Evening Standard (London) , July 26th, 2001
Warhol's Last Great Superstar
by Samantha Ellis
SHE was Andy Warhol's last superstar and the woman with whom Quentin Crisp identified the most. At 51, the writer, actress, monologist and performance poet Penny Arcade (aka Susana Ventura) is truly the queen of New York bohemia.
She was discovered at 17 by Jamie Andrews, who later helped David Bowie go from folkie to glam rocker. "I was crossing the street in Provincetown and this car almost ran me over, so I leaned in the window and said: 'It would be very tacky to be killed by a 1967 Chevrolet.' Jamie chased me and brought me to John."
"John" was boho theatre guru John Vaccaro, and her debut performance in his seminal queer theatre company Playhouse of the Ridiculous was the start of "an extremely long apprenticeship, working with the greats of downtown experimental theatre". It took her to Warhol's Factory - the epicentre of hypercool in Sixties New York - and to Women in Revolt, starring opposite Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling.
"I chose the name Penny Arcade when I was coming down from LSD," she recalls.
"I used to say very earnestly that I was saving Susana Ventura for when I was doing something good. But it took so long, I got stuck.
"As a teenager, I hung out with Roger Vadim and Jane Fonda. I have natural 34DD breasts and a pretty face but I didn't want to be like Jane. I wanted to be like Roger, a person who created stuff."
Steeped in Sixties and Seventies lore, she has conducted a series of interviews with "amazing New Yorkers who are the real bohemia" called Stemming the Tide of Cultural Amnesia. She is most proud of being "the only person from that era to do my own writing and have my own vocabulary."
She went solo in 1982 with her improvised monologues, outbursts of tragicomedy reminiscent of Lenny Bruce in their refusal to compromise.
She's hit raw nerves ever since, from her sex and censorship show Bitch!
Dyke! Faghag! Whore! to Sex, Politics, Reality from which she performs excerpts at Vauxhall's Duckie club on Saturday.
She rages about the death of bohemia, reserving vitriol for people who think they can be bourgeois bohemians. "That's like being an atheist Catholic. It's why I hate postmodernism; it's the end of language, it's decay. A bourgeois bohemian is a bourgeois person pretending. People having the same tattoos to look 'different'."
Her next target is women. "I'm sick of hearing about the patriarchy - what about the matriarchy? It's offensive and persecuting, because political correctness comes from the matriarchy."
Nevertheless, she sticks with the sisterhood. Her main reason for crossing the Atlantic is to play Ladyfest, a women's arts movement that came out of the American post-riot-grrrl wave. It started in Olympia, Washington, last year and has swept the United States; next month, Glasgow becomes the first European city to host a Ladyfest.
"The Ladyfest movement is a sincere attempt to bring together women who are making art. When I was 17, there were a handful of girls who had the nerve to be outspoken. In 1967, three drag queens and I wore glitter; now my eight-year-old niece wears glitter."
In Warhol's words, she is a "deeply superficial person", as committed to glitter as she is to gritty politics. "I talk about hard things but I'm actually shallow, superficial and frivolous. Or I would be if life would let me."
Penny Arcade performs at Duckie, SE11, on Saturday (020 7737 4043); the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, 3-7 August (0131 220 4349); the Gilded Balloon, 8-12 August (0131 226 2428); at Ladyfest on 14 August (0141 332 4400).