Here is the article which originally appeared in Bizarre Magazine and later Naked – Magazine of the Weird and Wonderful:
“I’ve had a cast made of my dick,” laughs Mat Fraser, seemingly desperate to have a good scratch of his shaven scrotum. Our conversation in a provincial London café is causing many shocked mothers to make daggered looks in our direction. Unfair really, for a bespoke dildo seems an ideal present to give to his wife, particularly as this actor with seal-like limbs has so recently been jet-setting around the world performing in New York, Canada and New Zealand.
Mat’s physical condition was caused by thalidomide, a drug given to pregnant women during the fifties and sixties that caused thousands of babies to die, and left the survivors with extreme deformities and missing limbs. Such births occurred all over Northern Europe, Canada and Australia, but not America because a scientist at the Food and Drug Administration called Francis Kelsey enforced a ban.
The New York stage found Mat performing in The Flid Show is a freakish reworking of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, with Francis Kelsey paying a ghostly visit to a misguided Doctor who is about to prescribe thalidomide to a patient. “Flid” of course, is a playground abbreviation of thalidomide. “Most school kids who wanted to taunt you, couldn’t pronounce the word, ” explains the actor, whose recent production found him playing a thalidomide-impaired lounge singer.
Playground name-calling can be harmful. Mat was always fascinated by the theatre and performing, but after getting laughed at by some kids at a school audition he felt that acting was not for him. But despite having short arms, he joined a punk band and became a drummer for sixteen years.
“I was smoking weed and wasting my life away,” he sighs. “In the early nineties though, I was becoming more disability conscious, especially after I visited a disabled theatre company called Graeae. Their play just blew my fucking head away. It was so rude, bawdy and politically incorrect. I thought, ‘Yes, this is indeed what I want to do.’ The next day I was literally a different person. I left the band and said, ‘guys, I just can’t do this anymore. I gotta go talk about disability.’”
And so he did, by both treading the boards on stage and exploring cultural ideas of disability by participating in the infamous Coney Island freak show. Perhaps his most public appearance was in the BBC feature film Every Time You Look At Me, which featured the world’s first televisual disabled sex scene, where he was partnered with ‘little person’ Lisa Hammond. Mat also continued to explore his condition through music, releasing a number of politically motivated recordings including the rap album Survival Of The Shittest plus tracks such as ‘It’s A Tripper Having Flippers’ and the romantic show stopper ‘Hitching A Lift On Life’s Merry-Go-Round Is Tough When You Got No Thumbs’.
“I’ve always been political,” ponders Mat. “But my political anger was due to my having short arms because some cunt in an office decided to keep making a drug for six months, when he should have stopped selling it. I’m not angry that I am disabled, I’m angry that some bloke just wanted to make twenty quid off of it. Once I realised that my hurt and anger was actually about myself, then it made me want to explore it all, to work it into my practice and help make society less of a cultural apartheid, which I think it is.”
Mat is definitely the freak of the week; he’s even working on a one-man comedy show and been making regular appearances at The Whoopee Club, London’s premier burlesque night as master of ceremonies. Being born with a physical disability has certainly not hampered Mat Fraser’s life as a performer. Not to mention his black belt in Tae Kwon Do…
NAKED: You’re also thinking of making a disabled porn movie, right?
MAT: Dutch Amsterdam lesbian filmmakers have tackled the concept of non-sexist porn, so I would like to push the boat out further and see disability porn. Fucking And Fighting is the first film I want to make. It’s underground guerilla filmmaking with several people just, er, fucking and fighting.
NAKED: There’s Bridget the Midget of course.
MAT: I was once in a tattoo shop in Philadelphia and there was a picture of Bridget on the wall. I said to the tattooist, “Do you know her?” “Know her? I got a blow job from her!” which is quite a good line isn’t it? So I’d love to meet her.
NAKED: How did you get involved in the Coney Island freak show?
MAT: The historical and cultural heritage of today’s disabled performer is based in the freak show. For politicos it’s seen as the “pornography of the disabled,” but I wanted to discover this from a performers point of view. Pornography has been reassessed by post-feminists, so why can’t freak shows by disabled people? That obviously led me to Coney Island where I performed in a ten-in-one. When I stood up and wiggled my hands at an audience, something happened to me as a performer. I learnt an incredible amount about myself, about audiences and about the relationship between the two. It served me so valuably in my acting world. So black actors go and do the play about slaves, female actors go and be a stripper for the weekend. You may not enjoy it but I bet you learn valuable lessons.
NAKED: What determined the content of your show?
MAT: I tried two things. On the first day I did an historical recreation of Sealo the Sealboy’s act with a little bit of artistic licence. He’d shave, saw a piece of wood, light a cigar and pour himself a whiskey. On day two, Dick the proprietor said, “do what the fuck you want.” So every time I did something different. I played a game of how long it would take the audience to tell I was taking the piss out of their stupidity by doing the most unbelievably easy things but building it up. I had slip-on shoes and said, “Now ladies and gentlemen I will take off one of my shoes,” and with a performance took one foot out of a shoe to a huge round of applause. It was open war by the end of it. I wasn’t going, “you are fuckwits, the lot of you,” but I might as well have done. But no one batted an eyelid.
NAKED: Was there real comradery among the acts?
MAT: There was one really weird bit where some guy wanted to wrestle Eek the Geek. Tony the dwarf took me backstage, got out baseball bats and armed all the freaks. We faced off the audience and I was petrified. I’ve never felt more comradery than at that moment! But there was a huge comradery, not the same as there would have back in the day, because in nineteen thirties’ Louisiana you would have been in danger if you left the circus and walked into town. You may not have come back.
NAKED: Do you think the touring freak show will ever return?
MAT: Yeah, but I think it will be slightly different. I think the important part will be to play homage to and yet subvert the clichés of the genre. And then, why not? In the street, if somebody stares at my hands it’s their prerogative but if I catch their stare and look them in the eyes, I expect them to turn upwards and look at my face and take in the whole me. On stage, I don’t have a right to do that because they have paid money to watch me. They can look wherever the fuck they want. I don’t have a problem with people staring at my arms, considering how lucky they are not to be like me. Whatever the schadenfreude, whatever the fuck it is, that’s fine. But if it’s my show, they’re going to have to listen to a whole heap of shit that I want to say as well.
NAKED: What was the most extreme reaction to your show?
MAT: A group of New York Jamaicans came to the freak show and I misread the situation. They were squealing and I thought it was a post-modern squeal but it wasn’t, they were just fuckwits. One of them went, “you wanna feel me breasts?” and proffered up a boob. I sort of did a grabbing motion with one of my hands because I thought I’d join in on the gag and they went fucking mental. They were screaming and it got really out of hand. I wasn’t worried for myself because I’ve got a second-degree black belt in kicking, but you don’t want the atmosphere to turn sour. To some extent, I knew what it was like to be in a real freak show after that day.
NAKED: Why did you start to get involved with burlesque nights?
MAT: Really because I feel at home in areas where mainstream society declares them to not be right or beneath them in terms of their values. I’ve been declared all those things because I am a disabled person and I feel at home at the burlesque and fetish scene. I really don’t think I’m doing myself down by enjoying the company of other nocturnal creatures, because I think we are all beautiful and should be proud of what we do. But of course I enjoy the company of less judgmental people. When I went to my first fetish club, I wasn’t turned away because I wasn’t wearing trainers. I’ve been turned away so many times for having the wrong clothes and you begin to wonder whether it is actually because of that. There are times when it is clearly not that. I’ve been told, “you’ll put other punters off. You’re not coming in.” That basically hurts you on an emotional level. So when I walked into the fetish club and people are like, “wooah, you’re weird! Come on in!” of course I liked. Of course I was aware that it was somehow maybe exploitative or slightly objectifying but so fucking what? So is all of life!
NAKED: Can you tell me about filming the BBC drama Every Time You Look At Me?
MAT: In the script it said they kiss, he undoes her top and touches her breast. I was quite nervous about it because I realised this was a very ambassadorial, pioneering scene. If we got it wrong, people would be scared to do it again for another twenty years. But the director didn’t like graphic sex and said, “I’m not doing the hand on the breast shot because I don’t want nipples. I don’t think we need it.” So Lisa Hammond and I do the scene, the big clinch and hear “cut!” We look up and fifteen people are just staring at us, open-jawed in a kind of mesmerised shock. We go, “what? Have we done something wrong?” They’re like, “no, we’ve never seen this before.” Everyone realised this was really radical, but to us it was just two people having a kiss. When I finally saw it, I thought the director made the right call because it would be quite shocking for most people. Tits and nipples may have been a little too much. We were going for a middle England audience and they would have loved being pushed to the bare boundaries but we didn’t want to push them over the edge. Hopefully it moves the parameters of what people will allow people to say on television further.
NAKED: I guess it is kind of eroding barriers slowly rather than opening the floodgates.
MAT: There will be no floodgates, no blowing open of the doors. There will be a slow trickle. That’s all. It’ll be the same as it was for black. I remember when I was little and my grandfather being very shocked there was a black man on television playing a position that wasn’t a criminal or a slave. And people will be that shocked now when I am Tim the social worker in If…We Could Stop The Violence. When nobody mentions that I’ve got short arms, some people are going to be shocked. But fucking hell, people in thirty years time may be used to that.
Many thanks to Madeline Brown for her assistance with this interview.
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