The first time I met Natalie Gamsu, I actually spoke with Hecuba Baboom. Hecuba, a boisterous, buxom, fortune-telling gypsy, is one of the many alter egos Gamsu has created for herself during her years as a performer. A Jewish South African native, Gamsu arrived in New York City eight years ago to amass her fame and fortune. She has been working as a singer, actress, and waitress ever since.
An award-winning cabaret artist who just completed a seven-week run at the illustrious Algonquin Room, Gamsu is one of the most adored singers around. I met her a few years ago when we performed together in a workshop of a new musical; Gamsu played Hecuba, I played chorus. For our TheaterMania interview, I was finally able to sit down and talk to the woman about her life, love, her career, and pushup bras.
How did you end up in New York? Did you always plan to come here?
No. I had always wanted to go to Europe, to Austria and Spain and Italy. I had never been to New York and I didn't know anyone here. I just had a vision that I needed to come. I had wanted to be an opera singer and it wasn't happening. I had the instrument but not the personality. I was devastated. One day, after a particularly bad audition, I started crying, and suddenly I had this absolute clarity. I had to come to New York. That was in October. I arrived here the next February.
Did you have a place to stay?
No! I met a friend of a friend who lived in New York and I told her I was coming and in a drunken stupor she said, "All right you can stay with me." She was furious that I held her to it. She let me stay a week. I started walking the streets, trying to find a place to work, trying to find a place to live, trying to find out how to get legal. At the same time, somebody told me about Grove Street and I started to sing at the piano bars there. I then used every bit of the money I had come over with to attend the Cabaret Symposium, and there I met an important circle of people. I realized early on that I could spend years and years trying to find an agent and going to thousands of Back Stage auditions, or I could do what I had done in South Africa, which was to create my own work. I knew that, in theater, there is the ingenue...
And then there is Mama Rose.
Exactly, and I wasn't either. The Cabaret Symposium opened up a community for me that I needed to meet. I take cabaret very seriously; I think it is an exquisite art form. I work very hard on my shows. I work with this wonderful writer named Gary Carter. We go back 20 years. He is now a major television executive in Holland; he's also a choreographer, writer, director, and actor. We have co-created and co-written many shows together. We do them through e-mail, and sometimes I fly there. He does everything.
Sounds a lot like you! Is it true that you still have to work a day job?
God, I am exhausted. I work three day jobs! I work for Columbia University, I do research work for a Dutch television company, and I work in a lingerie shop, and yet it's much less time than I used to work.
But you have had so much success in cabaret! You have won the MAC award a bunch of times.
Twice, actually. I have done a new show every year for the last eight years.
And you have an agent.
My agent proudly tells people "Oh, I can't even get her arrested!"
But your shows sell out and you have a very loyal fan base.
Yes, but it's very difficult to make a living solely doing cabaret. I came to this country because I wanted my career to be more than a hobby. I didn't really know what that meant. Now that I am here, I understand what big business is. It's hard to generate that kind of cash when you do cabaret. I do other work too. I recently played Fefu in Maria Irene Fornes' play Fefu and Her Friends in Santa Fe. And, this past summer, I did my friend Gary's play Anger is Not a Place I Like To Be in Birmingham, England.
So what's next?
My next project is to record; it's long overdue. I have found an angel who is putting up the money for me and I am now looking around for a producer. I would also like to do some more theater. And I want to study to become a music therapist.
On top of everything else? Tell me about Hecuba Baboom. Is she one of many alter egos?
Yes. She's a gypsy character, and I have been obsessed with gypsies all my life.
Who is she exactly, how did she happen, and how often does she make an appearance?
She makes an appearance every show. She grew out of Burning Habits, a play by Blair Fell. But she had begun before that. I had played a Greek character for a television drama in South Africa, and I had done the woman with one buttock from Candide. Hecuba has always been there.
So you get cast in these big, extreme, diva roles. Would you call yourself a diva?
I don't know what that means, really.
You've seen VH1 right?
Oh you mean in that way! I guess the word just doesn't have a great connotation for me. When I am on stage, I guess I am a diva. I am extremely good at what I do and I think that music for me is a force. I feel that something happens when people hear me, the force of my voice comes through me in a way that nothing else does. I can't sing anything that I can't speak. And sometimes that gets me into a lot of trouble.
Umm, no! If I really can't find the truth, any truth, then I can't do it. Of course, I'd do it for Broadway or a lot of money.
There's truth in money.
Absolutely! I would do it because it is a job and then I would have to find the truth in it for myself. It's nice to get paid. But I have always been true to the creative spirit that moves me and I haven't been willing to accept the consequences of that. My mother used to say to me, "You don't want to compromise and yet you want what goes with compromise."
It's nice to know that Jewish Mothers are the same all over the world.
Now, I have a few preference questions. Tattoos or piercings?
Do you have any?
No, but definitely tattoos. I used to have a nose pierce for 12 years, but one day I looked at my face and I thought: No more metal.
Taffeta or velvet?
Hard choice. Velvet's my thing, although I am wearing a shiny, black, Nicole Miller dress at the moment. I don't know what material it is made from.
Block heels or stilettos?
Block heels because, damn, I've got to be comfortable. Even though stilettos are prettier. My shoes are my base.
When you are sick, tea with lemon or straight vodka?
Definitely tea with lemon.
Yankees or Mets?
I was thinking about that today. I don't know which one is the home team.
You're kidding? They're both the home teams! Don't you know what a Subway Series is?
I am so confused by it all. And why is it called a World Series? It's not, really. Oh God, people are going to hate me for this. I like sports though. Swimming and gymnastics.
Corset or push-up bra?
Corset. I love them.
Rich and famous or poor and artistic?
That's what you have based your life on.
What else is there, really?
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