John Taylor: Interview with Tamale Sepp
by JOHN TAYLOR
On a Saturday evening at the Greenhouse Theater in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, Tamale Sepp lies onstage with an industrial-strength angle grinder in hand, the furiously spinning blade inches away from her face.
Audience members that moments before were celebrating Sepp’s provocative dancing to Goldfrapp’s “Ooh La La” now sink slowly into their seats with horror. “Don’t do it!” someone pleads. Sepp, who has an insurance plan, briefly addresses the crowd with a smirk before moving the high-powered grinder toward her belt, music continuing to play in the background. As the song climaxes, metal belt meets metal blade, and sparks shoot across the room in a dazzling display of light and sound. Sepp looks up, a wide grin on her face. The theater erupts with applause.
But for Sepp, a 34-year-old Arizona native whose official title card reads “Comedy. Fire. Bellydancing. Drag. Burlesque. Grinder. Interdisciplinary Art,” this is business as usual. Since arriving in Chicago over a decade and a half ago with naught but a garbage bag full of clothes and a laptop, Sepp has made a name for herself as an entertainer’s entertainer, a word-of-mouth queer queen who’s among Illinois’ best-kept secrets.
Last month, Sepp met me over drinks at Mercat a la Planxa, where she devised a cocktail dubbed “The Tamale”—equal parts vodka, St. Germaine, 7 Up, and two cherries that “look like they’ve been through some stuff and came out on the other side in a miraculous and courageous way”—and we talked about her early days in Chicago, Bill Cosby, and whether firedancing has a more universal appeal than stand-up (hint: yes).
TAMALE SEPP: Let’s take our tops off.
JOHN TAYLOR: I’ll take my glasses off.
SEPP: Holy Moses.
TAYLOR: [laughs] So, you were telling me about your first burlesque show, ever, in Chicago.
SEPP: I went to the Hideout. I had to take the—God!—the Red Line to the North Avenue bus, and then get off and wander around in this industrial park with these humongous platform shoes. This was a Friday night. The next weekend was The Sissy Butch Brothers Burlesque Show. I contacted them. I said, “I have to have more! I gotta attend. I… have no money.”
TAYLOR: And you had just moved out here, from Arizona—
SEPP: I was homeless. I had nothing. I said, “I have to go to the show, so here’s what I’m going to do. Here’s my phone number, I’ll trade you my admission for set up and tear down, I will be there an hour before the show starts, as soon as I get off of work, and if you don’t call me back, I’m going to assume that you don’t want my help. I’m just going to show up.” They did not contact me, so I showed up an hour before, at Subterranean, and that was that. I actually ended up stage managing that show.
TAYLOR: Did that ever hit you? “Wow, if I didn’t go out that one Friday night, I might not be here right now.”
SEPP: I’ve never thought about that.
SEPP: Water seeks its own level, right? Like, I’m a fancy gal who just loves to be silly on stage. I kind of feel like I would have found that one way or another. The way that I happened to find it was very beautiful and sweet.
TAYLOR: Why Chicago?
SEPP: I was 22 years old. I had just finished college. I had no money, and it didn’t matter. I had two friends; one of them was moving back—she had family here—and we agreed upon a price that I could contribute for gas. It took me about a year to pay them back, but I definitely paid them back.
TAYLOR: That’s amazing.
SEPP: I was very resourceful. I got to go to different cafés that were going to throw out their baked goods for the day, like, at ten o’clock, eleven o’clock at night. I would get a plastic bag and go to bars in my neighborhood and sell them for one dollar, two dollars. You know, drunk-ass people just want to eat carbs. They want to carb-load all night long. I mean, I’d make like twenty bucks, and then I’d have twenty bucks.
TAYLOR: Were all of your belongings in a backpack?
SEPP: I had a black trash bag, actually. I have a picture of it in my kitchen, just so I can see it and remember.
TAYLOR: Do you remember your first exposure to comedy?
SEPP: I remember watching Bill Cosby with my dad. He still loves Bill Cosby.
TAYLOR: How old were you?
SEPP: I don’t know. Just little. Very little. And I remember, when a stand-up comedy show would come on TV, we would watch it, and then they’d start cussing, and he’d change the channel. That was just the environment I grew up in. Or, if they would say anything remotely sexual, it was just like, immediate channel change. Done. However, Bill Cosby we’d watch all the way through. It was awesome. It was late at night, 10 p.m. “Past my bedtime.” Watching comedy with my dad.
TAYLOR: “I’m cool! I’m rebellious!”
SEPP: “I’m so rebellious!” I loved it. Just adored it.
TAYLOR: What’s your favorite thing about your job?
SEPP: The acknowledgement of connection. A lot of times, my own comedy is something specific to my life that you wouldn’t necessarily encounter normally—firedancing, burlesque, dating handsome butch women… if you’re not someone who does those things, I can tell a story about something that has happened, and there’s that connection. I don’t care how different you are.
TAYLOR: How does one make firedancing universal?
SEPP: That’s not as hard. I can’t think of a situation where you’re in a room full of people and they’re like, “Firedancing’s wrong!” “I don’t believe in firedancing.” “Firedancing’s evil.” No one’s gonna do that. They’re gonna be like, “Holy crap, that’s fire, and she’s dancing with it. That’s awesome.” They might be concerned: “It’s hot.” “It’s dangerous.” No one has a moral issue with fire, or sparks, right? Fine. But with comedy—
TAYLOR: That’s a whole other ballgame.
SEPP: As soon as they find out that you’re talking about someone of the same gender, they might not like that.
TAYLOR: What do you do with that?
SEPP: They lose out, because their stuff gets in the way. But, we’re all adults. People are complicated. And sometimes they might have a belief that’s different than yours.
TAYLOR: How do you break down those barriers?
SEPP: I don’t always succeed! [laughs]
TAYLOR: Do you want to, though? Is it a goal?
SEPP: Any time someone is just strong in who they are, and they do them, as it were, I think that’s a powerful and courageous stance to take. Anytime someone is strong in whatever they believe, then someone else can believe that too or not believe it. Either you have a connection or you don’t. But hopefully there’s enough humanness around that to kind of serve as a conduit for connection.
This interview was edited for clarity and space.