words genine howard
She’s feminine, elegant and graceful … and she can lift two grown men. Charmaine Childs is a package of extremes that somehow seem to complement each other like a good red wine and cheese. They just work together, and both get better with age. Genine Howard discovers how a young girl who wanted to be a drama teacher ended up better known as ‘Betty Brawn, the Strong Lady’, performing her spectacular one-woman show around the globe and leaving behind a trail of torn-up novels and bent metal bars.
That’s what’s always been true about my identity – I’ve always been strong, I’ve always been a sturdy kid, I’ve got my dad’s muscly legs. It was a real truth to come from.” STORY CONTINUED
... being feminine and sweet doesn’t mean you have to be submissive either … you can take up a lot of space without being aggressive.”
t age 34, Charmaine Childs (or Betty Brawn, as her onstage persona) is the epitome of womanhood and yet, her day job involves lifting men like they are feathers and tearing telephone books in two. This is one amazing, strong woman – and not just in the physical sense. As I sit with Charmaine sipping a cool juicy concoction overlooking Maroochydore beach, I learn that this quietly-spoken lady is all woman. Charmaine grew up in Rockhampton in a bustling family of performers and creatives, headed by their father, Jack, who worked as a travelling salesman and mum, Christine, who exuded creativity and channelled that passion into running businesses. Charmaine tells me she sees a lot of her performance style in her father. “I have found I’m able to connect with Dad so much these days as I see a lot of what his zest was in his role as a salesman going into people’s homes – it’s the same thing as what I have to bring to performing,” she shares. She recalls of her childhood, “As kids, Mum really fostered our creativity and played with us and encouraged that creativity in us. We used to put on shows and charge 50 cents for the neighbours! How I work has been very much influenced by the models of my parents, plus I have been so successful in running the business side of things.” And successful she most certainly has been. Charmaine has managed to build a solid career out of doing what she loves – performing. These days she travels the world with her Strong Lady show, performing to packed audiences in both corporate gigs and outdoor festivals from Edinburgh to the Netherlands. Her show has been hailed as ‘spectacular’, ‘breathtaking’ and ‘a celebration of the strength in us all’. But most importantly, Charmaine’s Strong Lady show is an example of how a woman can be strong and confident yet graceful and feminine all at the same time. Yet Charmaine is quick to point out she never intended the show to have any political statement, it just evolved that way. “I have always said that the show does have a very strong theme that comes through – that as a strong, confident, independent woman you can actually still be really feminine and sweet. And that being feminine and sweet doesn’t mean you have to be submissive either … you can take up a lot of space without being aggressive,” she says.
And you only have to take a look at the smart costuming ‘Betty Brawn’ wears for the shows – her glamorous outfit complete with a red flower hair adornment, shows Charmaine, aka Betty, as the soft, gentle woman she really is. As I comment on how much I adore the costuming, Charmaine is quick to add that she is excited as her new costume has “some added sequins!” for extra dazzle. So how did this girl from Rockhampton end up travelling the world as a performer and single-handedly twisting metal bars? Charmaine explains, “I did lots of drama as a kid – Mum used to drive me to different classes; speech and drama, physical movement, that kind of thing. There was a great youth arts worker in Rocky [Rockhampton] that would put on productions that used to tour to other small regional towns – we would get the chance to be in big theatres. Then one of the shows that she [the youth worker] put on had a scene ‘the circus is coming to town’ that I was in and she bought a circus performer from Brisbane to Rocky to teach us a couple of tricks. At the time I was comfortable performing but physical stuff was a bit more intimidating to me as I had never really played sports, but I did double acrobatics. She told me I was a natural. It was the first kind of physical thing I had ever been told I was a natural at … I didn’t think much more of it at the time.” She continues, “I went to University to study theatre – I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a performer as I didn’t see how you could make a living out of it. I had never been tiny or classically good-looking.
Well-meaning people would say, ‘you probably wouldn’t be able to make it as an actress as you need to look a certain way’. So I studied to be a drama teacher.” However, it was while getting a taste for teaching that Charmaine decided that teaching in schools was not her forte. “I felt I didn’t have anything to teach yet as I had gone from high school to Uni … I felt I needed to have experience in the theatre.” It was by chance while doing some physical theatre of more ‘naturalist’ training, that Charmaine found her niche. She says, “I was just not a very good actor! But with physical theatre I was way more successful, I found you are not having to pretend so much – you are physically connecting with the character.” Combined with an interest for circus training and clowning, Charmaine really found her calling. She recalls, “Clowning is where I found I could have truth on stage – it’s about being, ‘here is a version of me’. But it’s not me in all my complexity – you are taking one part of you, distilling it and amplifying it. The combination of physical theatre, circus and clown took all the theatre training I had done and made me actually be able to use it.” With some varied theatre experience under her belt, it was when Charmaine was stage and production manager for the National Circus Festival that suddenly she was surrounded by examples of people making a living out of performing.
Well-meaning people would say, ‘you probably wouldn’t be able to make it as an actress as you need to look a certain way’. So I studied to be drama teacher.”
It was here, surrounded by some of the best performers in the country that something clicked … it was time for Charmaine to take the plunge and join the world of professional theatre. Her first foray into the arts was a double act called Tutti Fruitti alongside a friend. The duo performed acrobatic comedy throughout Australia, performing at shows such as Woodford, Brisbane Ekka and even at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. After five years of touring together including the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Glastonbury Festival (incidentally their act was included in the BBC’s documentary celebrating 40 years of Glastonbury) Charmaine was ready to take on a new persona. She says, “For five years I was playing a cutsie, girly character in a pink, frilly bikini – that show was really about body image and that you don’t have to look a certain way to be happy with who you are. But I started asking myself, ‘What if I could say something else? What if I could be a woman and not doing slapstick … could I still be funny?’” Hence the rise and rise of Betty Brawn, The Strong Lady. Charmaine divulges, “That’s what’s always been true about my identity – I’ve always been strong, I’ve always been a sturdy kid, I’ve got my dad’s muscly legs. It was a real truth to come from.” Charmaine toured the Strong Lady as a solo artist, performing in five different languages all over the continent. She embraced the challenges of booking, travelling and performing the one-act show, “I loved the fun of booking a gig in a tiny dot on the middle of a map in Sweden thinking ‘How do I get there and back?!’”. It was an incredibly successful career, but one that could, at times, be lonely. With fortuitous timing, a UK female circus company approached Charmaine to be a fourth member to their act, an act that promoted women as strong and confident.
The ensemble toured much of 2012 together performing double acrobatics (when I ask what double acrobatics is, Charmaine explains, “It’s humans doing balance together … like when someone runs at you and you do a flip.” As you do …). With a renewed energy for working as a team, Charmaine also joined with ‘Mario Queen of the Circus’ for a short time (she admits her “favourite act so far”) but still hadn’t lost the spark for her own solo show, so returned to touring, now finding herself back on the Sunshine Coast … for the summer anyway. She reflects on her career so far, “I’m kind of where I was aiming – there is still more I want to do and where I want to go. But now I am doing the European summer, then back home here doing some corporate stuff. Sometimes I wonder how I got here. But you just take one step at a time. I feel so, so, lucky to have made a career out of performing.” When I ask how she feels when she is standing in front of an audience in the middle of a stage, Charmaine says, “I feel at home. I tour so much and that is the only consistent thing in my life! [On stage] there is no space for anything in your head other than right now. It’s like saying, ‘This is me and I’m open and exposed’. Ironically, I feel really safe with it.” “I feel really quite content with life right now – I feel really lucky that I’ve met the people I’ve met and had support from a lot of different people – they’ve given me direction, a leg up,” she reflects. And lastly, I ask Charmaine if she will ever hang up her travelling hat and settle in one place. She puts it simply, “If I ever stopped moving, the people I count as my closest friends are spread all over the planet and I wouldn’t be able to see them … I live in the world.” And what a lucky world indeed.
The Strong Lady Show Betty Brawn delights audiences around the world, from families in the morning through to late night adult audiences with champagne in hand. This theatrically-trained strong lady brings the sideshow to town, delivering her incredible stunts, not in the brutish style of a Strongman, but with the elegance of a true Strong Lady. The Strong Lady show is available as a 30-minute outdoor show or variety / gala / corporate acts of five to 25 minutes. The show has been a joyful, explosive and exciting addition to events through Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand since it debuted in 2005. You will laugh, gasp and walk away smiling from this whole-hearted celebration of femininity and strength. For bookings visit the website or phone 0451 093 134.
For more information visit www.stronglady.com.au
Published on Apr 24, 2014
She’s feminine, elegant and graceful … and she can lift two grown men. Charmaine Childs is the Strong Lady’. Read about her spectacular one-...