Susan Boyle became the rags-to-riches poster child for Britain’s Got Talent, and went viral, inspiring the masses predicated on the notion that people who look like her don’t often go viral. But ecstatic viral moments like hers can only be so ecstatic and so viral in cultures of vast inequality, where the leap from the bottom to the top must be so immense that millions will watch. These inspirations are often, on an individual level, beautiful, if their societal implications — that class mobility is so rare as to generate ecstatic comparisons to fantasies like Cinderella — are more troubling. To be inspired by upward mobility means to be astounded by it.
The story of Samantha Montgomery aka Princess Shaw in Ido Haar’s new documentary Presenting Princess Shaw is that of one woman who’s made it — at least to this documentary — via her affecting, emotionally lucid voice, and through unknowingly playing a role in another act of (actually) thought-provoking and masterfully executed viral inspiration.
Presenting Princess Shaw is the result of the documentary footage filmmaker Ido Haar initially started collecting not just about Montgomery, but about a series of YouTubers, all of whom were unknowingly connected by one Internet matchmaker, or found artist, or puppet-master, or however you exactly want to describe Kutiman (Ophir Kutiel) — the Israeli musician/producer who’s garnered populist (viral YouTube) and museum (Guggenheim) attention with his mashups of fragments of YouTube musicians’ samples and demonstrations into vital and cohesive music. When Kutiman began compiling his “Thru You” tracks, Haar decided to document the lives of the people whose floating YouTube sound bites were coalescing, unbeknownst to them, on a kibbutz in Israel, into single “collaborations.” Ultimately, he abandoned the other stories and focused on Princess Shaw, a 40-year-old black New Orleans woman who was hardly scraping by on her elder care nursing salary, whose life had been hindered by the repeated sexual abuse she experienced as a child, who’d had a decade-long relationship with a woman that’d recently ended, who’d taken to YouTube to finally start sharing the music she’d written about those experiences — as well as her tumultuous experiences with love as an adult — who’d sung at poorly-attended open mics in New Orleans, and who’d even, at one point, tried auditioning for The Voice. After the first Kutiman/Princess Shaw video, “Give it Up” goes viral — and Montgomery learns a man named Kutiman exists, and that suddenly her words are being heard by millions — she travels to Tel Aviv to perform with him.
Rather than going down the Voice path of being invited to be the next face on an immense TV franchise that perpetuates a culture of mobility-by-lottery, she’s the subject of a very low-budget and unostentatious documentary. If it partially hinges on the aforementioned form of inspiration, Presenting Princess Shaw also explores the harsh conditions these moments of motivational happenstance come from, and, most importantly, focuses on Princess Shaw. A less click-baity, humanist corrective to the fairy tale nature of late capitalist surprise!-style “mobility,” Presenting Princess Shaw allows us to lament the society that provokes the need for inspiration while simultaneously reveling in the power of Montgomery’s commitment to self-expression through video, and that commitment’s unlikely pay-off through Kutiman’s exhilarating arrangements of Montgomery’s words and voice.
Wanting to hear exactly how Montgomery is feeling about the process, where it’s taken her, and where she wanted to be all along, I sat down with her in Downtown Manhattan’s Marlton Hotel lobby. Tall, with bright red hair and braces (which at one point in the interview she’d say were “freaking out”), she was at once commanding and self-awarely goofy. She was quick to give me a hug, refer to me using affectionate endearments, and launch candidly into how sexual abuse has affected her life, as she’s likewise done on YouTube — all tendencies, I’d soon learn, that she’d only very recently adopted.
Flavorwire: I read in another interview that you first started a YouTube account in 2012. What outlets did you have to sing your songs and tell your stories before that?
I don’t really think I’m a storyteller, I think I just purge my soul. Before that there was no outlet. I’m the type of person who keeps everything in until I let go and explode, and freak the fuck out. Can I say that? Before, I didn’t have a way out, I didn’t have anybody, because I was taught at a young age that if you cry — I used to be so embarrassed to cry — “Oh My God, I’m weak, no no not tears.” And so before I had any outlet, I refused to let anybody know what was going on in my head. I was afraid to be weak, because back in my day if I was weak I was attacked. And as I got older I started attacking weakness. If I see any sign of weakness in you, I just go for the jugular. I was a really mean person because — I don’t know why you’re so easy to talk to about this stuff, honey. I felt like I would just go in for the kill, but I was just hurt. And when I finally realized that, and I don’t know if you’ve watched my YouTube channel, but I talk about that, I say, “Oh my God, I don’t know why I go for the kill.” It was selective brutality, but when I realized that, I started to change. I realized “Give it Up” was about weakness. The song “Give it Up” — I sung that song, and I realized, “Oh my God, I’ve been doing it my whole life.”
Was it only at that point, four years ago when you started posting these videos on YouTube, that you had those revelations about how you’d been channeling your anger?
So it was therapy in a sense.
I finally figured out what it was. Me being molested as a child, it molded my life and relationships and everything. I couldn’t be affectionate, I didn’t know how to do it.
You seem really affectionate!
I am now! When I meet people I let them know that I’m really fucked in the head. I don’t know how to do certain stuff. I’m not really healed. I didn’t want to be hugged. That was just how it was because I didn’t understand. No matter what anybody says, know: my life is full of pain. Pain. Every fucking day, pain. And to be like that every day as a child, no escape, going crazy in my head with no outlet. The only outlet I had were my cousins — they’re in the documentary. We were just kids, but it’s so jacked up — we were kids, but we still had this stress, because you got to go home and get knocked against the wall or get called into the room to whatever they want to do to you. Then I had to face my demons: they were hard. They were freaking scary. One thing that people don’t know who’ve been abused is to say, “It’s not my fault.” You were a child. That was a grown person. “I could’ve stopped it from happening, Oh My God, I’m disgusting.” Self-hate tears you up, and loneliness will make you do a lot of jacked up things. People will see it coming right away when you have self-loathing, and they’ll use that.
When you were first doing the YouTube videos, both with the songs and with the confessionals, did you find it was easier to imagine talking to a specific person, or the universe, or what?
I always feel like I was just talking. People ask me this all the time, and it was like, it was just me and my phone. And I didn’t think beyond that. It’s easier because at the moment, you have control. When the camera came [for the documentary], I didn’t have control. People feel drained from some of my shit, because if you haven’t been through that, when you hear it you don’t think that shit exists, because your life is so different. It turned into therapy, but initially it wasn’t like, “this is going to be therapy.” I was recording my life and time.
So how did that sudden lack of control over how a camera was capturing you affect the way you acted? When you and your cousins are talking to one another in the doc you seem so candid.
My cousin, we’re like kindred spirits, she says her truth and it doesn’t matter if the camera’s there or not. I got used to him following me; it wasn’t a crew, it was one man with a camera, and he had a small camera, he was just in the background. You start talking about life — I didn’t know my cousin got molested. [Ido] didn’t exist in the closed-off world of us talking. Because we hadn’t been talking for so long, because in our lives we chose to — it was this: [gestures, covering her face, lowering her voice to a whisper] — “We don’t talk about that. It’s not what you do.”
Ido doesn’t exist very much in the film, but how well did you get to know him?
He was passive [during the filming], but if I needed him I’d call him, and he became — I call him Papa Bear. That’s family to me. People think family’s blood, but family does not mean blood, because blood will tear you up. He never forced it because he knew how vocal I am. [Ido and Kutiman] really taught me — they taught me how to accept touch, because I wasn’t comfortable with that. They taught me to be comfortable with loving somebody in a platonic way. I never had a father figure, somebody that’s concerned about you.
It’s your mother’s boyfriend you discuss in the film?
Two. One was violent — the other one was violent too, but this one was sadistic. You wouldn’t imagine some stuff — if I finish this book [I’ve been writing], be ready to be drained of your life, just know that. I did this documentary for a reason, because I want this shit to be at the forefront. I want people to know. Once you tell a child, “no, he didn’t [do that to you],” you seal their fate.
The way you found out about the first video, you had no control over the instrumentation of your song. Before all of this, what was your ideal for what your music would sound like, if you had the production budget to do what you wanted?
Kuti’s sound. He took the music of my soul and transferred it to sound. And I mean that. His music is what I needed. His music is what my music is starving for. “Give it Up” is so beautiful and so haunting and it’s so haunting because it’s real shit. It’s me. It may be you. “We walk in the park hand-in-hand/but little do you know this girl feels like running.” You may walk with someone every day and play this part, but you don’t know how to do it! You see everybody else try to do it, you try to be there, but you can’t be there.
That would have been quite a different moment if the big reveal had been you hearing the track and thinking, “Who is this person and what is he doing to my music?”
“STOP! Turn it off!” No, but when I heard the girl, I was like “oh my God.”
Have you had the desire to meet the other YouTubers who, through Kutiman’s editing, became your “bandmates?”
One person — Cody [the DoubleBass player]. Oh, and I met the little girl [pianist Alma Deutscher]. She’s so dope. Google had this conference, and they bring musical acts there. We had a screening in Amsterdam and Cody came there, and he played “Give it Up” with us. And the little girl at the Google conference, she didn’t play with me, she played her own composition. She’s a smart little girl, she’s a prodigy. She’s dope. I wanted to meet all of them. Kutiman took our voices and our instruments and made this art form, this beautiful thing. Anybody who thinks that’s anything other than beautiful is crazy.
When you saw the clip on YouTube —
You’re so fun.
You really are.
I remember reading that Ido’s wife had first reached out to you and only told you he was doing a documentary on people who post on YouTube. Did that change the nature of your relationship as it’d been so far — when you found out the actual reasons he was doing it? What was the conversation after that?
He’d said he was doing a documentary about YouTubers, and would I like to be involved? And I said sure, because I felt I needed to do something, I felt like life was just going in circles. You know how you go into a park and you see this ride — we’ve all been on that ride. And at the beginning it’s fun, and it makes you sick, and at the end you get off and purge yourself, like, “oh it’s beautiful again,” and you get back on. I was doing that. And I was like, “Maybe I need to do something different to see what happens.” And he came down and met me. And I was like, “let me just do this.” It was dope. Really freaking dope, man.
We see it in the documentary: you look really comfortable onstage in that first huge performance with Kutiman’s band in Israel, but what was actually going on in your head?
I was like, “This is the time to get your ass out there and sing.” The beginning of it was cool; it was so dope to go out there. But behind the scenes, to see all of this work and people running around, doing all of this stuff, plugging stuff in, fixing the stage, and I was in awe. I was doing my makeup, and thought, “You cannot have streaks down your face.” I saw myself on the screen and thought, “Oh my God, this is me on the screen — don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry.” And when I walked out there, instantly it was like “let’s get it. You were born for the stage.” I’ve prayed so many times, saying this is the right thing for me, and He kept pushing me these ways, and I said, “no, this is it.”
Was their any type of cultural disconnect between two Israeli dudes and a queer black woman from the American South?
We had different experiences — some of the stuff I tell them they couldn’t believe. But I think we still have the same heart. We come from different places but we’re the same. People don’t think stuff like what I experienced exists, but it does, and they still treat me like a normal chick. You know what I’m saying? I love them to death. Papa Bear and Brother Bear [Kutiman]. And actually, I’m kind of with a guy now. Maybe later I’ll be queer, now I’m kinda straight. And I wanna say one thing. Me being molested molded me into not dealing with men — running away from men. And then as I got older, I just had this one guy — and something said “Hellooo,” and “Boom boom boom!”
You and Kutiman have spoken previously about now being at work on a full album together. Is it going to officially be a Princess Shaw album?
We have 13 songs. I think I want to call it Shawdemption. Because it’s the redeeming of my soul, because I’m getting my soul back, and all the crap that I had in my life, this album is about all the muses I had, all the bullshit and people I let treat me a certain way — those songs. And then there are some songs that are me, recently, now, after I’ve redeemed my soul. People will relate. But if this album flops, it isn’t a flop to me, I’ll listen to it everyday.