Amber Rollo: Empowered As All Hell

By Jennie Roberson

February 06, 2020

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You may not be familiar with he name Amber Rollo, but she has already bravely stood up for women everywhere on a national level. Rollo was one of three artists who confronted Harvey Weinstein when he showed his face at an actor’s event. But the queer stand-up is so much more than a headline. Recently I spoke with her about her upcoming comedy album, growing up as an orphan, and what her experience was like speaking truth to power.

Jennie Roberson: Thank you so much for joining me here for a chat at bi.org! We really appreciate it.

Amber Rollo: Oh, of course! I’m really happy to talk with you.

How did you come to identify as bi or queer?

AR: When I was young, when I was first finding my sexuality, I was only attracted to girls. I found the idea of being attracted to boys just boring; I just couldn’t even imagine it. But as I got to be seventeen, eighteen, I found I was also attracted to men as well. By that time, I was a woman, so I was attracted to men. (I said “girls” before because was a girl at the time.)

It sort of evolved naturally. Sexuality was pretty openly discussed in my family. My older sister was a lesbian; she now actually identifies as straight. So the idea that sexuality could evolve and change and you can love whoever you wanted to love was pretty well-accepted in my family, which I feel really, really grateful for. And now I have nieces who also identify as queer, and they feel comfortable coming to talk to me about, you know, figuring out what their identity means, what terms they want to use, and that feels really nice. Luckily, my family is really open about it.

That’s really lovely.

How do you see yourself as an artist, and how does being bi or queer fold into that?

AR: I think a lot of times people don’t realize or think of stand-up as an art, but I think it very much is. It’s an art form where you are both writing and performing... you are your own muse, in a way, you’re telling your own story. And for a while, stand-up was very dominated - and I still, guess, kind of is - by cis, white, straight men. I have no problem with them performing art and putting it out there, but I also would love to see other stories. I was going to a lot of stand-up shows, and I didn’t see my story as represented as I would like.

Now that I’m in the scene, and in the queer comedy scene, I see a lot more of it because I think I look for it. But as a stand-up, I’m giving my perspective of my experience and the way I see the world. I think we mostly start from our own experience - ‘cause that’s the only experience we know - and then make it funny. [Laughs] So, yeah, that’s the basic formula. So as a queer woman, as a bisexual woman, it is naturally part of my perspective.

photo by Mindy Tucker

What has your experience been like being out as a bi or queer artist?

AR: Hmmm. It depends on who you talk to. I mean, it takes a lot of conscious explaining. I have to decide when I want to bring it up or don’t want to bring it up. I feel like - and I think a lot of queer people experience this - I have a coming-out multiple times. Like in each relationship that I have, each friendship that I have, there is a new coming out.

Oh my God, yes. Every fucking time.

AR: Yeah. [Laughs] It can be exhausting. Especially when you’re out performing and you want to be as open and receptive as possible. I really, really like to connect with my audience. I love it when people come up to me after the show and say, “Hey! You were talking about an experience onstage that I identify with, and I had never heard anyone joke about it openly like that.”

So with a lot of my topics, it’s stuff people don’t talk about openly all the time [like] my sexuality, my queerness. I talk about my struggles with addiction, I talk about my identity as a survivor, and I talk about my not having my identity as an orphan.

It’s been really great in New York having a queer community. There are a lot of - well, not as many as I would love - but there are a good amount of queer stand-up comedians, and finding them, being able to reach out to them for support and talk to them - and, of course, we have our secret Facebook group. But being able to talk to them about things I’m struggling with is really, really helpful. And [I’m] making sure I help them out, and they in turn help me out; we wanna make sure our stories are being told as often as possible.

Is there anything about yourself you would like people to know about you that maybe isn’t part of your public persona?

So I talk a lot onstage about being an orphan, what that means, and how there are a lot of orphans in narratives all the time. I mean, if you think about all these superheroes and all the princesses, they’re all orphans.

Seriously. Every single Disney princess.

AR: Yeah! And I think about Batman and Superman and Aquaman, and they all have at least one dead parent. It’s something I talk about a lot because I’m just enamored with the subject - and obviously a lot of other narratives are enamored by it, too.

But I don’t as often talk about my large, loving family I still have with me. I have four sisters, [and] two of them have three kids each. So I have this very large and loving and accepting family I don’t talk about as much onstage because sometimes I talk about the things that are more messed up. I don’t know why, but the anger brings up the humor for me.

But yeah, I would love people to know I’m one of five women. And we all love and support each other.

I can also say as an aside on the orphan narrative front: When I took my first creative writing classes in college, part of what they were saying in the hero’s journey was, “Make them an orphan; that way the audience is automatically on their side.” And I replied: “But also that’s trauma? That they have to process?”

AR: [Laughs] “So you want me to put my character through a trauma.”

Yeah. “They gotta go through hell before they start descending through hell.” “All right, but … you’re mean."

AR: Yeah! [Laughs] Oh no, like in pilot [writing] classes I’ve taken, they say the same thing. “Be mean to your character. You’ve gotta make it as hard as possible.” And I do feel bad.

But also something that constantly links up for me with my identity as an orphan and my identity as a bisexual woman, I find I have a lot of chosen family. And that is a term I found in queer culture, but then I was like, “Oh, this also works here, too.” And I think through that experience, through missing parts of my family, it is freedom I’ve found I’ve been able to find the people that love and support me the most, and keep them close to my heart through a choice rather than as an obligation. 

So how did you get into stand-up? What is it about the form that appeals to you?

AR: Oh, so much.

First of all, I was going to shows every week, and as people were speaking onstage, I was like, “I love what they’re saying, but I would say it slightly different.” It’s a very common story of people thinking they can do it better, so they wanna do it - which is not true, at all. Stand-up’s very hard. But I have always used humor as a way of healing from childhood. It’s something my dad did as well. That part of it really appeals to me.

And I just love the honesty of it, how personal it is, [and] how you get to be close to the performer and the artist at the same time.

photo by Phil Provencio

You and two other artists recently got a lot of attention for confronting Harvey Weinstein when he showed up to an actors’ event. Your confrontation stands as an example of confronting criminals and making sure women's voices get heard - even when certain criminals like to label you as “downright rude.”

Do you have any recommendations on how others can find a way to speak truth to power?

AR: [Pause] That is a really great question. It’s also a tough question because I don’t want anyone to feel like it’s their responsibility to speak truth to power. Sometimes you’re thrown into that situation, and your body tells you to run away or to retreat into yourself. [Do] whatever you feel like is safest for you in that moment.

But from my experience, doing it felt empowering. It felt really scary building up to it, and honestly, it felt pretty scary right afterwards. But the act of being able to confront someone who stands for the predatory behavior in our society, it felt empowering. So if you get the chance, and you can … it can feel therapeutic, is all I’m saying.

It's something I have mixed feelings about, because like I said, I don’t wanna tell anybody how they should react, because I don’t know what their experience in their body is gonna feel like. Which is another reason I love stand-up, because I can talk about it purely from my experience. When I hear other people telling me what to do, and they use the word “you” a lot, I retreat and I start to get defensive. But if I hear someone telling a story and they use the word “I” a lot, and they talk purely about their experience, I lean in and think about how I can learn from it.

So I can tell you my experience was it felt empowering as all hell.

What kind of result would you like to see as a shift in the culture not only with Weinstein’s trials, but beyond Weinstein?

AR: I would love to see sexual assault education in schools. I think that’s where we can make a real change. Because this isn’t just one or two or five or even twenty guys - it’s a non-gendered [epidemic], anybody can sexually assault someone. It’s really a societal problem.

I actually started not referring to … people who do this, people who are criminals and [who] sexually assault people, I’m trying not to refer to themselves as “monsters" anymore because it feels like it gives them this inhuman distance. And it feels like it’s this mystical, offshoot, evil thing, when really this is a human problem. And if we “other” it, then we also end up “othering” the survivors and their experiences.

So although I’ve called them all monsters in the past, there’s a new switch I’m trying to make in my head of, instead of calling them monsters, calling them “losers.”

But yeah, sexual assault education, I think, is where I would like to put my efforts and [where] I think real change could be made.

On a brighter note, during that time you also got invited to speak with the other comics and event-goers who confronted Weinstein with you on Samantha Bee’s show.

What was that experience like? Have you formed a kinship with the other two artists from the event?

AR: Well, Kelly [Bachman], who was the stand-up at the show, has already been one of my best friends. We are in a band together, we do a showcase show together, we have a sketch comedy show together; we’re already thick as thieves. So, yes, I love her. We’ve become closer still.

And then Zoe [Stuckless], I hadn’t met before, I have gotten that kinship and bond to know them better. They’re an awesome artist and super inspiring. And that’s been an awesome and positive connection.

Being with them on Samantha Bee was really cool and mind-blowing, and I really hope [that’s] not the only time I’m on that show. It felt nice the way the internet - and shows and the interview after and everyone - seemed to be on our side, which is really a testament to the women who did the work before us.

But yeah, it was really amazing to get to know Zoe; I’m really happy that that connection was made.

Switching gears (and don’t worry, I’ll get back to your projects with Kelly in a minute):

As well as doing stand-up, you also host a podcast called Daddy-Less Issues: The Orphans Podcast. Why did you and Chanel decide to focus on that issue in podcast form in particular?

AR: Both Chanel and I grew up without our parents, and we’ve been on a lot of podcasts and talked to a lot of people about it just from being in stand-up. Through no fault of the podcasts who had us on, they really sensationalized it in a way that felt weird to us. They wanted us to, like, cry on cue. [Laughs]

And that wasn’t really our experience. We are both grown women now, and yes, this has definitely... Growing up as an orphan has shaped who we are a hundred percent. I think about it all the time. But it’s not really what most people would think; it’s that we interact with the world a little bit differently. We might have learned how to take care of ourselves a little bit differently. Some of this new language coming out about self-care - I mean new, but it’s been here since the ‘70s - it feels like things we were already teaching ourselves as kids because we had to.

So one day I was on set with Chanel for a sketch I was helping with and she was in, and it came out we were both orphans, and I was just churning in my head. I felt like a lot of comedians in New York and in general have either one or both parents out of their life, and I wanted to talk to them about what does that mean for them. What have they learned? How do they talk about it onstage? It just was intriguing to me.

Podcast form feels like a very easy conversation, to make people feel comfortable and at ease with a topic. Sometimes when I talk about being an orphan onstage I get a little bit tense, and then I have to un-tense it. But in a podcast, it just feels like you’re sitting in someone’s living room talking to someone about any subject.

Yeah, that’s fascinating. It’s already such an intimate medium, so it makes sense to talk about more intimate issues in that form.

Much of your comedy derives from darker issues. What surprises you about delving into these emotionally deep topics which you didn’t expect?

AR: [Pause] You would think in stand-up comedy you wouldn’t have revelations or spiritual awakenings, but I have had those in writing jokes. Which is weird; it’s more therapeutic than I would imagine.

I already knew the belly laughs really come from dark humor for me, the guffaw sort of laugh comes from dark humor. That’s what draws me to it the most. Something that’s not surprising to me because I’ve experienced it for a while, but something I really love, is the way people come up to me to talk about their personal experiences after shows. Sometimes it’s really hard because they’re talking about dark things; if I talk about being a survivor onstage, they will share their story with me. And that is something I have to prepare myself for, because that’s something I’m inviting [by] talking about it onstage. And I wanna be able to welcome it and be open. But I think it’s really awesome I’m connecting with people in that way.

You’re also the drummer in a moody band of four comedians, Boys Drool, including Kelly as one of your bandmates. Do you find those jam sessions therapeutic for yourself and your band?

AR: One hundred percent, yeah. A lot of times we’ll get together and it will be an hour of talking and running through what’s happening in our lives, and then an hour of jamming. [Laughs] So that, just the chatting part, is helpful.

I also love just getting in a room and banging on the drums by myself. I find that therapeutic. If you have some pent-up anger, I highly recommend banging on some drums; you can rent a room at the Sweatshop if you’re in New York. There’s places where you can rent rooms with drums. And even if you don’t know how to play them, I still recommend doing that to blow off a little steam.

I hear you’re recording a comedy album in the spring! What kind of topics will you be covering?

AR: I’m gonna be talking about a lot of the stuff we’ve been talking about: my identity as a bisexual woman, my identity as an orphan, and my identity as a survivor. It’s so cool that we can be so many different things.

And I think I’m gonna call it [the album] Downright Rude, ‘cause I love that [insult Weinstein tried to throw at me] so much.

Finally: Do you have any advice for those who are newly identifying as bi or queer, or any advice you wish you could give the younger version of yourself before you came out?

AR: Yes.

You don’t owe anybody any explanation. Your sexuality and your identity is yours, and if somebody starts asking you questions and you feel like you’re getting into an uncomfortable space and you don’t want to talk about it anymore, you can say: “Excuse me, I gotta go get a drink. I don’t wanna talk about this anymore.” I am sober but, you know, you can go get yourself a soda water. Take yourself out of the situation. You don’t owe them anything.

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