Conversation between Genevieve Louw and Glenda Harper (nee Kemp).
Glenda is represented by bold text.
My first years were by the sea, because I was born in Cape Town and then Johannesburg for a little bit and then Swartruggens.
I remember seeing pictures of Swartruggens in the documentary, it looks like a very small town. How did living there have an effect on your life?
Before I went to Swartruggens, I was actually in an orphanage and then my Foster parents adopted me, well fostered me and I lived with them.
This is also depicted in the film “Glenda” really quickly you know, in the beginning as it goes through your life story. It starts off quite quickly and just ends up Bang Bang! This is how this happened and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to meet you because I thought it was quite fascinating that you starred as yourself in a life story about you.
That I idea for me was kind of interesting, “I’m acting as myself you know, re-enacting events that already happened
And What? I was only twenty something at the time you know (laughing) I mean how much could have happened in your life at that stage?!
That’s something I was wondering about. Could all this have happened already? Did it?
Did it really happen? All the events in the film?
Ag, ja not all of it. The thing that didn’t happen the way it was shown in the film was the way I started dancing. There’s no such thing as my brother getting into trouble and me stripping to help him. That was not true. That was because I think the story was a bit boring. In real life I just loved dancing
I actually spoke to Dirk about it and I said Dirk I know this has to be writers freedom and I remember thinking to myself, you know, as a director, his writer’s freedom went so far, that he killed Glenda in the end!
Laughing… ja exactly, and if you can see that then you know hey she’s not dead so I wonder what else is not true
It shows also that you have a little bit of a ballet background?
You know, my foster parents did try to let me take ballet but I was a freedom dancer. Don’t tell me “now you put your foot there and then you do that I just want to flow. I wanted to just dance. I wanted to act as well. That’s what I really wanted to do. To be an actress because it didn’t come my way I just made it happen for myself
Absolutely that’s so evident in your performances I mean I've seen so few obviously. The only ones that I've seen exist in film and in photographs. I came towards those images from a completely different point of view than someone who might have been older than me. I started thinking about your performances in terms of performance art and I wanted to ask you how you felt about that?
Yes, you know I once had a court case and I don’t know if that was mentioned in the film I cant remember and my drama instructors(I specialised in drama at teachers college ) were all prepared to watch the show and go to court and say that it is art. So I was actually found not guilty and they said its art but then the state appealed because they couldn’t accept that I was not guilty and I was found guilty. But you know I must tell you one thing. If you had seen my performance with my lighting because you couldn’t take my performance and put it in the sun. as you know lighting and music all interacts. For example I used to do back bends and things in the strobe lights
All you would see was: You’d see me here, and you’d see me there(hand gestures) What I really wasn’t happy about was when I saw the shows on the movie I was quite disgusted. I really didn’t like it. You know one day this movie was on the TV the other day
I remember that I was told about that. It was the censored version?
No it was the overseas version.
I was so ashamed. I wanted to climb under the. Luckily my husband just looked a little bit and then he left and I said please lets switch this off. Because as I said to you when I worked out my show it was with lighting and with the story flowing. Now if you see it in the bright light of the movies then it just doesn’t have that sacredness. When I worked out my shows I really thought about it. Normally it started with the music. I would put the music on and close my eyes and then I would dance and work out the different stories. I could never just stand and take off my clothes at that stage. I could never stand on a platform and just start to you know, take it off. That wasn’t what I was. In my shows I always came on…not the movie’s shows..I always came on humouristically. It had to be funny. I’d come on with big bloomers or something and the people would say “oh no!” And then Id change and take them on this journey and id always finish funny as well. It’s like a full stop to the story.
I’m so glad you speak about the humour and its something that I definitely got from the essences of your performances. A lot of humour, in a very clever way though and it definitely shows that there was a lot of thought that went into it. Which is why I never looked at it as stripping. I couldn’t possibly see it in that way.
I didn’t think of it that way. I never thought of it that way. But then as I said, I never even allowed people cameras when I was doing a show because I said to them the camera catches you out of context and its not the same. You know, if you want a photograph, ill give you one. So that’s the only thing I'm not happy about – the movie. You don’t have a dim light. You know, when I did a show at a place- you really had to look, although I was in the nude. You don’t see it for long.
Just to speak a little bit more about your use of humour in your performances…Id have to say my favourite performance was the one where you incorporated your puppet. That devil puppet. Tell me about how you came to the idea of using the puppet?
You know this can be traced back to my childhood. When I was in the orphanage the children used to follow me because I made up stories. I just made them up. I would just look at a stone and then it would turn into something…they would follow me and the next day we would continue and the same with my sister’s kids. So you know that side of me I just loved, acting in stories and children and then when I was in high school in Swartruggens, I always collected puppets. It just fascinated me and I remember for the school I used to put up puppet shows, you know to make money for the school. They were like a collector’s item that I carried around with me and then of course having drama at teacher’s college .
That must have made a big impact…
Most definitely. I also had art but I could never draw which is a pity because I would love to draw. I just admire people who can take a blank piece of paper and suddenly there’s water on it and their things growing on it and there’s human beings breathing on it. You know that is such a gift.
I also wanted to know more specifically, how you came about using the Devil puppet. Why did you choose to use the image of the little devil? For me he became person, the more I watched this performance he definitely becomes like a character and its almost as though he is separate from you body…
Laughing… the naughty little devil. You know, I was doing children’s parties at the time that movie came out , charging you know but I always ended up putting all my money back into them. I remember that I had these shows with the devil and the witch and the pot and the things and the spiders. I don’t know why but that’s what children stories always seem to be about you know. Children stories are actually very horrible! (laughing)
Ja like Hansel and Gretel!
Ja that must be the worst one! Cooking people wanting to cook them, feeding them so you can cook them!(laughing) And I remember once I had to do a show for Christians and they said please we don’t want a devil, we don’t want a witch. And I thought “Oh?!”. But when I became a Christian, Well I was one at sixteen but then I left the Lord, but when I came back I started to look at them in a different way so ja, I’m not too proud of the little devil one but you know in my mind it was just a naughty little guy who was going around where he shouldn’t be going and it was just fun.
In the film I think Dirk implies that this was a reaction to the conservative Afrikaner way of looking at religion especially with the NG Kerk being very important to these small towns depicted in the film
You know, I didn’t sit down and think that. That Devil came all the way back from when I was in standard six or something. I had it for years. You know I worked at a place called de Westerwalt in Bree Street. When you work in the same place, month in or year in and year out. You’ve got to change your show. You know I changed my show every single week so I had to really think, so whatever I had I used. When I went window shopping or shopping you know, and if id see a hat or something I liked, the woman at the shop would say ja that’s very nice. But meanwhile I'm looking at it to put it on my boob or somewhere else! (laughing)
So I was always looking for ways to make the shows interesting, you know I had mannequins carried on to stage as part of my performance, so whenever you look at something and I think artists do that.. If you look at a show you’ll get something from that show, you don’t actually copy it. You can actually be inspired by something and you’re copying but you’re also putting your own character to it. You put your own stamp on it. One of the many things that inspired me was ballet
There’s this short part in the film where you actually do this ballet move
I used to dance like that I really did. When I was in the orphanage I used to go into the mielie lands. I was maybe a bit weird but I just loved nature. I think I was just close to God even though I didn’t know him at the time. They have these mielie lands in Potchefstroom and I used to go into the mielie lands and that was my stage. I used to look at dancing even though I didn’t have formal dancing and you know people used to think “Where was I? because I could disappear for a day. Its like now the beach is that to me. It just never is the same never. I don’t think you could ever catch a wave at the same spot. You know, you look at things differently. It’s actually a gift because there’s so much beauty that you don’t have to spend money on and you can be happy with just what you’ve got.
When you peak about escaping into your own world when you danced, you didn’t have any formal training, after watching a lot of your performances, and watching the way you move, its quite reminiscent of traditional African dancing that I’ve seen, I wanted to know if there was an influence or if it just came naturally?
I probably got a number of my dance moves from watching a bit here, and a bit there. But you know it was actually the music. I mean the music I used, it moved me, I didn’t even have to move. Just that music. If I liked the music then I would just dance.
HEARD A SOUND FROM THE BACK DOOR, WANTED TO FIND OUT IF HER HUSBAND WAS HOME, THEN STARTED SPEAKING ABOUT ONE OF HER marionette PUPPETS THAT SHE THEN PROCEEDS TO FETCH FROM HER KITCHEN.
(Glenda explains about her puppet)
First of all the reason why he is a clown is because he is a Christian and he is happy. Christians should be joyful people. He painted his nose red for the blood of Jesus that died for him and his face is white because all his sins are washed away and he was given a new life. He dances when you say verses.
I was working at a Christian school and part of the syllabus was that the kids had to memorise verses. Every month they had to memorise verses so it encouraged them to learn it.
So every time the puppet dances, the kids are able to memorise it better. So, does this puppet have a name? did you give him a name?
His name is “Savey” because the lord saved him and at first he thought he knew everything but now he knows the word of God.
Can you tell me more about Savey’s character?
You can see he lost his leg in an accident. He wasn’t a good guy.
He wasn’t a good guy?
No he wasn’t.
Does he have a reason or a story behind this?
His story is that he was saved and Jesus loves him as he is. He doesn’t even have to have a leg because Jesus is his legs for him. (looks down at Savey and starts having a conversation with him) “Hey Savey? Jesus loves you! (makes the puppet walk toward Jedi the dog in a playful manner.) Jedi! Look who’s here!(then makes Savey fall on the floor) Sometimes he would just collapse like this on the floor and then he would come alive( controls the puppet and makes him wave his arms in the air) and then he would be all over the show again.
Wow! So how long did you teach for?
So you have a diploma in teaching and your major was drama?
Yes drama was my major and I taught senior primary school. Although the lectures used to ask me why are you in senior primary? You should be junior. Because I was so good with the little ones but I was also good with the older ones.
I always see teaching as a kind of performance would you agree?
It is absolutely. You know I can take the knowledge and really turn it into something fun and the kids will never forget it. But my only problem with teaching is the red tape around it. I didn’t like the admin. (laughter) they used to tell me to be quiet with my kids because they had so much fun.
I can imagine! They must have loved you! I know a couple of students at Michaelis who would love to have a puppet show by you. (laughter)
I recently started wondering whether there was an element of teaching in your stage performances, do you agree? Do you feel that there was some kind of story or message?
You know while I was dancing I wasn’t thinking of a whole lot of men looking. To me it was an expression of my viewpoint that the body is so beautiful and sensitive. On stage I was thinking in a private way. I was actually very much alone there. Like for example, how important sexual growth is. In my mind it was never ugly but as I said to you now when I saw that movie I thought no you don’t do that in public. I always used to say to my daughter you know, I did it with the right motives. My heart was in the right place and I was the most conservative person around even though I was taking my clothes off on stage. But then that movie was on the other day and I said to her you know I always say it was okay what I did but I'm telling you now it was not okay.
Ja. If you love the Lord, your body belongs to him and its not…it’s not right. You don’t do that. You see I got away with it because I always said I'm playing the part and I'm acting because really the person who came off that stage would never take her clothes off in front of nobody. So I had to be in my little story to perform but don’t- don’t think you could come near me when that show is over
When the curtains close its done…
Ja, if you get onto the stage you play a part you know. You’re an actress. You’re not that person. But you do draw from what is inside you. From what you think. What you want to be or what you think you can be.
That’s why I loved that one line that I heard you say in the last documentary- you say “I play the part of a girl. And that girl is sexy!”
The next question would have to be about Oupa, the co-star on stage. I wanted to ask you if he was just a prop like the puppets were?
He was only a prop. Nothing else but a prop.
How did you come up with the idea of using a large snake in your act?
My younger brother collected snakes as boys sometimes do. In fact I still have that sowing basket that I had my first snake in. One day I borrowed one of his little snakes and got such a reaction from people when I took it out of the basket. People were going "Ooooh!" And I thought I can get bigger ones than that. And bigger "Ooohs!" The snake only used to come out for a short while. It was an association with the name or a product I was selling that people remembered. If they forgot my name they would say oh that’s the lady with the snake you know.
That’s usually what I've heard and then I get frustrated because I think she was much more than that.
It’s always clever to have such an association. It’s just like any business. They try to get something that people will remember.
Ja absolutely and now I’m reminded of the story you told in the documentary where you said Oupa died once in the car on the way to your performance. I was wondering, did you ever see your snakes as pets?
They were not pets at all. Anyone who tells me a snake is a pet is lying because they don’t even get to know you they cold blooded. They never come up to you when you call them!(laughter) You work around what the animal does. The reptile does. If you hold your hand out, they’ll probably come up to it because they just move from place to place. For them it’s like climbing a tree. So sometimes you’re lucky, you open the basket and then he comes out because he wants to get out. Then you hold your hand out and he actually comes up to your hand. Then people think Oh she actually trained the snake!
But meanwhile you actually just had a feel for that hey?
No , I used to lock him up and feed him and make sure that he was well taken care of but I never used to say Good morning my little snake. No! (Laughs)
Ja Oupa, lets go for a walk together! (laughs)But in contrast to the humour in your acts, I always thought that there was an innocence, an underlying in your act- there was also a lot of danger, I felt with the snake and at times when you performed with fire. You definitely could have gotten hurt quite a few times
I think the most dangerous element to the whole thing is when I look back …
(JEDI BITES INTO THE AIR AND CATCHES A FLY) My dog ate a fly!!(laughs) Jedi you’ve been trying that for years! You got it! She always misses! Oh yes, the most dangerous thing..
You know what I used to do for years… um I didn’t drive at that time, so people fetched me. I’d have four shows a night.
Really? That’s quite a lot.
Yes! Well after my show somebody had to fetch me and take me to the place I am next, and he’ll fetch me there and then somebody would have to fetch me at the other place. I was driven by people you know, at bachelor parties and you that for me is really proof of how god’s hand was over me covering me. How could I never have even come close to being raped? How is it possible, that for all those years, every person that took me home was always sober always respected me, never tried anything with me. I promise you the angles were with me. I was so naïve. I didn’t even think of the danger. Now that I think back I think, it couldn’t have been possible. How could I never have gotten into trouble? And I know why because prayers were covering me because even though if you give your life to the Lord later in life, you are his child the day you are born. He will be with you all the way.
I think he was definitely with you after those times that you were bitten by your snake. I saw photographs of how your face looked. It must have been painful. That was the one thing that shocked me and at the same time I had an incredible amount of respect for. For me, I think it is quite brave to put a snake’s head in your mouth. To put this dangerous reptile in your mouth was quite a hectic part of the performance wouldn’t you say?
It wasn’t really that brave. Most of them were really placid so if I thought they were going to bite me I don’t think I would have put them in my mouth. You see a lot of…what do you call it maybe its not art. A lot of entertainment is making people think that something is dangerous or think this or that but actually you’re okay. Just being different. Being different. I think that’s what it was all about that I was very different to what was going around then. But you know even when I went to work in England, I was different to what was going around there as well. As I said to you I could never just stand on a stage and just take off my clothes. If there wasn’t an act involved I wouldn’t do it.
I remember reading about the chance that you could’ve gone into Television at one stage. How was that going to happen?
I think I was going to be but then they turned me down you know because of the stigma to me. I was like not good news! (big laugh)
Ja that’s the biggest thing hey? That stigma…
Ja in the old South Africa…(shakes her head)
It was within that stigma that I found my fascination. Looking at your performances and then reading articles in the newspaper archives made me realise that this was definitely more than just stripping.
I could never just have stripped. That would be the last thing that would be on my mind at that time. You know, maybe I was naïve but I really believed that it was art. You know whatever I do I always put my whole heart into it. Whether it’s a puppet show or if you ask me to do something I've got to go all the way out. I’ve got to really give everything. Even while I was teaching. I think I put all my money back into my job you know. I gave everything to the kids. Those kids were my life. I think with whatever I do I like to walk that extra mile.
So when did you stop performing?
Okay, now I have to think...when did I stop? Well, Kimmy was born in 1982, and I think I stopped maybe in 1980. I came back from London so JA I think it was 1980.
And by that time was there still a hype around your performances or did it sort of die down after a while.
I think it died down but I don’t know because when I cam back I packed up. I didn’t do any more dancing. So ja that was it. It was over.
I remember you saying that you didn’t feel the magic anymore? That it wasn’t the same?
I was getting older and it just wasn’t the same anymore and then I wanted a child and a lot of things changed after that. But if you’re an artist you’ll never keep it in. it will come out in a different form. You will always be overflowing and bubbly with something that’s creative you can pore your love into and entertain. Speaking to an artist I know that I can say that to you. If they took your painting away, you’d be doing something else. You would always find a way to express yourself.
While you were performing in the seventies, did you always see yourself as an artist? Were you adamant about that?
Oh yes I did. I definitely did.
That’s great especially after an artist like Professor Walter Batiss testified for you in court, which I thought, was amazing
He came and watched my show.
Did he come and speak to you at all?
Yes, I actually went to go and visit him on his farm.
I actually posed for him. It was very strange because you pose in the nude but he uses you in a nature painting. He looks at a woman’s breasts and he paints hills and mountains. Which to me was beautiful! The thing is , he was actually saying what I was trying to say. A woman’s body is nature. It’s beautiful. But as I said I know now that a woman’s body is beautiful but it’s meant for a husband its not meant to show to the whole South Africa! If I had stayed with God and had the relationship with Jesus that I have now, I would never have done that and I'm very curious to think where my life could have gone. Its one regret I have because I just wish I could have known what He would have decided to do with my young life. What a privilege it would have been to say here I am lord! Use me and given my youth to Him.
That’s what I would have wanted to do. Never mind having fun on a stage. I’m sure I could’ve done even that in a different direction again. So that’s a regret I have but then the more you get to know the Lord you know that nothing is wasted because He knew what you were going to do and you don’t ever shock Him. He says we mustn’t look at back and live in he past except I always say the past is like old boxes you take out and the only time I would take out the boxes would be to stand on top of them to glorify Him. Sometimes people will listen to you because of your past. For example once I went to see a lady and she wouldn’t open the gate but by the time my program was on the television, she let me in because she recognised me and we could talk about God.
God knows what you are going to do before you are born and He’s going to use everything you picked up along the way. When he takes you, you are going to use what happened to you. There’s nothing bad or nothing sad that He doesn’t turn into joy and into the right thing. If I had my life over, I always said I’d do it again, I wont do it again, Id say Lord here I am now this time you keep me on Your track! We think He’s there to spoil your fun, He’s not. He would’ve taken the same gift and it would’ve exploded into a way of making things beautiful
Do you look back at those shows and think that they weren’t maybe as beautiful as the ideal that you have about what beauty is to you now?
Ja sometimes. You see, because of knowing God I know that I could have used the same talent in a different way and as I said He knew I was going to do what I did. And I honestly prayed before every show Please let the show be good. It was so important to me. Its important for you as an artist and at the end of the day its almost for yourself hey? If I did a show and people said “you were good” and I didn’t think I was good just leave me alone you know. I don’t want to hear what you’re saying. But if I think I was good then I think yes I felt good. We depend on how good we are and how well we perform
And using or rather speaking about religion or using Biblical references, how do you feel about the fact that there was a lot of symboblogy I mean not just the Devil puppet but with the snake and also the Adam and Eve concept as well because of the apple and the snake and tree. I thought that was a great performance because it made you feel the uncomfortable feeling of being naked in public and that is what your Eve shows after she takes a bite out of this apple. You sort of run off stage and cover yourself. How did you come about putting that into the performance. Is it something that you really thought about ?
Yes I really thought about it because basically it’s the truth.
I think that this performance can’t be seen as blasphemous in any way and in terms of performance it was really interesting. What are your thoughts on this performance?
I never deliberately wanted to offend the Lord. You know when I did things like that I actually did feel like an actress. I actually at that moment believed that I was Eve and this was really happening and I really felt ashamed.
So if you look back at your performances do you feel like there’s anything that could have been different in the time that you were performing could have changed the stigma. Was it something that could only exist within that time period. During the 1970’s with the censorship laws and things like that
It doesn’t matter if there weren’t any censorship laws. I made it in London, my show was totally unique in London. Nobody had a show like that. If I was in those circumstances now, I would work out a show and be successful too. When you do something and your heart is in it and you do it with your heart. I mean I went on stage I loved my audience. That was the first thing I would notice when I walked out on stage. That’s what I didn’t like in London because I was in a big theatre. With that lighting it felt like I was performing to myself. But even there. There was no rules there and I was the main performer tin the theatre at the time I was the main artist so it was not because of that
That’s one of the things I was always wondering about, whether it was because of the fact that you went against the grain, whether that was the reason for your success. Performing in these small dorpies like Goudstad and Volksrust and giving people a taste of something that was unfamiliar and actually against the law at the time.
I suppose my next question would be how you started travelling with your show in South Africa?
Believe me I hate travelling. I don’t travel. I always used to make my price very high. The idea was to put them off. At that time Id ask R500 and that was really a lot of money at the time. R500 would be like R5000 today. I was always aware that in that kind of job you can only work so long but if the money was there I did do it for the money as well. If I did a performance and I thought it was lousy I would easily not take the people’s money. I wanted to give them something in return.
Could you tell me about some of the clubs that you performed at in Johannesburg permanently?
I don’t think they exist anymore. I know the President Hotel was one there was a club there and there was a club called the Maricage. I think that must still be there in Hillbrow. The one in Bree road was called De Westerwalt. I’m sure that’s not there either. That was the one I worked in for a long time.
When I asked you on the phone about the old newspaper clippings and photographs, you mentioned that you didn’t have them anymore. Is there a reason why you don’t keep them anymore?
They just don’t interest me, you know that so boring even interviewing, I’m talking about something that is over. I’ve got a life. Besides being older now. My life is so different. I can’t relate to that person.
Is she a different person?
Like I said to my daughter, I told her about you coming, and you’re coming to interview me. I then I said wait… Oh no, you’re actually coming to interview Glenda Kemp. I don’t know what she’s going to do!(laughs)
Well, I’m very happy Glenda Kemp decided to allow me to come and interview her.
Like I said to you, the only reason for me to give interviews, there’s no publicity in it, even with those television programs. Id much rather just get on with my life here. The only reason why I would do it is to witness for God. Id also like to say to young people that its possible to practice a gift without taking your clothes off. If I could go back I would have wanted to start a performance group to praise the lord and we would’ve travelled and spread the Word. You know, a good job.
I think you did a very good job anyway! (laughing)