Stripper Glenda Kemp set SA's pulse racing with her 3m snake, Oupa

At the height of the suppressive '70s in South Africa, one woman used music, nudity and a python to break free. Chris Barron spoke to her

10 February 2013 - 02:07 By Chris Barron
Kemp says the same people who enjoyed her shows privately would often denounce her publicly.
Kemp says the same people who enjoyed her shows privately would often denounce her publicly.
Image: Lifestyle

In the 1970s, when hard-core Calvinism was squeezing the life out of South Africa, a young stripper named Glenda Kemp from the Potchefstroom teachers' training college and her 3m-long python called Oupa sent the nation's pulse rate and police force into overdrive.

At the end of the decade, Kemp, now 63, resumed teaching, found God and is now happily married.

She tells us more about her career as a stripper:

It was stressful. It is not fun when you never know if the person in the front row is a policeman. It got to a stage where they would just grab me and lock me up even when they knew the case would be thrown out. One night they said they were going to lock me up until the next morning but someone kindly took me into their home. A policeman.

Part of the show was having an audience member rub me with oil and those in the front row always rushed up first. I don't know if they were police because they didn't wear their uniforms, but I know there were often policemen in the audience and they sat in the front row. They actually haunted me towards the end.

The biggest show I ever did was in Pretoria and the police were in the front row. And they were participating. They were like little kids coming up to me on the stage. They were supposed to arrest me but they just got totally lost, they forgot what their job was. Eventually they arrested me but even in court they were saying what a great show it was.

If I had to write a paper on hypocrisy, I would get full marks. For example, Pretoria was the most conservative place but I did the most shows there. It was like the people had doubles because I know that the same people who were at my show were the ones who the next day condemned me. They were so enthusiastic when they were behind locked doors, it was like they'd been let free. They were so restricted, and this was like forbidden fruit. But they were always very well behaved. Because the show was not sleazy, it didn't bring out the animal in them.

Glenda Kemp performs on stage.
Glenda Kemp performs on stage.
Image: Supplied

I played to full houses in the platteland. The hard part about going to the platteland was when I arrived at a venue and the church ladies would be there chanting and telling me to go home. Their husbands were inside waiting for the show to start - if they could get away with it. It was not pleasant. I often had that. I had the whole country praying for me.

It was mainly private parties because it was only for private groups that I took everything off.

Afrikaners were my best customers although they were the people who were against me publicly. They were not against me privately It was a funny brigade at that time when you think about it. Even apartheid. I never understood it. If you're a Christian, then you just can't go with that. These people didn't know what they were doing. They were just doing what they were told. They didn't even know why. It was a ridiculous time.

I wanted to teach but they wouldn't let me because I had been a stripper. I went to see the head of the teachers' college and he took this scrapbook out of the drawer in his desk, and they'd collected all my pictures. He said the minister had sent it to him with a letter in case I had the cheek to go back and ask for a job.

I learnt not to put the snake in my mouth. My python gave me a big bite once in my face during a show. Totally out of character. It got stuck on my lip and my nose. I had to pull its jaw apart and stop the bleeding and I went back and finished the show.

The show must go on. Once my snake died when I was on my way to a show. I just pulled it out of the basket and moved my body vigorously so that it went flying up and down. Nobody knew it was dead. I'm sure snakes do get rigor mortis but maybe I was lucky because it had just died. On the way back we threw him out the window.

Looking back as a Christian I wish I had done it differently. As a Christian, you can't just go and do what you like just because you enjoy it. I might have made people happy but nothing I did had eternal value.

A young Glenda Kemp.
A young Glenda Kemp.
Image: Supplied

I think censorship should be in your mind. It doesn't help you if it comes from outside. On the other hand, I don't like that pornography is available to youngsters because their brains and minds aren't ready for it.

If I had known the Lord as I do now, I would never have done it. I know now exactly why the church people reacted as they did. Where they were wrong is that it should have been done in love. Some were just very nasty and it does not say much for their Christianity - to go up to somebody and say, "You are a disgusting person." If you're not where they are, it won't help.

You can say that this was art but an artist doesn't have to take their clothes off if they're truly an artist. You can perform and express yourself and entertain people without having to be in the nude.

I studied drama and I really wanted to break out and be on stage and act and dance and play, and these shows gave me the freedom to do that. When the music started I just loved it and I danced and I loved the people who were in front of me and it didn't matter where they were from or who they were.

Glenda Kemp-Harper published her autobiography, 'Glenda Kemp Snake Dancer', through CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform in December 2012. It is available on Kindle and in paperback from Amazon.

SNAKES IN HISSSTORY

From Medusa's writhing, venomous up-do; the golden cobras that adorned the pharaoh's crown, to snake worship practices everywhere from India to ancient Greece, snakes have made regular cameo appearances - some even in the boudoirs of notable icons such as Cleopatra, who, swathed in folds of bare-all lace, clutches an asp to her perfumed bosom in Reginald Arthur's painting of her suicide.

Reginald Arthur's painting of Cleopatra.
Reginald Arthur's painting of Cleopatra.
Image: Supplied

Since Eve was booted out of Eden, we've associated serpents with seductresses, minxes and those chain-smoking blues crooners who tempt men, mermaid-like, to a watery fate beneath a sea of silk sheets. The devil, it appears, wears nada but python print shoes and a come-slither expression.

In Chinese astrology, the snake epitomises sensuality. To call a woman a snake in Japan will have her fluttering her eyes at the compliment to her beauty (in the West, not so much).

It might come as no surprise then that six decades ago, in 1953, the last time the Water Snake slinked onto our astrological calendar, Marilyn Monroe inflamed American passions when she graced the launch issue centrefold of Playboy wearing nothing but typeface.

Aside from their sensuality, some claim we owe some of history's greatest scientific and technological strides (or slithers) to the snake, who is clearly too much of clever.

Consider that in the same year that Hugh Hefner gave bored husbands something to smile about with Monroe's hourglass figure, scientists James D Watson and Francis Crick waxed lyrical about the equally curvaceous double helix structure, described by biologists and Nobel laureates as the key scientific discovery of the 20th century.

REM (Rapid Eye Movement, not the band) was discovered and US medical researcher Dr Jonas Salk announced he had successfully tested a vaccine against poliomyelitis, the virus that causes polio.

Sixty years later, can we expect to see the same shedding of the past. to boldly go where no boa has gone before? - Leigh-Anne Hunter

Salma Hayek dances with a massive albino python in the film, 'From Dusk Till Dawn'.
Salma Hayek dances with a massive albino python in the film, 'From Dusk Till Dawn'.
Image: Supplied

SNAKE DANCING IN MOVIES

  • Dominican Republic-born actress Maria Montez dances with a snake in her role as the evil cobra-worshipping queen of a Pacific Island in 1944's.
  • Debra Paget does a risqué vamp with a not-very-convincing-looking snake in Fritz Lang's piece of 1959 exotica, The Indian Tomb.
  • Joanna Cassidy as the replicant Zhora dances with a snake in Ridley Scott's 1982 sci-fi noir classic, Blade Runner
  • Salma Hayek's vampire queen gets down and dirty with a massive albino python in Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's 1996 From Dusk Till Dawn.
  • Russ Meyer girl Pandora Peaks plays a snake dancer in the 1996 Demi Moore comeback vehicle Striptease. - Tymon Smith