50 over 50 interviewees – Natalie Hunt- Madame Zucchini

  1.   Tell us more about yourself. What do you do and how long you’ve been working in this industry?

I’m Madame Zucchini, I use vegetables to entertain and engage, creating characters with vegetables and fruit. I perform a kind of ‘vegetable cabaret’, devise my own movie-inspired shows like Star Wars with Leek Skywalker and Darth Tater, or Pirates of the Carrotbean with Cap’n Jack Marrow and Kiwi Knightley..

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I also take my gazebo of delights to events where I encourage people to make veg characters and maybe see veg in a different way. Vegetables are my tools – a medium to bring out people’s creativity and have fun with them.  I’ve been making a living doing this for the last 8 years

I work mostly at family events, but I also entertain adults in cabarets, sometimes in schools & public health/wellbeing/community settings. I believe that such a creative activity can be therapeutic not just for kids but adults too. And the best thing is I get to eat my characters at the end of the show (Best not to let on to them pre-show though- it tends to ruin their performance)

  1.  Who did you want to be when you were a kid?

I can’t remember a particular person, but I always loved making up stories. Sometimes with quite dark content…..

I loved shows like the Muppets, Playaway, books about monsters, anything which fed my imagination. I used to draw characters in rainbow colours and create routines to soundtracks like Jaws, which was one of our fave films at the time.

I spent a lot of time outdoors in the fields, and at my Dad’s Fruit & Veg Warehouse, our family business, snaffling all the fruit and peas I could without being spotted.

I also took inspiration from my mum’s shop – she started with a wig shop, Bewigged by Eithne, then bric-à-brac, and finally furnishings and antiques – she had a great quirky creative flair and a sense of fun. I think Madame Zucchini is a fusion of my parents’ qualities… and a bit of me of course..

  1.   What was your ‘punch in the stomach’ or when did you first realise that this is going to become your career?

I’d always enjoyed performing at school and was gradually finding myself more attracted to bringing humour into my work. I was a Community Development Worker when 10 years ago I stumbled upon the fabulous Cabaret Boom Boom in Walkley, Sheffield. The joy of seeing artists in costume, with props, entertaining the audience… I thought: I want to do that!

Within a short period of time, I’d come up with the character of Madame Zucchini, a local eccentric who loves vegetables so much that she sees them as a part of every aspect of her life. I did my first 5 mins on stage at the local cabaret. It went down so well that I was encouraged to do more. It felt as if she had been waiting to come out all my life, somehow.

I came up with material for children like Red Riding Hood, which I performed at local community events, but I also explored more adult/niche pop culture topics and created shows inspired by the Brokeback Mountain and the Archers for the local cabaret scene.

Two years later when funding for the project I was working for as a Community Development worker ran out, I decided to take the leap and become a self-employed Vegetable Entertainer. I was then in my mid-forties. It was the prompt i needed to make the leap, terrifying as it was.

  1.  What were the 3 biggest obstacles in pursuit of your career?

I don’t see this in the past tense as I’d never known I wanted to do this. I just decided to go for it when the crunch came.

  1. Having enough money to remain in the Arts is key obviously. I’ve made it work by having a low key lifestyle and trying to create material that events will pay for, i.e. entertainment within rather a niche area.  
  2. I had no formal training or background in the arts so I had to find my own way as to what would work. This means that I am often learning on the job, which is exhilarating but also exhausting. The difficulties are, of course, having to do everything – admin, create material, marketing and finance. It’s all fine on a good day, but an onerous burden on a tired one.  
  3. I would say a lot of the barriers can come from unhelpful self-talk and comparing yourself to others. I have to keep reminding myself that it’s my unique qualities that will make it work for me and I don’t need to be like other people. Initially, I had much more work in the spring–autumn, but with the addition of my Sparkly Sprout act, I can now work all year round.
  1.  Where do you find inspiration?

The greengrocers, markets (looking for prize specimens!), social media, celebrities, the political world and my audiences/followers, who are always keen to contribute material in a supportive way.

My Hot Political Potato Game show has evolved out of the last two years of the political scene, starting with the character of Boris Butternut, then Theresa Maize, and finally a whole lineup of Veg Politicians in a kind of coconut shy. I invite people to throw potatoes at them. It’s gone down excellently in cabaret and outdoor events.

I’ve evolved a lot of different themes… even a Victorian one for a recent event I did at the Piece Hall in Halifax, with Napoleon Bona-parsnip, Beatrix Potato, Bramley Stalker and more.

Being part of the Cabaret Boom Boom team means I get to collaborate in shows we put on together, and I enjoy helping make the shows work, but also devising and working in a team. I also get to see countless performers, which gives me a chance to explore things I would like to try and realise what wouldn’t work for me.

  1.  What challenges do you face in this industry as a ‘50+ artist’?

I can’t really compare myself to a younger performer, as I started relatively late, in my 40’s. I hope Mme Z’s character will develop with age. I do think about about how long I’ll be able to carry on doing this, in terms of physical energy and how I might be perceived as an older entertainer. (Daft, I know, when you see all the fabulous older women who are performing, but there you are.)

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I hadn’t realised how physical this job would be – lots of kit and vegetables to lift and transport, driving all over the country to events. I recently fractured my right hand and needed help for a couple of months to do all of this. Friends who helped expressed surprise at how physical the job is. The entertainment is only a small element of the whole, so you need to keep fit and well.

For as long as I’m able to adapt and survive – I will. Although, as I never knew I could be a vegetable entertainer, who knows what might be in store for me next.

One particular key moment was my Britain’s Got Talent experience a couple of years ago. Have a look at the clip to see how Simon liked his cauliflower effigy. I didn’t leave the house for a couple of days after my audition, but I now see how amazing it was that I dared to be different on mainstream TV. I got a lot of love back from people too.

  1.   What advice would you give someone who is about to start their career but is being told that it’s ‘too late’?

I would say persevere. If you feel you are driven to do this, then that’s what you must do. Your heart will die a little bit if you don’t.

I believe we all know deep in our hearts what’s best for us, but we often need support and encouragement to follow through.

  1.    Do you have any idols and if so, who and why?

Miranda Hart comes to mind – I’d already started making my creatures when I saw her Fruit friends on her sitcom. It startled me as it was similar to what i was doing, but also made me feel a bond with her: as well as her style of comedy, breaking the fourth wall, and it turns out we even share the same birthday.

I also greatly admire Lorraine Bowen, Barbara Nice and Nina Conti. All of them for their humour, warmth and skills. There are so many fantastic women out there in fact! I keep my eye out for acts that might work at Cabaret Boom Boom.

  1. What’s your life motto?

There’s something for everyone in the veg box… just have a rummage and see what you find 😉

  1. You’re a new addition to the crayon box. What colour would you be and why?

Rainbow crayon of Zucchini green, Purple Aubergine, Pumpkin Orange, Red Pepper, Banana Yellow! Fresh, zesty, cool as a cucumber, playful and unexpected with lots of contrasts 😉

If you like the sound of Madame Zucchini and as she says, ‘her vegetable nonsense’, follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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