PHOTOGRAPHY BY MAANSI JAIN
Max Steele Wants to Help You Seduce Yourself
We met Max Steele, the day after 4/20, at BAX in Park Slope where he’s performing his show ‘Encourager‘ this Friday April 26 and Saturday April 27 at 8pm, and this Sunday April 28 at 6pm. We played a round of “Kill, Marry, Fuck,” discussed his current favorite Spice Girl songs, and talked about how self-help might be the new porn (or how self-help and porn might not be that disparate at the end of the day).
Hi Max. Where are you from? California. The Bay Area.
And then you’ve been here since 2006? Yeah well I went to college and then I moved here after college.
When did you start performing? I started performing when I was about 15. So a long time ago when I was living in California in the Bay Area, in punk bands. And then I started doing more theatre-y, performance art stuff when I moved to New York in 2006.
What were the names of the punk bands that you were in? I was in a twee band called Scatterplot when I was 15 and then we joined my punk boyfriend’s band, The Diaries when I was 16 and then for a long time I was in a band by myself called The Icebergs which is now just Max Steele & the Party Ice.
So it continues on? It does continue on. And I’m also in a gay goth rap band called B0DY H1GH which I play a lot with.
Do you like being a ginger? I don’t know if I feel in my heart that I can truly claim to be a ginger but if anyone else thinks I’m a ginger and they like gingers, I love that. So I guess I love being a ginger. Ginger Spice is my favorite Spice Girl. By far. She’s a Leo. She has terrible political motivations. She really loved Margaret Thatcher, but other than that I loved Geri Halliwell.
Did you see Spice World? Of course. Many times…I recently found a VHS copy of it. And I feel like watching it on VHS is really the only way to go with “Spice World.”
Why is that? Something about the flattening I think.
What’s your favorite Spice Girls song? It always changes, but I feel like right now my favorite is either “If You Can’t Dance” or “Stop.”
Do you have ginger powers, Ginger Spice powers? Do I have Ginger Spice powers? Totally. I feel like gingers in Europe get a really bad rap and everybody hates them and likes to make fun of them. And so to be a ginger superstar you really have to own that negativity and objection and triumph over it. And I feel like I do that like Catherine Tate and Geri Halliwell.
Why is there so much negativity toward gingers in Europe? I don’t know. I mean Europeans like invented racism so you know…
Do gingers have sexual power? I don’t know if I’m really a ginger. I’m like a dark blonde. I mean I’d be happy to be a ginger like I love how gingers look. People say that gingers have a specific smell. That there’s like a smell that gingers have. And I don’t know what that smell is. I don’t know if I have it.
Wait but you have red pubic hair. No! The ginger thing is like other people have called me a ginger and I don’t think it’s an insult so I never correct anybody.
So you have dark blonde pubic hair? Yeah. The curtains match the drapes. I would say.
How do you describe your type of performance? Like how it’s evolved? I feel like you define performance in a few different ways. I mean I do performance across a couple, a number of different forms. This show that I’m working on, ‘Encourager’ is definitely performance art, but I would consider it more like a motivational workshop or a self-help seminar. It’s almost like speed dating but the person that you’re gonna be meeting, is you.
So do you consider yourself an artist? Absolutely yeah. I would just say artist rather than performer or writer. I feel like artist kind of covers it.
I feel like performance art has become a specific thing these days. It’s become a couple different specific things, to my mind. It’s like you’re either a performance artist from a theater background or you’re a performance artist from a visual art background or a dance background. And I kind of came to performance art from seeing punk bands on the West Coast. So people like Miranda July. Or Khaela Maricich. Or Tracy + the Plastics are how I understand performance art.
So how did you come up with the idea for this performance? I felt like I went to a lot of performances in New York and I did a lot of performances in New York and there was something missing that the audience seemed to want and that I wanted as an audience member from the performer, a certain kind of generosity or attention that I feel like was missing so I wanted to make a performance where I could give the audience what they need and fill in this little gap.
How do you get the audience to use “new emotional strategies”? I think a big thing is to get people, you know if you want to get someone, or a group of people to change our assumptions or change our habits, the first step is becoming aware of them. So getting people to realize assumptions that they’re making about themselves or question their premise like what job would you have if you didn’t have your job? What would you look like if you couldn’t choose your face, like what would your name be if you didn’t have a name? These are basic old, old questions. But…yeah getting the audience out of their comfort zone.
What types of self-help books did you use for reference? Well for reference I read a bunch of different books that weren’t just self-help. But a self-help book I was reading was ‘Patti’s Pearls,‘ a self-help book written by the legendary Ms. Patti LaBelle which is a bunch of little aphorisms or little phrases that she then kind of unpacks. I’m really into self-help and the kind of idea of being an expert like “take it from an expert” but anybody can be an expert. It just takes that kind of attitude I think.
And so the queer punk subculture influence is coming from what you were just talking about? Yeah I mean I’m really informed by a sense of DIY art making. I like this idea of being an expert in terms of self-help but with regard to making art I’m really skeptical of anybody being an expert. I firmly believe that anybody can do art and anybody can make performance and it’s just a matter of getting up and doing it. And no one is more or less able to do that so the queer punk subculture thing comes from a place of not trying to be different than everybody else, but trying to represent a community or a grassroots.
I was interested in this idea of “liberation through self-destruction” Can you talk about that a little? Yeah. I think a lot of us really get a sense of purpose and identity and feel a sense of pride and solidity from having these identities and I think for a lot of artists and young people we have this idea that if we can just articulate ourselves better or really show the world who we are that then we’ll be happy and that will insure our success but I think being attached to an identity can really hold you back too and the sooner you can kind of start to let go of the things that make you you I feel like the easier it will be for you to go on with your life.
So you see the “self-destruction” as a positive thing? Absolutely.
Cause I feel like it has negative connotations in our society. Yeah well the phrase “self-destruction” does have negative connotations. But I think I’m trying to find a way to look at it in a positive way.
So did you have a new emotional strategy workshop where you brainstormed some strategies? Well as part of being a artist in residence at BAX we do workshops of the performances so we perform early versions or ideas. And I had tried some different material that was more autobiographical about me and I didn’t think that worked as well so in terms of getting the audience to do new emotional strategies I’m realizing that talking about myself or presenting a character on stage isn’t as functional. I don’t want people to think about me. I want people to think about them during the show.
So how do you want the audience to feel by the end? I want people to feel like they are having an experience that is familiar but that they weren’t expecting to have it. I’m not giving any new information. I’m just reminding people of some things that hopefully they already know.
Do you want them to feel liberated by the end in some way? I mean there’s no right or wrong way to feel at the end. I want people to feel like they learned something. And like they’re closer to the thing that they need. And that I know they need and hopefully they’ll know they need it too.
How did you come up with your Twitter name, Billy Cheer? Who is he? When I moved to New York after college, I started writing a sex poetry zine called ‘Scorcher‘ and I didn’t know anyone in New York and so I started leaving the zine in public places, in bars, in galleries and I signed it Billy Cheer cause I didn’t want to have it be under my own name. Just cause if it didn’t go well then I didn’t want to be in trouble so I wrote it as Billy Cheer. I liked how it worked and people liked the zine and so it kind of gave me a way to perform or write that didn’t feel like it was about me, the person, Max Steele.
What kind of audience do you think this play will attract? It’s gonna attract a bunch of really adventurous, curious and open-minded young people and older people. It’s gonna be fantastic cruising. No one will go home alone.
How do you feel about OkCupid? OkCupid’s not my first choice for trying to meet people online. I feel like OkCupid sends me a lot of recommendations of people who are like 30% nicer than me…
Yeah and like more stable. More stable, and would never date a smoker, and love dogs, and hate cats. And so it’s just like being reminded of all the creeps that are out there.
How is ‘Encourager’ different than your past shows? I had like a PowerPoint presentation and video stuff and it was great but I wanted nothing distracting. I want all eyes on me. I want everyone to pay attention and hopefully it’ll work but we’ll see. There will also be a treat at the end of the show. So people should come and you will get a treat at the end of the show.
What do you use the mirrors for? I use them to interact with the audience and play a game of “Would You Rather Be.” It’s sort of like Kill, Fuck, Marry or Eat, Pray, Love.
Have you read that book? I haven’t but I was thinking about it last night actually.
It’s one of my favorite books of all time. I read it when I was in tenth grade.
Really? Have you seen the movie? Do you think it does a good job?
Yeah I like the book better. Okay I was gonna give you a Kill, Bang, Marry to do. That’s a fun game. Who should I give you? What would be a good list of people? Should I put some good gays on it? Sure.
Can you think of anyone? Spiders and you know sawdust or something, but I always like to play out of the least bad choices.
Dryer sheets and what? Spiders and sawdust. Go for it.
Kill, Fuck, Marry: dryer sheets, spiders and saw dust? Kill spiders. Marry sawdust and fuck dryer sheets. For sure.
Cause they smell good? Cause they smell good. Cause I hate spiders. And sawdust…you could be very happy with sawdust. You could make a pillow out of it.
Tell me about your fascination with Susanne Powter, explain her for those who don’t know her? She’s like a fitness self-help guru. She’s still around but she’s like a self-help guru who’s a very bossy, authoritative expert woman on diets and calories and stuff.
And she wears a suit? She doesn’t wear a suit but she has a very severe look. If you saw her, you would recognize her. She has a buzzed, bleached hair. She wrote this book called “Stop the Insanity” about diets. I think it’s about diets. She’s very loud. She’s like really in your face and loud and you kind of think she’s a dyke but apparently she’s married…She has a radio show now. She’s on Twitter. She’s totally crazy. She actually has a video show on YouTube full of videos of her recording her podcast which begs the question: why videotape a podcast? Why not just have it be a video blog? You see her talking, wearing headphones, talking into a microphone and it’s kinda like why upload that. And like railing against patriarchy and saying how great kale is.
Kale? She loves kale.
Do you know who Liz Curtis Higgs is? She’s like one of these self-help people who is really positive? No I don’t know her. Yeah I’m interested in self-help but…I haven’t read a ton of it. I just more like it as a genre. I have this thing where I feel like I’ve been writing porn essentially in/and fiction for a long time, not a long time, for a little while and I feel like self-help is kind of the new porn.
What kind of porn do you write? I write experimental fiction porn. They’re sort of like crime stories almost. It’s a zine called “Scorcher” and I do readings from it a lot. And I usually put out an issue a year but it’s been a couple years since I did one so I think I’m gonna try to do one this summer after I do this show.
Does it come with illustrations? No, no. It’s just writing. I mean there’s art but it’s not graphic stuff. I had a story in this book that Gio Black Peter and Chris Stoddard made, ‘Satanica‘ and that really was porn. And apparently they couldn’t get it printed. In this day and age, they couldn’t find a publisher. Eventually they did but someone cancelled because it was too obscene I guess which is crazy in twenty-thirteen.
So you just have a filthy mind? You know I’m fully clothed in the show. And I’m not touching anybody. But it is as though I am making a pass at every single person one-by-one in the audience. I mean that’s the goal—to make a performance where everyone feels like they’re being hit on.
So you’re being flirty? I think flirty’s a small way of thinking…
You’re being blatant. Not even blatant. It’s not about me. The goal is to make a performance where people feel like they are being seduced. Not necessarily by me but just being seduced.
The general air in the room. Yeah by themselves. I mean people are seducing themselves. If I do it right, people will seduce themselves.
Thanks for chatting with me Max. Thank you.
For tickets to Max’s latest show ‘Encourager’ here.