Esmerelda the Puppet

From Pandemic Showgirl to Public Health Social Media Star

Inside a makeshift venue designed for an audience of one, a screen lifted to reveal a legless green felt creature: part Muppet, part showgirl. The floating arm supporting her seemingly disappeared as she gyrated against a homemade syringe, too large for medical purposes but perfectly sized as a stripper pole for Esmerelda, “the sauciest sock on the block” (as her Instagram bio boasts).

When you put your arms around me / I get a fever that’s so hard to bear…” Donning a nurse costume and lip-syncing to “Fever” (the La Lupe version), Esmerelda performed an enthusiastic one-woman show. Her solo audience member watched through a plexiglass divider, abiding by the rules of social distancing. Esmerelda was inside the walls of New Orleans’ beloved AllWays Lounge, as her fan stood within the confines of a semicircular red velvet curtain hung against the lounge’s exterior. This tiny performer drew one of the largest crowds at the now-iconic AllWays Lounge “Peep Show,” an unexpected foreshadowing of her multi-hyphenate future outlasting the pandemic restrictions that shaped her.

Esmerelda’s current engagements range from “Puppet Service Announcement” collaborations with Instagram influencers to her upcoming stage play debut at the New Orleans Giant Puppet Festival. Her manager, David Roston, is the creative force behind Esmerelda’s evolution from pajama COVID confessionals to life-saving tutorials on drug testing and overdose prevention. Thanks to his musical abilities, comedic talents, storytelling skills, and public health knowledge, he’s been able to translate Esmerelda’s signature wit and sass into serious topics, while exploring different platforms. Esmerelda has a jazz single on Spotify (relatably titled, “That’s Life”), comedic content on OnlyFans, and a blossoming TikTok presence.

Roston isn’t exactly known for his puppet building—he constructed Esmerelda in under an hour for a puppet bar crawl in 2019. But her image is instantly recognizable, showing up on your feed or popping over your shoulder at Phoenix Bar. She has mismatched pink and orange cotton ball eyes, a shaggy yellow mullet, and a body made of worn green felt. Her wardrobe ranges from sexy nurse attire to classic cabaret looks, like her signature red dress and fake pearls. Roston still uses the original Esmerelda, who has now survived Burning Man, multiple Carnival seasons, and rave nights at Saturn Bar. “She’s been through so much and she looks a bit beaten up, but I think that’s part of her character,” Roston says.

New Orleans artist and giant puppet builder Henry Lipkis says that Esmerelda represents “the power of silliness,” which we all have the responsibility to carry forward. “It cuts through what can feel like bottomless gloom, and Esmerelda doing a puppet peep show in the middle of a pandemic was a very good example of it,” Lipkis says. “It’s where humanity can come and enter the picture and everyone can feel like they’re in on the joke.”

The power of silliness has a special home in the grand tradition of the New Orleans Giant Puppet Festival, which celebrates its 10th year this April. Pandora Andrea Gastelum, owner and operator of The Mudlark Public Theatre, is grateful to the local arts community, friends, and neighbors who have helped both the theatre and festival survive hardships over the last decade. “We’ve made it because people want us to be here and that’s an incredibly encouraging feeling,” Gastelum says. “And I think that feeling exists because the festival really does belong to everyone.”

Esmerelda exists on the endless spectrum of puppetry that will be on display at this year’s festival. Her stage play, Thirsty for the Limelight: A Divine Musical Comedy, will include human and puppet characters, live vocals, pre-recorded tracks, and countless costumes and props. Roston describes the play as, “kind of like Dante‘s Inferno but with cocaine and puppet divas.”

The festival features acts ranging from classical to experimental and everything in between. Gastelum seeks out work that is challenging, innovative, and thought-provoking. She believes puppetry should always “do” something, and that every choice should be an active one. “That is the work that intrigues me and engages me, when I can tell based on someone’s approach to their practice that there’s thought behind it beyond just getting a laugh or being colorful and eye-pleasing,” Gastelum says. Despite Esmerelda’s slightly ragged appearance and unhinged banter, she conducts  a graceful balancing act. Gastelum says she’s cheeky without being cruel, wise without being jaded. It’s this balance that allows Esmerelda to tackle taboo and emotionally-fraught topics with a relatability that’s nearly human.

Roston’s opportunity to combine puppetry and public health blossomed in New Orleans, where he studied as a Tulane graduate student. Working in the Los Angeles film industry, Roston was struck by the disconnect between the expensive Hollywood projects around him and the apparent lack of resources devoted to public health communications, especially around issues like overdose prevention and the fentanyl crisis. He wanted to make public health campaigns more engaging around issues affecting people’s everyday lives. “Health communications is a niche within public health that’s super important and often falls short of getting people to think about behavior change and their environment,” Roston says.

Roston founded Gigantic Fantastic, a production company that brings whimsical storytelling elements, like (but not limited to) puppets, into visual public health campaigns. Through Gigantic Fantastic, Roston has produced education around STI testing, local food systems, and demystifying clinical trials, among other topics. As a puppeteer, Roston has performed for both kids and adults, from puppet rock band Taxidermy Time Machine (fun for the whole family) to the Fungineers (adult psychedelic hip-hop puppet show).

“This is the only country in which puppetry is considered a kid’s art form,” Gastelum says. “In most other countries in the world, it’s one of the fine arts.” Gastelum believes that puppetry’s global scale and impact is poorly understood in the United States, particularly the vast range of ancient traditions and technical skills it encompasses, and how different forms all share common threads.

“I think all puppetry is inherently political,” Gastelum says. “You’re making a choice to represent life in some form. Your representation, and the choices it involves, reflects a lot about your perspective on what it is to be alive and how you behave in the world.”


Esmerelda, ahead of her Peep Show debut, January 2021.
Photo by Scabies the Clown


For Esmerelda and fellow New Orleans-born puppet Dizzy Dangerfield, one of the most interesting and often rewarding ways to practice puppetry is on the street. Esmerelda captivates crowds on-stage, but her kooky relatability translates to improvised conversations with strangers, fellow puppeteers, or folks looking to unload their own chaos. Both Roston and Dizzy’s creator, Benjamin Martin, say people are often more comfortable talking to puppets than to the humans bringing them to life. “Puppets in general, they crack people open. For some reason, people will tell a puppet things that they will not tell a human,” Martin says. “I think it has to do with our inner child; I think it has to do with telling a creature something instead of a human, maybe like an imaginary friend. It’s not as real, but in a way, it’s more real.”

Puppetry like “Puppets Against AIDS,” a show that also operated as an educational workshop about HIV prevention, demonstrated how puppets can be used to facilitate conversations about difficult, complex topics. Audience members felt comfortable engaging, which resulted in positive behavior change like safer sex practices. The comfort created by using a puppet as a mouthpiece benefits both audience and puppeteer. Roston says he can express himself differently as Esmerelda than as “David.” “When Esmerelda says something, it might resonate with people more than if I say it, and she can get away saying certain things which might be a bit risque,” Roston says. “And I think it was really impactful, especially in the beginning, when she was saying how lonely she is. She’s horny, but she’s also lonely, she’s sad, she experiences grief. And she also is scared… When you’re feeling anxious, just remember that everyone around you is feeling anxious about something and that you’re not alone in your anxiety—and when Esmerelda says that, that’s so impactful.”

Roston’s impressive vocal range includes Esmerelda’s sweet spot: “that cigarette-smoking, kind of sounds like your Jewish grandmother range.” Roston believes Esmerelda has grown more nuanced over the years: Her early brand of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll has evolved to include the wisdom and compassion of older icons and Roston’s own journey growing into who he is today.

Esmerelda remains booked and busy this year, as Roston curates a puppet wellness experience for the Melrose Trading Post in L.A., where they currently live. His vision includes all-ages music, comedy, wellness tips, and introductions to practices like meditation. He’s also developing Esmerelda’s viral Puppet Service Announcements to feature new and timely topics, including upcoming PSAs about safe sex. 

This month, Esmerelda returns to her birthplace: New Orleans, a city where genre-bending, multi-disciplinary creativity blooms. The AllWays Lounge, home of her early debut, showcases a stripping cowboy on rollerskates, bearded drag queens, and an acrobatic burlesque duo that incorporates BDSM elements into their routines. The ability of New Orleanians to innovate on and off stage is endless.


The 10th annual New Orleans Giant Puppet Festival takes place April 4 through 8 at The Mudlark Public Theatre and other venues. For more info, check out neworleansgiantpuppetfest.com. For more info on Esmerelda, follow her on Instagram at @esmereldathepuppet.


Top photo by Jon Haloossim

 

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