INTERVIEW WITH VIVA LAS VEGAS
Viva Las Vegas is many things at once. She’s Liv (pronounced “leave”) Osthus, a 35-year-old Minnesotan and graduate of Williams College, a prestigious liberal arts college in Williamstown, Mass. She’s Coco Cobra, the sexually charged lead singer for Portland rockers Coco Cobra and the Killers. She’s a writer, an actress, a dancer, a spokesperson for the Portland stripping industry, a breast cancer survivor, and most recently, a published author – her first book, a memoir entitled MAGIC GARDENS, from Dame Rocket Press, has just been released. I first saw her perform — fully clothed — as part of a Back Fence PDX storytellers event. We met a few weeks before the book’s publishing date to talk about performing, writing, and dancing to Dylan.
DJ: How are you spending your days?
VL: Frantically juggling a lot of freelance writing. Plus I just started dancing again. And I tend bar two-days a week in a rock ‘n roll bar. That’s my passion. Rock ‘n roll.
DJ: You’re in a band.
VL: If I could quit everything else and just write music, I think I’d be more successful and happier.
DJ: Where are you dancing? Magic Gardens?
VL: Mary’s Club. I don’t really get along with the management at Magic Gardens.
DJ: Because of the book?
VL: No. When the book comes out maybe they’ll try to kill me. When you read the book, the manager is kind of the villain.
DJ: And now you’re doing the run-up on the press end?
VL: We’re planning a couple of parties, one here, one in Seattle. Then we’re doing a four-date tour out East. It’s a small press.
DJ: Do you write as Viva?
VL: Viva is my public character, so I do a lot of writing as Viva Las Vegas.
DJ: When I was looking for stuff, I found Liv , I found Liv Osthus, I found this New York Times piece…
DJ: The name connects with Viva somehow.
VL: It’s Norwegian for Viva, but people always screw it up. By default I’ve become Viva everywhere.
DJ: Do you ever feel there’s a time when it all has to be packaged as, ‘Here’s me…here’s what I do’?
VL: I do. And I struggle with that. We all think about our careers. I think that Viva Las Vegas has been good for my career, but the only way to take it further is with more notoriety. I don’t know if I want that, per say. I certainly don’t like how you pursue it. I’m very happy with the friends and notoriety and fame right now. The writing that Viva gets is a lot more interesting than the writing that Liv Osthus gets.
Right now, my extra energy is going into my book, which won’t earn that money. And my band is a hobby.
DJ: The book won’t earn money?
VL: Yeah, I mean, it’s a book. Books don’t earn money.
DJ: Do you think that’s the legacy of the book, just being a book. Do you think it could become a screenplay?
VL: A lot of people have been interested in screenplay rights. We actually wrote one for Sundance in February. It got through the first round of competition. It didn’t get accepted for the final. My friend and I were commissioned to turn it into a screenplay in five days. No one expected to get it through the first round.
DJ: Did you get commissioned to do the book around the time you found out about your cancer?
VL: I found a publisher around the time it was diagnosed, but the book has nothing to do with the cancer. It’s interesting…there’s more money in that industry for writing, if you can call writing about cancer an industry.
DJ: So you’d written it before you found a publisher.
VL: I’d been writing it for four or five years.
DJ: And the cancer’s become more of a back story thing?
VL: That’s my publicist’s idea, that you need five words, or whatever, that will come up on Google search. “Ah, the girl with breast cancer who has a book…how do I find her?” Breast cancer. Stripper. Book. Search..
I wrote an article for Portland Monthly about the cancer. It had a lot of readership.
DJ: What about dancing now?
VL: Well, I’ve been doing it for three weeks again. The first week was terrifying. I haven’t come out, put out a press release and said, “Look, I’m back.”
I’m still feeling it out. I find myself watching the customers thinking, “OK, what do you see? Are you noticing anything different?” Some of my old customers come in…they’re thrilled that I’m back. They know what’s happened. They think it’s great. But most of these guys have never seen me before. They don’t bring that to Mary’s Club with them. I certainly don’t bring it with me. This is my body now. It’s been through stuff. Bodies always go through stuff. There are scars here. The first time, last week, I heard somebody whispering to his friend, “Look, those are fake.”
I wasn’t about to be like, “Yeah, fuck you, I had surgery ’cause I had cancer.” You know? But it’s interesting.
DJ: How long did you step away?
VL: I took about a year off.
DJ: Did you think you’d come back?
VL: I thought maybe. I wasn’t sure. I had no idea. I was really very busy. When I saw the results after the surgery, I realized there was no reason I couldn’t. And after about a month of the surgery I was basically on stage naked with my band.
DJ: You get naked with your band too?
VL: Yeah. Coco Cobra is really different. When I slip into her I find myself doing things that neither Viva or Liv would do.
DJ: Tell me about that.
VL: About Coco?
DJ: About Liv, Viva and Coco. And any more that might be in there.
VL: There’s Lila Hamilton, who I only use to obfuscate everything. A group of strippers fought City Hall one year. We wanted to talk about dollar amounts and stuff, things I didn’t want revealed. So I used this proper name.
DJ: It should be like Lila Hamilton, Esquire.
VL: Yeah, right. She’s probably an attorney.
DJ: Or she’s taking night classes.
DJ: Tell me more about them.
VL: Coco Cobra has long black hair. Drag queen. Sky high platform heels. Almost always wears fishnets…sometimes only wears fishnets. All of her songs are about sex and fighting. She’s perpetually horny. I think the back story is they’re all from Detroit.
DJ: It’s you and the rest are men?
VL: All men. We were the Killers before the Killers. The guitar player has written almost all the songs. He was in a band called the Spider Babies that were famous for just offending people. These songs are along the same line. He came to the first practice with all these lines, and they’re just ridiculous. They are all about sex and fighting. I thought of the name. It just came. And Coco’s not me. These are not sincere thoughts….”I need sex, I need sex, I need sex.” They’re not…it doesn’t come from the heart. I’m sure it comes from Coco’s though.
DJ: And it’s not cabaret.
VL: It’s Rock. It’s like The Ramones.
DJ: That imaginary line between reality and comic book…
VL: Ramones are a great comic book. For some songs I can totally feel the emotion behind and interact with the crowd, but otherwise it’s campy. It gets a little boring.
I play solo sometimes when I have time, and I find that a lot more satisfying.
DJ: As whom?
VL: As Viva Las Vegas. I’m hoping to do more of that…play music, write songs, record albums. I love doing that. But I had to make money. Stripping was very regaling, and then I became the spokesperson for that industry, which is a role I still feel is very important.
DJ: You became the spokesperson here in Portland?
VL: I get interviewed all the time. Playboy comes to town, and I’m kind of the contact person.
DJ: How did that happen? Just a natural evolution?
VL: The Willamette Week had me on the cover about 12-years ago in a big debate about porn vs. feminism. It was me vs. a college girl from Brown. She was very upset about the number of strip clubs in town. She wrote a letter to the editor…
DJ: Did she know it was Ivy League vs. Ivy League?
VL: Oh yeah. Of course. They played that up. My dad’s a preacher, we’re both very polite, similar ages, etc.
When that happened, a lot of people instantly associated me with the industry. I mean, seven-years later in New York City, people came up to me and were like, “You were on the cover of Willamette Week.”
Exotic Magazine here in town then asked me to be their editor…they’d seen my columns in Willamette Week. So for eight-years I was editor of that magazine.
DJ: As Viva?
DJ: You have a pretty extensive catalogue.
VL: I should have a better website (laughs).
DJ: Is there a place where you want to “graduate” to, or a place where you’re only doing X couple of things, but not doing all the other stuff?
VL: I always want to be performing and writing. I think I need both. If one of those things could bring in enough money…that would be the place I’d want to be. Ideally I wouldn’t be in bars at all. Not dancing or bar tending. I love cabaret, I love theater.
DJ: When I saw you at Back Fence…
VL: Sheer terror…
DJ: Which is what I wanted to ask: you seemed bashful. Almost in a child kind of way. Rather than ask you who that was, out of these people, I want to ask what’s more terrifying for you, exposing your body or your emotions? Where do you have more terror?
VL: Baring your soul is way more terrifying. I’ve always loved theater for that reason. I am by nature a very bashful, very shy person. In middle school I didn’t even talk. Then I found the theater, which was the one place where I could inhabit a role and be loud, or be whatever was called for. Be upset. Be feminine. Be masculine. I really loved it.
And still…I studied anthropology. I like to observe. I always find myself going back to the notebook. Just kind of watching in the corner. So when Viva’s called upon to get up on stage, I’m like, “Oh, I have to shut the book and get up there.”
A good friend said she thinks I’m most innocent when I’m dancing.
DJ: So it becomes this tease…
VL: I always appreciated innocence on stage. I want to come from a place of innocence so other people do too. Then you connect and go from there. I love interacting with people and opening them up a little bit, then opening myself a little bit. That’s what I’m addicted to, stage-wise. The strip stage is great for that.
DJ: There is some soul that comes out there as well.
VL: More so than most of the other things. The other things are scripted. Especially Coco Cobra. Even maybe playing a song alone, because with a song people only get that bit of emotion. But dancing isn’t scripted. It’s improvised. I try to connect with each person. The conversation will range from travel to politics to Minnesota…I have my few “greatest hits”. You know, “:I’m from Minnesota, I love New York City, traveled all over the world.”
DJ: When you were 20 and studying anthropology, where did you think you’d wind up?
VL: I always wanted to play music. But I felt obliged to go to college. I was a national merit scholar…I had a free ride wherever I wanted to go. That was what my parents wanted. I hated the whole college thing.
DJ: Hated what?
VL: The privilege. I think I would have been better at a university. I didn’t like sitting down at a desk. Didn’t like reading very much. I liked meeting people. That’s how I learn. And traveling abroad was great. The rest of it was slogging through. The second I left I came out here. Stripping was quite largely a rebellion against academia and privilege.
DJ: What is your relationship with your family?
VL: It’s a pretty good relationship. They’re not thrilled with my occupation. My dad was much more accepting.
DJ: What was it like telling them? Or is that in the book?
VL: That’s in the book. It was bad.
My mom and I had had intellectual discussions about stripping throughout the summer (after graduating). I was really fascinated with the society’s hypocritical view of stripping, and the origin of that view. I was fascinated by “why”. These are entrepreneurial women working for themselves.
DJ: Was there a touch of your inner anthropologist that led you into stripping?
VL: Oh yeah.
DJ: From that observation roll?
I went to my first strip club on spring break, senior year. We were in New Orleans and I had to do it. I loved the environment. I loved the characters. The stripper, after her set – she was great…very mesmerizing, got down to a G-string – then she came over to our table, sat down with us three college girls, started asking all these questions. It broke down that fourth wall. It blew my mind. I really saw this untouchable performer, then the humanness of her came out.
DJ: That kind of brought you in?
VL: At the time I’d been studying a lot about how different cultures view sexuality, bodies and gender.
I set up an audition in my hometown that summer. My mom seemed to get my point about things. “Sure, this sounds interesting.” Then when I told her about the audition she said, “No way, not in this town!” And it wouldn’t have been good.
VL: Duluth. My dad has his church there.
DJ: Dylan’s birthplace.
VL: Yes it is!
DJ: Are you a big Dylan fan?
VL: Huge Dylan fan. I do a lot of covers.
DJ: Not as Coco, I take it.
VL: No, not as Coco. As myself.
DJ: All these performers inside you, they are all ways to express yourself. If there’s a time when you’re not performing, who’s that? What’s it like?
VL: I’m the anthropologist sitting in the corner. I spend a lot of time in solitude writing. But I can’t live with that. I’m super extroverted. I need to be meeting people. At the same time, that can be exhausting. I wind up putting it all into those communications. So I need to go home and process.
DJ: When you’re on stage, whether you’re Coco or Viva, does the anthropologist come in? Does your mind ever turn over where you start to examine what’s going on?
VL: I guess not. I love that area…I mean, I don’t judge anyone who comes into bars. In anthropology you tend to put people into cliques. I never say, “Oh, there’s a businessman who came through the door,” or, “there’s this kind of guy.” I have my little quips though.”
VL: For instance, if a guy in a suit comes in, or a whole clique of them, they’re usually the hardest customers. They can be awful. They think that they’re supposed to be a little rude. So I always say, “What liberal arts prep school did you guys go to?” Something that kind of puts them off. I have my little ways.
DJ: Do you ever wonder about how you’re viewed? Or does that matter?
VL: I don’t care what they’re thinking. I like connecting with people. I thrive on that. There will always be assholes. I try to ignore them as much as possible.
DJ: How do you know when you connect with someone?
VL: You feel it. They’re captivated. They’re in the moment with you. You can create the performance around that.
Some people really respond to the music. There’s something we really love – that can be the entree into conversation.
If somebody criticizes my music, that’s the worst. I freak out. Some guys are dicks. Those are the guys that come in to mistreat you. They’re in every bar, not just strip bars.
DJ: Have you ever danced to Dylan?
VL: Not so much. I find that doesn’t work for me in clubs. The ’66 Albert Hall version of “Let Me Follow You Down” – I like that one. It’s kind of loud.
Mostly, I think it might be too personal and message driven.
DJ: On average, about how many people per night fall in love with you?
DJ: Isn’t that the dream?
VL: It happens all the time. But it happens just as much in regular bars as it does in clubs. I tend to be too friendly, maybe.
In a strip club, most people know…99% of them know that they’re never going to get your phone number. But a few still fall.
DJ: Do people approach it?
VL: No. Never. It’s Victorian in there. Guys hit on you a lot more in regular bars. Guys don’t hit on you in strip clubs. Unless they’re very young and very dumb.