Good Weekend: Two of us – LiliKoi & Kim Kaos

kaosA founding member of the Australian Circus & Physical Theatre Association, Kim Kaos, 52, and her circus and sideshow performing daughter Lilikoi Kaos, 22, have come through the other side of illness and the death of Lilikoi’s father with an amazing bond.

Kim: From the minute she was born, Lilikoi has been an open, bright, sparkling being and, through all kinds of stuff that’s happened, she’s just been so open and fun and also bloody determined. I hear her say, “I’m going to makethis film, do this show, start this company, dothis thing”, and I’m just astounded by that drive. I inevitably get weepy: it’s one of those things when you see your child set their sights on something and go for it and achieve it.

When Lili was younger, we would tour in theEuropean summer and then pick up schooland performing back here. It was difficult with schools because there was a perception that going on the road wasn’t educational, yet Lilikoi sort of defied that by doing freakishly well in school, despite the school providing almost no support for her dyslexia. When we were touring, I was always trying to sustain a sense of family, not just dragging the kids along on my coattails while I did shows.

The interesting thing with Lilikoi is she was really interested in being in the show from early on and – even when she was 2½ – I was doing street shows in Italy and she would just insert herself in the shows. It got to the point when she was about five where I said, “If you want to be in the show, you actually have to workup some skills, it’s not enough to just be cute and duck into the lasso with me.”

To her credit she actually picked up things she wantedto do and also kind of gravitated towards things I didn’t do; Lil was interested in aerial skills and things that I wasn’t using. I was more earth-based. This year, for the first time, she said she would really like to learn some of the more unusual things that I do that not everybody in the world is doing – lasso and the parasol tricks. I’m really pleased that she wants to. She’s not going to inherit any money so she might as well inherit the skills.

But I can’t help but worry about her sometimes. Particularly because of her choice to get involved in sideshow [a form of circus combining pain-defying physical stunts, slapstick and spectacle], which is very much outside of what I do. She’s done a lot to really revive that artform and re-position it these days, but I still get a bit squeamish about certain things [including dangerous physical stunts] and I do get concerned.

Almost two years after [Lilikoi’s father] Anton died, I got sick. Lil was about eight. Initially I didn’t know what was going on. There was an episode and then I got better and I thought that was it and I had a few months and then it happened again. It took quite a long time to figure out what was going on. It’s related to colitis, but they call it a refractory form – it’s an autoimmune problem that has also given me major problems with my muscles and nerves.

It was quite destabilising and I think thereality of my illness really impacted on how Lilwas growing up. I don’t think she ever had any big teenage rebellion because, around the timethat kind of thing would be happening, she was in this situation of, I guess, seeing her primary caregiver need caring for. Death was a pretty near thing a few times, where I had to be revived … but there’s nothing like having children to keep you fighting.

LiLikoi: Kim and I are best friends, without a doubt. We have such a strong bond and there was always a level of understanding. I can call Kim up about everything and ask advice and she does the same thing with me and it’s a really open, loving relationship. Kim used to say she was the head of the Bad Mothers’ Club but my childhood was really awesome. It was incredible.

I was really lucky because there were so many people who lovedand respected Kim and treated me like their child. And my brother, Keili, and I were also exposed to really incredible things like touring the world and seeing new performances. I’ve watched Kim performing, and on stage she’s got this dynamic character. How do you rebel against a Hawaiian circus performer mother who used to be a punk in London in the ’70s? For a while I wanted to be a politicianor a therapist, and then I realised that wasn’t going to work, circus was my passion. So I was like, “I want to do circus but I need to make it my own.”

Kim had a very different upbringing to me. I think that’s why she was so nurturing with us. Kim moved to London by herself when she was 15 and was quite alone in her journey, so with us she’s always been really warm and caring. There was always the support there to do what we wanted. I was seven when my dad died. It was quite an intense time for all of us because we had moved up to Queensland to be with Anton, that’s Dad, and it was really nice and then he got hit by a car when he was riding his motorbike. Kim, of course, took really good care of me at the time. We took good care of each other.

Then Kim got sick after Anton died. It was so bad, to the point I met my potential foster family [friends of Kim’s who had agreed to look after Lilikoi if Kim died] and it was like, “No, you can’t [die], that’s it. Not okay.” I remember meeting the family and thinking they were really lovely but also thinking I don’t want to live in [the suburbs], I want to live with my carnie mum.

With all the stuff she’s been through in the past 10 years and all the different surgeries, most people would have given up by now but she’s out there doing uni and studying new things. She’s been absolutely incredible and an inspiring guide.

Kim doesn’t perform as much now but when she does I get really nervous. In the past few years she’s done a couple of cabarets when she probably shouldn’t have and I’m thinking, “She’s going to hurt herself.” But after she performed at Adelaide Fringe this year I had all these people coming up and saying, “I saw Kim perform and just the glow … she’s amazing!”

She’s like that in everyday life as well.

[April 2, 2011]