If you’ve ever wanted to know how a nice Jewish girl like Merrill Nisker became Peaches, the new feature film slash documentary “Peaches Does Herself” won’t exactly connect the dots for you.
If you’d like to see Peaches and her Fatherfucker Dancers reenact her rise to fame—complete with a giant bed that looks like a vulva, dancers in pink zentai that are orgiastically unzipped, and a surgery gone awry, then Peaches Does Herself offers all of that and more. Besides Peaches and her dancers, “Peaches Does Herself” stars Sandy Kane, of New York City public access fame—she’s a former stripper in her sixties who wields a dildo and a filthy mouth—and Danni Daniels, a transgender porn star who plays the singer’s lover.
On stage and screen, Peaches is a glittery trickster, on a mission to screw with our perceptions of gender, aging, and female sexual desire. In real life, she’s petite and personable, and although she definitely looks like a rock star—the mohawk streaked blonde, the silver meat cleaver pendant, the all-black ensemble—it’s seems oddly normal to hang out with her and chat in a conference room during the day.
So, um, thank you for representing badass Jewish ladies—I think we kind of get a bad rap about being hot and sexy and cool –
And speaking our minds.
Yeah, we get a lot of shit for that, right?
Yeah, absolutely. But really, it’s ’cause they love it…/ In the way that people love when people speak their mind and are themselves. Because I’m me. It’s not that I’m a cold, hard bitch; it’s that I’m doing my thing. Are you gonna come along or not? ‘Cause that’s what it is.
There always has to be—hopefully many someones—that are gonna be like, in society, saying the stuff that everyone else wants to say but is afraid to.
I’m not saying anything people—I don’t understand how people can not say things. How they sleep at night when they don’t say those things, you know? It’s weird. But I didn’t grow up in America.
You’re one of my favorite Canadian Jews. You and David Cronenberg.
Oooooh, that’s nice company.
Tell me what it’s like creating art in Berlin versus other cities.
It’s a cool place to live. There’s a lot of space, still. I’m very fortunate. I have a cheap studio space that’s really big in an old—I have this fingernail I don’t know what to do with, I’m gonna do that [flicks a piece of fingernail]—you know, I used to have my studio space in an old squat that was turned into like a cool place and then turned kind of sour, but I had a space in there any way. And then another kind of abandoned building that we turned into spaces, and then another cool place—you know, like, all these weird awesome places. Right now, I have [a studio] in an old public swimming pool, and I have the old showers and sauna, so it’s funny and weird, with a big, deep pool, but nothing works. It’s just for music.
People come there because they wanna work on their art, they wanna, you know, be bohemian or whatever. I just kind of moved there ’cause a small label was interested in me. I really was not thinking about the whole history of burlesque performance dating back to, like, the twenties and thirties. I wasn’t thinking about David Bowie. I wasn’t thinking about that stuff, to be honest. People are like, “Yeah, right! Bullshit, Peaches!” No, I actually wasn’t. When I arrived and I was doing my thing in Berlin, it was something—something was changing there again. There’s always something changing. In the 80s, the Wall was up, and on the West, people loved that there was that decadence because there was that edge of, right over the Wall is completely opposite. As extreme as possible. Really feeling the freedom of the West, even though they were kind of an island, you know, in Berlin, surrounded on all sides.
And then the 90s, of course, when the Wall was down and all artists moving into the East, sort of Mad Max world, and now it’s more like, turning into a little bit of hipster Disneyland. I’m not bitter; it’s still great. There’s still a lot of space. There’s still a lot of places to go. Untouched areas and things like that. There’s a little Brooklyn there, somehow. Not that I’m—I’m just noticing, of course, there’s a lot more English. And in my area, that used to be cool where I lived, now it’s all just families and babies. And I’m away a lot, so I’ll come back and be like, “Oh, I hear another baby being born!” I don’t want to sound bitter; I’m just telling you observations.
I recently was part of a program at the Jewish Museum. It was a modern interpretation of questions, because the Jewish way is to always answer questions with questions. And it was based upon a quote from a rabbi. I’m not gonna get it right, but it was something like, “Rabbi, why do Jewish people always answer a question with a question?” “Why not?” Or something like that. So the whole exhibition was based on questions, like, with an artistic answer, so there were things like, what is being kosher? Or, can you really tell what a Jew looks like? Some things, Jewish people would be like, “What the fuck, I can’t believe they went there!” So it was like that.
And the most controversial thing they had was a plexi-glass box, and under it said, “Are there Jews in Germany?” And they invited a Jewish person to sit there for two hours so people could come up and talk to them about what it’s like to be Jewish. I was like, “What?! I need to do that.” Because I don’t know what that is. So I actually got to do that on the last day, and it was really interesting because, you know, there’d be like these German people from all over. First of all, they’re in the Jewish Museum, so they’re already open. It’s not like, you know. I’d be, like, “HI!” [looks askance, affects German accent] “Hello…” Nobody talks to you. They’re a little bit like, “Hello…” Germans [are] kind of reserved. I’m like, “Where you from?” “Heidelberg….” You know, and I’m like, “Oh! Lotta Jews where you grew up?” “No…” “Ever meet a Jew?” “No…” You tell a New Yorker that, they’re like, “Pass the sugar.”
So if you think about it, there’s 200,000 Jews in a population of 80 million in Germany.
I read recently that, I can’t remember the statistics, but it was a study in Europe of how many people were afraid or reluctant to say that they were Jewish.
[assistant enters with coffee]
I grew up in Texas, and there were a lotta Jews in Texas, if you would believe that.
[Peaches sniffs the coffee.]
Is it bad?
I don’t know, it smells garlicky. Maybe she burped and then gave it to me. I’m gonna let it air out a bit. Or the person who made it burped in it. All right. [laughs]
Well, it’s New York.
No, it’s just the coffee! Now it smells like coffee.
Okay, good. Yeah, it’s a weird thing to think that –
Yeah, it’s just a weird thing, especially growing up in Toronto or spending a lot of time in New York. It’s just strange. And it’s strange to be a Jew at this time, this day and age, too, because you’re not, you know, it’s not like you’re kind of—you’re not the victim, in any sense [laughs]. And it’s controversial.
And it’s like, is it an identity? Like, I don’t go to shul.
I don’t keep kosher.
I’m psyched for the full moon tomorrow. Like, whatever.
Yeah, why not? Of course. Any organized religion. You just think like, what does that really mean? And I grew up, like—I did not have Christmas. I did not have access to Christmas. It doesn’t mean anything to me. The cross doesn’t mean anything to me, although I’m wearing an upside down cross today, but that’s a better sort of—
It’s more flattering.
It’s more flattering. So, you know, I don’t have this, like, “But it’s Christmas!” Actually, it doesn’t mean anything to me. And people kind of get angry at me, like, “What do you mean?!” I’m not trying to play any sort of controversy, it just doesn’t mean anything to me. An image of Jesus, of Mary, they don’t mean—I don’t have that nostalgia. I didn’t grow up with that. And then people say, “Well, you did ‘Peaches Christ Superstar’…. the whole ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ as a one-woman show. What was that about? Were you trying to grapple with religion?” No, I think that that musical is just [a] powerful story of a human being trying to tell people, “Hey, we gotta be good to each other, or else shit’s gonna go down!” And then people starting to mistrust [each other]. Don’t we see that in every form of human life, in relationships, in bullying in school, in goverments? Fuckin’ shutdowns! [laughs] It’s like, that’s just the situation where people are not trusting. Like, all the fear about Obamacare. A Canadian finds that just completely ridiculous.
It’s total bullshit. It’s unbelievable.
Your documentary—it ends with this awesome–
Oh, don’t give away the ending!
Okay, I won’t! But let’s just say, “Fuck the Pain Away.”
Well, of course you know it’s gonna end with “Fuck the Pain Away” because that’s the song everybody’s waiting for. I’m the “Fuck the Pain Away” girl. I know that. It’s okay. It’s allowed me to do whatever the fuck I want, which is great.
Are you ever like, “I don’t wanna fuck the pain away. I wanna go take a Xanax and a hot bath.”
Sure, of course. But first I’ll fuck the pain away. [laughs] I mean, if you gotta be stuck to a job or something, you know, I’m pretty lucky. I’m so happy that that’s my signature song.
Oh, I just meant literally.
Yeah, of course. I know what you meant. But I was just bringing it back to the performance. That’s why it’s kind of deconstructed—like, you know why the ending [of “Peaches Does Herself”] happens that way, too. Which for some people, I’m sure they’re like, “I’ve never heard this song, and why is it happening like this, and this is whoah,” or whatever.
You’ve got Sandy Kane and Danni Daniels, who’s exquisite, and this sort of stage play with full frontal dick-shakin’ everything. What was the response…?
Banned from iTunes in Canada, even before we started anything else. I mean, there’s full frontal tranny nudity in Hangover 2, but it’s only from—it’s not a main character.
Right, and it’s not sort of celebrated. I didn’t see Hangover 2, or maybe I did and forgot.
Yeah, you’re right. It’s a celebration. It’s not like, “WHOAH!!!! A dude!”
She’s exquisite. A lot of people kind of find offense with the word “tranny,” and in the write-up, the media blast uses the term “she-male.” Is that something…?
Yeah, I actually didn’t use the term “she-male” so…
Is that a word that you think is loaded?
I’m sure that any—in different levels, people find all words loaded, you know? And only transsexuals can say “tranny,” and anybody else can’t. Like, certain groups can only—you know, if we’re Jews, we can call ourselves kikes but nobody else should say that, you know? Whatever. So, yeah, I’m not an expert on that so I can’t say what everybody—I’m not trying to offend anybody in that, I’m trying to celebrate it. And I know that Danni is not offended being called a him or a her. It’s like, “No, that’s fine.” I have to go with Danni—you have to go with what the people you’re working with or who you’re relating to.
I went to Sarah Lawrence, so I’m always like, “Ahhh!”
Sarah Lawrence! JD Samson went there.
She, I believe, lived in my dorm one year. Some of your more recent songs have dealt with aging. Sandy Kane, I felt like all these different feelings when I saw her, and I know that has a lot to do with my own feelings about aging. Like, uncomfortable, do I laugh, do I cry, what do I do?
And, I mean, Sandy’s not acting. That’s just Sandy. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen her or seen her in Times Square, because she’s the Naked Cowgirl in Times Square every day, and that’s Sandy’s life. That’s her. She’s really—that’s the real deal. You can’t really direct her. Like, it was a big deal for her to be part of someone else’s [project] or to even leave America, you know? And actually, we got quite close, because she’s quite guarded. I really wanted to show Sandy as she is, because I feel like maybe—and I’ve said this in a lot of interviews already—maybe if I was born when Sandy was, maybe I would have been more like Sandy. Or is that my future? In a different sort of generational sense. And then, you know, Danni is also not an actor or really into performance—Danni does porn. That’s what Danni does… She used to be a ballet dancer. They really had to be themselves. That’s important to me.
I was having brunch with one of my best friends, and we were talking about, like, I don’t want to call anyone out but—someone we grew up admiring, someone we dressed up as in our bedrooms, taking out all our slutty clothes and dancing to her pop music, and we were kind of hoping to have someone to show us how to age fiercely, and maybe that person isn’t, really…
I think it’s difficult for that person that you’re talking about [laughs]…. Hopefully people will look at that person and how they dealt with aging and then find a new way. But it’s really not fucking easy ’cause you don’t look as—yeah, “your inner beauty,” whatever, but you’ve got fucking wrinkles. I look at my face and I go, “Oh my God, I do not look young.” Sometimes I go out, like, yes, I’m appreciated if I go to a club or anything, but definitely, like, whatever, I’m fully confident, but then I’ll be like, “They’re fucking going, ‘Who’s that old bitch in the club?'”
My friends and I, we’re approaching our forties, early forties or whatever, and we’re like, okay, how are we gonna be feminist and badass and sexy?
Exactly. But there’s some really good role models, and there’s—I don’t know if this is a good example, but I was watching the new “American Horror” –
I was gonna ask you if you liked that!
And right now it’s so fucking cool with the older women! Jessica Lange is kicking ass. She’s always kicked ass, ever since “Frances,” you know, that Frances Farmer movie is crazy good. And now she’s kicking ass again. I think even in this season I like her more ’cause she’s more like a modern woman. She’s doing cocaine and telling everybody to fuck off. And then Angela Bassett, like, hot. Isn’t she like 50? She’s looks amazing. But whatever, whatever they look like, they’re giving a personality to that age. Catherine Keener, she’s not in the series, but I’m just saying, will forever be a great role model. When did you ever see her wearing makeup? [laughs] … I fully feel like someone like Ellen Page—you can tell she’s just going to be herself… She’s just a fantastic, I don’t want to say role model, she’s just, like, doing her thing and being real. So that’s the thing. We just have to be out there…
More and more, we have to realize that, I don’t want to use the word marketplace, but there’s just an interest—women who are 40 and older, they’re smart and they’re independent and they have a life and it’s not like—my new thing is like, mid-life crisis? That’s a bunch of bullshit. Why is it called a crisis if you’re kind of figuring out that there’s like a post-adult? So from your twenties, you just start figuring out that everything’s like, wow, so fresh, but then you turn forty, you’re like, oh, now I’m just supposed to hand it over? And a lot of the women, their kids are grown up. It’s like, oh, I can have another life. Gotta start having that life, you know?
I love that you watch “American Horror Story.”
Well, I don’t know why or what. I just love Jessica Lange so much. And I didn’t know that this season would be so—and it’s funny, with the young girl [Taissa Farmiga] with her [clears throat] power—it’s so “Liquid Sky,” which is one of my favorite movies.
Yes! “My pussy has teeth.”
She’s like, “I kill with my pussy.” That’s what that was!
Jenni Miller has been writing for fun and profit since the age of six and can be found bathing in the glow of the silver screen, playing video games, inhaling books, and examining pop culture with a savvy, feminist eye for a variety of publications. This interview was lightly edited. Photos by Vanda Marques and Laurence Barnes.