Tim W. Jackson
May 23, 2023
A woman who knows what she wants
Her website is HardestWorkingWomanInShowBusiness.com, and that’s an apt description for Lauren “Madame Onça” O’Leary. She’s an artist, entertainer, and businesswoman—and under each category is an entire sublist.
Originally from Gloucester, Massachusetts, the town from the hit 2000 movie The Perfect Storm, Onça’s life has been somewhat of a perfect storm of activities and interests while striving for some sort of work-life balance.
She’s spent much of her adult life further south, namely in Asheville, North Carolina, and now in Richmond, Virginia, and has frequently worked in Europe. But while in Gloucester, she says the region was richly supplied with famous artists.
“Walker Hancock, who made the giant angel that is in the Philadelphia train station, was one of the monument men,” Onça says. ”My mom grew up with his kid. I used to model in their studio. Leon Kroll was a famous painter. Weirdly, there was this very powerful arts community there in the older generation. So, I grew up just thinking it was normal to go in and out of people's art studios to see old people hard at work on art that was gonna end up in museums. There is a really good literary tradition there, too.”
Onça went to a liberal arts school that deepened her interest in the arts and normalized that world for her.
“As a rising eighth grader, there was a girl with short hair carrying a cello across the campus. It was normal. They weren't gonna get beat up, you know?”
Her parents also played a major role in her development but from two very different perspectives. Her father was a musician. Her mother was a master sign painter and an outstanding self-trained artist.
“I grew up with a lot of art in a very art-rich area,” Onça says. “Even though I had a working-class upbringing, there was a lot of art in the environment. So, it was natural to me to always express through art.”
It was the very different work ethics of her parents, though, that Madame Onça still tried to reconcile.
“My dad ended his life living in a car because he was like, ‘I don't wanna work hard,’” Onca says. “My life has been a continuous course correction between these two very artistic people—one of whom worked herself to death, basically, and the other one who just slipped away because he didn't want to engage in the rat race. And because of that, his voice was largely unheard. So, for me, it's always been a matter of trying to figure out how to embody the best of my mom's work ethic without becoming a servant to it.”
When you have as many talents and interests as Onça does, keeping a work-life balance is a constant challenge. She has staged more than 40 weekend-long festivals over the course of her career. One of the most famous, the Asheville Burlesque and Sideshow Festival, also known as ABSFest, makes its return this Memorial Day weekend after a brief pandemic-related hiatus. She and husband Paolo Garbanzo (also a festival producer and one who will perform at ABSFest) have run a number of events in Europe, too, and have more on the schedule.
Her foray into this eclectic career began in Asheville.
“I never saw myself being a performer,” Onça says, “although I always had a big energy.”
She started taking Capoeira (a Brazilian sport that combines dance as well as fighting elements) classes in Asheville.
“Brazilian foot fighting is actually the thing that gave me my start,” she says with a laugh. “That's where my name comes from, Onça; it's actually Brazilian. And then in order to play Capoeira, in order to do Capoeira, you have to sing and train and fight and build your own musical instruments. It's so immersive that I feel like the time I spent doing Capoeira prepared me for everything else. And then I ran a folk-art studio in Asheville for many years, the Future Traditions Center for Folkloric Arts.”
About the Center, Onça explains that it had different cultural artists and fine artists all under one roof.
“It really gave me the opportunity to bloom in all directions,” she says. “I grew up in a musical and artsy household, but it never occurred to me that I could do it for a living. Just walking into the right class at the right time opened all the doors for me. I started taking belly dancing classes in Asheville above the co-op, and it changed my life. I needed something to do, and it set me on a path.”
Onça works in other art forms, too.
“I paint and sculpt and do print art,” she says.
Years ago under her real name, Lauren O’Leary, she co-authored The World Spirit Tarot and illustrated it entirely with 79 original color block-prints.
“I mostly have written tarot-related articles and texts,” she explains, “and I was a touring belly dancer, so I've written lots of articles in that industry. I've always pretty much just written in my fields, but abundantly.”
Onça, also a lover of witchy things and most everything non-mainstream, certainly stays busy but she has learned some key tips for survival over the years.
“If I was trying to do all of the things every day, there wouldn't be enough time in a day to practice singing, practice piano, practice ukulele, organize an event, teach a tarot class, make a piece of art, organize a tour,” she says. “I couldn't put all of that in a day and still take care of my family.”
She likens her work schedule to the agricultural year.
“It’s a seasonal thing,” she says. “I've moved out of the winter season when you're in more of an introspective space anyway. That's when I get to turn inward: make music, practice instruments, do more visual art. Now we're coming to the season where I'm gonna be out and about doing events with people, travel, all that stuff. There's a rhythm to the agricultural year. You can't say, ‘Today I want to harvest because there's nothing to harvest in January. And that's how it is for me, with the creative process, you just have to understand there are times when you're creating, there are times when you're workshopping things and it's messy. There are times when you're polishing things so that other people can enjoy them. There are times when, frankly, 50% of being a professional creative is office work.”
Her system obviously has been successful. She has an ability to create a magical atmosphere on stage and connect with her audience in a powerful and mesmerizing way but she's also a teacher and mentor to many young performers, helping them hone their skills and develop their own unique style. She's known for her generosity and kindness, always willing to lend an ear or offer advice to those in need.
“I think one of the big challenges, particularly for women, is that if you don't grow up in the business background, then the challenge is you come into the arts filled with love and passion for art but no idea how to keep art alive, honest, and collaborative,” Onça explains. “I see women coming into business, self-made women, struggle a lot with ‘This was fun, so why does it now feel competitive? Why is there drama?’ I feel like a lot of that drama comes up because you come to something with love and passion and then are surprised if you don't have an infrastructure of how budgets work and how spreadsheets work and how contracts work. If I had a piece of advice for somebody, I would say if you're artistically inclined, study business so that you can make a living as an artist.”
Another key to success, she says, is finding your tribe and getting the proper support.
“I'm very lucky,” she adds. “I feel very well supported. They may not even be artistic in the same way that you are, but just finding other people in your life who understand what it is to be a maker or a doer or whatever your thing is. Are you a person who just really wants to have goats or you're a person who really just wants to hike? Are you a person who wants to go to music festivals? Whatever your thing is, finding other people who can understand the merit of making some space in your life for your passion, I feel like, is a huge part of mental health.”
As part of that nod toward mental health, Onça warns about the cult of busyness that glorifies the hustle.
“The hustle is not the point,” Onça says. “Being busy isn't the point. Making the art, relationships, or life that you want is the point. I had a therapist once say, ‘You have permission to not always do the hardest thing.’ Treat yourself as kindly as you would anyone else who came to you for advice.”
Onça's impact on the burlesque world can't be overstated. Her impact in so many areas and on so many people cannot be measured. Through it all, she's remained true to her vision and her art, and her influence can be seen in the work of countless performers around the world.
Madame Onça is a true artist who has dedicated her life to her many talents and to sharing those talents with others. Long into the future, she’ll be known as a trailblazer, a mentor, and a friend to many.
For more on Madame Onça, visit https://HardestWorkingWomanInShowbusiness.com.
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Tim Jackson is a seasoned journalist and author with a penchant for all things dark, macabre, and somewhat sinister. He lives in Tuscumbia, Ala., with his artist wife and their remote-chewing dog, Maple.