ZELIA ROSE: Beautiful and fearless
Zelia Rose is in the world’s top 50 burlesque performers, the titleholder of Miss Burlesque Australia in 2014 and has been selected as the first Australian performer, by the world famous Dita Von Teese, to join her US and world touring show.
So when Rose told us that she was surrounded by strong independent woman her whole life, it was no wonder when that she stumbled into the world of burlesque she found her calling.
Igniting the stage with power and prowess, Rose discovered the true joy of loving her identity whilst also navigating herself through the world. Creating a power shift from feeling like the odd one out to compelling audiences around the globe.
THE PIN. Can you give us a little insight into where you grew up and what growing up was like?
ZELIA ROSE. I grew up in Melbourne as an only child. My dad is Congolese and my mum Irish/Spanish. My mum raised me and blessed me with the most supportive and nurturing environment I could ask for, she really did everything she could for me. She loves the arts and supported all the things that I was passionate about, as well as teaching me to persist and encouraged me to follow my dreams.
The other aspect of growing up was being the only person of colour in my family. I was always the “different one” in a mostly white school, home environment and influence. Growing up, I had difficulty fitting in and feeling accepted, and hated being different. I had my hair touched constantly and was pretty frustrating! It felt more like a burden than anything else but, I’ve managed to do a full 360 and now my identity is something that I'm very proud of.
Was the culture in your household different to the outside society?
ZR. Yes, it was very different. Dealing with the outside world come with experience and wisdom and such. It takes time to find out how to navigate your way through the world. I was always taught to make a good impact and I'm always conscious of that in my relationships, my creative expressions and my voice in the world.
Can you tell us who were the people you looked up to growing up?
ZR. I looked up to my mother who is the strongest and most courageous person I know, and my grandma who is the kindest and most generous. Luckily, I’m surrounded by incredible women who constantly inspire me and encourage me to do great things in the world, and I've always been surrounded by strong female influences. I grew up listening to Grace Jones, Angelique Kidjo, Janet Jackson and Gwen Stefani as well as my mums collection of 60s, 70s, 80s and world music. Music continues to be one of my biggest influences and companions because it always inspires me and gets me through anything and everything. Music is one of the places I start when creating.
What are some of the assumptions that people made about you and/or your family?
ZR. People would often make comments about the fact that look nothing like my mother, and wonder how could I be her daughter? I’ve had people ask if I'm adopted mostly, strangers wanting to start up a conversation about it. As a black child in a white family, I would always be highlighted as the “other” within in my family as well as experiencing that in my day to day life here in Australia.
Was there a definitive time that you remember becoming aware of race or was it a gradual thing?
ZR. My mum told me that when I was younger there were times when I’d come home from school and ask her “Why am I different?” or “Why is my skin this colour?” But, I don't remember saying these things. Though, I distinctly remember not liking who I was and just wanting to be “normal”. I don't remember an exact moment of being aware of race I guess it was a gradual thing…influenced by kids at school, the media. These were the things that lead me to believe that who I was wasn't acceptable, that I wasn't considered to be desirable.
Spending lots of time in the U.S. and reading novels by Bell Hooks has furthered my understanding of the history of blackness in the world. It helped me navigate my way through being an adult by understanding the impact of Black history around the world and how that still influence the views on us today. Now, as an adult, I am more invested in celebrating the beauty of being Black and creating awareness around what it means to be Black.
What does performing allow you to express that the everyday can not?
ZR. You can say and do things you might be scared to do in daily life. Who am I in my daily life is a lot different to who I am and what I can be onstage which often surprises people. I am much more fearless and outgoing on stage. I find the exchange with the audience very powerful, when an audience gives back that energy I feel it and use it. They can feel the energy too.
How do you feel when you are on the stage?
ZR. There’s something ethereal about being onstage. You almost feel invincible when you're up there and there’s nothing that can touch you or affect you. You forget all the daily stuff that weighs you down and indulge in something completely decadent, obscure or unique or whatever it may be. I love it having that feeling, I find it fulfilling.
What drew you to burlesque?
ZR. It was actually by chance that I started. My introduction came when I auditioned for a role in History of Burlesque by House of Burlesque. It was fascinating and intriguing to me and allowed me to highlight my skills and interests. I liked the history of it, it started as a platform for voice and expression within female identity that addressed ideas around politics, humour, sexuality and more. I never expected this amount of success in the industry but where I'm going is a reminder that I’m heading in the right direction.
Can you tell us if and/or how burlesque has helped you form your sense identity?
ZR. Burlesque has helped me get over many distortions that I had over my body. As an art form that embodies all shapes and sizes, it’s been an empowering experience building my craft in burlesque. Using all of my past training and skill in the arts, burlesque has given me a platform to create something of my own that I am fully in control of.
Do you get asked "Where are you from?"
ZR. YES! Haha…
It’s up there with the most asked questions I get asked mostly by strangers. I guess it's a conversation starter, most likely being asked out of curiosity. I have that look that people can’t place but I think that is something that’s becoming more common and celebrated today, compared to when I was a kid. We’re mixing and diversifying more and more, and I hope that one day that will be an irrelevant question.
What does that question mean to you and how do you respond?
ZR. It often gets monotonous answering the same question all the time and essentially what it's doing is highlighting my difference. I visit the U.S. a lot for work and there I never get asked…I feel pretty normal there. It's little things like being able to buy darker skin tones at drug stores and finding black hair products wherever you go. When someone's asked these days I often just say ‘I'm Australian’ when they dig deeper I tell them my heritage if I want to but, I don’t feel obligated to tell people.
What does it mean to be a person of colour today?
ZR. As an artist I feel I have a responsibility, and there are ways in which people of colour navigate the world a little differently. As artist, I have a social responsibility to create awareness about inequality where I can and highlight how brilliant we are as people of colour.
THE PIN. If you could give you younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you're in, what would it be?
ZELIA ROSE. I was the most shy kid in the world, and hid behind mums leg. I wasn't confident and didn't like being black. Now I love it and would tell my younger she's going to love who she is.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Photo credit: Joel Devereux