Ursula Martinez: Naked ambition

When the performance artist Ursula Martinez stripped off on stage, she became a YouTube sensation. She tells Maxie Szalwinska how the shock of cyber-fame inspired her new show
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Ursula Martinez steps on to a podium to perform the final part of Hanky Panky, the magic strip tease that has made her a cult figure. There is a second of total silence. You'd think she'd whipped a pistol out.

This is the sound of the audience realising that Martinez, after gradually discarding all her clothes, is about to make a red hankie vanish and reappear even though she is not wearing a stitch. How? Take a guess. There are amazed gasps and guffaws as she produces it from what her website euphemistically refers to as "a truly magical place".

Counting the dropped jaws among the crowd at La Clique, the cutting edge variety show Martinez often appears in, is almost as much of a hoot as watching Hanky Panky itself. The number is as absurdly funny as it is sexy (Martinez's eyes roll like snooker balls throughout). It is also an inspired deconstruction of a strip that manages to make the spectators feel every bit as naked as the performer. The highly skilled Martinez is never anything but in control, while the unsuspecting audience often doesn't know where to look.

Martinez says she never feels vulnerable performing live on stage. But she did when someone posted a film of her five-minute-long strip on YouTube three years ago. She discovered that she had acquired a global following because some strange emails started popping up in her inbox. This weird fan mail has become the raw material for Martinez's new solo show, My Stories, Your Emails, which opens at London's Barbican next Tuesday.

Martinez has now received more than 1000 emails, 98 per cent of which are from men. Reading through a small selection of them, some are endearingly nerdy (one is from a maths teacher in South Carolina, whose hobbies include learning Vietnamese and listening to the outpourings from his radio scanner). Some are funny: a middle-aged civil servant from Denmark congratulates the performance artist on the "absurde [sic] and surprising humour" of her act, and goes on to type "I have written this in pure inthusiasm and if me spelling goes completely wrong, it´s because im danish and didn´t have time to find my vocabulary". Others are downright creepy: "the fact that you make my cock throb and squirt doesn't take anything away from the artistic quality of your show," writes one internet charmer.

There is a long pause when Martinez is asked when she started to find the emails fascinating. "Gosh, it took me a while," she says finally. "I went through a phase of morbidly reading them. That sent me into an absolute state of vulnerability, anxiety, almost violation. Then I went through a period of filtering them because reading them was working me up." After 18 months, she "kind of chilled out about it" and used some of the emails as the basis for a short scratch performance and slideshow, from which the new hour-long show has grown. By then, she was thinking "bring on this material". She even wrote back to a few of her fans, which resulted in some bizarre conversations (these, along with some of the pictures she was sent, are in the version at the Barbican too).

Martinez presents the performance like a lecture, juxtaposing her view of the world and how the world – via the internet – views her. In the first half, she tells a selection of autobiographical stories and anecdotes about herself and her family. We find out about her mum, her dad and, say, the neighbour who tries to sell them some potatoes. In the second half we encounter the strangers who have sent Martinez emails. "I thought it would be a richer show if the audience get to meet me before they see what is projected on to me by other people," says Martinez.

She doesn't make any overt comments about the men who wrote to her, but she does "draw a conclusion about who they are and what I think they sound like," she says. "We all draw conclusions about people based on limited information. [These men] contacted me almost in the same way you would contact someone via an internet dating site. In their responses to me they're also saying a lot about themselves."

If Martinez is sending these chaps up – which she doesn't believe she is – she hastens to add that she is also "taking the piss out of myself, my parents, and the world I live in. That's an important counterbalance: I'm not afraid to reveal myself and laugh at myself."

Martinez has "her commercial wing, doing glitzy shows and swanky celebrity birthday parties," says theatre producer Simon Casson, "but she also gets down and dirty on the performance arts scene." She kicked off her career in experimental theatre in the mid 90s. As well as touring the world with La Clique's troupe of acrobats, contortionists, jugglers, and singers, Martinez has produced a trilogy of very personal works. Anyone who has seen A Family Outing, Show Off or OAP knows that her brand of navel-gazing is infinitely more interesting that most people's.

Her 1998 debut show, A Family Outing, written with long-time collaborator Mark Whitelaw, was a unique hybrid of game show, stand-up comedy and family photo album, which saw Martinez quizzing her real-life parents on stage. This included her asking them what they make of her being a lesbian. "I can't remember what I'm supposed to say," ummed her father, before being handed a list of right-on answers.

The result was achingly funny, but more remarkable still, Martinez managed to slip in profound questions about family relationships and the nature of theatre among the hilarity. (Her father, who was a bemused yet benevolent presence in A Family Outing, poignantly reciting Shakespeare's "Seven Ages of Man" speech, died a few weeks ago.)

The question of just how much Martinez is really revealing about herself hovers insistently over all of her work. Reviewers tend to write about her hugely engaging, yet "carefully contrived" persona. "It's funny, I don't feel like my persona is contrived," says Martinez. "The shows are carefully crafted. My delivery is rehearsed, and I know where to put a comedy pause in. But I am me as much as possible, and the stories are true. Not acting is important to me."

Casson, who worked with Martinez on the Olivier Award-winning C'est Duckie!, saw My Stories, Your Emails when it premiered in Manchester last year. The show soon won him over. "The second half of the piece is about men's loneliness and their confusion about desire in relation to women they don't know," says Casson. "She's not a bitch about these funny fellows who have sent her emails. She looks at their desires in a detached way, and they seem ridiculous, and that's fantastically tragic."

When Martinez came up with her comic strip tease about ten years ago, she had no notion that it would become such a success on the cabaret circuit, let alone an internet cult. She remembers exactly how she got the idea. She had a cocktail party in her flat with some performer friends. "There was quite a lot of alcohol involved, and it ended up being a party-piece entertainment evening," she says. Martinez had known the disappearing silk handkerchief illusion since she was a teenager. She started doing the trick, "and it all got a bit, you know, kind of drunk and naked." Nursing her hangover the following morning, she was thinking about the vanishing hankie and the removal of clothes, and Hanky Panky came to her in a flash. "The act arrived in the world almost fully formed," she says. Another cabaret turn called Light My Fire, performed as part of Duckie's kitsch show Office Party in 2007, a recreation of a Christmas work bash, saw a drunk and lairy-looking Martinez set fire to her bra with a cigarette.

Surely, there is an element of gleeful revenge to her new show? "I've reclaimed the control that I lost when my act went on the internet," says Martinez. "It's not a personal revenge against any individual in the slightest. I'm also celebrating the people who wrote to me: a lot of them are charming, loveable and funny. I found a perfect way to no longer be upset about the fan mail that came my way."

Martinez is tight-lipped about whether she performs Hanky Panky as part of My Stories, Your Emails. All she'll say is that the show has "an anticlimax, which is the climax." Will she ever hang up her red hankie and thong and call it quits? "I will retire at some point. Or maybe not," she grins. "Maybe it will just turn into a freak show, and I'll be happy with that. Roll up, roll up! Come and see the amazing 75-year-old stripping lady!"

My Stories, Your Emails, Barbican Pit, London EC2 (020 7638 8891) 2 to 13 February