Onstage Nudity, 99 Problems And Donald Trump: The Ugly Girls Club Reveal All

Natasia Patel caught up with Hillary Rock-Archer from the Ugly Girls Club the day before the collective’s first stage production, Love Letters to Rappers, opened at the Brighton Fringe. Taking time out of the final day of rehearsals to have a chat over the phone, Hillary reveals her thoughts about activism, bad haircuts, and onstage nudity.

Reclaiming ugly is the route to self-acceptance. If you wanna call me ugly, well that’s fine, it’s not the worst thing a woman can be! Let’s stop paying so much attention to it.

So can you tell me a little bit about Ugly Girls Club? Why did you start the collective?

In 2015 I was involved quite heavily in different groups of activists – involved in Palestine and campaigning for equal pay and things like that, just kind of coming into my activism phase as it happens in every young women’s life - at one point I got a really bad haircut. After I got the haircut I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was shedding tears about it and it was taking up a big part of my life until I realised that if I was going to keep making a difference and getting on with my life I would have to get over it and be ok with being ugly, and embrace it and manage that feeling. I started talking to a lot of women about feeling ugly, and I got a lot of solidarity around the word, which is surprising because for so long the conversation has been about being beautiful and how beautiful we feel. I think we should be having more conversations about feeling ugly because there’s so much commonality in women’s experiences about feeling ugly and we should be embracing that, so we can eventually put it behind us and focus back on our real contribution to the world instead. To rewire what we see beauty as, we have to start being OK with being ugly, accepting ourselves with all our spots and ugly hair and stuff. Then we can move forwards, and focus on what we’re really contributing instead. And that’s where the Ugly Girls Club came from – it was a very personal experience of being ugly and the conversations that came from that.

Reclaiming ugly is the route to self-acceptance. If you wanna call me ugly, well that’s fine, it’s not the worst thing a woman can be! Let’s stop paying so much attention to it.

So how does that work in practice then? What sort of stuff are the collective doing on the ground to try and reclaim 'ugly'?

As a collective we put on a lot of events, such as pop up classes, workshops and gigs. It’s really broad but in all our work we do we have this underlying conversation going on, with young women and old women, online and offline, questioning ‘ugly’ and thinking about how we value ourselves. At the end of the day it’s about having these conversations.

Is Love Letters to Rappers the first stage event you’ve put on?

Yes, it is. I actually work for Brighton Fringe in the marketing department, and it’s only been in the last couple of years since joining the team that we’ve started translating what we do in the Ugly Girls Club into visual art. It was very new experience for us, and we’ve met the most amazing performers, singers and writers through our online community of ugly girls and managed to translate it into this offline theatre production.

Has Brighton Fringe helped with this natural progression from online to offline?

We had written these poetic love letters to rappers about two years ago, and once we had a rough idea of what we were doing we put a callout online to our groups and said join the club if you’re a performer or if you want to be involved, help us turn this thing into something real and good.

So what’s Love Letters to Rappers actually about?

It’s a series of raps sung in a re-imagined way by a very spooky pink choir who sing the original lyrics in a very spooky, haunting way. Then our love letter performers come on after and perform the rewritten lyrics in spoken word format. For example, there’s Jay-Z’s 99 Problems where the choir does their version, then the love letters perform a piece about how there’s 99 problems in women’s life and equal pay is just one. We re-imagine the rap from a women’s perspective and turn the misogyny that might be in the original version on its head to illustrate women’s problems.

This content is super relevant at the moment considering Spotify have just put forward their hateful conduct policy and have started pulling songs with misogynistic lyrics. This show is coming at an amazing time in the middle of all this awareness being raised about sexism in the music industry.

That’s actually super poignant because the writing for it was developed about two years ago. It’s a great coincidence that it’s ended up being performed in the same month that Spotify and YouTube have started pulling misogynistic content.

That’s actually amazing, I feel optimistic. Who are you hoping to reach with Love Letters to Rappers? Are you hoping the audience will take anything away with them?

We really don’t want to be preachy, and the underlying tone of the Ugly Girls Club is about accessible and playful feminism. It’s not a lecture and it’s not a slapstick comedy either, but hopefully it’s somewhere in between. We'd like the audience to be able to take away an ‘AHA!’ moment, along with a whole lot of laughs, but there are some lessons to take away as well.

So is the onstage nudity quite light-hearted? What’s it like having nudity on stage?

Um it’s surprising because the cast is a mixture of men and women and one of the female characters is completely nude the whole time. From a performance perspective and a directing perspective, it’s actually quite non-eventful – it’s not really a big deal, it’s non-sexual, it’s just a body – and that’s the whole point: that a body is just a body – it’s not there to be gawked at or sexualised. It’s still quite an interesting experience having a nude character. The actress has pushed for it and we just let her get on with it!

I guess the audience is gonna take away exactly that then, that a body is just a body and nudity can be non-sexual. I wonder if anyone’s dad will be in the audience.

It’s quite a late show, on at 10:30, so could be anyone really.

I’ve seen a lot of your insta followers are generally a younger demographic, hopefully they’ll bring dads and brothers along to get them involved too.

That would be perfect!

What would you have to say to Donald Trump if he walked into your performance?

That’s such a hard question! I think there would be a lot for him to learn in it, hopefully he’d be able to take some key tips away about consent and power and the patriarchy, but we’d probably just saw ‘Welcome to the club, ugly man!’

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Love Letters to Rappers

Love Letters to Rappers

Politically and sexually active young women doing whatever the f*ck they want in 2018. A crash course in rap music, the world-ending effects of meat production and society's perpetual gaslighting of women and the truth...