Margrét Erla Maack – sometimes known as Miss Mokki – is a performer, producer, television personality, DJ, mistress of ceremonies, columnist, dance teacher and, perhaps most prominently, a burlesque performer in her native Iceland. We met in Reykjavík to talk about small towns, creative inspiration and body positivity.
You're one of the busiest people I know, with a lot of fingers in many pies. I hate that expression... but for want of a better one... how did you get your start as a performer?
I was seven when my parents asked me if I wanted to take dance classes or learn to play an instrument and I chose ballet because of the stage, costume, lights and all that. I lived for the brief time on stage and it kept me going through twelve years of dance classes. Then I was in a movie when I was fourteen... but my road to what I am doing now stems from belly dance which I became quite good at.
So it was a natural step from belly dance to burlesque?
Yeah. In the same week I got dumped, I won the Icelandic lottery. This was in 2007. So I decided to go to New York. I met the The Whitest Kids You Know, Seth Herzog and Reggie Watts and other comedians, and Reggie got me an audition at The Box. I did several gigs there as a belly dancer and that was my first exposure to burlesque. When I moved back home Reggie told me he'd hate it if I simply went back to school. He said "You have a whole scene to make". So as soon as I got back home I saw an ad for free circus classes. Those classes became the base of Sirkus Íslands, the first Icelandic circus, where I first got a chance at true variety and later burlesque work.
Whenever I come to Reykjavík I'm always surprised at how people can't really walk up the street without stopping and catching up with each other. It's such a small town and you're kind of famous here. Was it nerve-wracking, showing your nakedness on stage for the first time?
I did that before fame, so that's not the issue anymore. I think also the fact that we don't allow photography helps. People are there in the moment, and photos of me getting out and people getting the wrong idea won't happen. I consider my burlesque comic, and my body is part of that comedy.
I was amazed to learn that your Dad is a priest.
Not a priest, actually. I think that's the Catholic term. He wouldn't have me or be married. But he is a Lutheran minister. He is a very special and loving father. After he got ordained he's never been bound to one church, but worked within the rehab community and later for social services. In the later years he got himself a teacher degree. He can marry people and baptize, but he's always considered his work best "in the field." Doing what he does he's not a judging man, he has been with people at their most unhappy and horrible moments in life. I was not raised to be a quiet, ladylike person. I was raised to speak up, not be codependent, and my parents always said "Shy people don't get as far as they want to." So my upbringing was never leading to be a good christian wife, you know? I was raised to have a voice, to talk in front of people, to be myself. And I am thankful for that. I am not religious, but if I was I'd use the fact that my body is the creation of God, so why would it be horrible showing it off?
You're known in Iceland as a familiar face on television, but have held back from that in recent times. Why?
Television was a daytime job for me, and it was taking its toll on the work I loved doing. I also found out I was not getting a decent paycheck, unlike my male co-workers... so it was an easy decision to make. I actually gave them a chance to raise my salary to match the men but I was told "Do you know how many girls would like to have your job?"
Yeah. They actually called me a girl, I was thirty-one years old! So I sat down, figured out how many gigs I'd need to make up for that monthly paycheck, and it was easy. So on my next birthday I handed in my resignation. Since signing off I never put on pants before noon. I have time to save money, and I have time to breathe and travel... and I can gain weight and lose it without being on screen everyday and strangers speculating on my possible pregnancy.
Biggest inspiration for creativity?
I wish I had a solid answer for that question. Sometimes it's music, sometimes it's a piece of a costume I want to play with. I am a firm believer that ideas need to be spoken about, so I love creating within a group, like Reykjavík Kabarett or my group of students. I love how a vague idea grows wings within a group of people and then eventually it becomes an act.
Tell us about teaching and what you get from it.
I get so inspired by my students, I really shouldn't be charging them. I teach mostly women and all the classes I teach have to do with confidence and working with your body. Not to become something else, thinner, sexier... who cares... but just to be who you are. Show what you want, put an emphasis on what you think is most beautiful or your greatest asset. I think burlesque also takes this to the next level where you mix in more creativity and humour.
As an artist who clearly has a lot of different talents, I want to ask you: why have you chosen burlesque as the form you place most of your energy into?
Seeing the burlesque scene really taking off here and being confident in saying that I have a big part in it... it really keeps me going. I don't think I'd have the same drive if I was in another field of entertainment. I also think it’s important that I show my body type. Cellulite is a normal thing, and my body can shake in a comic manner or a sexy one. Also showing the female body not only as sexy or vulnerable, but as funny, powerful and a tool of talent is important to me. But as an extra lovely lady, I think taking back sexuality on my own terms is also empowering. Maybe someone in the audience feels empowered too.
Learn more about Miss Mokki at Margretmaack.com
Matt Roper is a British comedian based in New York City. His relationship with Lush began back in 2011 when he appeared before the muddy festival-goers of Lushfest, returning the following year to curate the line-up of the comedy stage. As he travels around the world, he shares his musings with us here in a series of writings — a sifting of thought from a restless but always seeking imagination.
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Photography credit: Art Bicnick