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Lily McMenamy Chopova Lowena
Lily McMenamy for Chopova LowenaPhotography by Charlotte Wales, Styling by Agata Belcen

50 Questions With Lily McMenamy

In the wake of her most recent show, A Hole Is a Hole, Lily McMenamy answers 50 quickfire questions, spanning performance, the person she admires the most, and WAP

Lead ImageLily McMenamy for Chopova LowenaPhotography by Charlotte Wales, Styling by Agata Belcen

Lily McMenamy is a triple threat: model, actress, and artist. From dancing with Ralph Fiennes as nouveau riche seductress Sylvie in Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash (2015) to starring in campaigns for everyone from Versace to Chopova Lowena, Lily is no stranger to the spotlight (her mum, 90s supermodel Kristen McMenamy, allegedly carried her down a Chanel runway when she was just an infant). Still, in recent years, the seasoned model has come to attention in yet another role (or two): that of solo theatre performer and creator. 

After studying mime at École internationale de théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris and obtaining a master’s degree in performance studies from Goldsmiths university in London, Lily developed a performance practice that incorporates mime, visceral language, and poetry, and explores the female body as a vessel upon which our aesthetic and erotic drives convene. She is particularly interested in using gesture as a means of disarticulating marketplace femininity, and employs elements of the grotesque (learned at Jacques Lecoq) as vehicles for freedom. 

Her most recent show, A Hole Is a Hole, was held at the Bourse de Commerce in Paris in early February in tandem with Mike Kelly’s exhibition Ghost and Spirit, and can be seen in the UK in March at London Performance Studios (where she also happens to be an associate artist).

From a hotel room in Paris, Lily answers our Zoom call in ram horns (“It’s giving Aries energy!” she exclaims) and tells us about her show, and how she first got into performance.

1. Are you ready to be interrogated in 50 questionsI’m weirdly in the mood for it. I haven’t done therapy in a long time.

2. Where are you right now? I’m in a lovely hotel room in Paris. Funnily, the people that work here worked in my dad’s club in the 80s and saw me grow up.

3. What are your plans for the rest of the day? I’m going to a rehearsal space to practice for my show.

4. How did you first get into performance? Various things, like pop stars and stand-up and performance artists. It’s always just been a secret thing inside of me, because I’m quite shy.

5. How do your modelling and performance practices inform each other, if at all? I used to be very diligent about keeping one protected from the other. Then a tarot reader told me my work doesn’t have to be separate, and I started to realise how fascinated I was by how modelling relates to so many things that we as women and as girls all deal with. They nourish each other; with each, I try to balance out what the other lacks.

6. What is the premise of your show at the Bourse de Commerce? I wanted to do a classic one-woman show. It’s an odyssey through my unconscious and many of the experiences I’ve had but told through a surrealist lens. Really, it’s a process of unpeeling layers of yourself; I play almost 20 characters and I’m spiralling through all these different landscapes and transformations. It’s a weird mix of super raw stuff and super grotesque stuff.

7. Why did you choose to title your performance, A Hole Is a HoleI was sitting in the bath, where I have most of my ideas, and I noticed a hole in my bath. I began thinking of the word and the repulsive macho expression A Hole Is a Hole and how with modelling, it’s supposed to be very sealed and sanitised; I can give off sexy but I can’t give off sexual. So the piece is very much about spilling and the wound and becoming whole, with a W.

8. Your show is in Paris. What is your favourite thing about the city? It’s kind of the first city I was in. It represents my connection to my father. Little moments; little squares; the bridges; feeling my father in the air.

9. The best place to go dancing there? In my show, there’s a nightclub scene and it’s a play on the club La Palace that I think my dad briefly managed in the 80s. I heard it’s open.

10. On dancing, what is the secret to doing it well? Well, as an Aries, I’d make it all about a performance. But just connect to the people around you.

11. Do you ever dance in your dreams? Probably, but in an anxiety dream where I’m like, ‘That was too much, why did I do that?’

12. The artist, dead or alive, you admire most? I love Kate Bush. 

13. If given the chance to collab with Kate Bush, what would you do and where would it be? We would go to Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris and do a two-woman show. It would be a combination of grotesque mime and visceral language and poetry. Ideally, Lindsay Kemp would come back from heaven and choreograph.

14. How do you feel onstage? None of us permit ourselves everything in real life. Onstage you can be completely unfiltered and follow your intuition and be outrageous.

15. Do you have an onstage alter ego? The show is about the splintering of self and all of the women that live inside of you. So yes, I have many alter egos, but they’re all me.

16. What is the responsibility of the performer to the audience? Generosity of spirit. Also, as a model, I’ve been so much a vessel for the desire of others that I feel it’s quite urgent for me to suck out their souls for a change.

17. And the audience to the performer? I guess they have none, other than to be engaged. There’s this scene where one of my characters dies because she’s not getting enough validation from her audience. I also realised recently I’m really powered by laughs.

18. At the end of a show, how do you want your audience to walk away feeling? Classic kind of purge of the spirit. Arousal. Arousal of fear. For me, it’s about hitting a spark inside of someone that they weren’t fully cognisant of before that then propels them to create something as well. 

19. You grew up between London and Paris. Who has a better sense of humour: the English or the French? Definitely the English! But Paris has everything else.

20. And the better literature? Prose in English, poetry in French.

Who has the better literature: the English or the French? “Prose in English, poetry in French” – Lily McMenamy

21. What is your opinion on sun, milk, red meat, and college? I use sunscreen religiously. Milk is back, the post-milk generation is milking hard now. I’m anaemic so I have to have red meat once a week. College is a scam.

22. How does the grotesque factor into your work? While studying at L’École Jacques Lecoq I discovered Bouffon, which is this kind of diabolical entity that has been cast out of society and watches and rises up to hold a mirror out to society. Having to be this prototype model girl for so long, it was the most liberating experience because there was a hungry beast inside waiting to come out. It was super freeing, that kind of spillage and uninhabited desire.

23. Do you prefer to communicate through gesture or words? Sounds, exultations, and emojis made from the keyboard.

24. What is the future of performance art, in terms of commodification? It’s interesting because as a model it’s really about selling a performance of self and performance art has not been for sale, traditionally. Now I'm getting really into the marketplace angle of it all, that kind of selling of effect and the power, or lack thereof, within that.

25. And in terms of creative evolution? Performance art hasn’t traditionally been taken very seriously in the art world, however people like Than Hussein Clark, Leila Hekmat, and Matt Copson – who are fine artists and also some of my best friends – are making theatre within an art context. I find that to be the most fascinating thing. I’m trend forecasting that.

26. Why are people so afraid of clowns and mimes? What is the chokehold they have? It’s quite exposing, the silence of it. Also, someone tapping into being a child can be quite freaky. 

27. What role does costume play in your work? It's getting bigger and bigger. Ever since I was a teen I’ve had this pain in my solar plexus that I’ve never found the solution to. It’s like this voice, this desire that needs to be listened to and not resisted. Lately, I’ve been doing these different iterations of a body suit in a pale beige colour with this wound in the plexus. It's about a mannequin with a need to express a pain that she can’t. Dilara Findikoglu made one, I've made a few, and now I’m working with Monique Fei, who specialises in latex and crochet.

28. What is your favourite over-the-counter medicine? Melatonin! I have to get it while in France.

29. In an ideal world, how would you prefer this medicine to be administered? Delivered by angels.

30. You sampled Cardi B’s 2020 song WAP in one of your pieces, as well as performed your own version of the popular TikTok dance. What does WAP mean to you? It’s the portal, baby. Let’s just leave it at that.

31. Do you know your moon sign? Capricorn, I believe. Horns again!

32. You incorporate screams and groans into a lot of your performance work. Are they joyous or anguished? I have a voice teacher and we talk about primal sounds and what the sound of each emotion and body part is. I suppose they represent something real, as opposed to the script and the score and slogans.

33. What was your greatest fear as a young girl? My ears stuck out a lot, so my biggest fear was having to have my hair tied back.

34. And your greatest dream? I wanted to be you, to be honest. I wanted to be a fashion journalist in New York City, like in 13 Going on 30.

35. As someone whose body is often on display in their work, what is your relationship to fetishisation? I notice how I lock into dissociation while modelling as a kind of survival technique. I want to do a PhD which is about re-embodying the seen woman because I didn’t learn to breathe properly until my twenties, didn’t learn to orgasm until my twenties, and wasn’t able to really see for myself for a long time. The conditioning of girlhood and modelling definitely made for some disembodiment.

36. Speaking of, what is your favourite fetish object? I have a real fetish for coat hooks. I don’t know what Freud would say about that. I also love folding screens; I made a set of mirrored ones for the show. 

37. What are you thinking while performing? I’m trying not to. I’m trying to get out of the sense of ‘what do you, looking at me, expect from me right now?’ I just want to be in the moment and listen to my body’s impulses.

38. What are the main references for your work? The Red Shoes. The Tales of Hoffman. I love dance: Boléro, by Maurice Béjart; a lot of Pina Bausch. This artist called Rose English who did these solo theatre pieces in the 70s. Karen Finley. Andrea Fraser. Isabelle Adjani in Possession.

39. How do you formulate your performance scripts? I do a lot of improvisation and then I read old diaries and write a script. With this show, I am also working with classic fairy tales.

40. Do you have any pre-performance rituals? No, I should make one. I’m constantly sniffing rosemary oil though.

What does WAP mean to you? “It’s the portal, baby. Let’s just leave it at that” – Lily McMenamy

41. What do you consider the afterlife of your performances to be? My hope is that all of the works could be seen as one work; each performance is a reaction to the last one but they are also a direct sister. It’s this constantly evolving vessel.

42. Have you ever been haunted? Well, there is a haunted forest in my show where the trees embody characters that I’m trying to eradicate from my psyche …

43. Do you get drunk? I haven’t gotten drunk in a long time. But I drink.

44. What is your favourite insult? I went to a super big state school in London and my lingo kind of stayed there, so I talk like a teenage boy. Phrases like “butters”, which means gross.

45. What’s in your bag? In my show at one point a character makes a smoothie and puts in the random brown flakes you find at the bottom of your purse. So, random brown flakes.

46. What is your most controversial opinion? I don’t think feminism is the answer, necessarily.

47. What song would you like played at your funeral? Return of the Mack by Mark Morrison. Or The Big Sky by Kate Bush.

48. During a show, are you more in your body or out of it? I’d like to be in my body, if God wills it. Or better: in the body of the viewer.

49. What is the true function of performance? To connect you back into your lived experience.

50. Finally, Lily, do you have anything to say to the children? Let everything inside out and find a vessel for it. Then give it to the world, because they deserve it.