Michelle Pearson is very comfortable in her own skin these days, but the 36-year admits she’s battled body image issues for most of her life.

The details of that battle have inspired Pearson’s latest show Skinny, which will be performed at this year’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival.

Pearson is well known for her unique live shows which combine her love of singing with her passion for cooking and food. In her musical cooking cabaret shows Comfort Food Cabaret and Just Desserts, the performer weaves singing, storytelling, live music and cooking on stage, feeding the audience as part of the show. Both productions have won multiple awards and Pearson has forged her own path with her unique style of entertainment.

But Skinny is something completely different – there is no cooking involved, just narrative and song as Pearson tells her personal story of body image issues that culminated in surgery.

“I found myself in hospital after surgery to fix the previous surgery I’d had in my early 20s,” Pearson says.

“I’ve always struggled with my weight and my body image and I think that started very early for me because I was born into a diet culture. My entire family was always on a diet; everything was diet. We had a vertical grill and everything was about skinny, the skinny, so you’re born into that.

“I also starting in music when I was very young, around nine years old, and very quickly people were commenting on my body. I was an early developer, so everyone thought I was 16 when I was 12, and it was always just really front of mind all the time: ‘How do I look? How do I look?’.”

Pearson began singing lessons as a child under the guidance of well-known Adelaide teacher Brian Gilbertson, who taught her for many years. After finishing high school, she studied music at the Elder Conservatorium of Music but lasted three months, struggling to find her niche in the world of performing. She continued to gig at corporate events and with a variety of bands as she pondered her future on stage.

By her early 20s, Pearson says she was going out for dinner a lot, experimenting with new foods and trying to replicate them at home.

“I had always loved cooking for people… I wouldn’t have said I was very good, but friends would say, ‘You’re a really good cook, maybe you should go on MasterChef’.

“But I had done X Factor and Australian Idol when I was younger and I was really put off reality TV. I had no interest in going down that road. And then I just had this idea.”

That idea was to create a show that combined Pearson’s talents for singing, alongside her passion for cooking and storytelling – all wrapped up in a cabaret-style format.

“When I was pitching it to people and talking about cooking on stage, a lot of people tried to talk me out of the cooking element of the show because they thought it was too complicated and they’d say, ‘You’ll never make any money – it’s too hard’. But that was the whole point – I wanted to feed people in my show. So people were quite baffled by it.”

Michelle Pearson in a publicity photo for her show Skinny. Photo: Brent Leideritz

Pearson’s next move was to host an event to rally interest and funds, inviting all those who had supported her career, particularly from 2012 to 2016, including sponsors, philanthropists, donors and arts identities. The performer had worked for a time at the Australia Business Arts Foundation (now Creative Australia), so she drew on all her contacts for this special event.

“I cooked them dinner and sang with a band and told stories and then I just explained what I wanted to do and I raised some money really quickly.”

Pearson then launched Comfort Food Cabaret at the 2017 Adelaide Fringe. It was staged at the Adelaide Central Market and was a sold-out hit.

“After that, it kind of went really crazy,” she says. “People were really into it and I had people booking me to cook at their houses and cater their birthdays. And that’s when I thought maybe I should actually get some kind of qualifications in cooking.”

Between 2018 and 2020 Pearson completed a Certificate II in cooking at Regency TAFE and she says after that, the cabaret style of performing and cooking suited her well because “no one cares about your weight when you’re a cook. It’s all about food and enjoying food”.

“There was a bit of safety there. But Skinny is very much spurred on from the point where I found myself in hospital after [my more recent] surgery,” she says.

Pearson was awarded the Frank Ford Commission to stage Skinny as part of this year’s Cabaret Festival. The festival’s artistic director, Virginia Gay, has described it as being about Pearson’s shifting relationship with her body, melding pop music, power ballads and comedy to explore a theme of body positivity. 

“I have wanted to be in the Cabaret Festival for such a long time – it really does open doors, so I am very grateful,” Pearson says.

“I am a big fan of Virginia Gay’s, and Frank Ford has also been so generous in this space. He’s obviously bequeathed money to the Adelaide Cabaret Festival to support up-and-coming talent, which I’ve benefited from, and then also to the Adelaide Fringe and the Cabaret Fringe as well. I was very lucky to meet him and perform in front of him a long time ago.”

Prior to her Adelaide Cabaret performances, Pearson will also be hosting a series of events as part of Tasting Australia (May 3-12).

Michelle with her husband Stuart Symons. The duo will be hosting an event together for Tasting Australia.

She and husband Stuart Symons, a specialist in Adelaide’s mid-century modern architecture, will host a special event – Comfort Food Cabaret – A Mid-Century Menu, at Pony & Cole café in Hindmarsh on May 3 and 4.

“Pony & Cole’s head chef, Nicolle Hahn, will be doing the food for this one so I get the night off cooking,” Pearson says. “I’m doing the entertaining and the hosting, and my husband is going to talk about the mid-century time of eating and dining, and obviously the building that we will be in, which is probably one of the only original mid-century cafes still left.”

Pearson will also be hosting another Tasting Australia event, Flavour Centre Stage, at the Adelaide Festival Centre on May 11. Guests at this sold-out experience will enjoy a five-course feast with each course inspired by one of the centre’s festivals, such as the Adelaide Guitar Festival (showcasing Spanish cuisine) and OUR MOB (featuring Indigenous ingredients).

“I just think it’s such a great concept,” says Pearson, who will also be singing a few tunes. “I might do some of my ‘bread play’, as I call it – I do a song called ‘Back to Bread’.”

While she’s still working out exactly what songs will be included in Skinny, Pearson says audiences can expect some well-known tunes – including a few “late-’80s aerobics numbers” – in a show that will feature a three-piece band under musical direction from Aaron Nash.

“I want people to come to the show to feel inspired but also to have learnt something about all of this,” she says.

“There may be an opportunity to get up and dance and join me in my newfound confidence.

“Writing this show has been very cathartic as I have reflected on my journey. I am in a good place, but it is always going to be something that I am going to be aware of. I was going through everything in the script the other day, and it was funny how this was a story about all the things I have done – and then I added to the script ‘or may currently be doing’ – to be skinnier.

“It’s always a thing and obesity is a really big risk factor as well. So I’m not saying people should just embrace being overweight and obese, I’m just saying that I think that there’s far too much focus on people’s bodies.

“I’ve gotten to a good place because I look after my health and I’m healthy and that’s what I actually aim for, rather than just trying to fit into a size-eight pair of jeans.”

Skinny will be at the Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, on June 15 and 16 as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, which runs from June 7-22. Details of Comfort Food Cabaret: A Mid-Century Menu can be found on the Tasting Australia website


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