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JULIETTE CAMPBELL: Magic on the Dark Streets of Gotham


FEATURE ARTICLE by ALEX MAY…


The train of her dress floats in her wake as Juliette Campbell, creative director of Shanghai Mermaid, the renowned underground cabaret, strides from room to room making sure every detail is just so. A man in a fez follows close behind, clipboard in hand. The theme for this evening’s fete is Egyptian, and the time, about 1927. The historic Down Town Association in Manhattan has been transformed, looking, in the dim red light, less like the cavernous halls of Wayne Manor and more like late-Empire beau monde Cairo.

 

 


An hour later, the partygoers arrive, decked out in sequined dresses and chic suits. And in no time, a sea of fezzes, fedoras, and flapper headpieces is bobbing on the dance floor to the haunting, serpentine melodies of live Egyptian and Arabic folk music. The belly dancer’s gyrations stop, perfectly timed with the band’s final note, and Juliette introduces the next act: a performance honoring the Egyptian cat goddess Bast. Two masked women in black bodysuits prowl through the crowd and slink into a synchronized dance that looks as if it were taken from the hieroglyphs on a dusty wall in Alexandria. Later, a fire performer cavorts through the room, sprinkling rose petals to tantalize the entranced onlookers. These are the meticulous touches on which Juliette has built her reputation. She carries herself like a queen, lips fire-engine red, finessing technical hitches here and there, overseeing her magnificent creation.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Two weeks later, she is telling me stories over whiskey and garlicky asparagus at Café Argentino in Brooklyn. A streak of hot pink offsets her otherwise jet black hair, and her smile is engaging and warm. Juliette laughs between bites of empanadas and theatrically recounts the year she spent assisting the notoriously brash Hollywood executive, Harvey Weinstein. She describes how at eighteen she escaped conservative Orange County, California, to be an actor in the wilds of New York, just like everybody else. She entered the NYU undergraduate program in theater to mollify her parents, but the itch to work overcame her, and she dropped out after two years to join a national tour. She did that for a few years, deciding eventually to step away from the frenetic pace to “become a person,” as she puts it.

 
 

She grew into herself in her new city, a process she describes as tremendously underrated. “Aging is a wonderfully empowering thing,” she says with gusto. “I feel like I could do fucking anything.” And as her CV attests, she has. She shot a documentary on witches in New York City, spent years designing custom jewelry, and toiled away as an assistant at Miramax – just a few items in her lengthy repertoire.

 
 

All the while, though, Juliette’s subconscious was nudging her back to the stage. One day, as she sat in Barbès, a tiny bar and performance space in Park Slope, the music and setting lulled her into a vivid daydream. “I was in a nightclub in Paris in the ‘20s. And it was all very clear to me … everyone was dressed in the styles of that era, and there was a great band playing,” she reflects with a nostalgia-soaked voice. Her next venture had revealed itself.

 
 
 

That was eight years ago.

 
 
 

Juliette’s idle daydream turned into Shanghai Mermaid, and its inaugural soirée took place in a humble basement in Brooklyn. After an exhausting year of getting shut down by the police and the chronic anxiety of eleventh-hour bookings, the search was on for a permanent venue. Eventually she found an empty warehouse in Crown Heights and set up shop, christening it the Red Lotus Room. Neglected for sixteen years, the building was in desperate need of attention. “I did everything at first,” she sighs. “I cleaned the floors, scrubbed the toilets.” She pauses, and her eyes glimmer. “But there was magic in there. I wish you could have seen it.” Unfortunately, gentrification of the neighborhood forced the building’s owners to sell, and Juliette had to close the doors of her successful venture and move on. The consistency of one location had been comforting, but never to be deterred, she once again began combing the city for worthy haunts like the early days, giving the footloose cabaret some of its old extemporaneous charm.

 
 
 

A few weeks after our chat, I make my way to the Down Town Association once more, which buzzes with life on the night following Halloween. The theme is a celebration of late-Victorian decadence, and a tinge of the occult seeps into the evening air; in one room a séance is under way. As I drift toward the dance floor, I encounter a smattering of top hats, bow ties, and a variety of gowns. On the far side of the hazy room, a bespectacled man croons into the mic, a Western Electric 600A, between silky runs from the clarinetist. Laughter and chatter and the clinking of glasses are all I hear as I shoulder my way through the crowd and the hot jazz roars to life. Lost in the moment, I twirl and dip a grinning beauty in a beaded drop-waist dress, and suddenly I experience the magic about which Juliette coos. I gaze around me, struck by the notion that I have slipped out of the present and into a different time altogether.

 
 
 
 
 
 

When she speaks about old jazz, a Mae West scene, or the nightclubs of Hemingway’s Paris, you realize Juliette was born in the wrong era; she would seem more comfortable, perhaps, wearing a sleek ivory gown on the silver screen, trading wanton glances with some Phillip Marlowe type, a glowing cigarette between his lips. She is a curator of the past, reconstructing the tastes, sounds, and feelings of days gone by. It’s an exercise in immersion for her loyal followers and newcomers alike, both groups multiplying with every event. “Sometimes,” she says, “we really need to feel like we’re transported,” and her Shanghai Mermaid, this ever-evolving, sentient artistic expression, is a means to that end. The handsomely-clad devotees come in droves because they yearn for the sensation conjured by these dimly lit nights, an aesthetic as subtle and seductive as the olives in the martini or the muted whimper of the trumpet solo.

 
 

Juliette, like that beautiful daydream, has undergone her own maturation, a far cry from the California teenager staring up at the flickering minarets of a new city, wondering with childlike awe what would come of it all. She looks forward now, down the dark streets that are strange to her no longer. Though uncertainty may lie ahead, she arches her eyebrow and smiles in knowing anticipation, for what’s to follow is sure to be dazzling. The magic made in Brooklyn eight years ago rests in the palm of her hand, at the ready until the moment beckons, and all of New York waits to see what she’ll do with it next.

 
 


Writer: Alex May
Photographer: Elizabeth Waterman
Editor: Jonathan Waugh
Makeup/Hair: Juliette Perreux
Props/Sets: Machine Dazzle
Photographer’s Assistant: Alison Luntz
Digital Post Production: Josh Meckes

 


 


Shanghai Mermaid, 2014.

 
 
 
 


Juliette Campbell in studio, 2014.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


Shanghai Mermaid, 2014.

 


Shanghai Mermaid, 2014.

 


Shanghai Mermaid, 2014.

 
 
 
 
 


Juliette Campbell at home, 2014.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

About the author:
Has 2 Articles
Alex May

Alex May is a writer living in Brooklyn. He drinks whiskey, writes letters, and tells jokes, but not necessarily in that order. Drop him a line at may [dot] alexanderj [at] gmail [dot] com.