Confessions To (And From) la Contessa
Deep within the KBOO radio station, a middle-aged woman in flip-flops sits down in her chair, inches towards a dangling microphone, and clears her throat. She inhales deeply and relaxes her eyelids, letting her voice decompress from its usual perky all-American tone into a languid, raspy Russian whisper.
“Benvenuti al Confessionale. Welcome to the Confessional. This is Contessa de la Luna inviting a-you to talk with us live on air. As always we want to hear about-a your guilt, a-your shame,” she says, gently rolling her “r’s” with (Persian? Italian?) flair while cueing an electronic music break.
Every Monday for the past 5 years, in the witching hours that fall between midnight and 2, La Contessa de la Luna has holed up in Portland’s KBOO radio station for her call-in program “The Confessional.” The “conscience-cleansing” late-night radio show has built a listenership as far-flung as the UK, Turkey and Brazil with a simple format: Contessa takes unscreened calls live and coaxes her callers to share their deepest secrets on-air, detailing everything from hidden affairs to financial straits. Whether the caller is a timid 13-year-old pubescent boy, a gruff prison inmate, or even a celebrity like Carol Channing, the Contessa is all ears (and rolling “r’s”).
Just like her nocturnal listeners, the Contessa has a secret of her own: Although many envision her as a Russian woman or even a drag queen, with long nails and garish makeup, the woman who plays Contessa is in fact a low-key Portlander who simply has a knack for accents and a deep interest in people. She conceals her identity for personal safety reasons, but also to unleash a new, confident persona. “I’m not [normally] that comfortable talking that spontaneously on a microphone,” she explains.
“Keeping [the Contessa’s] identity a mystery not only protects her but makes her bigger than if she were a human or mere mortal. Everyone has a different idea about what she looks like. To me, she kind of fluctuates between Morticia Addams and my Russian baba who would give you a big hug and smother you in her bosom with her big necklaces and always had a boyfriend shorter than her.”
Upholding "Portland Weird" Precedent
Though interesting in its own right, the Contessa's act also earns her a place in a greater canon of "Portland weird" public personas. The so-called Famous Mysterious Actor attained notoriety in 2003 by hosting a late-night talk show for live audiences, sporting a black-and-white tribal mask, soiled army parka, and black wig, and speaking in a squeaky voice to disguise his identity. In his heyday, the Actor marshaled an irreverent showcase of local performers—and when the conversation lulled, he’d fling insults, Pixie Sticks or even pies! Much like “The Confessional,” audience members steered the direction of the program and were highly encouraged to participate.
Another Portland iconoclast, John “Elvis” Schroder, hides in plain sight behind an unconvincing impersonation of Elvis Presley. Schroder’s career began as panhandling, but thanks to fearless, tireless street performances at the Saturday Market, he’s been hailed as “Portland’s Most Famous Man." Bald, bearded, bespectacled, and perhaps the least Elvis-resembling performer one could imagine, Elvis’s stock in trade is pure moxie. At his 50th birthday party at Star Theater on October 3, expect him to trot around in his signature tight flared trousers belting irreverent renditions of classics like “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel.”
Meanwhile, “from 26,000 feet under the KBOO studio,” the Contessa continues to channel her Baba and tend the sacred flame of old-school Portland Weird, eeking a cult following out of sheer nerve, mystery and quirk. “Tell me,” she coaxes throatily to her hypnotized callers—and they do.