Rachel Rouge is a force of nature, a female with fire in her belly and burlesque in her soul. With her take on a variety show on at The Opera House on this Saturday 28 July, named The Menagerie, she’s blowing the lid on what we expect on stage and producing up a storm.
Rachel knows everyone in Wellington and has a fascinating past working in burlesque. So we met up over tea one lunchtime at The Fringe Bar to talk all things performance. With a generous smile and clear, relaxing voice, spending time with Rachel is like meeting an old friend, even if for the first time.
Rachel was born in Palmerston North at a hospital in 1976 on what she assumes to have been an overcast drizzly day. The family moved to Wellington when Rachel was a girl, and Korokoro (Lower Hutt) became her new home. “It’s very small and it’s a lovely tight community. My school only had 100 pupils. Everything was close, and I had a classic, safe 80’s childhood” she recalls.
Rachel remembers the 1980’s as a time of second-wave feminism where there was less gender division in toys for children. “There was no ‘girl LEGO’. There was just LEGO” she explains. “There was a dolls section at the toy shop, and a dump truck, and a LEGO section – but I never remember things being divided into blue for boys and pink for girls.”
Rachel admits to having always been bossy, outspoken and stubborn. When her mother had dropped her off at Uni to study, the owner of the hostel asked Rachel’s mother whether there was anything to look out for in regards to her girl. “Oh no,” said Rachel’s mum. “She’ll be telling you how to do your job.”
Rachel completed a certificate in visual arts before switching to Design and majored in print design and typography at Design School. However, things were not straight-forward. “When I graduated, I found everyone had moved online and trying to find a field was really tough. After a while, I realized I just needed a job – any job – so I moved to Switzerland as a nanny.” Through this challenge, Rachel learnt to be flexible with her ambitions. “I had spent a year and a half looking for a job as a designer and really clung to the idea that that was what I should do. When I let go of the idea I needed life dreams and could have short-term goals instead, then everything changed for me.”
The job working as a Nanny was something like The Sound of Music meets ‘The Nanny’. “The family had a house in Ibiza and would fly me on a private jet. It also taught me that people are people, no matter how much money they have” she explains. “If you stub your toe, you swear just the same. You also have far more responsibility.”
Rachel decided to move to Edinburgh. She arrived and found that her cash savings missing on arrival. She was able to clean the hostel in exchange for lodging. “I got a job as a receptionist first, and then finally I got a job in a print shop for two years (finally using my degree), and a second job as a Ghost tour guide” Rachel laughs.
While living in Edinburgh, Rachel fell into the burlesque community. “This was before YouTube, in 2002” Rachel explains. “If I needed to learn something, I had to take classes or get a book from the library out.” It was something she knew she could do well, easily. “I can’t dance, act or sing well. But I have stage presence up the wazoo!” Rachel chortles. By 2006, Burlesque became more known, after Dita Von Teese became engaged to Marilyn Manson. “I managed to catch that wave and do well from it. I was able to quit my job and pay my rent with Burlesque. I could easily fly to different countries and perform.” Rachel admits she couldn’t do this in Wellington because there isn’t the population. A single night’s work could bring in one-hundred and fifty to four-hundred British Pounds.
Rachel eventually returned to Wellington where she set up a life drawing event at the now-closed Mighty-Mighty bar and fell into the Burlesque scene in Wellington. Over time, she started to produce shows herself.
“Communities construct themselves” explains Rachel. “Over time, I got to see the same performers and we became friends. Some venues come and go. Fringe Bar has been solid the whole time.” In 2013, Rachel started ‘The Menagerie’ which was the type of variety show she always wanted to see. “It only has one burlesque performance,” says Rachel. “Because I wanted to show different things off, and the audience has no idea what comes next!”
Now back for a second go at The Opera House, Rachel is proud of how far her career has come as an artist in the performance world. With 16 Acts and over 60 Performers, this will be the biggest year yet. “A Trump impersonator, drag and comedy are just some of the things you’ll find,” says Rachel.
Of course, can you imagine this happening anywhere else except Wellington? “Wellington is home and the place where you can be whoever you want,” says Rachel. “That’s what makes it special”