‘Like a naughty Siri’: friendly sex robot Vanessa 5000 asks audiences to test her powers

The last time I saw Courtney Pauroso, she was upside down, legs splayed, doing a naked, spotlit handstand. “My father saw that show,” the LA clown winces. “I just told my mum: when the lights go out, tell Dad to close his eyes.” With extreme physical abandon, Pauroso’s solo performances shift sharply from wide-eyed innocence to grotesque, knockout humour. Does she enjoy making people feel uncomfortable? “Yeah,” she laughs, “I’m OK with that.”

Far from the world of red-nosed children’s entertainers, Pauroso found her way to clowning through sketch comedy. As a kid she would watch I Love Lucy reruns with her grandma, harbouring dreams of becoming a serious actor. But over time she found a different level of performance she was more aligned to: “this natural stupidity that I bring to the table”.

In conversation, Pauroso is gawkily cool. On stage – where “I feel like I’m in a heightened state” – she is the epitome of considered confidence. In her last show, Gutterplum, Pauroso packed an entire lifespan into 60 minutes, from blood-spewing teen to the tangled grey pubic hairs of old age. The character she’s taking to the Edinburgh fringe has a very different relationship to flesh. Vanessa 5000 is “a friendly sex robot,” Pauroso beams. With a modulated voice and dishwasher-safe holes, the humanoid pleasure device is a “brilliant idiot who talks like a naughty Siri and moves like an animatronic stripper”.

Pauroso, previous Edinburgh show, Gutterplum, in 2019.Life in 60 minutes … Pauroso’s previous Edinburgh show, Gutterplum, in 2019.

Pauroso has taken inspiration from all over: The Terminator, US artist Jordan Wolfson’s dirt-splattered Female Figure, the intense Georgian pantomime she learned when she was training with movement company Synetic Theatre. Vanessa 5000 initially arose out of the simple desire to play at being a robot, but as the conversation around AI and sex tech grew, the character gained a kind of intellectual padding around its delightfully foolish core.

With her dad in the army, Pauroso had moved 10 times and lived on three continents before graduating from high school. She came through the prestigious Groundlings school in LA, which boasts Will Ferrell and Melissa McCarthy as former students, and it was there where she met Corey Podell, director of Vanessa 5000. She was looking for her next steps when she saw Natalie Palamides, the comic behind Netflix’s Nate, which began life at the Edinburgh fringe. “I was instantly like: what is that girl doing?” She took a clown class with Palamides’ teacher, which taught her how to play with the audience and “opened up the possibilities of what comedy could be”.

Pauroso performs as Vanessa 5000.‘Like a naughty Siri’ … Pauroso performs as Vanessa 5000. Photograph: Jill Petracek

In LA, clowning has had a meteoric rise in recent years. Classes are increasingly popular and, over the pandemic, Pauroso took part in Clown Zoo: masked outdoor performances staged for passersby on their lunch breaks. But the art of clowning remains somewhat elusive. “It’s fun to be messy and wild and all that,” Pauroso considers. “But I think to really master it you need sensitivity and discipline, which is harder to come by.”

Clad in latex, with jagged movements and eyes unblinking to the point that her contacts pop out, Vanessa 5000 demands physical rigour of Pauroso. The show is styled as a product demonstration, with the audience invited to play games with Vanessa, and test her powers as she gains first capabilities, and then consciousness. While silliness remains at the show’s core, the character is also a vessel for larger questions around technology, pleasure and control. “Is she victim or threat? Slave or god?” Pauroso asks.

Toying with the audience is key to Pauroso’s style. In Gutterplum, an unwitting audience member served as her husband for the duration of the show. “In Edinburgh, I once picked a guy who was wasted but it was too late to throw him back.” She’s now cannier picking her subjects, for whom she has tremendous gratitude. She’s not out to embarrass anyone, other than perhaps herself. The last time she performed Gutterplum, the audience participant messaged afterwards saying that it had “fucked him up on a spiritual level” – which “I’m pretty sure is a good thing,” she says.

In her scratch performances so far as Vanessa, she is glad not to have encountered any issues with boundaries. In a clip of her performing as the sex robot, she starts to glitch and, posed on all fours, asks an audience member to spank her to restart. “Typically they don’t go right for it. They’ll touch me on my head and I’m like, ‘Not there,’” she smirks. But no one steps over the lines she draws. She’s always, very clearly, in control.

“I think people are probably scared of me a little bit,” she laughs. “If they’re onstage with me, they know they’re in the danger zone. So really, I’m worried about their boundaries rather than mine.”

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