstream media, to Katy Perry, Kim Kardashian and Barbie. She wanted to encourage her niece to imagine a role model that represented an alternative vision, one that didn’t try and sell you a million things and that challenged the ever-narrowing view of the female form that the current media conforms to. Taylor came up trumps, inventing a dinosaur-loving, imagination-bending, bike-riding, dog-loving, museum-working, tuna-pasta-eating character called Catherine Bennett. Bryony promised she would tell the world about Catherine Bennett, as a gift to Taylor.

The duo agreed that popular music was the best language to speak to young people, so they decided to infiltrate the pop-sphere, making Catherine (CB) into a pop star for nine year olds. Working with Girls Aloud make-up artists, ID Magazine stylists, X Factor wig experts, prolific pop producers and a pack of mainstream publicists, Bryony has, under the watchful eye of Taylor, transformed herself into CB, doing everything her niece instructed to try and make her famous. Think performance art meets social activism meets cBeebies.

Behind the scenes at the Museum: Bryony Kimmings as Catherine Bennett

Behind the scenes at the Museum: Bryony Kimmings as Catherine Bennett

This social experiment works on a number of levels. In terms of Kimmings’ own artistic practice, it asks the artist to relinquish control of her own work and places the power firstly into the hands of a child and, after that, into the hands of an avatar created by a child. There is something wonderfully risky, as well as trusting on the part of Kimmings, about the whole process. Secondly it works as a challenge to mainstream media by presenting children with another option, and not only this, an option created by their peers, usurping the board room table completely. There is something brilliantly marketable about a role model for kids made by kids. Which leads on to the next point of the experiment, namely that it doesn’t pretend to be outside of the mass media machine. Kimmings is using capitalist tools to create Catherine and turn her into a sellable product, but one that works on a charity model. By making this process manifest, by exposing the ways in which pop stars are manufactured and made famous, she is highlighting to younger audiences how this capitalist system works.

Will Catherine Bennett knock Rihanna or Jessie J off the top spot? Probably not, and besides Kimmings and Taylor both love Jessie, but she might make the next generation consider the methods in which such celebrities are constructed, promoted, and even distorted and record companies and labels might even make their role models more diverse and exciting once they see that the audience for this diversity exists.

For what it’s worth, having met her in person, Catherine is great. She’s fun but not a show off, a geek but not a know-it-all, impeccably styled but in down-to-earth sort of way. She actually looks like a cartoon, which isn’t surprising when you think she was based on the crayon drawing of a nine-year-old. It’s as if she’s stepped her sensible trainer-clad foot straight off the page and into real life. She is often at her place of work (as a paleontologist) in Manchester Museum, dusting off bones and interviewing her interesting friends and colleagues. She has been created to “sing songs like Lily Allen, written by the B52’s and produced by the Gorillaz” – Taylor’s brief after being played music for two days by Kimmings!

There are a number of goals the project hopes to meet, such as a million Youtube hits (check out the debut single here),  TV interview (Taylor wants The Ellen Show) and three celebrity friends (I’m voting for Holly Willoughby). Alongside this Kimmings is working with education partners across  the UK including Manchester Museum, Battersea Arts Centre, The Southbank Centre, Contact Young People’s Theatre (Manchester) and The Cambridge Junction and with many UK schools. Through assemblies and performances as Catherine (as well as delivering talks as herself) the artist is keen to engage as many young people as possible in her niece’s vision. Any profits made from CB will go to charity and she will live as long as the funds manage to last.

Bryony wants to prove to Taylor and other young people that an alternative role model in mainstream popular media is possible. To present a complex, smart, realistic, open, fun and fallible human being as a role model for kids. To prove to young people that the under-dog and the little guy can ultimately win over the conglomerate… It’s a big stunt to pull off, but if anyone can do it CB can. I for one will be buying the single.

This summer Bryony heads to the Fringe with Taylor (and with CB who also has lots of schools group and museum gigs going on!) to present their new collaborative show. This work steps away from the illustrated presentation seen in her previous works and towards a more heavily scripted, narrative driven piece of theatre. Gone is the  keytar and the sexual innuendo has been replaced by a darker and more sinister Kimmings. Expect a show strictly for adults with a child at its heart, an exploration of the world that Taylor, CB and Bryony are fighting against with knights, princesses, kung fu and heavy weaponry.

Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model will be at the Almedia Festival from 19th – 20th July 2013. 

Follow Catherine Bennett’s progress on her website and on Twitter on @realCB #soCB

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