Kaleb Robertson has never had breast implants, though he wouldn’t be offended if you thought he had. The queer performance artist had a double mastectomy five years ago as part of his transition from female to male. But in 2008, when he was performing topless in the Scandelles’ burlesque extravaganza Who’s Your Dada?, one audience member mistook his chest scars to be the result of a botched boob job.
“This guy was talking to one of the girls from the show and said he didn’t understand the point of my performance,” Robertson says over coffee at the Gladstone Hotel, where he works part-time.
“He thought I had gotten breast implants and then had them removed so I could show off the scars. I thought it was hilarious.”
Audiences can see all sides of Robertson in The Me Show, the new cabaret piece he’s presenting at the Rhubarb Festival. Though the title alludes to a typical girl-becomes-boy narrative, Robertson stresses the piece is anything but.
“This show is really about me as a performer through different phases in my life,” he says. “I’m using the format of cabaret because that’s what I know. I didn’t go to theatre school and most of the work I’ve done has been in bars. I’m taking a ‘bar show’ and putting it in a theatre.”
The Me Show is a loosely woven montage highlighting different moments in Robertson’s performance history, starting at the age of two, when he tells his mom he should have a boy’s name. The piece includes a duet between Robertson on video as male and live as his drag queen alter ego, Miss Fluffy Soufflé.
The dainty Miss Soufflé has been a fixture on Toronto’s queer performance scene for the last two years, popping up at numerous fundraisers and parties, as well as performing with JD Samson’s band MEN when they played The Opera House in 2009. Born at Drag Idol that same year, Fluffy is a full-figured, garishly dressed good-time gal. Rocking out to Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” in dollar-store makeup and a cheap wig of dubious origin, she both shocked and wowed audiences with her unique brand of gender-bending performance.
“That first night I was there, people didn’t know what to do with me,” Robertson laughs. “A few people asked me if I was a boy or a girl because they honestly couldn’t tell. My makeup was a mess and I was wearing a crazy outfit, but eventually I won them over.”
Since then, Robertson has refined Fluffy’s look but has kept its essential character.
“I usually get David Hawe to do my makeup these days, so I look a lot better,” he says. “If you see me looking extra trashy, then you know I did my face myself. I’m just as likely to show up in Dollarama Crocs as disco ball heels. Actually, probably more likely the Crocs.”
“I often do performances that involve food,” he adds. “I’ll pull cheeseburgers out of my bra or eat donuts on stage. The queer community can be extremely judgmental about body size, and so I like to challenge that. It’s not like I can hide the fact that I’m fat. I’d rather draw attention to it by performing in a bathing suit.”
Arriving in Toronto seven years ago from Victoria, Robertson started to eke out a career for himself as a performer. Although he had done some drag-king nights out west, he was more interested in making dance pieces. This led to the birth of Daddy K and the Rhythm Method, a constantly fluctuating troupe of dancers who perform choreographed works to well-known pop songs. One piece is an homage to local performance-art goddess Jess Dobkin, complete with nipple mirrors and a bra full of single-serve creamers.
“Dancing is such an amazing thing for me because I’m that kid who never got to take dance classes,” he says. “I played lots of sports, but I wasn’t a traditional dance kid, partly because of my body type.”
“I like it when people see me perform and are surprised by how I can move,” he adds. “Putting my body onstage is a political act for sure, but I mostly just want to entertain people. If seeing me perform makes people less judgmental about different body types, then I think that’s a great thing.”