Samui Wining & Dining
A peep behind the scenes at Chaweng’s Starz Cabaret – where not everything is as it seems!

A peep behind the scenes at Chaweng’s Starz Cabaret – where not everything is as it seems!Anywhere else, a cabaret show is just that – a cabaret show. It’s an equalopportunity employer for men, women and those in-between to shake, rattle and roll via music, comedy, circus, burlesque, live-art, theatre – or bits and pieces of any or all of these. But in Thailand that same word has a different and very specific meaning. It’s a stage show where the performers are usually all ‘ladyboys’, although often supplemented by a handful of ‘showboys’, too. And don’t expect to be thrilled by their voices; it’s traditional that everyone mimes to the set-numbers that their dance routines are choreographed around.


Due to the nation’s Buddhist beliefs, and the tolerance and acceptance that go with this, here there’s a very different attitude to transsexuals. They are seen as ‘the third sex’ and accepted in all walks of life from TV stars and teachers, to hotel or bank employees. Some have less up-market jobs, working in factories or shops. Many more are to be found in creative spheres, such as artists, beauticians or fashion-stylists. And a select few, those with the right sort of temperament, get all glammed-up and strut their stuff every night as show dancers in a ‘cabaret’.


Thailand’s a very formal nation and places a high value on tradition – even those traditions that have only come into being over that last few decades or so! And so the format of a ladyboy cabaret, right across the country, is more or less identical. You’ll always see a couple of classical dance adaptations. There’s always a Tina Turner look-alike. And then a selection of semi-gay anthems like Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I am what I am’ or Dianna Ross’s ‘I will survive’. Then there’s the big mamma who does the comedy number, and so on. It’s almost as if you don’t have these, then you’re not doing things properly. There’s no live interaction with the audience. A peep behind the scenes at Chaweng’s Starz Cabaret – where not everything is as it seems!It’s all set, it’s all rehearsed, it all happens up on a stage, and it’s all repeated again and again every night. With one or two notable exceptions. And one of these is right here on Samui, at Starz Cabaret in Chaweng.


Starz has been going for a while now. It originally kicked-off in 2004, tucked away down a side road not far from McDonald’s. Then, five years later, it moved to a far more prominent position right on the main Chaweng Beach Road, close to Soi Green Mango. You can’t miss it; it’s where you’ll see most of the performers between 7:30 pm and 8:30 pm, all done up to the nines in sequins and stardust, out on the street, preening, smiling, and enticing you to come in for the show.


But if this is your first experience of a ladyboy show you’ll take it all for granted. It’s a family kind of a thing, and the audience will have its fair sprinkling of mums, dads and kids. (It’s free to get in, but the drinks prices are adjusted-up because of this.) The women will be fascinated, studying the body language (and the bodies!), the mannerisms and the make-up. The men will vary from reacting likewise to being rather more nervous and not knowing quite what to expect. But this is nothing at all like the drag shows in the West, where beefy truck drivers gear-up in wigs and bras for an hour or two of wince-making unreality. Thai ladyboys are slim, small, smooth, pretty and feminine, and live their lives as women 24/7. And the kids? They’ll be nodding and tapping their feet and taking photos for Facebook. The kids are always the most laid-back!


If indeed this is your first cabaret show, you won’t realise just how unusual it is. Unlike almost all other shows it breaks out from the traditional mould. For a start, the performance area isn’t on a stage separated from the audience; there’s a walkway up through the middle, too, and the numbers are choreographed to flow into and out of this space. Plus this show has got a compere, an MC in the form of the smiling and androgynous Cambell, an urbanely-witty and responsive host who’ll come on stage and chat with the audience and,A peep behind the scenes at Chaweng’s Starz Cabaret – where not everything is as it seems! fast as lightening, throw comments back and forth in true stand-up style – most entertaining.


Cambell is in fact the heart, soul, and driving force of Starz. He’s been there since the start. He’s the one who organises everything, directs the shows, choreographs the numbers and decides what new material to use. “In the last few years,” he explained, “we’ve seen an explosion of visitors from Korea and China. So we’ve added a couple of numbers based on Chinese pop songs. They’re quite entertaining, and everyone loves them, even the Westerners!” Just look out for the quirky ‘Little Apple’, which is based on a sort of Chinese Country and Western square dance!


But here’s another thing: most cabarets, it has to be said, get by well enough without a lot of imagination. However, over the years, Cambell has arranged and created around 150 set pieces. So whereas other shows simply repeat the same program again and again, every show at Starz is different. The 8:30 pm show has different material from the 9:30 pm show. (Alright, a couple of pivotal items might be the same, such as the Whitney Houston number and the Big Lady humour (‘talok’ in Thai). And the template at Starz is that the first and the third nightly performances will be the same. But then, the following week, all the material changes again completely.


“The difference here”, mused Glen Herring, one of the partners who own Starz, “is that our staff are on a salary: other places you’ll get strong-armed to buy drinks or take photos because that’s how the staff have to make their money. Also, over the years, we’ve gradually grown into one big family, with six out of our 18 performers having been with us since 2004. We eat together, support each other, and everyone helps out if someone is sick or there’s an emergency. It’s a unique show, thanks to Cambell. On stage everyone’s got stars in their eyes. But the reality is, at Starz, it’s not a job, it’s a vocation. And, gladly, it’s one in which everyone loves what they’re doing, starry-eyed or not!”


Rob De Wet


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